By Jon D. Melegrito
When Cherry Blossoms Fall
Ten years ago, there were more than a dozen surviving Filipino World War II veterans in the Washington, D.C. area. Today, there’s only three left. (Photo by Eric Lachica)
Cherry blossoms – the nation’s most notable flowers that line Washington, DC – are gone now. And so is the three-week festival that kicked off Spring.
Embraced world-wide for its significance, the National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates the gift of Japanese cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo City to the city of Washington back in 1912. Mayor Ozaki donated the trees in an effort to enhance the growing friendship between the U.S. and Japan.
That friendship, of course, was interrupted after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, leading to a US declaration of war against Japan and the involvement of the Philippines, then a US territory.
During World War II, according to Wikipedia, the cherry blossom was used “to motivate the Japanese people, to stoke nationalism and militarism among the populace.”
Cherry blossoms also came up during discussions by Japan’s military leaders as they prepared to invade the Philippines. “Arguments that the plans for the Battle of Leyte Gulf, involving all Japanese ships, would expose Japan to serious danger if they failed, were countered with the plea that the Navy be permitted to bloom as flowers of death.” Japanese pilots would paint the flower on the sides of their planes before embarking on a suicide mission, symbolizing the “intensity and ephemerality of life.” In this symbolism, “falling cherry petals came to represent the sacrifice of youth in suicide missions to honor the emperor” and “the souls of downed warriors were believed to be reincarnated in the blossoms.”
After Japan surrendered, the US government paid war reparations and helped rebuild Japan. In return, the Japanese gave 3,800 more Yoshino cherry blossom trees in 1965, following resumption of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in 1948.
The Festival has been a major tourist attraction since then. And for the first time in its 68th year history, the Philippines was represented in this year’s Cherry Blossom Princess program. Joan Kate Salvacion, a Public Health Science Senior from the University of Maryland, was chosen to do the honors.
During the three-week festival, the community took time out to mark the Fall of Bataan. Observed every year on April 9, “Araw ng Kagitingan” (Day of Valor) commemorates the heroism of more than 260,000 Filipino and American soldiers who fought valiantly in Bataan and endured the 70-mile Bataan “Death March.”
The observance started with a wreath-laying ceremony at the World War II Memorial, followed by a program at the Philippine Embassy. Held in Romulo Hall (named after the General who waded with General McArthur in the waters of Leyte gulf), the event honored Lt. Celestino Almeda, 99, and Private Rodolfo Panaglima, 86 – two of only three survivors who reside in the Washington DC area.
A fourth survivor, Maj. Jesse M. Baltazar, USAF (Ret) passed away recently. He was 95. His last public appearance was last month at the Bataan Memorial March in New Mexico.
At the Bataan Day commemoration, Maj. Gen. Taguba renewed the call to Congress to pass the Congressional Gold Medal Award. “We want to make sure that enough members of Congress hear our voices and pass this bill this year before more veterans pass on,” he said. “Tonight’s commemoration is an opportunity for us to build momentum towards fuller recognition of Filipino veterans and fuller incorporaation into the American story.”
Gen. Delfin Lorenzana (Ret) of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office, recalled the humiliation inflicted on the veterans when Congress passed the Rescission Acts of 1946, stripping them of their rightful benefits.
The cherry blossoms were still in full bloom when the Filipino community gathered at the Philippine Embassy to remember the heroes who fought and died in Bataan.
Japan made her peace with the imperial power that once humbled this Asian nation. The annual cherry blossom festival is a testament to the value of forgiveness.
One strains to look for similar symbols in US-Philippine relations. But the terms of endearment are somehow not the same.
Why is it taking so long for the US to say thank you to our veterans and give them the recognition they deserve? They’ve waited for more than 70 years.
It is said that cherry blossoms fall before they wither. The blooms stay on for only a few days, then fall on the ground.
The falling cherry petals may as well represent the sacrifices of those brave young Filipino soldiers who died in their youth in honor of their country. May the souls of these fallen warriors be reincarnated as well in the blossoms.
The few remaining survivors are ailing and dying. In a few years they will all be gone and forgotten.
They will fade away. But not their faith in America’s goodness. Like cherry blossoms, that faith will not wither even after they have fallen to the ground.
Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair.