Most of the veterans have died or are too sick or fragile to travel to a memorial service Sunday in Maywood meant to honor their sacrifices in the infamous Bataan Death March. And yet, at a time when many veterans groups struggle, organizers still expect their biggest turnout ever for what has been an annual event in the near west suburb for the past 70 years.
In 1941, Maywood sent 89 men to be part of Company B in the 192nd Tank Battalion. Fewer than half of those soldiers came back when World War II ended.
“We’ve done all we can to keep it going and make it grow and we’ve made it happen,” said retired Maj. Edwin Walker IV, one of the memorial’s planners. The celebration — one of two held in the area annually in honor of American and Filipino soldiers who died — has grown dramatically in recent years thanks to the Internet, partnership with the area’s Filipino-American community and a local high school that encouraged students to study the area’s past.
“We are very much involved so that the bravery, heroism, gallantry and sacrifice of these American and Filipino soldiers during the war will always be remembered,” said Orontes Castro, deputy consul general for the Philippine Consulate in Chicago. In November 1941, the young soldiers from Maywood arrived in the Philippines for what they thought would be training. Instead they quickly found themselves in one of the first battles of World War II in the Pacific. Soldiers fought for months under grueling conditions — scarce food, equipment and medicine and rampant illness such as malaria, scurvy and dysentery.
On April 9, 1942, U.S. and Philippine troops surrendered to Japanese forces and were forced to march 70 miles to a prison camp.
An estimated 700 Americans and 10,000 Filipinos died during the march.
Over the next 31/2 years of captivity, an additional 7,000 Americans died in the POW camp.
Maywood’s first memorial service honoring the soldiers in Bataan was organized in 1942 by a group of mothers in anguish over their missing sons. Memorials have been held the second weekend in September ever since.
For several decades, veterans who served in the 192ndBattalion returned to be a part of the memorials.
In the 1990s, a research project developed by two Proviso East teachers helped compile the biographies of 344 local men as well as those from other states who were part of the battalion. But as often happens, appreciation faded as veterans died and memories dimmed, said retired Col. Richard McMahon, Jr., president of the Maywood Bataan Day Organization.
To refocus attention on the story, McMahon and other organizers reached out to some Chicago residents sure to feel a strong connection to the event — Filipino-Americans. By working with the Philippine Consulate in Chicago, Maywood organizers sent hundreds of letters to Filipino organizations in Chicago, alerting them to the annual memorial. They also contacted three local Filipino-American newspapers.
The outreach worked. Maywood officials expect to see up to 20 veterans this year from Filipino-American Veteran Legion Post 509, many of whom were in Bataan during World War II.
“There was so much intermingling of the blood of these heroes that we would never do it any other way,” McMahon said.
The partnership also increased the American presence at the Filipino “Day of Valor” observed each year on or around April 9, the anniversary of the fall of Bataan.
“One is the continuation of the other,” Castro said. “They are linked together by bravery.”
The Maywood Bataan Day Memorial Service will begin at 3 p.m. at Maywood Veterans Memorial Park at First Avenue and Oak Street.
Organizers say they are heartened to know that the memorial service has continued for 70 years.
“I hope it means people are starting to wake up and see that the freedom they enjoy is because these folks were willing to fight,” Walker said.