Memorial Day Thoughts from Bataan…

Memorial Day Thoughts from Bataan to Mariupol

This being Memorial Day weekend I find myself watching one after another old and new war movies on TCM – a favorite hobby of mine.

This morning I watched “They Were Expendable,” the 1945 heroic John Wayne movie about PT boat crews in the Pacific. You of a certain age will fondly remember the movie.

I watched it a couple of times before but I never paid attention to the movie’s reference to Bataan until today.

On April 9, 1942, Major Gen. Edward P. King Jr. surrendered at Bataan, Philippines, — against Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s orders — and 78,000 troops (66,000 Filipinos and 12,000 Americans), the largest contingent of U.S. soldiers ever to surrender, are taken captive by the Japanese. The prisoners were at once led 55 miles from Mariveles, on the southern end of the Bataan peninsula, to San Fernando, on what became known as the Bataan Death March. At least 600 Americans and 5,000 Filipinos died because of the extreme brutality of their Japanese captors, who starved, beat, and kicked them on the way; those who became too weak to walk were bayoneted. Those who survived were taken by rail from San Fernando to POW camps, where another 16,000 Filipinos and at least 1,000 Americans died from disease, mistreatment, and starvation.

In the movie, American sailors in a canteen heard the heart rendering announcement from a San Francisco radio program. It said the following: 

This is tragic news from the Philippines.

The white flag of surrender was hoisted on the bloody heights of Bataan this afternoon.

Thirty-six thousand United States soldiers, hungry, ragged, half-starved shadows, trapped like rats, but dying like men, were finally worn down by 200,000 picked Japanese troops.

Men who fight for an unshakeable faith are more than flesh.

But they’re not steel.

Flesh must yield at last.

Endurance melts away. The end must come.

Bataan has fallen.

But the spirit that made it stand as a beacon to all lovers of liberty will never falter.

The white flag was hardly hoisted over Bataan before Jap artillery began slamming away at Corregidor, our last strong point in the Philippines.

The obvious connection with Mariupol was clear as a bell.

After two months, three weeks and five days, the heroic Azov battalion soldiers, lacking food and medicine, tending to the wounded as well as hundreds of civilians were encouraged or ordered to surrender on May 20, 2022. Ukrainian patriots stood their ground and fought to the last man, holed up in the city-sized basement of the Azovstal steel mill. Fighting to the last ounce of blood is part of the Ukrainians’ genetic makeup – remember of cyborgs at the Donetsk airport.

Yuriy Butusov, the editor-in-chief of Censor.NET, in his Facebook page cited a message written by a friend in Mariupol who serves in the Azov Regiment. “Thanks to them, Mariupol will never be a Russian victory. It will never be a victim and a place of Russian power, it is not Kruty. It will always be a city of Ukrainian victory and a symbol of Ukrainian invincible strength.”

Apparently he was not rejecting victory at all costs, even the cost of the defenders’ lives, he was rejecting the concept of defeat, conquest by the Russian invaders. Mariupol is another Ukrainian word in the centuries-long string of wars and battles that reaffirm Ukrainians’ aspiration to live freely, independently, sovereignly, democratically as far away from Russia as possible. It joins similar words and stories in foreign languages that tell the story of victory even in defeat.

“The defenders of Mariupol have long since crossed the line of endurance and sacrifice – they have created new ones, and this is incredible in the 21st century,” Butusov wrote.

President Zelenskyy explained Ukraine wanted to take away the wounded from Mariupol but Russian forces would not let them. “We wanted to take away the wounded. We talked about it being a humanitarian mission. Give us the wounded back,” he said. “We even made plans for Turkey to be a mediator and get the wounded, civilians and the military. They don’t let them out because we understand Russia just wants to shoot them dead.”

Butusov’s friend continued: “I understand. We all understand everything and are ready for anything. In any case, we will not give up.”

“Thanks to them, Mariupol will never be a Russian victory. It will never be a victim and a place of Russian power, it is not Kruty. It will always be a city of Ukrainian victory and a symbol of Ukrainian invincible strength.

“Russia has many weapons, but Ukraine has something that Russians are not capable of – to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their people, to fight for honor, to fight when there is no strength, and only the will allows you to fight no matter what. Mariupol – this word now weighs a lot, explains a lot.

Because its defenders created a new modern epic. Because they create the history of our world. Because they are Ukrainians.”

Now begins the Mariupol Death March. The Russians have taken the wounded and living soldiers and transported them to imprisonment. Based on Russia’s merciless historical behavior and its heinous conduct in this war, it’s a given that imprisonment for them will be worse than fighting and dying in battle against Russian invaders. They’ve already rejected prisoner exchanges in favor of cynically placing the Ukrainian combatants on trial.

The fall of Mariupol, the site of the merciless seven-week-old siege that has reduced much of the city to a smoking ruin, would be Moscow’s biggest victory of the war. But don’t count on it – the spirit that made Mariupol stand as a beacon to all lovers of liberty will never falter.

As after Bataan, when Gen. MacArthur promised that he shall return, so too today, Ukrainian servicemen and women – the whole nation if necessary – will return, vanquish and expel the criminal Russian invaders from all of Ukraine.