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Salute to War Vets
Where (blue) eagles dared to tread
By Aida RiveraFord
Printed by National Daily Inquirer

      None of them had gone to war with the thought of benefits. Thirty four Ateneo ROTC cadets volunteered; 15 perished in the war.

      For all their heroism, the Ateneo volunteers were not considered part of the American army forces. The survivors and their families never received any backpay or veterans benefits from the US government.

     But it would never have mattered. In the words of one of the Bataan braves, Edmundo I. Nolasco Jr, "Wala sa amin nagsisi na lumaban dahil ang tanging pangarap namin ay makita balang araw ang ating Inang Bayan malaya, mapalad, marilag, marangal at wala nang luha." (None of us regretted having fought because our only dream was someday to see the Motherland free, blessed. radiant, honorable and without tears.)

     Aside from Nolasco, the other Bataan braves were Raul Echaus, Fernando Akol, Celso Ledesma, Felix Endencia. Ricardo Vicente, Gregorio Anonas Jr, Jose Puerto, Delfin Mahinay, Jaime Tangco. Santiago Apostol, Gisberto Caguia, Simplicio Lizares Jr., Saturnino Velasco Jr., Marcial Eleazar, Rafael M.Delfin, Eduardo Teruel, Ames Villegas, Estanislao C. Rivera, Ladislao de Leon. Ramon Cabrera, Manuel Ojeda, Jose Diaz, Claustrio Verona,Fermin Fernando, Alfredo Xerex Burgos, Lauro G. Marquez, Manuel Antonio, Alfonso O. Torre, Paolo Dizon, Vivencio Salcedo, Rafael Arnaldo, Eriberto Misa Jr., and Pedro de Oca.

     The Ateneans, including my brother, Estanislao Jaime Rivera, enlisted as volunteers when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec 8.1941. Like my brotherwho was 18 years old, the Ateneans were barely out of their teens.

      They reported to their school for training. On Dec.23, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered the ROTC disbanded. Despite the order, some of the Ateneans found a way to enlist as volunteers and were issued uniforms and army shoes and the coconut fiber guinit for helmets.. (The American soldiers of course had steel helmets.)

      The volunteers were not given jackets to shield them from the cold in Tagaytay and later in Bataan. They were issued water canteens but not knapsacks. Nor were they given arms.

     An intrepid young commanding officer named Capt. Eugenio Lara took charge of the Ateneo volunteers and a few soldiers he had found aimlessly wandering around because they had been left behind by their unit.

     Lara scrounged for weapons in Nichols Field and from abandoned airplanes partly destroyed in bombing raids, found still usable some .50 caliber machine guns.

     In another part of the city Lara came upon an old French artillery piece, a .37 mm. anti-tank cannon considered a museum piece but still functional. It gave the company of volunteers its name Company A, second anti-tank battalion, second regular division of the Usaffe

Museum pieces

     They had yet to he given rifles. Lara discovered some more museum pieces at the Ateneo de Manila armory-Pershing-type Enfield rifles used in World War I and the Moro campaigns. They tended to jam and sometimes got too hot to handle in the thick of battle. Lara also found some Springfield rifles.

     The group's first mission was to proceed to Tagaytay and stop the Japanese army coming from the south. The roads were clogged, and as night came the vehicles crawled in total darkness as the military had enforced a blackout. They were deployed on a ridge overlooking the plains.

     Too excited to complain of the cold. They received instant instructions on how to use their rifles and how to engage the enemy, among others. That was their entire training. Then they all knelt down to pray the rosary. Where upon they stood their first night watch-without supper. But a resourceful volunteer went out to forage for food and came back with fried chicken from a family preparing for the New Year's Eve dinner. It was, after all, Dec.31!

To Bataan

     The next day they went without breakfast and lunch, but stayed in their positions even as they noticed unusual troop movements. They didn't realize that the army was relocating until a truckload of soldiers shouted "To Bataan! To Bataan!" But how to get there? They had no vehicles. Not to worry, for Captain Lara commandeered a bus at gunpoint. As they approached Manila, they saw parts of the city in flames - the quartermaster depot and the gasoline tanks had been put to the torch by the retreating army. Some of them wept. They drove through Bulacan in darkness, creeping along without headlights. They were the last to cross Calumpit Bridge before it was blown up by army engineers. What a New Year's Eve!

      It was six in the morning when they reached Bataan. They proceeded to a forested area in Lamao where they encamped. For two weeks they waited for orders. At least they could not complain about the food from the Quartermaster Corps and thev bathed every day - without soap - in an idyllic spring and sang old American folk songs. (Looking back, they thought it strange that they had no repertoire of Philippine songs.)

     At night they felt very cold.

And the singing stopped

     In two weeks the singing and the bathing stopped. The Japanese army had landed behind Usaffe lines at Aglaloma Point near Bagac. facing the South China Sea. One group, which included my brother, went to Aglaloma to meet the enemy.

     It was a long and bitterly contested encounter, with our boys poorly armed against the superior Japanese forces. Manuel Ojeda was master sergeant attached to the tank division, a tough and grueling job. He was wounded in action and nearly died from loss of blood and gangrene.

     Also among the Ateneans at Aglaloma were Alfredo Xerex Burgos who later worked mightily to help his comrades in the Death March, and Jose Diaz Abella who, like my brother, later died in Capas.

     The Battle of the Points, from the account of Lara himself, was one prolonged action of ducking from bombings of unchallenged Japanese planes, of inching forward through thick forest vegetation to the edge of high cliffs at Aglaloma Bay where the Japanese had landed on wooden craft on the shore below, and of our boys firing with their 37 mm guns, along with American boy marines who had come over for training and found themselves in a war, at Japanese soldiers "like wounded ducks swimming bobbing targets to our boys who did not know about the Japanese instinct to suicide instead of surrendering even when helplessly cornered.

     Continuous mopping-up operations followed, during which our boys threw grenades and gasoline fire into caves under the cliffs where the Japanese hid and suddenly started firing even when mortally wounded. In the forests the Japanese would strap themselves to trees with their belts to snipe at our soldiers.

Airmen without planes

     Later, a motley group of defenders came to reenforce the "A" anti-tank unit in the task of guarding a three-kilometer coastline of Bataan - the projected backdoor passage of the Japanese "to hit the Main Line of Resistance then somewhere between Bagac and Orion in the north."

     They were a conglomeration of high-sounding Usaffe units which actually were airmen without planes, navymen without ships, cavalrymen with neither tanks nor horses, engineers without equipment, artillerymen without cannons, constabularymen, trainees, students and even drivers and musicians - all balled together in a medley of shooting rifle fighters that had given the Usaffe its first victories in Bataan - Anyasin, Silain, Jonas Points, etc." A unit in Company "A" reenforced the US Provisional Air Corps Battalion 71st Division who were encircling the enemy on the farthest left of Aglaloma River, but it went straight to the bay without any resistance as the guns of Corregidor had cleared the area. Sergeant Ojeda an his men dragged "wheeled little cannons" up steep mountain positions in substitution for unavailable artillery support.

     At Longos Kawayan, Sgt. Xerex Burgos was in charge of Prep-Gun-Carrier unit which "later fought their own war at the main line of resistance until the surrender of Bataan."

Mosquitoes

     It seems unbelievable that in the Aglaloma and Limay campaigns not one of the young ROTC volunteers died. Neither was there any deserter. But there was another enemy to contend with-the hordes of mosquitoes that came to feast on the blood of the volunteers who had neither roof nor netting to protect them. Most of those who died in Capas had malaria.

     Ed Nolasco was in the second group assigned to defend the beach in Lima; fronting Manila Bay. There they stayed from Jan. 23 to April 8 without encountering any Japanese but they helped repel four attempted landings on barges coming from across the bay.

     Blinded by bright searchlights, the Japanese were easy targets of the Usaffe artillery. Ed's group, however, was caught between forces of friendly fire - behind them on the slopes was the Usaffe artillery group and facing them were the big guns of Corregidor. Above them they were attacked by enemy planes, against which they had no anti-aircraft guns.

     Ed recalls that to compound their misery about 30 of them would share a can of sardines mixed into a pot of lugaw (congee). They felt abandoned. What kept their hopes alive was news of "95 American convoys streaming across the Pacific." But not one came.

     During their more than two months in Limay, they saw Americans onlv once - five who had wandered into their encampment one day and who took offwhen they heard that the Japanese were about to land.

      The Company stayed in Limay until early morning of April 8 when they were ordered to break camp and move toward Cabcaben. From Cabcaben, Ed's group took a winding road to a place overlooking a pass. They were extremely hungry. So were the two Americans who were foraging for food, at whom the Filipinos shouted a warning as they started moving down to enemy lines.

      The Americans scampered towards the top. Within the area they were holding, Ed saw a wounded soldier who later died alone underneath a tree. They were so preoccupied with defending themselves that they never got his name.

Mission Accomplished

     They did accomplish their mission - to delay the Japanese below them by using their .50 caliber machine guns - and they succeeded in stopping the enemy from push upward. They could pinpoint the enemy from flashes of gunfire and 114 tracer bullets whizzing towards them. But they now had to cope with both hostile and friendly fire. At seven o'clock that night the guns of Corregidor started bombardment. The fighting took a furious turn and suddenly an eerie silence came upon them. A long, long silence. It dawned on them that the other units had gone. Then the mountain itself seemed to emit its death throes - three violent tremors in a row that shook the very depths of their being.

     It was April 9, 1942. Bataan had fallen

     FOR 56 years there was an enormous blank in the short, heroic life qf my only brother, Estanislao Jaime Rivera. When World War II broke out in the Pacific, he enlisted as a volunteer along with 33 other Ateneo ROTC cadets, and he died in the prison camp in Capas, Tarlac. The cause of death: malaria and dysentery.

     Records in the Capas camp listed Kuya Eslao's date of death as May 22, 1942. He was 18.

      His body and those of more than 20 others were dumped in a common grave in Capas, with only their dog tags for identification. After the war their bones were reburied at the Libingan ng mga Bayani under an unmarked two-foot-high white marble cross in a field of anonymous crosses.

     All I knew about Kuya Eslao's war experience was that he was a prelaw student at the Ateneo de Manila on Padre Faura when he joined the ROTC unit of volunteers and managed to get a gun somewhere, that he was in the infamous Bataan Death March, and that he was among the prisoners in Capas where he died of disease.

     But four years ago, Edmundo "Ed" F. Nolasco, a prominent leader of the Democratic Labor Movement and also an Ateneo ROTC volunteer, sent me a letter of inquiry about my brother. Ed's family and mine had been very close before the war.

     But I never received his letter because it was addressed to the Ateneo de Davao University where I chaired the humanities division for 11 years until I left in 1980 to start my own school, the Ford Academy of the Arts.

     Ed's letter was returned to him undelivered.

     Finally, through the office of the Philippine Daily Inquirer in Davao City, he tracked me down. It turned out he is putting together a novella about the 34 heroic Ateneo ROTC volunteers who responded to the call to duty for the Motherland and gave their all. Fifteen of the Ateaean volunteers lost their lives.

Request of the heart

     Suddenly, thanks to Ed, I was getting answers to fill the enormous blank my brother's death had left. To my request of the heart, Ed responded generously and furiously through fax and postal mail, telling me the details of the Ateneo band's heroic exploits.

     Since Sept.24 last year, I have been receiving from Ed Nolasco a barrage of materials, including the pamphlet on the Ateneo Heroes Memorial dated Dec. 7, 1996 and chapters from a book titled Under Japanese Rule.

     One chapter, written by Helen Mendoza, features Ed's account of the death marchers, including his own dramatic escape-he had put on a discarded pair of pajamas amidst the crowded moving formation and later pretended to be the husband of a woman with a baby in her arms. Thus did he walk calmly away as the marchers approached Pilar, Bataan. All this, while the Japanese guards were busily chasing after those trying to escape in all directions.

     On Oct.30, 1998 he faxed: "I bring tidings of great joy! I was able to locate the burial site of Kuya. He is buried at Section 4, Plot 4, Row 6 of the Libingan ng mga Bayani, Fort Bonifacio. His grave is marked by a white marble cross, two feet tall without any inscription, unlike those of generals and other top brass. There's no democracy even in death..."

Rosary

     In another fax a week later, Ed wrote this postscript: "Kuya died with the rank of First Sergeant. As a war vet he is entitled to wear 3 medals and 2 battle ribbons. I'll get them and ship them to you and you can pin them on your Mom. It is funny but Kuya who thought of the Ateneo as a monastery, prayed the rosary with us every 6 in the evening and before going to battle. Come to think of it, the Passion of Our Lord embodied in the rosary was what kept us going."

     When the war came, my parents, Pablo S. Rivera and Lourdes Consunji, were living in Negros Occidental where Papa was a judge of the court of first instance. I had graduated the year before from high school at Philippine Women's University in Manila a nd was grounded in Bacolod because Papa thought a war could break out. My brother Eslao was a prelaw student at the Ateneo de Manila on Padre Faura.

Handsome

     Kuya Eslao was tall and oh so handsome! It was the bane of my life that friends of my parents would look at him and at my sister and me and wonder aloud why all the good looks went to the only boy in the family. He was born in Lucena, Tayabas, on Sept. 1, 1924, and I in Jolo, Sulu.

     Our eldest sister, who died young, was born in Boac, Marinduque, while our youngest, Francisca, nicknamed Paquet, was born in Manila, only because Papa arranged to have an apartment there while holding trial in vigan.

     Mama called her firstborn Jimmy until he was six, when Papa insisted we call him Eslao after his grandfather, Estanislao Rivera of Orion, Bataan.

     Kuya was shy and reserved but the girls swooned over him. Our parents hired a dance instructor wherever Papa was assigned in Catbalogan and Dumaguete and Sorsogon in rapid succession, and then Bacolod where the war engulfed us. I couldn't always get Kuya to dance the rhumba and the tango with me, his adolescent sister. but when he did I was in the clouds. He was also a good baritone and was learning to play golf well.

     At one time he stayed behind in Dumaguete so he could finish high school at Siliman University. He had a stint at the University of the Philippines but was advised to rest during the second semester because of a lung problem.

     The summer before the war, he was consort to the fiesta queen in Binalbagan. Papa refused to have any of us in the family attend the affair because he said our presence there would make my brother conceited.

     When the war broke out, Papa and Mama took turns on the phone at the stair landing trying to get through to the priests at Ateneo. Papa finally succeeded soon after the MS Corregidor sank.

     When one of the priests told him tat the son of a friend of his went down with the ship but that Estanislao was safe, Papa said, "Good. Tell him to join the army." But. as we were to learn later, Eslao had responded to the call of the Motherland on his own and joined the war.

     Negros Occidental was one of the last provinces to be taken by the Japanese daring the war, and since Papa was being hounded by the kempeitai for his uncooperative stand, it was Mama who took a bazel to Luzon to search for Kuya.

Little notes

     At Capas, she wrote countless little notes for my brother, which she asked prisoners on detail outside the camp to drop anywhere inside. A Filipino doctor with access to the camp took pity on her and promised to look into the camp's records. Later he gave her a slip on which was written the date of Kuva Eslao's death-May 22, 1942.

     When Mama sought confirmation from a Japanese officer visiting someone at her boarding house, he angrily asked who had given it. But she refused to tell him. He said that Japanese women do not cry when someone dies in a war. But he told her to be at the train station the following day and he would confirm or deny the information. True to his word, the next day he gave Mama a slip of paper confirming that Kuya Eslao was dead.

     Mama did not come home to Bacolod immediately. She would take a bus anywhere to any destination. When she finally came home, she had goiter the size of a duck's egg. After the war, she planted a hundred hectares of abaca in Davao and watched as the abaca got disease-streaked with mosaic. Papa was heartbroken. Mama then planted ramie, the market for which disappeared in two years, and then rubber, which is now in its sunset years. Mama herself is now 98.

      Papa died in 1955. He left an unpublished Diary of the Occupation Years in Negros, a copy of which is in the National Archives.

      I have written my own war stones, some of which are in the book "Born in the Year 1900 and Other Stories" (published in '97 by the University of Lipa Press).

      By a wondrous coincidence, I have just unearthed vivid details of the year 1941 from my mother's mirrored aparador. There, among dozens of my father's de hilo americanas and my brother's tuxedo and barong, I found wrapped in a disintegrating table napkin a pack of letters and pictures of the family and friends from Silliman.

'Dear Lama'

     I found my own letters to Eslao, three of which I addressed to "Dear Lama," alluding to his description of Ateneo as a "Lamaserai." The last letter in the batch was from Mama and was dated Nov. 3, 1941.

     Again Mama expressed concern because Kuya Eslao had not answered several letters. Had he gotten sick? Did he have a flannel blanket? The letter ended with regret that Mama was unable to have a picture taken of Il Duce, our 27 1/2-inch-tall St. Bernard who suddenly took sick and died.

     Among the belongings Mama brought back from Kuya's boarding house in Malate was a small framed caricature of Adolf Hitler, his arm lifted in a defiantly brazen gesture. It was this picture that brought oh the torrent of tears after I had listened in utter disbelief to the news, broken by Mama upon her return from her bitter sojourn in Capas, that my brother was dead.

Memorial rites

     Incredibly, on Dec. 5,1999, 56 years after his death in Capas, Kuya Eslao was bestowed moving memorial rites at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in Makati City. We laid a wreath at his grave. One of the survivors of the Ateneo ROTC volunteers. Col. AIfredo Xerex Burgos. delivered a eulogy and I delivered a response on behalf of the Rivera family. Armed Forces men fired a volley of shots and played taps. Aside from Burgos, six other surviving Ateneo war volunteers, all of them men of distinction, were present: Ed Nolasco, Lauro G. Marquez. Lawyer Manuel Antonio, Rafael Arnaldo, Hernan Jopson and Alfonzo Tone.

     On the same afternoon, a wreath was laid at a marker at the Ateneo de Manila University for the 34 heroic Ateneans. Rev. James B. Reuter SJ., celebrated a Mass afterward to commemorate their their valor.

     What a glorious aftermath for a previously anonymous hero!

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