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Vol. V,    No. 19      June 19 - 25, 2005      Quezon City, Philippines











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The Real Heroes of Bessang Pass
Remembering the first Filipino military victory in World War II

On 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

Photo from myislandsphilippines.com

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 forces.

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 Baguio.

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 killed.

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 soldiers

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 the Philippines 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 Bessang Pass.

From the Filipino community in the United States – we salute you! Bulatlat




© 2004 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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