We had heard multiple times, read through our history books, and known forever how American and Filipino soldiers fought side by side against the Japanese when they invaded the Philippines during World War II and how they marched to their demise in what was known as the Bataan Death March. What we don’t know was that a group of unexpected heroes were also there, defending the country that they also loved as their own: the Czech fighters of Bataan. Here’s their story.
Started With Shoes
Their heroism had an unlikely beginning: shoes. In the 1930s, the Bata shoe company, originally from Czechoslovakia, started operating a factory and opening its first retail store in the Philippines. According to their website, the T. & A. Bata Shoe Company was originally established by Tomáš, Anna, and Antonín Baťa who were siblings and the eighth generation of a family of shoemakers from Zlin, Czechoslovakia. In 1938, they established two outlets in Manila that were operated from Singapore. Just a year after, the number of shops boomed to 22. A group of Czech workers traveled to the Philippines to work on the stores and the factory.
The company changed its name in 1940, Gerbec-Hrdina Co. Limited, from Ludvik Gerbec and Jaroslav Hrdina, who were employees of Bata. This was to ensure their differentiation from the main Bata company in Zlin. Everything was going well as far as their business was concerned until the Japanese forces came flooding the shores of the country, and the next thing they knew, their production was halted.
Braving the War
The Czechs who were sent to work in the shoe company could have easily fled to safer areas. They could have asked the embassy to take them back to their country, or at least lay low and hope and be invisible for the rest of the war while they hide. Japan was not at war with Czechoslovakia which was a protectorate of Nazi Germany in 1942 so they would have been left unmolested by Japanese forces. Whatthey did instead was take up arms and volunteer instead to fight side by side with the Filipino and American forces just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor that day of December 8, 1941.
It was not just the Bata workers that chose to defend the country. The staff of the Honorary Consulate of Czechoslovakia, which opened its doors in Manila in 1927, volunteered too. Apart from them, there were also a few Jewish refugees who originally fled from their countries when the Nazis occupied them.
At one point, according to Czech Embassy in Manila,
Though civilians, they became known in Bataan for at one point, spending more than 36 hours exposed to enemy fire while dismantling a rice mill to take back to joint Philippine and US troops in desperate need of food. For this heroism they were later awarded the US Medal of Freedom.
The small group of foreign volunteers fought gallantly and suffered losses. Although, some were captured as prisoners of war and forced to march to their demise in that notorious Bataan Death March from Bataan (Bagac and Mariveles) to Capas, Tarlac, when they walked approximately 65 miles under the scorching heat of the tropical sun. Almost half of them died. The rest that survived were not allowed to return to the then communist Czechoslovakia and died before they were given any sort of recognition from their country.
As Deputy Head of the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Manila, Jan Vytopil said,
We appreciate that in those dark days, both the Philippines and USA have never forgotten who helped them in times of need and awarded the Czechs with medals they deserved.
The Last Survivor
Karel Aster was one of those Czech volunteers and among the last of those who survived. He was awarded the Gratias Agit Award in 2014. It was the highest civilian recognition given by the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs to those who “committed themselves to work for the benefit of society, for the promotion of friendship among nations, and for the promotion of the Czech Republic in the world.” The following year, he was awarded the Medal of Victory and the Medal of Defense for his service during the war given by the Secretary of National Defense.
He shared his experience in a letter dated November 10, 1945, both as a volunteer and as a prisoner of war. He said in a letter addressed to his parents,
The conditions were so terrible it is hard for me to describe them… We no longer behaved as human beings and the only thing that helped us survive was one’s instinct for self-preservation. It shows the human can endure more than most animals.
A special memorial was erected for them at the Capas National Shrine in Tarlac to preserve the memory of how these people gave their lives for the country.
Karel Aster passed away on August 13, 2017.