By the Philippine News Agency
Of the estimated 80,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war (POWs), who took part in the infamous Bataan Death March 76 years ago, only three are still alive with their age past the century mark.
Records at the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) named the centenarian war veterans as Pfc. Juliano de La Peña, 107; Col. Catalino del Rosario Ibañez; and Col. Vicente F. Alhambra, Sr., 102.
Despite his age, De la Peña personally visited the PVAO last Thursday to receive a commendation for his honorable and great service to the country during World War II and as survivor of the Bataan Death March.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, who was guest speaker during the ceremony in Camp Aguinaldo, handed the plaque to De La Peña and 64 other war veterans who received the same commendation. Lacson was assisted by PVAO Administrator Ernesto G. Carolina.
Alhambra and Ibañez received their plaques last year.
Fighting 3 wars
In the case of Alhambra, he holds the distinction of being a veteran of three wars – World War II, the Korean War and the Hukbalahap anti-insurgency campaign in Luzon.
Incidentally, this writer had the rare opportunity of interviewing Alahambra in his house in Cavite.
During the interview, Alhambra said his secret to longevity and how he survived against all odds, including the infamous “Bataan Death March,” unscathed was because “God was on his side” all throughout the ordeal where many had died of exhaustion or were shot dead or bayoneted by the Japanese.
“Remain active but most of all be prayerful,” Alhambra said.
It was in Bataan and Corregidor where Filipino and American soldiers made their last stand against the Japanese during the war, which lasted more than three months before they surrendered on April 9 and May 6, 1942, respectively.
Alhambra kept his photo albums of World War II, the Korean War in 1950-53, and the anti-insurgency drive against the Huks.
He said he prays to God for protection, which he confided is his secret weapon.
A graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of 1942, Alhambra and all his classmates were automatically drafted into military service three months before graduation when World War II broke out following the bombing of the Philippines by Japanese planes on Dec. 8, 1941.
He said the entire PMA class of 1942, including Jose Crisol, who became defense undersecretary in post-war years, reported to then Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Mariano Castaneda for immediate deployment to fight the invading Japanese forces. “We were the first PMA class called to active duty,” Alhambra recalled. He said Japanese warplanes bombed Baguio and Cavite where US naval forces were stationed at Sangley Point.
Alhambra said he was enlisted into the 2nd Regular Division of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) assigned in Mariveles, Bataan.
Fall of Bataan
It was in Bataan that the bulk of Filipino and American forces stood their ground to defend the Philippines until they were forced to surrender on April 9, 1942 due to shortage of ammunition, food and medicines.
Alhambra vividly described the fall of Bataan as a “sad day” as he and his comrades-in-arms became prisoners of war (POWs) of the Japanese forces.
He said he was lucky that he did not get sick during the Death March from Mariveles, Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga and during his incarceration in Capas, Tarlac, which lasted for several months before he and other POWs were freed. “As many as 500 POWs died every day due to malaria in the concentration camp,” he said. “It was horrible!”
“While I was held a prisoner of war, a woman friend of mine gave me a mosquito net. The mosquito net was handed to a friend who, in turn, gave it to me inside my cell,” Alhambra related.
He also recalled the lack of food inside the concentration camp.
“We survived eating ‘tinapa’ if at all it was available,” Alhambra said. “We were lucky to eat once a day and that would suffice for our breakfast, lunch and dinner rolled into one.”
Last men standing
Born on July 19, 1915, Alhambra will be 103 years old this July, with God’s blessing and mercy.
Alhambra retired in 1967 as a colonel in the Philippine Constabulary, just like Ibañez, who is also a licensed civil engineer and lawyer.
Ibañez is also known as the only PMA cadet who signed his own diploma and all the diplomas of his classmates because the PMA Class of 1942 went straight to war and had no graduation ceremonies.
Even in their twilight years, Col. Alhambra, and Col. Ibañez chat together to recall their individual stories of World War II wherein their comrades-in-arms, Filipinos and Americans, displayed their heroism and sacrifices in defense of freedom and democracy.