At ground level

A column about LIFE

Remembering my hero on Veterans Day

November is truly Dad’s month. His birthday is on the 19th. He would have been 91 years old. This Thursday is Veterans Day. I like to tell his story every chance I get. He and many others fought a great war, so we may all be free. This is for Dad and all our heroes …

Covering a Veterans Day memorial service for the newspaper one year, I heard someone speak of our World War II veterans as “the generation of heroes … ordinary people who serve as examples of what we should be,” and I remembered my hero.

Dad was a lieutenant in the Philippine Army, which at that time was part of the USAFFE (United States Armed Forces in the Far East). He fought in the Philippines against the Japanese during World War II. He was captured in Bataan and survived the infamous Death March. That’s all I knew about my dad’s war experience until many years later, when one evening, after meeting another veteran and Death March survivor in our town in Iowa, and with some prodding from my father-in-law, Dad opened the door to a part of him we had not known before.

Dad, along with other ROTC cadets, was inducted into the Philippine Army just a few months before the war. He was only 22 years old at the time. Since he had a college degree, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps and only went to the front lines when he had to take food supplies.

“It saved my life,” he said.

It was while Dad and some of his men were on a truck delivering canned goods in the Bataan peninsula that they were captured by the Japanese. When Bataan fell, Dad and the other prisoners were made to walk 60 miles in the searing heat from the battlefield to a main station and then transported to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac.

The Death March lasted from five to nine days, depending on where on the trail a prisoner began the march. There were about 75,000 Americans and Filipinos captured in Bataan. After the march, there were about 54,000 still alive. Less than half survived the internment camps.

Dad said even after many years, he would still wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares of the “heat and sweat.” He said not one day went by when he didn’t think about his friends who were killed.

Dad recalled being fed one bowl of rice a day and, sometimes, nothing at all. He was only allowed to drink water from the river, along with the horses, and he remembered it being tainted with blood. He could not sleep because he was tied back to back with another prisoner during the night.

He never forgot the burly Japanese sergeant who hit the prisoners with a stick when they walked in the middle of the road, or whenever he felt like it; the Japanese soldiers who passed them in trucks, eating watermelon, taunting and laughing as the hungry prisoners reached out for the fruits; the hot, airless cargo train that took them to the concentration camp, where he was sick with malaria one day and dysentery the next. He watched his dead campmates being wrapped in blankets and taken to unmarked graves, and he wondered when his turn would come.

Dad’s mom and sister would visit the camp daily and beg the Japanese to release him. Finally, after several months, the guards relented because he was so sick. He later hid north of Manila, listened to a short wave radio and charted the progress of the American forces until Liberation.

The young man at the Veterans Day service said the greatest part about these veterans being heroes is not only that they had fought in the war, but “it is in what they did after that should inspire us. They went on to be doctors, lawyers and teachers. They went on with their lives and continued to make ours better.”

After the war, Dad continued his studies and became a lawyer. He never practiced law; instead, he worked in advertising for the Philippines Herald newspaper. He put up his own advertising and marketing firm a few years later. Then, he and Mom went back to school and earned their graduate degrees in marriage and counseling. They became marriage and youth counselors and gave countless talks to schools and organizations. They also became weekly columnists for the Panorama, the Manila Bulletin newspaper’s Sunday magazine.

On January 23, 1993, the day Dad died, he experienced an excruciating pain in his stomach, but refused to miss a talk to hundreds of parents of elementary school children at La Consolacion College. His last words were to them: “Teach your children to pray. Don’t just tell them; show them.” As he walked out of the auditorium, he collapsed to the floor. It was quick, as if he had been snatched away.

As we grieved after his burial, I lamented on the loss of his knowledge, his wisdom, and I was so afraid I would forget him. Mom consoled me and said, “You have to have faith. All he was is passed on to all of us. He lives on in our hearts.”

It’s been 17 years since Dad died and I still remember, like it was yesterday. I miss him. I miss his warm embrace, his humor, his teasing voice, even his corny jokes. I miss his laughter, and I even miss his nagging, “Hija (Daughter), pray, pray, pray!”

That was my father, a man of great faith.

“You can’t live on prayer alone,” I, the rebel, would sometimes chastise him.

When times would get tough, he would sit on his office chair, scratch his chin, stare out the window and say, “God will provide, Hija.” Strangely as it would sometimes seem, somehow, God always did.

War leaves an indelible mark on people. The experience made Dad more sensitive, more giving toward others and more trusting in the Lord.

Veterans Day reminds us life is about faith and giving, the giving of life for country, making sacrifices so generations after can have a better life, and trusting in God. No matter the reasons for each war, all who have served their country are brave heroes. They pass on a legacy we should cherish and always remember.

Dad passed on to me the story of his life, and most of all, he passed on his strong faith in God, so when I can, I try and share it with others.

When times get tough, I find myself doing the same thing – staring out the window, scratching my chin and murmuring the same words, “God will provide,” knowing Dad and God are with me.

Here he is, grinning from ear to ear, my dad, Lt. Jose M. Meily, Jr. (far right), celebrating at a club in San Francisco, where members of the USAFFE were recognized at the end of the war. This photo was published along with a similar column of mine in one of the newspapers I worked at several years ago.

Dad, Mom and me at my school’s Parents’ Night, 1965

November 9, 2010 - Posted by | Children, Family, Life, Parenting, Religion | , , , , , , , , , ,

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