U.S. and Philippine Veterans came by the bus load. Official dignitaries as far away as the Philippines arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, to pay homage to General of the Army Douglas MacArthur and to formally recognize former Prisoner of War (POW) veterans who were interred by the Japanese during World War II in prison camps throughout the Philippines from 1941 to 1945. More than 50 former internees from Baguio, Santo Tomas and Los Banos internment camps and veterans of the 1st Cavalry Division, 44th tank Battalion and 24th Marine Air Group attended the ceremony and created an atmosphere that was just magical the whole weekend.
It was a tearful reunion for many veterans and their families. Some realized this would be their last reunion but promised they would stay in contact with each other. And then, after the initial greetings and humorous anecdotes from years gone by, the soldiers began to tell their story of imprisonment. Lieutenant Commander Tim Darley, USCG, a military historian whose father served six years in the Pacific, was one of several volunteers who were profoundly affected by the tragic stories heard that day. Recording each story and asking a series of questions, LCDR Darley carefully edited each tape for posterity as part of the MacArthur Memorial oral history program. Research students and historians alike who visit the memorial each year will benefit from these tapes for years to come.
There were times when Veterans had to stop talking for several minutes during the recordings as they tried to regain their composure. Recalling unbelievable brutality was too much even after 60 years had gone by. “I could never understand why they were so cruel to us,” SGT Manuel said as he choked up. His wife of 48 years stood nearby with her hand on his shoulder and told him it was alright to talk about his experience. It seems he never really discussed such things with her or his family. Now, however, he was determined to tell this important story especially after having travelled so far to the memorial. When he was finished, he thanked LCDR Darley and quietly left to join his comrades who were gathering outside to hear Albert Del Rosario, Ambassador of the Philippines, present the “Liberation Plaque” to the MacArthur Memorial.
There was one common theme that resonated throughout every interview conducted by LCDR Darley. He heard over and over of how men, in the midst of carnage and hopelessness, were able to keep their senses about them; of missionary families maintaining their beliefs; and of the courage exhibited by soldiers and sailors who would not bend to their captors. That theme was “leadership”. While none of the men talked about their individual heroics, they certainly did their share of talking about the leaders who dug in their heels in and did their best to keep everyone’s morale up and to keep everyone alive. Some of these leaders paid the ultimate sacrifice for their deeds. However, many camp internees lived through the ordeal because of their bravery and tenacity of those leaders and still call those men, heroes, today.
After all the interviews were conducted and speeches and presentations were over, veterans said their goodbyes and saluted to each other as they boarded buses that were heading back to the hotel and then to the airport for cities all over the world.
Leadership and a strong belief system that right makes might helped to keep many of these survivors alive. It was a monumental and memorable day for everyone.