The Real Heroes of
Remembering the first Filipino military victory in World War II
the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Bessang Pass, we honor
its real heroes – the nameless farmers, soldiers, bolomen, haulers who
supplied the fighters with ammunition, food and other war materials, and
the brave Igorot volunteers who fought tooth and nail the fascist Japanese
forces who entrenched themselves in the northern highlands.
By Arturo P. Garcia
Bessang Pass marker
As we commemorate the 107th
Philippine Independence Day on June 12, we must also remember that on June
14, Filipino World War II veterans, especially those who fought in
Northern Luzon, will commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the first
Filipino military victory at the Battle of Bessang Pass (1945).
The event is particularly significant
for the Filipinos who three years earlier witnessed the surrender of
Bataan and Corregidor and the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese
Imperial Forces in 1942.
The Battle of Bessang Pass was thus a
sweet revenge for the Filipinos and Americans who participated in the
three long years of war of resistance against the Japanese occupation
A place in history
Bessang Pass is located in Cervantes,
Ilocos Sur, a province more than 260 kms north of Manila. The area serves
as a gateway to the Cordillera mountains and the city of
Bessang Pass was the last stronghold of
the Japanese imperial forces under Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, known as the
“Tiger of Malaya” and conqueror of Singapore. It was part of the
triangular defense of General Yamashita in the north, namely the Balete
Pass, Villaverde Trail and Bessang
Pass, guarding the Ifugao-Benguet-Vizcaya borders.
Its fall on the hands of the United
States Armed Forces in the Philippines (USIFP-NL) on June 14, 1945 paved
the way to the entrapment of Yamashita’s forces in the Cordillera until
the general’s surrender in September 1945.
The USIFP-NL was of composed of five
infantry regiments and a field artillery battalion of 20,000 officers who
were all Filipinos except for five American officers. The latter included
Col. Russell Volckman, its commanding officer. The troops bore the brunt
of the fighting, sustaining over 2,000 casualties, including 600 men
The units of the USFIP-NL that fought
at the battle were the 121st, 15th , 66th and the
Provisional infantry regiments. During the three long years of Japanese
occupation, almost all of the forces of this command served as guerillas.
Most of them also fought in Bataan and Corregidor. For them, this battle
was a payback for all the dishonor they suffered during the surrender of
the Philippines and for the atrocities the Japanese implicated on them.
They faced the crack 73rd
Tora (Tiger) Division, the 79th brigade and the 357th
Battalion led by Lt. General Yoshibaru Osaki. The Japanese forces
fortified the hills and the ridges to stop any American offensive on their
way to Baguio City and the Cordillera stronghold of Yamashita.
The Japanese forces withdrew from
Manila and other areas of Luzon after sacking and destroying Manila with a
pogrom of atrocities. The stay-behind-force of Japanese marines and Korean
conscripts massacred more than 300,000 residents of south Manila and
destroyed the city. Manila became the most devastated city after Warsaw
gaining the moniker “The Warsaw of Asia.”
The initial fighting started in
February 1945 around the town of Cervantes. At the same time, the 121st
Infantry was driving out the Japanese in Tagudin, Ilocos Sur on the
western lowlands of the Pass, the other guerilla forces were clearing
Ilocos Norte, the rest of Ilocos and Abra around the Tangadan area. By
March, the harder part of the battle commenced.
After liberating San Fernando, La
Union, on March 29, the USFIP-NL forces started the all-out assault for
Bessang Pass. Their advance was steady, gradual and costly. Without air
support at first, they attacked persistently armed only with rifles,
submachine guns and their sheer guts until the first week of April when
air and artillery support became available.
On June 14, the units of 121st launched
a final assault on Buccual Ridge and planted a symbolic flag made from a
dirty green face towel.
The battle was the crowning glory of
the battle exploits of the all-Filipino USFI-NL forces. The battle lasted
for four months of protracted, fierce, relentless blood hand to hand
combat with suicidal enemy.
On the real heroes of Bessang Pass
In 1982, when the brouhaha over the
Japanese revision of the history of World War II exploded, dictator
Ferdinand Marcos, in a rare press conference stated that “he was the real
hero of the Battle of Bessang Pass.”
During this time, China, Vietnam, Korea
and other Asian countries that Japan conquered during the war were
protesting the Japanese revisions in their history. On the other hand, the
Philippine authorities kept quiet about it.
Marcos even bragged to the foreign and
local media that General Volkmann confided to him that “General Yamashita
should have surrendered to him (Marcos).” Marcos made it appear
that as an intelligence officer, he supplied the USFIP-NL vital
information about the Japanese forces in Bessang. But it was a known fact
among guerillas that he was in Nueva Vizcaya during those times. He was
nowhere around Bessang Pass to be involved in the battle.
The incident raised a lot of howl among
historians especially military historians who knew about the battle. Most
of the military historians kept quiet about Marcos claims to glory. Even
the relatives of military heroes of Bessang Pass like Major Rigor, General
Balao and Major Borje kept quiet about the Marcos claims so as not to
ruffle the feathers of the dictator.
The newspaper “Ang Malaya” printed
articles on the guerilla activities in Northern Luzon casting doubts on
Marcos allegations that he was at Bessang Pass. But most of the articles
were indirectly saying that.
It was only in late 1985 that the late
Col. Bonifacio Gillego who later became a congressman after the overthrow
of Marcos in 1986, directly questioned Marcos’s 27 military medals and his
claim to glory at Bessang Pass was exposed. The well-documented exposé was
a big factor in the defeat of Marcos during the snap election of 1986.
Gillego did a good research in the US military archives and exposed Marcos
as a fake hero.
Now, on the 60th anniversary
of the Battle, we honor the real heroes of Bessang Pass – the nameless
farmers, soldiers, bolomen, haulers who supplied the fighters with
ammunition, food and other war materials, and the brave volunteer Igorots
who fought tooth and nail the fascist Japanese forces who entrenched
themselves in the northern highlands.
American tribute to Filipino
The American officers in the
Cordilleras during the siege issued
statements with glowing praises for the Filipino soldiers. Gen. Walter
Kruger, commanding general of the U.S. 6th Army where the USFIP-NL
belongs, in his memoir and official report, described the Battle of
Bessang Pass as:“ one whose magnitude and decisiveness far surpasses the
U.S Army 32nd and 25th Divisions’ battle for the
Villaverde Trail and the Balete Pass, respectively.”
Gen. Douglas Macarthur, the U.S.
Supreme Commander in the Pacific also paid tribute to the victors of
Bessang Pass: “The work of the Northern Luzon guerillas alone was equal to
a front line division.”
Brig. Gen. Russel W. Volkman, USFIP-NL
Commanding officer, said: “With such courageous spirit as the motivating
force behind USFIP-NL, together with the wholehearted cooperation ad
willingness on the part of the officers and men of the USFIP-NL, to
undergo sacrifices and hardships, the seemingly insurmountable obstacles
through the dark days of the Japanese occupation were overcome. Your
devotion to duty, to the cause, to your country, and to the United States
of America has been rightly blessed with commendations of highest order.”
The USFIP-NL was not disbanded after
the war and it became the 2nd regular Philippine Army Division.
Many of its top officers became army chiefs of staff like Gen. Calixto
Duque and Eulogio Balao who later became the secretary of national defense
and a senator.
On June 14, 1952, President Elpidio
Quirino officially declared the Fall of Bessang Pass as a military holiday
to be commemorated in the Philippines.
Quirino declared ruing the 7th
Anniversary of the Battle: “…to win the liberation of Northern Luzon in
which the USFIP-NL played a major role, you accomplished no ordinary
achievement. Your battle for Bessang Pass in eastern Ilocos Sur in 1945
for instance stands out prominently as one of most decisive battles of the
Philippine liberation campaign.”
Thus, to honor the Filipino American
veterans in the United States and living in city of Los Angeles and in
who fought in this great battle and to support the continuing struggle of
the Filipino Veterans to be recognized as American World War veterans for
equity, recognition and justice, we remember the Filipino victory at
From the Filipino community in the
United States – we salute you! Bulatlat
PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION ■
© 2004 Bulatlat
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