When I was a young boy, many summers ago, my older brother related to me a story about the capture of a Japanese soldier at the twilight of Japanese occupation of the country who was bludgeoned to death by the townspeople. While he was being beaten up with hammer, bolos, clubs and sticks, he kept protesting that he was not a Japanese, but a Taiwanese. The helpless quarry could have been aware of the atrocities of the Japanese soldiers during its rapacious conquest of the island that he would invoke sympathy by actually telling his captors about his real nationality. Japan recruited soldiers from Taiwan, its first colony, before embarking into its grand conquest of the Pacific. The soldier’s claim that he was a Taiwanese could be true, but even with his claim of a non-Japanese origin, was not good enough to evoke pity from among his captors.
This narrative of the war had etched in my young mind the ugliness of the war and brutality of our own people towards the defeated enemy. But as I grow up fed with the dozens of Tagalog movies about WW II, my regard for the brutality of the townsfolk, only reflects our inherent nature as a beast – when provoked by another beast.
Kim Jong-un, is a kid dictator of North Korea who rattles a nuclear saber against South Korea and the U.S. He is showing his true self as a “beast” – but does he expect kid glove treatment from his enemies, or does he expect another “beast” the monstrosity of which could be beyond his juvenile comprehension? This tyrant has never been out of his cocoon and has not traveled far enough for a genuine reality check. A matchbox is very dangerous indeed, in the hands of a child. During the first Korean war, some 10 million lives were lost, a nuclear war now, will make that loss insignificant, and you could see lands obliterated from the map.
The business of war has evolved from medieval stage of using stick, bolos, and fish forks to maim your enemy to a more sophisticated use or missiles, gas, and yes, nuclear bombs. Therefore, war in our age is more potent, destructive and ugly. After all, Neville Chamberlain (UK Prime Minister, 1937-40), said that “in war, there are no victors and winners, only losers.”
It’s tragic that millions of lives have to be lost again because some leaders suffer from paranoia and others are ruled by fake patriots who are still nostalgic of their imperialist agenda or new leaders nurturing imperial designs of their own. The next Korean war is a continuation of the first, a proxy war between democratic west, represented by the U.S-British; and and the east communist represented by China-Russia. A proxy war outside their respective borders will be costly in terms of lose of lives and war materials. But it would be good business for superpowers, China, U.S. or even Japan but it would be disastrous for both North and South Korea and their people who do not have their fingers on the triggers of weapons of mass annihilation.
But even its vintage format, war was already ugly. Let us look at close and local at the old war:
December 14, 1944
Puerto Princesa Prison Camp, Palawan, Philippines
All their work lay in ruins. Their raison d’etre, the task their commandant had said would take them three months but had taken nearly three years. A thousand naked days of clearing, lifting, leveling, wheelbarrowing, hacking. Thirty-odd months in close heavy heat smashing rocks into smaller rocks, and smaller rocks into pebbles, hammering sad hunks of brain coral into bone-white flour with which to make concrete. Ripping out the black humus floor of the jungle, felling the gnarled beasts of mahogany or narra or kamagong that happened to be in the way. Above the bay, in a malarial forest skittering with monkeys and monitor lizards, they had built an airstrip where none should be, and now they were happy to see it in ruins, cratered by bombs.
One hundred and fifty slaves stood on a tarmac 2,200 meters long and 210 meters wide, straining with shovels and pickaxes and rakes. Ever since the air raids started two months earlier, Lieutenant Sato, the one they called “the Buzzard,” had ordered them out each morning to fill the bomb pits, to make the runway usable again. This morning had been no different. The men had risen at dawn and eaten a breakfast of weevily rice, then climbed aboard the trucks for the short ride to the airstrip. As usual, they worked all morning and took a break for lunch around noon. But now the Buzzard said no lunch would be served on the strip, that instead the food would be prepared back at the barracks. The men were puzzled, because they’d never eaten lunch at their barracks before, not on a workday. It didn’t make sense to drive back now, for they still had considerable repair work to do. Sato offered no explanation.
The prisoners crawled into their trucks again and took the bumpy serpentine road back to the prison. In the meager shade of spindly coconut palms, they ate their lunches squatting beside their quarters in u open-air stockade that was secured with two barbed-wire fences. The en’ tire compound was built at the edge of a cliff that dropped fifty ragged feet to a coral beach splashedby the warm blue waters of Puerto Princesa Bay.
Around 1 P.M. the air-raid alarm sounded. It was nothing more than a soldier pounding on an old Catholic church bell splotched with verdigris. The men looked up and saw two American fighters, P-38s, streaking across the sky, but the planes were moving away from the island and were too high to pose a danger. Having become discriminating appraisers of aerial threat, the prisoners ignored the signal and resumed the lunches.
A few minutes later a second air-raid alarm sounded. The men consulted the skies and this time saw an American bomber flying far in the distance. They didn’t take the alarm seriouslv and kept on eating. Presently a third alarm sounded, and this time Sato and a few of his men marched into the compound with sabers drawn and rifles fixed with bayonets. Sato insisted that everyone heed the signal and descend ito the air raid hovels. “They are coming!” he shrieked. “Planes –hundreds of planes!”
Again the men were puzzled, and this time suspicious. When planes had come before, Sato had never registered any particular concern for their safety. Many times they’d been working on the landing strip when American planes had menaced the site. The Japanese would leap into their slit trenches, but often made the prisoners work until the last possible minute. The Americans had to fend for themselves, out in the open, as aircraft piloted by their own countrymen dropped out of the sky to bomb and strafe the airstrip. Several weeks earlier an American from Kentucky named James Stidham had taken a piece of shrapnel from one of the American bombers, a B-24 Liberator, and was now paralyzed. During the lunch hour he lay on a stretcher in the compound, silent and listless, with a fellow prisoner spoon-feeding him his ration.
“Hundreds of planes!” Sato shouted again, with even more urgency. “Hurry.”
The slaves moved toward the air-raid shelters. They were primitive, nothing more than narrow slits dug four feet deep and roofed with logs covered over with a few feet of dirt. There were three main trenches, each about a hundred feet long. On both ends, the structures had tiny crawl-space entrances that admitted one man at a time. Approximately fifty men could fit inside each one, but they had to pack themselves in with their knees tucked under their chins. The prisoners had constructed these crude shelters for their own safety after the American air raids started in October, to avoid more casualties like Stidham. With Sato’s reluctant approval, they’d also painted “POW” on the galvanized-metal roof of their barracks.
Sato was behaving strangely today, the prisoners thought, but perhaps he knew something, perhaps a massive air attack was indeed close at hand. All the signs pointed to the imminent arrival of the American torces. The tide of the war was turning fast—everyone knew it. That very morning a Japanese seaplane had spotted a convoy of American destroyers and battleships churning through the Sulu Sea en route to Mindoro, the next large island north of Palawan. If not today, then someday soon Sato and his company of airfield engineers would have to reckon with the arrival of U.S. ground troops, and their work on Palawan would be finished.
Reluctantly, the American prisoners did as they were told, all 150 of them, crawling single file into the dark, poorly ventilated pits. Everyone but Stidham, whose stretcher was conveniently placed beside one of the trench entrances. If the planes came, his buddies would gather his limp form and tuck him into the shelter with everyone else.
They waited and waited but heard not a single American plane, let alone a hundred. They huddled in the stifling dankness of their collective body heat, sweat coursing down their bare chests. The air-raid bell continued to peal. A Navy signalman named C. C. Smith refused to go into his pit. Suddenly the Buzzard set upon him. He raised his saber high so that it gleamed in the midday sun, and with all his strength he brought it blade side down. Smith’s head was cleaved in two, the sword finally stopping midway down the neck.
Then, peeking out the ends of the trenches, the men saw several soldiers bursting into the compound. They were carrying five-gallon buckets filled with a liquid. The buckets sloshed messily as the soldiers walked. With a quick jerk of the hands, they flung the contents into the openings of the trenches. By the smell of it on their skin, the Americans instantly recognized what it was—high-octane aviation fuel from the airstrip. Before they could apprehend the full significance of it, other soldiers tossed in lighted bamboo torches. Within seconds, the trenches exploded in flames. The men squirmed over each other and clawed at the dirt as they tried desperately to shrink from the intense heat. They choked back the smoke and the fumes, their nostrils assailed by the smell of singed hair and roasting flesh. They were trapped like termites in their own sealed nest.’ (Ghost Soldiers, Hampton Sides, p. 7-10).
Nick Joaquin writing about Ninoy Aquino’s assignment in Korea during the first 1950 Korean war:
” This time he was not on a lark but a mission: he would write about the Filipino in battle, he wold write about Korea and open his eyes to its culture. ‘I began doing heavier articles on the government, on Syngman Rhee, and I did more political reporting, more analyses on the war and the Allied offensive.’ Korea had been merely a whine and a stink before; now he discovered it as a great country.” I hadn’t realised it had a fantastic history dating back three thousand years and that its alphabet was the world’s greatest. I had thought the Roman alphabet was the last word. Koreans are a proud, hard people and they told me they weren’t really Asians but of the Aryan race, Caucasians. We had camped in their tombs and monuments and we didn’t know it. We had lodged carelessly in their Dak-tu Palace, with all those thousand-year-old books made of wood, a whole library of wooden blocks, ancient national treasures. I learned all this from Korean friends, like Helen Kim, an old lady who took me under her wing, president of the only women’s university in Korea and adviser to Syngman Rhee. I was hoping to write a book on Korea; I had started my research.”
“Ideology had also come unfixed.”
“I now had a healthier respect for the enemy. Oh, I was still caught up in the hogwash of the slogans: the Great Mission to Save the World from Communism. To me, Communism and democracy had been black and white: Communism was bad, democracy was good. But when I saw how the North Korean prisoners were tortured and yet stuck to their own creed, I began to wonder. The tortures were in the worst Japanese manner you could think of. When Communists were captured they were mauled to make them talk. And this was done even by our own people.”
“One day two young North Korean soldiers were taken prisoner by the Philippine battalion. Ninoy watched while the two were third-degreed. “They really gave them hell.” It seemed nightmarish that Filipinos had come into a foreign country to maltreat the people there. That night, with an interpreter, Ninoy sneaked into the cell of one of the prisoners. “The kid was only seventeen or eighteen. He could hardly move, he had been so badly beaten up. I had brought him coffee. I asked him about his family, his home life. He would not talk.” But every day Ninoy visited the young prisoner. After “tactical interrogation” captured enemy were turned over to the higher command; Ninoy begged that this young prisoner be kept a while longer. “I talked to him, I even slept in his cell.” And after a time he gained the boy’s confidence; the North Korean talked about his life. He was a farmer; he had left home and farm because he felt he should help save his country, should fight for his country. So he had trained for a year in the army. He had been a soldier barely a year when captured. He was not sorry; he had done his duty; and no argument could convince him that he had fought for the wrong cause. “They are going to kill you,” said Ninoy. And the boy had shrugged: “Well, everybody has to die sometime.” Ninoy was awed by the firm spirit of this boy who was his own age but had been “indoctrinated” so much more effectively. “There must be something that ticks here,” thought Ninoy.
“The Allied offensive started in January. Again the UN armies crossed the 38th Parallel and advanced on Pyongyang. “We never got to Pyongyang,” says Ninoy, “but we got halfway.” On April 22, 1951, the Chinese bugles blew again and the “illiterate peasants” from across the Yalu overran the UN lines at Imjin. The Chinese had countered with their spring offensive.”
“The British troops were on a high rugged terrain that they had christened Gloster Hill. The position bore the brunt of the initial Chinese assaults. All day and night of April 23, the day of their patron St. George, the English managed to beat off wave after wave of the enemy, but their line shrank from four miles to a few hundred yards, they were running out of supplies, many of them lay dead or wounded, and Gloster Hill was fast being cut off.”
“On April 24 the Philippine battalion, led by American tanks, were ordered to Gloster Hill. They could get to only three thousand yards of it, so intense was the enemy fire. Their lead tank burst into flames and blocked the way up the craggy area. The Filipinos had to retreat. Later that afternoon they were ordered back to Gloster Hill, this time accompanied by Belgian and Puerto Rican troops and tanks of the 8th Hussars. But the enemy were entrenched in the hills and gorges of the area and again drove back the UN forces. It was one of the bloodiest engagements of the Philippine battalion, which lost many of its men on Gloster Hill, among them Captain Conrado Yap.”
“Captain Yap had become a very good friend of mine,” says Ninoy. “He was manning one of the hills during the battle. The following morning, when the firing stopped, he managed to recover the bodies of our dead. We found them disembowelled, the heads cut off, the intestines out. Captain Yap had vowed to his men that none of them would be left behind in Korea; everybody, including the dead, would be brought home. So he carefully counted the rtcovered bodies; there was one missing. ‘We better look for him.’ he said. I tried to dissuade him, reminding him of the danger of our position. We were on top of the hill and he saw more bodies down tie slope. ‘There are more below,’ he said, and started downhill. One of those lying there was a Communist soldier who wasn’t dead, only wounded. He shot at Captain Yap and hit him in the groin.”
“We shot down the Communist soldier and ran to where Captain Yap had fallen. He was gasping. The bullet had come out in the back. He shoved into my hands the picture of a little girl. ‘Ninoy,’ he said, ‘ikaw na ang bahala.’ Then he died. That really got me. He had three or four daughters.”
“When Ninoy went home at last he carried a doll for the little girl in the picture because her father had promised to bring her a doll when he came home.”
Gloster Hill did not fall. St. George was still for England and the British line held.
“After Gloster Hill, Ninoy’s communiques grew ever grimmer. “No more flippant cowboy-Indian stuff. I was writing more about death, about misery, about all those poor guys getting cut down in Korea.” Editor Boguslav would remonstrate: “You’re not supposed to be writing literature. We want reports.” But as spring turned into summer, the war turned into boredom. An American victory had clearly become impossible; truce feelers were being put out; but the now routine killing continued — and how report with zeal a slaughter that had become as abstract as algebra, as banal as evil? The irony, as Fehrenbach notes, was that Syngman Rhee, for whose government the Allies were fighting, now seemed to the Allies a “major nuisance” rather than patriot: “Rhee, threatening again and again to block an armistice desired by most, became less and less a heroic old resistor of Communism and more and more a stubborn, opinionated old tyrant, determined to keep the West from getting what it wanted.” And what the West wanted was no longer the defeat of the Communists but simply out. The South Koreans could not have agreed more, being themselves as sick of their saviors as these of them. Though no one had won, Korea had lost. Death had made its air unbreathable. ” (The Aquinos of Tarlac, Nick Joaquin, p. 212-14).