Note: This is a work of fiction, based on true historical facts.
The year 1918 came when Fort Stotsenburg was renamed Clark Air Field and hosted, aside from the US Cavalry in the Pacific, the new US 13th Air Force and with it came hordes of aircrafts for military aviation and thousands of motorized vehicle support groups. Chuck knew of this change and that it would be inevitable as these mechanized monsters have been sweeping America before his infantry left San Francisco seven years ago, only the reality of it surprised him that it was as soon when it became so real.
Noisy, lumbering and smelly machines more powerful than six-horse wagon teams able to carry in half the time, flying and crawling, carrying thrice the number of guns that were a hundred fold more lethal, came a mechanized army needing no heroes. What have the world come to? Asked Chuck to himself looking at the cars, trucks and aircrafts posing unreal and lifeless chucks of steel on fort’s the parade grounds. Machine guns shinning, ammunitions and bombs amassed, staring back at him and at his ward of soldier horses almost mockingly. Each piece of equipment mounted with machine guns capable of discharging six hundred rounds of ammunition per minute were equivalent to 250 rifle men and the US War Department deemed each automobile to be more than equal to a hundred equines. Walking a horse in front of the motorized review, the automobiles seemingly jeering in silence, secretly looking down at them with contempt like an enemy hailing their defeat. Chuck cannot help but feel that. Even the horse he was riding cannot hide its disdain at his steel replacements.
As days went by, hosts upon hosts of these motorized carriages poured in until the American Military in the Pacific became nothing but that. Horseless steel carriages and cloth skinned flying contraptions. Each stable got retrofitted for the service of these machines and were designated as car pools while the horses took on the open ranges. Of the thirty thousand strong Stable of the US Army in the Pacific, only two hundred horses were shipped back to America. Some horses found transfer to civil assignments such as the Post Office and the Electric Company but only a meager fraction got lucky. The rest were slaughtered, tens of thousands were mowed down by the very same machine guns that replaced them, buried in mass graves acres and acres where they once grazed. The horses neighed as bucketful of bullets ripped through muscles and bones. The sunlight reflected glints of red blood in honorable submission until the last. No taps were played. Bulldozers buried them in forgetfulness back into the earth sealed by their own blood.
Only Clark Air Field kept a handful as recreation animals for the Officers’ Polo Club. There was nothing that can be done except lament and weep in secret. The killing of the horses to give way for progress scarred Chuck more than he can ever admit. He found himself in tears, against all known military ethos, chilled to the bones as he tended to the remaining heads of his herd. Such was the way. He wondered if ever time will come when he, too, will suffer the same fate as the regal fighting horses but until then he can only gasp to all hopes against hope.
As the horse took the back stage in the military arsenal, way way back and so did the people with equine training. One by one, the soldiers were re-trained to the way of the machines and the gallantry of horse-mounted raiders took on to the chivalry of military aviation. The Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny” biplanes spurted across the Air Field’s skyline training machine guns and lobbing grenades on mock targets with devastating efficiency. The flying Jennies also became the “eyes” of ground forces when it became the uttermost reconnaissance and gave the battery artillery unheard of precision even the bravest of horses cannot dare match, how ugly the Jennies may well be.
Chuck was not the person to be bitter but he was unmistakably disheartened, as a grave understatement of what he carried in his heart, by the fact that his ward dwindled down to four stallions and thirty mares. His troop of twenty men, young blacks all maltrained in prejudice for combat duty, served with him in the remaining stables until better assignments for manual labor came along. Although all of them came and went through the years, Chuck kept on loyal and with high affection with the horses men.
Except for the change in his routines, which ostensibly declined in importance to the fort that had absolutely been transformed into a mechanized army, Chuck decidedly maintained a rather uneventful life keeping to himself and spending much of even his free time with what was left of the horses. Life outside the base, now crowned as the jewel of Pampanga — Angeles City, remained uninteresting for him except for regular weekly trips to buy local ice cream from a shop at the south of the base’s perimeter fence he took for a treat. Mangoes and cheese were his alternate choices that half gallons of which he took out on strolls, lavishing the velvety delight, atop an equally old horse trodding leisurely under the aging steed’s own steam, spending the hours watching the landscape sprawl beneath his mount’s hooves. Occasionally, he would surprise an Aeta band or sometimes vice versa. But never an instance the Aetas stop and get friendly that always they scamper back into the thickets and always frightening his horse.
“Nah, they haven’t forgotten.” Chuck would mutter to himself remembering stories told by other infantry units how the Aetas were driven away. Some overzealous soldiers even bragged the Aetas were even excellent target practice. But it was a long, long time ago, Chuck thought, but only maybe for them soldiers, on second thought.
Years passed and the summer of 1941 was only beckoning, when the sun was just right caressing one’s face in the afternoon light, a slight breeze continuously rolling down from the hills the Americans had called Crow Valley brought cool whispers of the ending day as he lingered on, trusting his horse to find its way around, loosing himself in wandering thoughts. Chuck was with the Base’s employ for almost thirty years then that he was given the stripes of a Master Sergeant with the designation of Stable Master — a rare exemption for Negro soldiers. He was given modest quarters that he alone occupied and basic education equivalent to elementary school. His pay is more than he could spend and he then wondered how life would be more pleasant if he has a family. The thought of going home, back in Minnesota, crossed his mind several times but there was not much to go home to and his resolve became stronger as he pictured in his mind the miserable cold and snow that he wholly loathed. At least, the Philippines is warm, even when it rained it was compoundingly hot, consoling himself with the fact. And treatment of other Americans on colored comrades, being all expatriates in a foreign land, was a lot tolerable than the discrimination against Black Americans stateside again consoled his weary thoughts. As for the prospects of him getting a wife, well, he knew behind his back, people in town taunted him as an oversized Baluga, dampening his chances for a Filipino wife, fanciful and hardworking as they may be. But all were fine and dandy for the unbelievably Christian Chuck compelled and satisfied in the Lord’s keep.
Chuck recognized several Aeta faces he stumbled on that afternoon. They were the group of Balugas who also deliver firewood at the ice cream shop where he regularly hauls his supply. Looking back, he saw no sign of them but he was sure they were watching him from the darkness of the bush forest. He took a deep breath and tried to hold it as long as he could: the smell of summer grass, wild flowers and the ever-present tinge of horse sweat.
Rumors had been around and lately talks became louder and wider about an impending war. Never giving it serious thought but the radio on commercial broadcasts have been blaring on the possibility that Japan may be launching an offensive against all of Asia after invading the province of Manchuria in China but that has been some ten years then and that nothing seemed to happen but that — all news. He knew of the war in Europe, where Germany has been razing half the world since twenty years ago that was why they were frantic on breeding more horses early on but since they never sent any of their horses abroad except to home and up to the point that they suffered an oversupply in their arsenal, war seemed only probable to the romantic imaginings of the hot blooded young soldiers.
Chuck could never have been so wrong and he needed just to wait after the summer and rains have gone.
Clark Air Field’s sirens ripped the quiet dawn of December 8 that year followed by the thundering buzz of hostile aircrafts dropping waves upon waves, tons upon tons of munitions all over the airfield. The cold morning broke with fire in the skies. The airfield’s combat aircrafts, three squadrons of advance Curtiss P-40’s in all, never got the chance to take off the ground and every single one met their fiery deaths in their peaceful sleep. The fighter planes, each with six .50 caliber guns and 900 pounds of ordnance, capable of conquering the skies at break neck speeds, all burned in their shame during the treacherous attack. Clark Airfield woke up in a frantic hysteria, wounded deep and holding on to dear life. The invading Japanese Imperial Army has landed north in Pangasinan.
When the smoke cleared, it was learned that the Subic Naval Base in Zambales, Nichols Field in Pasay, Sangley Point in Cavite and other military installations in Davao, Baguio and Aparri suffered the same fate. But the biggest damage inflicted by the sneaking Japanese forces in the Pacific was four hours prior at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where the largest fleet of battleships the Earth has ever seen, with thousands of their crew, was stabbed in the back viciously and savagely over and over again as swarm of Mitsubishi fighters and dive bombers blackened the Hawaiian skies with a cloak of cowardice and inconceivable treachery. The clock of the Naval Base never struck high noon when the mightiest armada among all nations was completely annihilated crushed and was brought to its knees. Men of the 7th Fleet of the US Navy were literally burned alive!
The Base Commander never summoned Chuck but he knew his job. He secured the horses, galloping all of them to safety in to the hills and hastily building a corral of makeshift fences. He has fifteen Negroes under his command and issued them orders to pile up as much rations and whatever supplies they can salvage out of the burning Clark Airfield and establish a perimeter for the protection of their ward against further air raids. In the afternoon, he made it back to the base and all were reduced to ashes.
Orders from High Command never came in but the officers of the Quarter Master affirmed his actions and told him to stay put. Chuck and his men camped out in the hills for several days until a messenger came for him to attend a strategy briefing. But instead of the expected order of battle, they were told of a general retreat. He learned that the Japanese were coming in from Dagupan, Pangasinan and will converge with the forces in the south that landed at Legaspi, in Albay to march for the conquest of Manila. Gen Douglas McArthur, the Supreme Commander of American Forces in the Pacific, gave the orders to consolidate all American and Filipino forces in Bataan and declared Manila as an “Open City” withdrawing all guns and military personnel from the capital. The move was to spare the civilian populace of Manila from the fighting and make their stand in Bataan where the soldiers will wait for reinforcement troops that will come from Australia and the rest of the Pacific Allied Forces. Japanese air raids being totally unopposed, however, became even more frequent and daring with indiscriminate bombings on the Cities of the country’s central district, giving rise to the malicious civilian casualties to hundreds of thousands during the first days of the outbreak of war.
Chuck’s order came in that he should maximize all resources under his command to transport all materiel possible from what remained of Clark Airfield to Mt. Samat in Bataan some thirty miles of dirt road to the southeast. His horses were then either too fat for the rigors of hauling or too pregnant but the horses knew they were soldiers once and that it was a call of duty. Hitched in tandems for wagon pulls, some fifty strong cavaliers consolidated from all over the other camps in Luzon braced themselves for the haul of their lives. First to go were guns and ordnance, which took them some two weeks, side by side with the Army trucks, then medical supplies and necessary logistics then, lastly, food stuffs. The horses were valiant and soon their ribs and hip bones were exposed because they never had the time for a good feed but they never faltered, heaving their nostrils flared, biting their teeth until their molars broke, inching those heavy guns in place for the final defense. They were a sight to see. Courage could had never found bigger hearts!
Christmas was spent under heavy enemy fire. Big guns tore the mountains in smithereens and so were the armies of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East, which were composed mostly of Filipino fighters trained and commanded by American officers. Blood was everywhere; death lingered like a dark hand gripping the sky. Explosions thundered beneath everyone’s feet, shaking the very foundations of the human spirit. The burnt smell and the echoes of suffering carried by the westerly winds aided to the defeat of the defending forces, overwhelmed by firepower supremacy of the Japanese Imperial Army.
The services of the horses were insuperable before the fighting broke out and their diligence never wavered more so during the thick of battle, scouting the outermost perimeters of the defenses, carrying orders and transporting the wounded. Enemy sniper fire trained at them as prized targets and one by one they bravely fell. The last of the cavalry horses of the former Fort Stotsenburg got finally captured by a letter (translated) written by a Japanese soldier for his aging father back in the Land of the Rising Sun:
“…standing on top of his dead soldiers. Days and nights
until when the dead smelled. His sores and rotting wounds
added to the stench. Such a wretched animal! His flesh
was torn out exposing his fly infested bones. Ooze dripping
from his nose. We cannot shoot him or else his comrades
will know that we are there. Someone tried to
pull his dangling reigns but he kept kicking
and biting and neighing. Someone said to
leave him be to let thirst weaken him more.
Then would be the time to capture him and
maybe give him to the Captain as a gift.
Another day his stench got stronger. Again,
someone tried to get him but he neighed even louder.
He cannot kick anymore but tried to bite.
Others run to him and planted their bayonets on his chest.
He neighed some more and he fell to the ground.
On the ground, he was able to kick some more
and followed a little more thrashing.
The sergeant came up to him
and slit his throat with a katana and
he kicked one last time until he finally became quiet.
The sergeant was fuming mad that his sword
was bathed with what he said was foul blood.
The enemy fought well, this one fought best of all…”
About the Author:
Rey Salita is a desk editor for GMA News. He has also worked for the broadsheet Manila Standard Today. He was one of the first guest contributors of SubSelfie.com with his memorable narrative entitled Ugly Tree.