The topic was America’s veterans, but veteran Bill Sanchez wanted to talk about freedom.
“The only way I think you can really appreciate freedom is to lose it and then regain it,” reflected Sanchez, 94, whose appreciation stems from his experience in World War II.
Like so many from his generation, Sanchez could see what was coming and decided to enlist before America was drawn into the war.
The Army even let him pick the location of his first assignments. He chose the Philippines, a world apart from where he had grown up on the Eastside of Los Angeles.
“I figured the Philippines is adventure,” Sanchez recalled.
It was more adventure than he had in mind.
He was assigned to Corregidor, an island that became, in effect, the gatekeeper to Manila Bay.
Sanchez recalls the December morning in 1941 when another soldier came racing into the barracks with word of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Wow, that woke me up real fast,” Sanchez said.
The war reached Corregidor within seven hours, marking the start of a relentless Japanese attack.
“I was in combat every day for five months. It gets pretty weary,” Sanchez said.
It got worse.
With only three aircraft and no tanks, U.S. forces were overwhelmingly outmatched. Washington ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur to relocate to Australia. U.S. forces remained behind with no hope of victory at this stage, but one crucial mission still to fulfill: Delay the Japanese advance enough months to allow the Allies to establish an Australian base of operations.
Washington was hoping for three months, and got five. Years after the war, while on a business trip to Japan, Sanchez recalls a conversation with a former Japanese general remarking on how the resistance in the Philippines had been a turning point.
MacArthur’s successor as commander of U.S. forces in the Philippines, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, surrendered on May 6, 1942.
Sanchez became a prisoner of war, and would remain so for more than three years. He was taken to a POW camp in Japan, where the commander threatened to kill all of the men if U.S. forces ever landed.
But when Emperor Hirohito went on the radio to announce Japan would surrender, the POWs in Sanchez’s camp were taken to Yokohama.
Sanchez vividly remembers seeing Old Glory being raised, and then hearing the Star Spangled Banner. It gives him goose bumps to this day.
“What a feeling!” Sanchez remembered thinking. “I’m free!”
That the Japanese people so quickly accepted America’s presence, and that after the war the two
nations became allies did not surprise Sanchez.
He credits the U.S. decision to allow Hirohito to remain emperor, and the role that MacArthur played as proconsul during Japan’s postwar reconstruction.
But did Sanchez have any personal misgivings about returning to Japan?
None, he said, recalling that after the war he was always treated with respect.
Sanchez has also returned to the Philippines. Just last May, he was honored at ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the fall of Corregidor.
Back home in Monterey Park, now long since retired, Sanchez is still sought out to speak to groups about the war and about veterans.
He brings only one request of civilians in his audiences: Visit a military cemetery on a national holiday when flags are placed on the individual grave sites.
“When people see what freedom has cost,” Sanchez said, “perhaps they will learn to appreciate it.”
Sanchez certainly has.