Manila Memorial Day memories
Updated: July 6, 2012 6:31PM
Ten years ago on Memorial Day, my son dressed in his Cub Scout uniform and prepared to meet scores of other Cub and Boy Scouts to decorate the graves of World War II dead.
This was no small undertaking, as the graves number 17,201 in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial. With 152 acres, it is one of the largest of the U.S. cemeteries that the American Battle Monuments Commission oversees, and the fact that it is 8,500 miles from Washington, D.C. — with a 12-hour time difference and a day’s worth of air travel — serves to underline how remote both the memorial and the war are.
The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial — or, as most people in Manila refer to it, the American Cemetery — is a quiet, somber and yet poignant place of rest for the nearly 53,500 souls who are commemorated there. Included in that number are the 17,201 with graves and as importantly, the more than 36,000 who went missing — lost at sea or in the air on the ground but without remains. Each one is listed.
I hoped the experience of observing Memorial Day at the American Cemetery would be a lasting memory for my son, who was born in Bangkok and spent the first eight years of his life living in Asia. Many other activities and people and places fill his mind from that time while the American Cemetery has a special place for me.
I remember that Memorial Day because we were to head back to the United States permanently a few months after the holiday and also because of two other visits to the American Cemetery in the previous eight months. The first was several days after the devastating 9/11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. There, within the flight path of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport with jumbo jets taking off, many members of the American ex-patriot community prayed for those who were killed and suffered in the attacks. We were led by priests and rabbis and an imam, and we sang “God Bless America.”
The other trip I made to the American Cemetery was in April 2002 when a memorial ceremony was held to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Bataan. After the battle, the Japanese forced thousands of American and Filipino soldiers to march the 70 miles through humid and inhospitable Filipino jungle to Camp O’Donnell. Many died on the way, and even more died once they arrived. The Battling Bastards of Bataan were those who survived not only the Battle of Bataan but then the Bataan Death March and subsequent inhumane imprisonment either at Camp O’Donnell in the Philippines or at Japanese slave camps elsewhere. These men were memorialized in this limerick by World War II war correspondent Frank Hewlett :
“We’re the battling bastards of Bataan,
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam,
No aunts, no uncles, no nephews, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces,
…and nobody gives a damn.”
They felt abandoned and forgotten, and until the war ended, they may have been. In May 2002, they were remembered and honored though.
Perhaps a dozen U.S. soldiers made the long flight from the United States to the Philippines, an arduous trip under the best of conditions made even more difficult if you are in your 80s or 90s as these veterans were. The veterans weren’t the only American VIPs. U.S. Sens. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, and the late Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, both World War II veterans, made the trip as well.
“Many of us here today will not return,” said U.S. Army (Ret.) Major Richard M. Gordon, one of the founders of the Battling Bastards who was a survivor of not just the battle but also the Bataan Death March and being a Japanese prisoner of war. “We come here today, probably for the last time, to honor our friends and buddies.”
The following year, in July 2003, Gordon passed away as an honored veteran. He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, half a world away from Bataan.
I had visited the American Cemetery for the first time in 1994 when I accompanied my husband on a business trip to Manila. My son, then 3 months old, was with me. It was late August, and my father, a Korean War veteran, had just lost his battle with cancer. I would return to the United States in a few weeks for his memorial service, but in the meantime, a Filipino-American family insisted on taking me to the American Cemetery.
I was with them, but I felt alone. I was only newly a mom and not used to living in a world without my dad. But there in the American Cemetery were the names and markers of more than 53,500 people who represented patriotism and honor and courage, who faced fear and who did that far from home.
Inscribed on one of the walls near the names of the missing, I read a prayer attributed to 19th century Cardinal John Henry Newman: “O Lord support us all the day long until the shadows lengthen and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest and a peace at the last.”
May there be a peace at this Memorial Day, too.
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