By Raïssa Robles
Ferdinand Marcos’ so-called Medal of Valor – the Philippines’ highest war medal awarded to a soldier for bravery – is “highly suspicious”, military historian Dr. Ricardo Trota Jose said.
“In the (original) citation, they can’t seem to get it straight because they keep saying Medal for Valor. I think the real official name is really Medal of Valor,” explained Jose, an internationally recognized expert on World War II in the Pacific and the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines. He is the former chair of the University of the Philippines Department of History.
In addition, he said, Marcos was handed this “Medal for Valor” only in 1958 – or 16 years after the particular act of bravery for which he was being cited took place. He explained that the Medal of Valor is awarded for a specific act of personal bravery above and beyond the call of duty. In this instance, it was for Marcos’ “extraordinary gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, against overwhelming enemy forces at the junction of Salian River and Abo-Abo River” from January 22 to 26, 1942.
Dr. Jose read out to me the original citation which said that Marcos and his men held off 2,000 Japanese soldiers for five days. But then he stopped reading and noted that the citation also got the name of the Japanese commanding officer wrong: “It (the citation) says Susumi Takeshi when it should be Susumu Takeshi,” a colonel in the Imperial Japanese Army.
For an exhaustive analysis of what’s wrong with Marcos’ claim of glory, Dr. Jose suggested I read The Marcos File by Charles McDougald who had done extensive research and concluded that Marcos’ historical claim was highly questionable in this case. McDougald said Marcos could not have assembled 100 men from remnants of various battalions and regiments and held off a Japanese force of 2000 men for five days, which “delayed considerably the Fall of Bataan.”
McDougald said this did not fit what actual field battle reports from both the Japanese and Filipino-American side later revealed.
He wondered why Marcos’ extraordinary act of bravery, which Marcos claimed had considerable impact on the battle outcome, was not recorded in the U.S. Army official history of the Battle of Bataan; nor by Carlos P. Romulo, a lieutenant colonel then who was appointed to the awards and decorations board by Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright, the commander of the Allied Forces in the Philippines after General Douglas MacArthur left; nor by John Toland in his groundbreaking book The Rising Sun.
McDougald also said he tried to verify the same by talking to Colonel John R. Vance, MacArthur’s finance officer who also served on the awards and decorations board. Because Marcos had also cited the same battle at the junction of Salian River and Abo-Abo River to request for himself a Medal of Honor from the United States.
Vance told McDougald that only two or three men were ever recommended by the board for the US Medal of Honor and Marcos was not anyone of them. Vance also could not recall Marcos ever being recommended for any other award.
It is interesting to note that McDougald himself referred to this particular Marcos medal as “the Medal for Valor”, basing the name on the original citation that accompanied the award. So did Marcos get a “Medal of Valor” or a totally different medal called “The Medal for Valor”? Perhaps the Armed Forces of the Philippines can clarify this.
Dr. Jose discusses Marcos’ 27 medals
Ferdinand Marcos claimed to have been awarded 27 war medals, mainly for what he did in 1942 and in 1945. Dr. Jose confirmed he once saw a display of these medals inside Malacañang Palace. But he noted that “quite a number” of them were campaign medals “given to all veterans of certain campaigns”, such as the World War II Medal, Philippine Defense Medal, American Defense Medal and Victory Medal.
“All of those were given to all participants in that particular campaign and that’s included in the count” of Marcos’ 27 medals,” he said.
Dr. Jose said, in the course of 25 years he managed to interview “quite a lot of Bataan veterans.” He confirmed that various veterans he interviewed had mentioned spotting Marcos in Bataan in 1942 and later on in northern Philippines in 1945.
I asked him, “What did they say about Marcos?”
He replied: “Many said they saw him there. He was an intel officer. As an intel you go behind Japanese lines. You get the info where they are and you come back. You are not supposed to fight and kill. As an intel officer you don’t expose yourself to unnecessary risks because your primary duty is to get the information back.”
However, Marcos’ biography written by Hartzell Spence painted a radically different picture of Marcos.
Dr. Jose noted that according to Spence, Marcos “blew up some guns, attacked the Japanese single handedly, but Bataan veterans told me this could not have happened since it was not in his (Marcos’) person.”
He also said that “when you look at medals, you look at those which were awarded for bravery.” And for him, that was where the problem with Marcos’ medals lay. Many of his Philippine medals for bravery were awarded to him long,long after the war and a few days of each other.
Because of this, he said that “personally, I think there is some uncertainty about a number of them. So many were awarded in 1963, several on the same day – I think four. That’s why it’s really very suspicious. When you award a medal it should be as soon as possible. Why wait 15 years after the war?”
“That’s why some of the Philippine medals are not exactly convincing because of the dates they were issued. These were so far way from the war. And some of the key officers (who could vouch for or discredit Marcos’ claim) had passed away by then,” he said.
The real hero of the Battle of Bessang Pass wasn’t Marcos
Marcos claimed in his biography that his “greatest” war exploit was the victorious Battle of Bessang Pass in 1945, which led to the surrender of Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita.
This is how his official biographer Hartzell Spence portrayed how Marcos, all by his lonesome, repulsed 50 Japanese soldiers who had infiltrated the Filipino guerrillias’ defense line in Kiangan, Mountain Province at Bessang Pass:
“Sending his men back to alarm headquarters (about the surprise attack), Marcos stood alone between the attack force and its goal, a Thompson submachine gun under his arm. But now the element of surprise was with him. So confident were the enemy that their maneuver had succeeded, that they did not see Ferdinand at all. At a point-blank fifty yards, he began to shoot, killing the commanding officer with the first burst. Disorganized, the detachment regrouped and attacked, but Marcos repulsed it. For half an hour the skirmish continued, with grenades and automatic-rifle fire, but Marcos was well protected. The Japanese decided that the defense was too strong, and fell back. Still unsupported, Major Marcos counter-attacked. He had pursued the Japanese nearly two kilometers down the trail before reinforcements reached him.”
Wow! Two kilometers is quite far to walk with a Thompson submachinegun while ducking enemy fire.
But Dr. Jose told me that based on his own research and interviews, he came to the conclusion that Marcos wasn’t the hero of Bessang Pass because he wasn’t there.
I asked him to explain what he just said because I could not believe I heard it right.
Dr. Jose explained that starting in the 1960s, Marcos’ publicity machine had started calling him “the Hero of Bessang Pass.”
“But he was nowhere there. He could not have been there,” the historian said. “Bessang Pass is in Ilocos Sur. The battle was March 1945 to June 1945. His unit wasn’t there. He was claiming to be attached to another unit – it was the 14th Infantry – it wasn’t there.”
“Where was it?” I asked.
“It was somewhere else,” he said. “His particular unit – the 14th Infantry – was supposed to guard the flanks, not fight . The ones who were really in the thick of the fighting, I knew some of them and some of their children. They very vehemently said he (Marcos) was not there.”
Dr. Jose called Marcos’ credit-grabbing “a kind of injustice to the soldiers who were there.”
He explained: “One of the commanding officers there was (Conrado) Rigor. I missed (interviewing) him but I met his son and daughter.” Rigor wrote The Road to Bessang Pass [Note: This book is only available at the University of the Philippines main libarary in Diliman Campus.]
Dr. Jose concluded: “The Marcos side distorted things because the real hero of Bessang Pass was Rigor and others, not Marcos.”
“That was a great injustice” which two other books written by war veterans Ernesto Rodriguez and Bonifacio Gillego also pointed out, ” he said.
Dr. Jose explained that Rodriguez (who later wrote for Bulletin newspaper) was a guerrilla who operated in Northern Philippines and wrote a book entitled The Bad Guerrillas of Northern Luzon : a memoir of the Japanese Occupation in the Philippines.
“He was quite critical of Marcos’ claims as a guerrilla. He portrayed the other side of the guerrillas in the north.
Apparently, Marcos was enraged when the opposition tabloid We Forum serialized it, then published it as a book. Marcos shut down We Forum and had all copies of Rodriguez’ book seized. “Even I don’t have a real copy. Just a xerox copy. I think that was 1982,” he said. [NOTE – an E-book version of this book can be purchased online through this site.]
Fort Santiago survivors were also angered by Marcos’ claims of being one of them
In the course of his extensive research on the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines, Dr. Jose said that whenever he talked to survivors of Fort Santiago they would angrily denounce Marcos’ claims of having been jailed and tortured there.
Hartzell Spence records in Marcos’ biography that the latter had an out of body experience that enabled him to bear his torture:
“When he awoke, he was no longer in his body, but outside it somehow, looking down upon his own suffering, not feeling it, a spectator at his own misery.”
This is the same tale his wife Imelda is fond of repeating.
But Dr. Jose said he did not meet anyone who was able to confirm Marcos’ presence. “Some of the Filipinos who survived Fort Santiago vehemently deny that. They said he was never there and these were people who were there who formed an association of survivors of Fort Santiago.”
He said that during Martial Law, a marker suddenly appeared in Fort Santiago listing the names of prominent people who were jailed there. “Marcos’ name was there. Someone I knew said they (the survivors) were very angry, so angry they wrote the Intramuros Administration to take it down just after Martial Law.” He doesn’t know if it’s still there today.
I asked Dr. Jose to name some of the Fort Santiago survivors he had personally interviewed. Off the bat, he said he had talked to the late Edmundo Navarro, a Philippine Army officer in northern Luzon.
“He (Navarro) said Marcos could not have been there. They knew more or less who was there.”
“Another was Raul Manglapus,” who later became senator. Dr. Jose recalled that Manglapus had some sort of a scar near one eye – a memento of his torture days in Fort Santiago.
Why Marcos is not a hero
In summary, Marcos claimed he showed extraordinary bravery in at least three specific instances: The battle at the junction of Salian River and Abo-Abo River” from January 22 to 26, 1942; the Battle of Bessang Pass in April 1945; and his incarceration in Fort Santiago starting on the night of August 4, 1942. Marcos’ biography does not say when he was released. All these instances have always been under a cloud and questioned by fellow veterans.
In contrast, the brave acts of other World War II heroes like Sgt. Jose Calugas
and pilot Jesus Villamor have never been questioned. Villamor personally received the Distinguished Service Cross from General Douglas MacArthur and has a photograph to show for it.
I asked Dr. Jose whether based on the fact that he is a war veteran and based on these three acts of extraordinary bravery, Marcos is entitled to be buried at Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery). He replied:
“The problem is, alright , he was a soldier and a president. He had some moments of heroism. The problem is, this does not outweigh the impact that his Martial Law period did. You don’t gauge a hero simply because of what he did during the war. You have to look at the totality.”
“You may be a World War II hero but if you squander your life afterward and you cause more ruin and harm afterward…”
“You can be a hero one day and a coward another day and shot. That happened before. I think Napoleon shot one of his officers who was very brave one day. The next day he disobeyed one of the orders. There are cases like that. “
When I reminded him that Marcos loyalists always argue he’s a hero because he built numerous hospitals, buildings, roads and bridges, Dr. Jose replied:
“Yes, but at what cost? What did we do to pay for that? How much are we still paying today? How much are we in debt? Was it worth crushing free speech and expression of opinion to achieve that? I knew people who were on the other side who didn’t survive. Some of them were my classmates in Philippine Science High.”
“I’m really very surprised why this Marcos thing should come out at this time. There are a lot more important problems to solve.”
But what about General Angelo Reyes who was recently buried a hero?
Dr. Jose replied, “I’ve heard that comment. Some people are just too quick to bury people there without recognizing there are other implications.”
Finally, I asked Dr. Jose who should decide who is a hero. He said:
“It’s not something done through popularity. I think there should be key basics for one to be classified as a hero. When you talk about Rizal or Bonifacio, what do you use to measure them as heroes? The key basics are nationalism, selflessness, patriotism, courage, and really working for the Filipino people without any selfish motives. Being a real patriot. Placing country above self.”
“Did Marcos not do that?” I asked.
Dr. Jose replied with a question:
“Did he do that during Martial Law? When he declared Martial Law, was that really for the country or for self-preservation?
Statement of Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte:
On the Medal of Valor conferred on former President Ferdinand Marcos on October 1958
[Released on April 12, 2011]
President Marcos’ citation for the Medal of Valor was issued October 16, 1958 (General Order No. 167) during the administration of President Carlos P. Garcia when Marcos was still a Representative of the 1st District of Ilocos Norte by order of the Secretary of National Defense, signed by Lt. Gen Alfonso Arellano, AFP Chief of Staff. The Medal of Valor is conferred by authority of the President of the Philippines. The Regulations concerning its conferment are Armed Forces of the Philippines Regulations G131-053 (See 1-6A, Section II, Chapter 1) issued 1 July 1986.
On a historical note, the controversies concerning President Marcos’ awards as researched by historian Al McCoy and the late Bonifacio Gillego concern, in the main, his U.S. awards. Philippine awards remain post-war conferments during the time Marcos began his public life up to his being Senate President (in 1947 the Gold Cross medal when he was a technical assistant to President Roxas, in 1948 when he was conferred the Distinguished Conduct Star, The Philippine Legion of Honor by President Quirino in 1950, First Bronze Anahaw Leaf to the Distinguished Conduct Star, The Distinguished Service Star, First, Second, and Third Bronze Anahaw Leaves to the Gold Cross from October to December 1963 by President Macapagal; only the Second Bronze Anahaw Leaf to the Distinguished Conduct Star were awarded while Marcos was President, in 1983).
These awards continue to be on the official roster of awards of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Until otherwise revoked, the awardees continue to receive appropriate recognition. It should be noted that the Armed Forces recognizes awardees for the specific deeds that put them on the roster. The AFP’s recognition does not and cannot include subsequent actions by the recipient.
The rule of law and orderly regulation provides for the recognition given recipients of military awards. While there is public interest in the conferment of AFP awards, we should note these awards are generally viewed as nonpartisan and nonpolitical in the recognition open to all recipients given the Medal of Valor as established by law.
Concerning the issue of proposals for former President Marcos to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the Vice-President has been tasked to study the issue and decide the matter.