WORLD WAR II veteran Don T. Schloat might be 86 years old, but he’s still very healthy and well. Looking at him would tell you he was really good looking during his youth.
I was excited to meet him because I was told he was once imprisoned at Plaza Cuartel, which was utilized as a garrison by the Japanese in early 40’s, just a few blocks away from where we live in Jose Abad Santos Street.
History isn’t one of my passion — well, not at least until June 12 this year, the Philippines’ 109th Independence Day which we also celebrated here in Palawan. I managed the event under the Writers’ Pool and Events Management of the City, and since then, I’ve been converted.
For me, history’s only a subject I needed to learn in high school and pass in college as it’s a prerequisite to getting a degree in political science. Other than that, I don’t really spend time reading books about history a lot. Although, I must say I like old things and stuff like antique potteries, paintings, sculptures, etcetera. When I visit new places, the first thing I always want to do is visit museums and be awed by old, old things I see.
So why not a love affair with history? After all, it is said, “a country without a memory is a country of madmen.” In my case, if I don’t know anything about the country’s history, I’m a madwoman. I don’t want to be that.
Lamartine said “histoy teaches everything including the future” and I believe that. Here’s another I strongly believe now, which is a version of that, “knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present.” Right!
History is important, even in tracing certain illnesses in the family, or in the discovery of our own personal roots. We shouldn’t really be strange to it.
Don, at age 19, became a prisoner of war during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in 1942 when Bataan fell. That year, he was a medical corps man escorting patients to a POW prison camp in Manila. HBO.com related his war story, and it said during one of their movements, they were separated from their patients and were sent to a POW camp in Cabanatuan, Central Luzon.
At the prison camp, 300 of them were recruited to go to Puerto Princesa to construct an air field for the Japanese. They stayed at Plaza Cuartel. He said the Japanese gave the POWs a difficult life inside the garrison, all they could talk about was escape. In February 1943, Don with two others escaped from Plaza Cuartel and walked along thick mangrove forests, but they were caught. They were brought inside a school in front of the Catholic church and were interrogated there. There was a Filipino man who knew how to speak Japanese and other languages and he was interpreting for them.
But the interpreter would often twist what they were saying, and they would be beaten for them. I believe they were called “Makapili?” They were sent back to Manila later for Japanese court martial. About the same period in Puerto Princesa, on December 14, 1944, fearing that the American forces would repatriate the POWs, the Japanese soldiers ordered them into air raid shelters they built, doused gasoline on them and set them afire also with the use of hand grenades. Those who were able to escape were “gunned down, bayoneted, decapitated and clubbed to death.”
The Japanese court martial sentenced Don to 5 years isolated imprisonment. He related that they were kept in pairs inside 8×6-meter prison cells and were ordered not to talk to each other. A Japanese guard would always check on them to enforce this silent isolation. They were each ordered to face the wall, only two feet away, and their arms were not allowed to touch the ground. He slept in the same place at nighttime.
“Food was scarce in the prison camp so we were all feeling the symptoms of malnutrition,” he said, adding he himself nearly died because of it, but he was brought to a POW hospital. When he was well enough, he was ordered back to the Japanese prison camp to resume his sentence.
Details of Don’s story is compiled in a book which he had written sometime ago. Mrs. Ellen M. Hagedorn, wife of Mayor Edward S. Hagedorn, now has a copy of his book.
Last week, news of Don’s visit 65 years later spread fast in Puerto Princesa. I saw and met many ex-pats I haven’t seen before (I really don’t go out a lot) who were also excited to meet him.
It was Dr. Linda Ganapin, vice-president for academic affairs of Palawan State University, who spotted him a couple of days ago at Plaza Cuartel. She spoke to him and to her surprise, found out he’s one of the 11 names listed in a marker that was built in the plaza in memory of the fallen American POWs.
Information about Don is in this website http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Plains/5850/prisoners.html in case anyone’s interested.
I’m just excited that I was able to meet someone who’d be able to confirm what happened in the plaza during WWII. He said he’s still overwhelmed by the fact that there are Palaweños who are interested about what happened to him and the other POWs, and it would take him a while before they all sink in.