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Battling the Devil in the Death March


By Andrew Fowler

Philippines Knights risked their lives to help POWs of the Bataan Death March

The Bataan Death March Memorial in Las Cruces, New Mexico

Japanese forces invaded the Philippines not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For three-months, American and Filipino troops (many of them members of the Knights of Columbus) held the Bataan Peninsula on the Philippine island of Luzon until they were overwhelmed. General Jonathan  Wainwright, commander of Allied forces in the Philippines, surrendered the peninsula.

Over loud speakers, General Wainwright told U.S. and Filipino soldiers to lay down their arms. When they did, the nearly 75,000 men became prisoners of war.

Then the “Bataan Death March began.”

Thousands of U.S. and Philippines soldiers died as they were forced to march 65 miles from Mariveles to San Fernando. Thousands more died in the San Fernando prison camps, which included the infamous Camp O’Donnell.

Prisoners were starved and beaten. To save ammunition, if a prisoner fell down, they were bayoneted instead of being shot by Japanese soldiers. Knights were among the POWs, including Sergeant John Earle — a member of Valley Council 23 in Ansonia, Conn. — who escaped the march only to be captured again by the Japanese at Corregidor where remaining U.S. forces had continued to resist after the fall of Bataan.

Jesuit Father George Willmann wrote that a “pall of gloom and sadness, worse than the clouds of smoke from the burning military posts, hung over the city.” It seemed impossible for the Knights of Columbus to survive (in the Philippines) after the surrender of Bataan on April 9, 1942, Father Willmann noted in the December 1947 issue of Columbia.

But since the Order expanded to the Philippines in 1905, Knights had dedicated themselves to serving those most in need. Father Willmann called their mandate of putting faith into action as “Battling the Devil.”

And that is what they did during the Bataan Death March.

Tony Escoda, a member of Manilia Council 1000, was not among the prisoners, but he couldn’t stand aside watching the brutality. He slipped past Japanese guards, pretending to be a doctor. He brought water to them and bound their wounds. But he was soon found out. He and his wife were taken to several prison camps. After entering Old Bilibid Prison, they were never seen again.

Escoda’s brother Knight Enrique Albert also made the ultimate sacrifice. Described as “valiant, even reckless,” Albert led underground efforts to smuggle medicines and other supplies to Camp O’Donnell. Albert also established and managed the K of C Rest House that cared for relatives of prisoners, as well as the “broken-bodied” soldiers when they were finally released. He too was later imprisoned and executed by the Japanese.

Benito Soliven suffered the same fate as a result of his bravery as his other brother Knights. A successful politician, Soliven professed his faith publicly as an orator at the Feast of Christ the King parish in Tondo. But after the fall of Bataan, he was also a prisoner at Camp O’Donnell.

Japanese guards offered him a deal: Join the new government or be tortured. Soliven said, “No. I have never been compromised. I do not want to begin compromising now.”

He added that, “If I accept your offer, I will have to do whatever you say. I don’t want to do that. I will get out of this camp when everybody else gets out.”

Soliven was eventually released, but died soon after due to disease. He was buried by his fellow Knights.

The actions of these men who battled back against tyranny during World War II inspired other Filipino Catholic men to join the Order and put their faith into action by caring for the sick, the needy and the imprisoned and so much more. Today, the Knights of Columbus in the Philippines has grown to more than 426,000 members.

Knights are called to boldly put their faith into action. Click here to join today.

Share your story with andrew.fowler@kofc.org