2015 Bataan Day Keynote Speech

This is a transcript of the keynote speech delivered by Stephen Gibson at the 2015 Maywood Bataan Day Memorial Service, September 13, 2015:

Thank you Col. McMahon, thank you fellow members of the Maywood Bataan Day Organization, and thank you to all the honored guests, veterans, family members and local citizens. It is an honor to speak here today at the 73rd Annual Maywood Bataan Day.

My father, Maywood Police Lieutenant Emmett Francis Gibson, was born here in Maywood on September 15, 1916. He went to Proviso High School and graduated in 1933. During that last school year, he joined the Illinois National Guard, and the 33rd Tank Company, here in Maywood. After the 33rd was federalized in 1940, they were made part of the 192nd Tank Battalion and shipped out to the Philippines in the fall of 1941. They arrived in Manila on Thanksgiving Day, barely two weeks before the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines.

During the initial stages of the Battle of Bataan, Gen. MacArthur and the other generals believed that a good offense was better than a retreat. Because in all previous wars, armies had been decimated in retreat. However, after just a couple weeks of fighting, it was obvious to MacArthur that his plan to meet the enemy on the beaches was doomed to failure because he lacked something the Japanese had – an Air Force.

So Gen. MacArthur put into effect a plan that had been the original day one plan for defending the Philippines. Called WAR PLAN ORANGE, it basically consisted of a series of battle lines moving southward down Luzon in a delaying tactic, allowing troops and supplies to be moved to the next defensive line. The 192nd provided the coverage and protection for this organized withdrawal to Bataan, where reinforcement supplies and troops would soon arrive from Australia and the US.

During this prolonged battle, my father was in charge of the motorcycle messengers. He traveled up and down the length of Bataan, supporting his men through any means – including the theft of a tractor at one point to move supplies when there were no trucks available.

And so it was, on the night of December 28, 1941, that my father found himself in a jeep on a road on the outskirts of San Fernando. He and his driver, Pvt. Harold G. Fanning were transporting a woman back to her home after she went to visit her husband at a hospital. As they came up over a bridge just outside of San Fernando, they ran headlong into a school bus full of troops on the way to the front. A bus with headlights blacked out as a protective measure.

Pvt. Fanning was thrown clear of the wreck, suffering only minor injuries. The woman wasn’t seriously hurt either. But my father’s right leg was smashed. He was evacuated to the hospital in Manila, where doctors considered removing his leg to try to save him. He begged them not to.

Luck, though, was on my father’s side. The Japanese had decided to let one more medical evacuation ship leave Manila harbor. And so, on New Year’s Eve, 1941, my father and many other injured soldiers — Filipino and American — left the Philippines on the SS Mactan. Nearly three weeks of hide and seek sailing to avoid enemy and friendly attacks on the ship got the ship safely to Australia. After a brief stay there, my father was returned to the United States.

He was welcomed as a hero. The first of the “Maywood Tankers” to get home safe.

But here’s the dilemma I’m sure my father felt. While he was being wined and dined, interviewed by reporters and selling war bonds on the Lone Ranger radio show, he was hearing the truth of the horrors that continued in the Philippines. So he threw himself into his work. With his shattered leg, repaired with pins and wire, but shorter by 2” then the other leg, he couldn’t go back in to combat. Instead, he begged the Army to let him remain active, and they sent him to Ft. Benning, where he spent the rest of the war as a rifle instructor.

After the war, he was back in Maywood to welcome the survivors. He was post commander of the VFW Winfield Scott post. He campaigned on behalf of veterans to get them bonuses and benefits promised them. And he tirelessly fought against politicians and bureaucrats who forgot the sacrifices of the heroes of WWII.

While all that was going on, he remained a true son of Maywood. He joined the police force, rose to the rank of Lieutenant, and met my mother in 1954. They were wed shortly thereafter, and I was born in 1955. My brother Alex was born in 1957.

However, in 1955 or 1956, my father began to experience tremendous headaches and mood changes, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and in 1956, doctors removed a tremendous growth from his head. It was a terminal condition, but they thought they could buy him time. They bought him less than two years.

By 1958, he was suffering again. At Hines Hospital, the doctors told my mother there was nothing more they could do. She visited my father one last time, and he used his ebbing strength to dictate a long list of things for my mother to upon his death. One of those things was – “Get my ashes back to Bataan.”

Late in the evening of July 13, 1958, my father drew his last breath. He was two months short of his 42th birthday.

Like any death of a man that young, with a pretty wife and two small children, the community responded. My mother had tremendous help in the days, months and years to follow. And one of the things she received help with was getting my father’s ashes back to Bataan. The Philippine Consul here in Chicago made all the arrangements.

On April 9, 1959, during the annual “Day of Valor” ceremonies in Manila, the Philippine Army granted my father’s wishes. By helicopter, his ashes were distributed on the battlefields of Bataan, and his urn was dropped into Manila Bay.

This year, I had the chance to do some things my father never did. I traveled to the Philippines, and stood on the shores of Manila Bay, not far where my father and the rest of the men of the 192nd landed on that fateful Thanksgiving Day. Seventy-four years after he had been there. I walked the parade grounds at Fort Stotsenburg and stood at Clark Field. I saw the Death March mile marker 00 in Mariveles, and the train station in San Fernando. I even stood on the bridge where my father had the accident that saved his life. I walked 6 km of the Death March route, and I stood at the gravesite at the Manila American Cemetery where my father’s jeep driver, Pvt. Harold Fanning is buried. You see, his injuries were so minor that he soon returned to the front to fight and after becoming a POW in April 1942, Pvt. Fanning died in a prison camp of dysentery in September, 1942.

At each point in that trip, I felt the presence of my father as I never have in my life before. I think he was thankful, as I was, that it was possible to do this. I am thankful to Robert Hudson, my host while I was in the Philippines for his help. His father was a Death March survivor.

To thank him, I would like to urge you to support the work of the Filipino American Memorial Endowment or FAME as it is known. I won’t go on any longer now with details, but if you are interested in helping them with their mission of preserving the memory and memorials located in the Philippines, please see me after the ceremony. I have a special Challenge Coin created just for FAME that they are offering as a token of their thanks for donations. [HOLD UP COIN]

And now, to close, I’d like to read the eulogy delivered by Brig. Gen. Isagani V. Campo, Chief of the Philippine Constabulary in 1959, who fought with the 41st Infantry on Bataan in 1941 and was a friend of General Vicente Lim as well as guerilla leader and hero Guillermo Peñamante Nakar. This is what Gen. Campo said on April 9, 1959.

Seventeen years after Bataan, we are gathered once more to remind the Free World about the meaning and significance of that great and epic battle for Freedom. Much has been said about that bloody exploit where friendly forces fought side by side in defense of Liberty, and to all these add one more significant event – that a soldier has seen fit that his mortal remains be strewn over the scene of his struggles.

Today, an American comrade-in-arms, who over seventeen years ago, came to our shores to share in the defense of our country against the ruthless invaders, is back with us, not in life but in revered ashes. He was Lieutenant Emmett Gibson.

Shortly before he passed away at his home in the United States several months ago, he willed that his body be cremated and that his ashes be scattered over Bataan. To him, there could certainly be no better resting place. What a hallowed gesture! For here he will be reunited with his former comrades-in-arms, with whom he fought side by side and whom he later left behind. Lieutenant Emmett Gibson’s ashes do invoke among us, the living, the “Great Cause” for which Bataan was fought — the essence of the ultimate in the friendship of the two nations which shared the sacrifices and death together in the fight for that “Great Cause” – Freedom.

Lieutenant Gibson was an officer of the 192nd Tank Battalion, one of the two ill-fated battalions of the Provisional Tank Group of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East. His outfit, which served as the protecting shield for the badly battered USAFFE Forces, bore the brunt of the enemy’s merciless assaults. He was one of those in the thick of the delaying action, seeing to it that the Defenders – who were mostly Filipinos – were safe behind the barricade of the peninsula. He was severely wounded in December, 1941, and although he was one of the fortunate few who were able to make it to Australia aboard the last hospital ship shortly before the final collapse of that epic stand, his life had already become a part of the pain and the glory that was Bataan.

A soldier may enjoy a particular kind of freedom. He is free, yes — and he has rights. But more so than others, he is incapable of shaping his life’s destiny. His very existence is at the command of others and he is the favorite subject of fate. Lieutenant Gibson tried to break through these circumstances, but why is it that his attempt to finally influence his life’s direction had to do with the care of his mortal remains?

A friend of his was quoted as saying that it was probably because Lieutenant Gibson suffered much the loss of his bosom friends – friends he grew up with and learned to love in Bataan. That may be true, but so can a lot of other reasons.

He might have said: (and I quote) “I wish to do this, because Bataan means a lot to me. There lie my buddies and true friends and I wish to be with them forever. There I found myself. Bataan was my greatest adventure and my grandest experience. In the midst of death and in the comradeship of the doomed, I found out that I had courage, endurance, strength, the capability to sacrifice… the supreme virtue of manhood. In Bataan, I realized my capability for nobility as I fought for the freedom of other people, and that in doing so, I had, somehow, given meaning to the brotherhood of man and had vindicated God’s faith in His creatures.  As a man, Bataan was my true womb, and it is there where my remains will lie, thus completing the life story of one named Emmett Gibson.” (unquote)

We only heard of his name when his will was made public. But my friends, tell me not that you did not know Emmett Gibson. He was our friend and our protector. We may not know the circumstances of his birth, but we do know that 17 years ago there lived and bled with the cream of our Filipino youth a true citizen of the world, a genuine member of mankind and a credit to the Divine creation. Identify him not as an American, but as a man who has become a part of that symbol of Freedom.

It is said that greater love hath no man than he who is willing to die for the sake of others. And to this we may add that no man is greater than he who is willing to do so.

Take his ashes and scatter them over the land he loved. Let his ashes drop from a serene and unsullied sky; let it be wafted by gentle breezes; let it sift through the unbroken branches in the huge forests of Mt. Samat. Let his ashes mingle with the rusting steel, the blood-soaked soil of that peninsula and all the marks of that decaying battlefield. And if we must honor him, and he deserves to be so honored, let us make sure that the debris on Bataan becomes truly the last vestige of human cruelty and greed on our Land.

I thank you.

Stephen Gibson is the son of Capt. Emmett Gibson, HQ Co., 192nd Tank Battalion. Stephen is the webmaster for the MBDO website and maintains his own website to honor his father at http://192nd.com.

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