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Filipino Bataan Death March survivors mark 75th anniversary

| Saturday, April 8, 2017, 4:24 p.m.
A JROTC member from Lowell High School in San Francisco salutes during a wreath laying ceremony for the 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March at the Presidio's World War II West Coast Memorial Saturday, April 8, 2017, in San Francisco. On Saturday a dwindling band of veterans of the war were at the Presidio to honor the soldiers who died on the march and those who made it to a prisoner of war camp only to die there. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
From left, Retired U.S. Major Gen. Antonio Taguba, Brig. Gen Brently White of the U.S. Army Reserves, and Philippine Consul General Henry Bensurto salute during a wreath laying ceremony for the 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March at the Presidio's World War II West Coast Memorial Saturday, April 8, 2017, in San Francisco. On Saturday a dwindling band of veterans of the war were at the Presidio to honor the soldiers who died on the march and those who made it to a prisoner of war camp only to die there. They'll also commemorate the mostly Filipino soldiers who held off Japanese forces in the Philippines for three months without supplies of food or ammunition before a U.S. army major surrendered 75,000 troops to Japan on April 9, 1942. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Thursday, April 6, 2017, Bataan Death March survivor Ramon Regalado walks with Cecilia Gaerlan outside his home in El Cerrito, Calif. Survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines are marking the anniversary Saturday, in San Francisco, with speeches and a 21-gun battery salute to the thousands who died in it. Among the speakers will be Regalado, a former wartime machine-gun operator who turns 100 this month and is among the war's few living survivors. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
In this photo taken Thursday, April 6, 2017, Bataan Death March survivor Ramon Regalado reminisces at his home in El Cerrito, Calif. Survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines are marking the anniversary in San Francisco with speeches and a 21-gun battery salute for the thousands who died during the march. Among the speakers will be Regalado, a former wartime machine-gun operator who turns 100 this month and is among the war's few living survivors. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
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In this 1942 file photo American and Filipino prisoners of war captured by the Japanese are shown at the start of the Death March after the surrender of Bataan on April 9 near Mariveles in the Philippines, during World War II.
In this photo taken Thursday, April 6, 2017, Bataan Death March survivor Ramon Regalado holds his decorated hat at his home in El Cerrito, Calif. Survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines are marking the anniversary in San Francisco with speeches and a 21-gun battery salute to the thousands who died in it. Among the speakers will be Regalado, a former wartime machine-gun operator who turns 100 this month and is among the war's few living survivors. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

SAN FRANCISCO — Ramon Regalado was starving and sick with malaria when he slipped away from his Japanese captors during the infamous 1942 Bataan Death March in the Philippines, escaping a brutal trudge through steamy jungle that killed hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos who fought for the United States during World War II.

On Saturday, the onetime machine-gun operator joined a dwindling band of veterans of the war in San Francisco's Presidio to honor the soldiers who died on the march and those who made it to a prisoner of war camp only to die there.

They commemorated the mostly Filipino soldiers who held off Japanese forces in the Philippines for three months without supplies of food or ammunition before a U.S. Army major surrendered 75,000 troops to Japan on April 9, 1942.

Few Americans are aware of the Filipinos who were starving as they relentlessly fended off the more powerful and well-supplied Japanese forces, said Cecilia Gaerlan, executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Bataan Legacy Historical Society that organized the event at the former military fort.

“Despite fighting without any air support and without any reinforcement, they disrupted the timetable of the Imperial Japanese army,” she said. “That was their major role, to perform a delaying action. And they did that beyond expectations.”

More than 250,000 Filipino soldiers served in World War II, when the Philippines was a U.S. territory. But after the war ended, President Harry Truman signed laws that stripped away promises of benefits and citizenship for Filipino veterans.

Only recently have they won back some concessions and acknowledgment, including the nation's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. The veterans also received lump-sum payments as part of the 2009 stimulus law.

An estimated 18,000 Filipino veterans of World War II are living in the United States.

Tens of thousands of Filipino and American troops were forced on the 65-mile march. Gaerlan said as many as 650 Americans and 10,000 Filipinos died in stifling heat and at the hands of Japanese soldiers who shot, bayoneted or beat soldiers who fell or stopped for water.

More than 80 percent of those forced to march were Filipino.

After the prisoners arrived at a camp set up at Camp O'Donnell, Gaerlan said, 1,600 Americans and 20,000 Filipinos died from dysentery, starvation and disease.

Gaerlan grew up knowing that her father, Luis Gaerlan Jr., had been in a wartime march in which a lot of people died. But he rarely spoke about it, or he would re-enact it with rat-a-tat-tat sound effects for the guns that made her laugh.

She started researching the march in 2011 and tried to elicit more details from her father. He broke down crying, telling her that some men were so desperate that they killed themselves. Others wrote goodbye letters to their relatives during the march.

“And he said he was starting to write his farewell letter, because a lot of men did that, and I asked him, ‘Well, were you going to take your own life?' ” she said. “And he didn't answer.”

Gaerlan's father died in 2014 at 94.

She successfully lobbied California last year to mandate teaching details of the battle and march in high schools.

She is racing to collect stories from march veterans before they die, including the memories of 99-year-old Regalado, who lives in the San Francisco suburb of El Cerrito.

When the war broke out, Regalado was a member of the Philippine Scouts, a military branch of the U.S. Army for Filipino soldiers.

He and two other soldiers were assigned to feed horses during the march and slipped away when guards were not watching them, Regalado said.

A farmer took in the three, even though the penalty for doing so was death. All were sick with malaria. Only Regalado survived.

He went on to join a guerrilla resistance movement against the Japanese.

Regalado, who moved in 1950 to the San Francisco Bay Area to work for the U.S. military, credits his survival and long life to his high morale.

While being cared for by the farmer, he recalls telling himself: “I'm not going to die.”

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