A Tale of War

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 A TALE OF WAR: Family members tell New Castle man’s World War II story Tuesday, November 10, 2009

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MARIANO AND NATIVIDAD ESPIRITU visit a World War II memorial on a return trip to the Philippines many years after the war. (Photo provided)

By JOHN HODGE

jhodge@thecouriertimes.com

Bataan and Corregidor. MacArthur and Wainwright. Philippine guerrilla forces. The Death March.

For most Americans those words are the stuff of history books or old movies about World War II. But for family members of the late Mariano [G.] Espiritu they are vivid, captivating tales they have heard many times.

Espiritu, a New Castle resident, died on Sept. 11, 2009, at the age of 88. His obituary would bring goose bumps to any student of World War II, and certainly to any veteran of it.

His wife, Natividad Espiritu, did not meet Mariano until after the war. But she, their children and their grandchildren know the stories. They’ve heard them over and over, and can repeat them in detail.

Natividad and her son, the Rev. Rex Espiritu of New Castle, recently sat down for an interview about Mariano’s wartime experiences.

Served Under General Wainwright

The people of the Philippine Islands were looking forward to independence after 40 years as a U.S. territory and, before that, four centuries as a Spanish colony. But before independence was realized, they had to deal with an occupier: Japan.

The Japanese occupied the islands in December 1941, just a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mariano Espiritu was there, on the island of Luzon.

He joined the army but fudged on his age to do so.

“He was supposed to be 21, but wasn’t yet,” Mrs. Espiritu said with a laugh. “He lied about his age – just by a few months.”

Early in 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt ordered General Douglas MacArthur to leave the Philippines to go to Australia and begin organizing the Allied counterattack. MacArthur left General Jonathan Wainwright in charge of the Philippines. It was Wainwright under whom Espiritu served.

“There was an American officer going around looking for ‘bright young men,’” Mrs. Espiritu said. “He went to Mariano’s room and saw a lot of books.”

The officer was impressed with how well-read the young man was. Mariano was immediate[ly] assigned to Wainwright.

Narrowly escaped the Death March

In the spring of 1942 the Japanese completed their conquest of the Philippines. The last two bloody engagements were the battles of Bataan Peninsula and the nearby tiny island of Corregidor – where Wainwright was holed up.

“He (Mariano) talked about it in bits and pieces,” Mrs. Espiritu said. “He was taken prisoner.”

Through quick thinking, Mariano escaped the infamous Bataan Death March, during which many American and Filipino prisoners died.

“There were two groups of prisoners – the civilians and the soldiers,” Mrs. Espiritu said. “Mariano got into some civilian clothes and pretended to be the husband of a civilian woman with two children. During one of the moments when the Japanese were not looking, he jumped into the river and breathed through bamboo reeds.”

Rex Espiritu expressed surprise at his mother’s recollection. “This is the first time I ever heard those details,” he said.

But Mrs. Espiritu quickly pointed out how Mariano protected the woman he momentarily befriended.

“She was afraid she was going to be raped by the Japanese. When the soldiers came toward her, my husband shouted ‘Malaria! Malaria!’ So they did not come close to that woman. They thought she had the disease.”

Fought with guerrilla forces

Mariano fled into the mountains and lived among the natives for a while. He eventually joined the Philippine guerrilla forces, which operated behind the scenes to harass and impede the Japanese occupation army.

This led to further dangers for the young Philippine soldier. On one occasion his horse fell to bullets intended for Mariano.

“The Japanese shot at him and missed, but hit his horse,” Mrs. Espiritu said. “Both he and the horse fell into a ravine. He hurt his elbow when he fell on the ground. He could not get medical treatment until after the war and his elbow was damaged until his death.”

Most importantly, Mariano eluded capture again. He remained in hiding until MacArthur’s army landed in the Philippines in the fall of 1944 and began liberation of the islands.

“Luzon was the last island to be liberated,” Mrs. Espiritu said.

Hundreds of American and Filipino prisoners were set free, including General Wainwright himself. Espiritu was eventually reunited with his unit.

Husband, attorney, labor peacemaker

By virtue of the Tydings-McDuffee Act of Congress the Philippines became an independent nation on July 4, 1946, a year after World War II ended.

Like thousands of his comrades, Mariano Espiritu took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights and went to college. He graduated from Far Eastern University in Manila and became an attorney. Much of his career was spent as a lawyer for the Mobil Oil Company in the Philippines.

“I was still a high school student,” she said. “We worshiped at the United Church of Christ. That’s where we met. But I didn’t see much of him for a while because I entered the school of nursing at [the] University [of the Philippines (UP) — Philippine General Hospital (PGH)]. While I was there, I needed a partner for the junior-senior prom. I did not have a boyfriend at the time, so I asked Mariano to be my partner.”

Throughout his career with Mobil, Espiritu worked to resolve conflicts between the labor union and corporate management. The Espiritus immigrated to the U.S. in 1972. They came to New Castle in [summer of] 200[5] to be closer to their son. The Rev. Rex has lived in New Castle since [January] 2005. In addition to Rex, Mariano and Natividad also had a daughter, Marina Espiritu Lutz, who now resides in Delaware. There are [seven] grandchildren.

“God brought my father to deep lows and raised him to great heights,” the Rev. Espiritu said.

In the meantime he met and married Natividad.

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