Damn. Damn. Damn. Procrastination, again! And once more I kicked myself in the butt for not having visited earlier!
I was not quite seven years old when Bataan fell. I thought it quite properly sentimental to observe Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor--as Bataan Day is now observed in the Philippines) this year and call on an older friend I had not seen in quite a span of time.
For old times’ sake. Someone, a veteran from World War II in the Philippines. The only person I know hereabouts who had a direct connection to Bataan and Corregidor. In remembrance of my grandfather and uncle, both Death March survivors (Wenceslao and Benjamin Bayhon, respectively), I would call on Joseph Trejo Alexander, a native of San Antonio, Texas. And pump him once more with my thirst for Philippine war stories as I had done upon first enjoying his company some years ago. I have enjoyed his company since, just bantering over a plate of ‘chalupas’ during lunch break at the antique shop or over a few hands of poker at their residence. Joe it was, a someone who had incomparably intimate World War II experiences he was never too shy to share. There never was any animosity, despite the cruelty and deprivation he had suffered. And I wanted to hear them again.
Joe Alexander grew up speaking very fluent Spanish, raised by his grandmother who spoke no English at all. (San Antonio, Texas has a 1.5 million population presently of which 62%-plus are of Hispanic origin, the majority of whom do not speak Spanish.) When we had just emigrated to San Antonio in the spring of 1999 after nine years in Manila, we met the Alexanders (Joe and Norma) because of our common interest in the antiques trade (Americana and Oriental). We each rented space in an Antique Mall along Broadway slightly north of downtown.
Joe was a very unique World War II veteran. Genuinely, a ‘oner.’ At 15, he was the youngest American POW (prisoner of war). In fact, he is believed to be the youngest prisoner of war in American history! That is because he enlisted at 14! (Of course, he inflated his age and got away with it.) By his own recollection, Joe says that he brought his grandmother as his personal witness to the Fort Sam Houston military recruitment center when he enlisted. That was July of 1941. He simply nudged his grandma to nod in front of the recruitment desk to and thus confirm that he was indeed of age, eligible and qualified to enter the armed services of the US. He was accepted. War preparations had already been proceeding even though Pearl Harbor was unexpected and did not actually happen until months after. The rest, as the trite saying goes, is history. In this particular instance, the history of Joe’s memorable adventure.
He was sent to the Philippines and initially served in Clark Field (Army Air Corps, 440th Ordnance Aviation Bombardment Squadron) but was eventually removed to Malaybalay, Bukidnon in Mindanao, after the sitting duck rout of America’s aviation assets arrayed unprotected on the airfield in Pampanga. Joe was with the US Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) contingent caught in Mindanao which included Brig. Gen. Manuel A. Roxas, when surrender became inevitable after Corregidor fell on May 6, 1942. While still in the Philippines awaiting transfer to Japan, he witnessed Japanese military brutality towards both prisoners and Filipino civilians from behind the barbed wire fence of his concentration camp.
In October of 1942, they were sent off to Japan “packed like sardines” in a prison ship. Joe was one of the hundreds of slave laborers herded to steel mills that produced war materiel for the Japanese Imperial Army. They were transferred from one military internment camp to another until the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 6 and 9 of August 1945. They were liberated a couple of weeks after. Joe survived three and a half years of hard labor, his body shrunken to a lice-ridden, 85-pound frame. He went through physical and psychiatric treatment, lasting two years both in Manila and in San Francisco. He returned to San Antonio to continue his military service at Kelly Air Force Base, retiring as a Technical Sergeant but he stayed on at Kelly as a civilian employee. As a veteran, Joe served twice as National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.
Fast forward. Just before noon, last Saturday April 9, I was at the Alexander residence, ringing the doorbell. Norma opened the door and I reintroduced myself. She remembered me. I said, “Norma, please pardon me for the intrusion but today is April 9 and it is the 74th Anniversary of the Fall of Bataan. I thought I’d call on Joe and relive with him his memories of the Philippines. Besides I have not seen him for a long while.” “How is he?” anticipating a happy visit, of course. Norma, matter of factly, said. “Joe is not with us anymore. He passed away two years ago this August. Prostate, you know!” Joe was two weeks shy of his 88th birthday.
Instantly, I was near choking, my tear glands beginning to well….(mababa ang luha, as the Tagalogs would say) but I managed my composure. Somewhat embarrassed at the unexpected turn of events, I attempted to carry on with some niceties and small talk about Joe and the antique business we folded years ago. At the point when I was truly already at a loss for words, I thanked Norma for cordially receiving me and bade her goodbye. Expressing once more my sympathies and the painful disappointment at not being able to see Joe anymore.
As I drove away, I was talking to myself, proud to have met such an individual. I was actually smiling, knowing that I will never have a chance to recoup my petty losses at Joe’s poker table. I never ever even won a hand. But I am won over! “Good bye, Joe Alexander! You are truly someone to remember.”
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