HEROISM and sacrifice.
These words aptly describe the late Defense Secretary Army General Fortunato U. Abat, who evaded recruitment by the Japanese during World War II in a daring escape upon learning he was to be brought to Japan for training as an aircraft mechanic.
Abat passed away at the Veterans Medical Center in Quezon City last March 7. He was 92.
The Department of National Defense headed by Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana through the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office under Undersecretary Ernesto G. Carolina said Abat will be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City high noon of Tuesday with full military honors.
This writer had the rare opportunity to interview Abat when the latter was still alive. It was during this interview for my book “Victory at Bessang Pass” that Abat related his story as a young guerrilla fighter, his combat experience during the Korean War, and his memoirs during the Mindanao War in the ‘70s and ‘80s against the Moro National Liberation Front.
He was commanding general of the Central Mindanao Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines when heavy fighting broke out in Mindanao in 1974.
The MNLF practically captured the whole of Central Mindanao, except the strategic PC Hill and the airport in Cotabato City.
But despite being surrounded and outnumbered, General Abat courageously led his troops in defending the two strategic areas and held on until reinforcement from the AFP Headquarters in Manila and other areas arrived.
Through strategic planning of a counter-offensive, the military eventually recaptured areas that fell into the MNLF hands.
Abat later wrote a book entitled “The Day We Almost Lost Mindanao” where he chronicled the fierce fighting between government forces and MNLF rebels.
Later, President Ferdinand E. Marcos appointed Abat as commanding general of the Philippine Army until he retired with the rank of major general.
As a soldier, Abat was a recipient of many awards for gallantry.
During World War II, Abat said he and other young Filipinos were billeted in Japanese barracks when he escaped when he was given a one day furlough with his family and joined the guerrilla forces.
He was assigned with the 14th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army Forces in the Philippines – Northern Luzon (USAFI-NL).
“I could not forget the date of my enlistment, April 15, 1944, with the rank of Private, with Serial No. 221283 in the Medical Company, 14th Infantry Regiment,” he said.
In an interview, Abat recalled his guerrilla days, particularly the famous “Battle of Kiangan Pocket” in Ifugao. It was in this battle that Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, who was dubbed as the “Tiger of Malaya,” surrendered to Filipino guerrillas .
Abat said it was the forces of Capt. Guillermo Nakar who stalked the Japanese forces after the fall of Bataan every now and then, employing the hit-and-run tactics. However, Nakar was captured and executed by the Japanese.
His replacement, Col. Manuel Enriquez was also executed after his capture.
But despite these setbacks, the Filipino guerrillas pressed their attacks on the Japanese until the Gen. Douglas McArthur landed in Leyte Gulf to fulfill his promise of “I shall return.”
Abat said the American submarines USS Stingray and USS Gar (206), landed in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte and brought with them tons of weapons and food for the Filipino guerrillas.
“I was issued a Carbine rifle,” Abat said.
Fully armed to the teeth, the Filipino guerrillas engaged the Japanese in fierce fighting that continued for several weeks that forced Yamashita to surrender, Abat added.
Abat will long be remembered for his bravery in combat in defense of freedom and democracy. It was a display of heroism and sacrifice at the most crucial time the country needed most. May God bless his soul.
Ben Cal is a former editor of the Philippine News Agency. He has written books on the military.