For many in the United States, the name Marcos draws the image of Imelda and her closets of shoes, and her heyday with her late husband, Ferdinand, the ousted president who held a tight grip on Philippine politics for 20 years.
This is the backdrop of a wave of anger sweeping the Philippines, after current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte allowed Ferdinand Marcos — who died in exile, having fled to Hawaii after a disputed election ended his corrupt and brutal 20-year regime — to be buried in the Philippines’ Heroes’ Cemetery for his service in World War II.
The protests continue to swell, along with the burning question, “Is Marcos truly a hero deserving this burial?”
Why — more than 70 years after World War II and 25 years after Marcos’ death — is this such a big deal? The answer has connections both to President Duterte’s current power plays in Philippine politics and to a historic flag sitting in a bank vault here in Seattle.
A disputed hero of war
From his first days in power in 1965, Marcos’ propaganda machinery crafted an image of a president to be admired: a sterling lawyer with a beautiful wife and a history of leading troops in a victorious battle in World War II. The third claim was questionable.
Stories, and even a movie, were produced by his spinmeisters, extolling him as a war hero for leading a fictitious Maharlika guerilla group. One of the books published about Marcos’ life, “For Every Tear a Victory,” asserted that Marcos and this (nonexistent) Maharlika group fought in the infamous Battle of Bessang Pass.
To understand the importance of this battle, U.S. war records depict it as one of the most compelling in the Philippines during World War II.
“At Bessang Pass…the ultimate honor, indeed, belongs to the immortal Fil-Americans who died the glorious death so that the Philippines might be redeemed,” wrote Col. Russell Volckmann, the Commanding Officer of the United States Armed Forces in the Philippines—Northern Luzon.
Evidence casts doubt on Marcos’ Maharlika tale of being at Bessang Pass.
According to Rico Jose, a World War II historian at the University of the Philippines, Marcos was assigned as an intelligence officer and never served in any armed encounters. But for 20 years in the Philippines, there was little countering of the narrative that he led the troops there, and books written by other veterans of the war that contradicted that claim were banned.
This is what really happened: the 3rd Battalion of the 121st Infantry led by my late father Major Conrado B. Rigor — along with the “bolo men” guerillas who were indigenous to the mountain region of Bessang Pass — spearheaded the final assault against the Japanese stronghold. This victory in Bessang was not official until the Americans arrived.
Nevertheless, the Filipino soldiers, in hot pursuit along the ridges of the Cordillera mountains, continued and eventually forced the surrender of Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, known as the “Tiger of Malaya.”
Bessang was the battle that Marcos wanted to be remembered by, despite no evidence that he was there.
It was also at this battle that Japanese Admiral Kyoguro Shimamoto surrendered to my father and gave him the Japanese Imperial flag flown on Pearl Harbor that fateful Dec. 8, 1941. This flag is proof of who really led that infantry to victory.
Today’s echoes of the past
Instead of being displayed as a physical reminder of the real Filipino heroes of World War II, including my father, that flag is in storage in Seattle.
In a gesture of peace and closure, my family had initially tried to return the flag to the family of Admiral Shimamoto, who raised the Imperial flag on Pearl Harbor, and later assigned to the Philippines to defend Bessang Pass. But Shimamoto’s family declined and we respected that.
We tried to donate it to the National Park Service for display at Pearl Harbor. We hoped it would be used to commemorate the role of Filipinos in World War II. We wanted to remind the world of the Filipino victory in the battle of Bessang Pass, along with the widely remembered losses at Bataan and Corregidor. But we were told we wouldn’t have control over the display of the artifact, so my family decided to hold on to the flag for now.
But today in the Philippines, Marcos has a place of honor in a cemetery for national heroes and people are protesting Duterte’s allegiance to the Marcos family. The Marcos family, who are once again in the Philippines and holding elected offices, supported Duterte during his campaign for presidency. It’s payback time.
Thirty years after Ferdinand Marcos’ ouster, his family seeks to re-establish its dynasty. Marcos’ 20-year presidency pushed a people’s endurance to survive a system based on excessive cronyism, enriching the few, especially his relatives and friends and enforced through a cadre of close military strongmen.
Ferdinand’s only son, Ferdinand Jr., is being groomed to lead the nation. He lost his bid for the vice presidency, but he perhaps has an opening through Duterte’s continuous discrediting of the currently elected Vice President Leni Robredo, who is from an opposition party.
Duterte turned the matter over to the Philippine Supreme Court, which allowed the burial to proceed in spite of widespread opposition, especially from the student population. The burial of his ashes took place in complete secrecy, in a manner that fuels more questions than answers. Duterte was not in the country at the time.
The burial of Ferdinand Marcos at the Heroes’ Cemetery is an attempt to bury the demons of his past so it can pave the young Marcos back in power, unblemished.
In the meantime, the debate behind the Marcos claim to heroism intensely rages on. And the flag, in all its faded glory, remains intact, waiting to be displayed, to finally honor the true Filipino heroes of that battle.