Carried from the Manila Bulletin Online
Death March Survivor, 104: Days of Valor
By Ellson Quismorio
April 9, 2014
It was a cliché question to ask Lolo Jose given his advanced age, but it was a question that had to be asked.
“What’s your secret for a long life, lolo?” asked this reporter, leaning toward his left ear as he is already hard of hearing.
“Aguray ka (You wait),” Lt. Jose Perez Javier, 104, answered in Ilocano as he gestured me to sit and lend my own ear as he recounted his experiences during World War II (WWII), including the Bataan Death March which he survived in miraculous fashion.
The remark made his 85-year-old wife, Filomena, laugh. “He is not usually like this. He doesn’t talk much,” she said. By that time, the interview, entering its third hour, had turned into a full-blown storytelling session much like when grandchildren would gather around their aged patriarch.
Araw Ng Kagitingan
A storytelling session like that pass on the stories of our heroes still living with us, especially one who survived the Bataan Death March on April 9, 1942 – exactly 72 years ago. Bataan fell to the invading Imperial Japanese Army, and along with it the entire Philippines. It is commemorated annually as Araw ng Kagitingan or the Day of Valor.
On that day, some 60,000 to 80,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war (POWs) were made to march 128 kilometers from Mariveles, Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga. Jose said the unprepared and cruel manner that the Japanese carried out the forced transfer truly made it a “death march.”
A medical doctor by profession, Jose joined the war efforts as a lanky 31-year-old in September 1941. He was named executive officer of the 21st Medical Battalion of the 21st Infantry Division under the United States Armed Forces of the Far East (USAFFE) commanded by General Douglas MacArthur.
“I was fighting for my country,” Lolo Jose said of heeding the call to take part in the war. He spoke little Tagalog and preferred to converse in either Ilocano or English.
Despite relying on a walker for mobility, the spectacled Jose still looks like a 70-year-old; his memory, like that of a 40-year-old man. He can recall the full names of some of his comrades in the 21st MB and even their respective hometowns.
He took up medicine between 1929 and 1933 at the University of Santo Tomas (UST). Jose is UST’s oldest living alumnus.
Older Brother is 106
Amazingly enough, Jose has an older brother, Fernando, who is 106. According to the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO), the two are the oldest living WWII veterans in the country, both having survived the Death March. He had nine siblings in all.
Jose lives in Quezon City with his wife and one of his nine children. Fernando, an engineer, resides in Baguio. They last saw each other on February 19, when Fernando visited the former on his 104th birthday.
Lolo Jose said they marched at least four days non-stop, day and night.
In his book, “A Century’s Journey,” Jose wrote: “For no reason at all or for minor infractions, prisoners were slapped in the face, punched or hit with the butt of rifles. Those who could no longer keep pace in the march, those who were caught trying to escape were given the ultimate treatment—bayoneted or shot.”
In an interview, he said that at that time, he was not aware that his brother was also in the death march. “I only saw him after we arrived at Camp O’Donnell, which had been turned into a concentration camp for POWs.”
It is estimated that as many as 10,000 Filipino POWs perished in the march. “He was one of the lucky ones,” Filomena said of her husband. “God protected him.”
For better or worse, Jose said that he “had many friends in the march, but I did not see them die.”
Asked if he had anything to eat at all during the arduous journey, the centenarian said he had innapoy (rice) just before the march. “Pagkatapos wala na, tubig na lang (Nothing else after that, just water).” He said they were only able to drink water out of cans offered by people along the road who pitied them.
A man of unshakeable faith, Jose said he turned to God in this most difficult time. “I prayed and prayed.” It worked even as starvation, exhaustion and disease (dysentery and malaria ran rampant among the POWs) began to cut down the Filipino and American soldiers at a staggering pace.
“I never got sick, there was not even a blister on my foot,” he told the Manila Bulletin.
Ferdinand, The Doctor
A fellow soldier whom Lolo Jose vividly recalled was the young 2nd Lt. Ferdinand Marcos, the future Philippine president. Marcos was the 21st Division’s assistant intelligence officer and newsletter editor.
“We were near each other’s detachment,” he said. “He was very friendly, intelligent and brave.”
“There was one time he went to the frontlines by himself and he returned with many wounds. Haan danga pinalubusanen (He was not allowed to go out again),” shared Lolo Jose.
Even then, he said that the people whom the young Marcos worked with in the army “knew that he would be great one day.”
3 Fellow Doctors
Three fellow doctors—Dr. Augusto de los Reyes of Manila, Dr. Osmundo Madamba of Dingras, Ilocos Norte and Dr. Juan Itchon of Villasis, Pangasinan—also stood out from his robust wartime memories.
“I want to know if they still have surviving family members. I want to tell them that I was closely associated with [these people] and that by the Grace of God, I am still alive. I send my greetings and best wishes to them.”
Responding to my question on heroes, Lolo Jose reckoned that all the POWs who were forced to participate in the death march should be considered heroes, if only to recognize their gallant sacrifice for the country.
“Hero ak met ah (I’m also a hero),” he said, smiling jovially.
Filomena said that the heroism displayed by Jose all those decades ago makes their entire family swell with pride—and it’s a huge family. Aside from their nine children, they also have 17 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Most of them are now in the United States.
As for the Japanese, Lolo Jose said that it’s only natural to harbor ill feelings toward them after the WWII. “Who wouldn’t get angry with them when they hit you in the head? They were respectful people, but they did not respect their prisoners.”
“But to be angry is tiresome,” he quickly added.
He learned to forgive his former captors during the Javier couple’s extended sojourn in the small island of Okinawa, Japan, which they helped rebuild as civilians following the war. They stayed there for 38 years before retiring and coming home to the Philippines in 1986.
“I went there as a young wife and came back home as a grandmother,” intimated Filomena.
Lolo Jose, suddenly remembering the unaddressed curiosity I had for his old age, said: “I haven’t answered your question yet. Let’s save that for next time.”
Who could say “no” to someone like Lolo Jose—a living, direct link to WWII and the Bataan Death March, where heroism became an ordinary occurrence?