Daughter tells Filipino vet's story
When Antonio "Tony" Nieva — a college sophomore and a cadet just shy of 21 — was called up into the Philippine Commonwealth Army, he had no idea he would become part of the worst military defeat in United States history.
After the surrender of U.S. and Filipino forces to the Japanese in the Battle of Bataan 75 years ago, Nieva survived the 60-mile trek known as the Bataan Death March.
Although the Japanese released him a few months later, Nieva eventually became a guerrilla fighter who helped U.S. forces led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur win back the Philippines a few years later.
Now Nieva's daughter Vicenta — known as Pepi, who lives in West Linn — has revised and expanded her father's memoir and drawings of his World War II experiences to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the battles of Bataan and Corregidor.
The book, "Cadet, Soldier, Guerrilla Fighter," was first published in 1997, five years after Nieva's death.
Nieva went on to earn a law degree, entered corporate law practice in the Philippines, and fought for the rights of World War II veterans like him.
Numerous books have been written about U.S. involvement in the Philippines — a U.S. possession and commonwealth until its independence on July 4, 1946 — but there are relatively few by Filipinos.
"He wanted to write it from the Filipino perspective," Pepi Nieva said. "There were more Filipinos on Bataan than there were Americans — and there were more who died there because of the numbers."
Pepi Nieva discussed the book at the biennial convention of the Council of Filipino American Associations of Oregon and Southwest Washington. The meeting was at Clark College in Vancouver, Wash.
Unprepared for war
The U.S. acquired the Philippines as a result of the Spanish American War in 1898, but then took several years to suppress an internal rebellion. The Philippines became a commonwealth in 1935 and the U.S. promised full independence in 10 years.
Tony Nieva was called up to be part of a Philippine army that was not well armed — its weapons dated to World War I — and the soldiers were not much better off in September 1941, when the army became part of the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East commanded by MacArthur.
The war came to them sooner than expected — Japanese bombing of U.S. air and naval bases in the Philippines came the day after the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii — and Japanese ground forces took Manila within a short time after their landing Dec. 23.
The combined U.S. and Filipino forces then began their planned retreat to the Bataan Peninsula, where they held out for four months until April 9, 1942. The surrender of 60,000 to 80,000 soldiers — estimates vary widely — was the largest in U.S. history.
"What is the death of an army like? There is no cohesive picture, just a series of disconnected rushes of a grade-B horror movie.
"It is the obscene grimace of a blackened face peering up from a foxhole, a spread-eagled figure on the ground too exhausted to give a damn, a halfhearted stand atop a vantage knoll, firing without aim or conviction at scattering dolls on the trail below…"
Corregidor, a fortress island in Manila Bay, fell to the Japanese on May 6. MacArthur was long gone by then; President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered him to leave to organize the defense of Australia.
MacArthur pledged: "I shall return."
Worse was to come for those who surrendered.
The new prisoners of war were forced to march more than 60 miles to Tarlac, site of a mobilization center for the Philippine army. But on the way to Camp O'Donnell, thousands died — mostly Filipinos, but also hundreds of Americans — and many were subjected to physical abuse that later was deemed a Japanese war crime.
Nieva himself was almost left for dead during what came to be known as the Death March. A colonel he referred to as "Louie the Rat" had taken it upon himself who would ride in the available trucks — Nieva was flat on his back and motionless — but the rest of the company vowed that Nieva would go with them as long he stayed alive.
In Nieva's recollection: "I'll outlive you."
The march, he wrote, ended "in horror, in misery, in sickness, in pain and death — but not in shame."
The survivors were packed into a camp built for just 7,000, and many more died.
"What hell could be worse than (Camp) O'Donnell?" Nieva wrote. "All the tortures of the damned were already there: Defeat, disillusion, degradation, squalor, the physical torments of disease, the mental cruelty of uncertainty, and the terrible sense of abandonment by man and God. Heaven was anywhere else but there."
Release and rebellion
The Japanese soon released many Filipino soldiers on their pledge not to take up arms in an attempt to win them over from the Americans.
Japan had been working at a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" since it annexed Korea in 1910, seized Manchuria in 1931, and went to war against China in 1937. Subsequent to Pearl Harbor, they took the British colonies of Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Burma, French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies.
"Their premise was that the Western powers had overcome a lot of countries in Asia and they said they would liberate these countries," Pepi Nieva said. "The only thing was that they would be the boss of this sphere."
Despite the Japanese occupation, she said, her father recalled a few lighter moments. One occurred when he was driving Japanese officers to a brothel and was offered "free service."
"He declined because he was too weak," Pepi Nieva said.
Antonio Nieva soon went into business in Manila upon his release. But he said it soon became clear he had to do something else.
"Whatever goodwill had been gained by the Japanese gestures of friendship was negated by contrary behavior," he recalled.
"The smiling mask covering the stern visage was peeled away."
Nieva became a captain in the Hunters-ROTC, founded by cadets like himself and one of the guerrilla bands resisting the Japanese.
Such bands ran high risks. Those caught by the Japanese were paraded in public before being executed — often by beheading — and many Filipinos did not want to get too involved.
"Then and up to the liberation, the ocean of people wherein guerrillas could thrive … never did exist," he wrote. "The guerrillas were like mudfish, somehow surviving continuous drought, somehow multiplying in infertile puddles."
Nieva's band did take part in two raids on the same prison, two months apart in 1944, that freed prisoners from their own band. Nieva also was in an intelligence unit that aided the U.S. 11th Airborne Division in freeing 2,147 military and civilian prisoners in a raid at Los Baños on Feb. 23, 1945.
"They paved the way for MacArthur's victories in the Philippines," Pepi Nieva said.
U.S. forces led by MacArthur returned to the Philippines on Oct. 20, 1944, in the invasion of Leyte. But it took eight months of hard fighting, including a battle that left Manila in ruins, before MacArthur declared an end to Japanese resistance in the islands.
The year after Japan surrendered in September 1945, Congress passed a law that excluded Philippine commonwealth forces from receiving any U.S. veterans' benefits.
Nearly half a century later, in 1990, Filipino WWII veterans were offered U.S. citizenship; 28,000 of 70,000 surviving veterans applied.
Almost 20 years later, in 2009, Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye — himself a Japanese-American WW II veteran — inserted $198 million in the economic stimulus bill for lump-sum payments to the dwindling number of Filipino veterans. But they had to waive rights to any other veterans' benefits.
On Oct. 25 in Washington, D.C., Antonio Nieva, through his daughters, received a replica of a Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Filipino veterans as a group.
"The Congressional Gold Medal finally recognizes the bravery and sacrifices of Filipino soldiers who fought with the United States during World War II," Pepi Nieva said.
"We thank Gen. Tony Taguba and the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project and the many advocates who have been fighting for Filipino veterans' rights over many decades. It's been a long fight and it's not over yet."