Display of Veteran heroes at the Bamban Museum | Provided photo
By Joe Livernois
There is one place left on Earth that celebrates the bravery of a Central Coast soldier who died as a guerrilla fighter in the Philippines during World War II, and that spot may soon get bulldozed to widen a road.
Incredible as it is, the story of 2nd Lt. James Howard Hart is now mostly forgotten. According to his legend, the Watsonville High School graduate enlisted in the Army in 1941, was assigned to the 194th Tank Battalion out of Salinas, was separated from his platoon during the Battle of Luzon, and spent more than a year fighting as a guerrilla in the jungles near Tarlac, where he died defending his outpost.
“He is an American hero,” said Kama Rogers, Hart’s great niece, who lives in Calaveras County and who has plunged headlong into his history. Rogers is trying to help the operator of a unique private museum dedicated to Philippine war heroes keep the museum open. The Bamban Museum of History near Tarlac includes a wing named the Lt. James Hart Memorial Library.
As far as Rhonie Dela Cruz is concerned, Hart is a local legend who led a band of men from the region in a jungle war against Japanese forces. Dela Cruz opened the museum on a back road about 100 km from Manila 15 years ago.
“Left behind Japanese lines in January 1942, (Hart) organized the local … guerillas of Bamban arena, including our grandfathers and uncles unit,” Dela Cruz said during an email interview. “Our elders fought under the command of Lt. Hart during the darkest enemy occupation.”
After he was stranded in the jungle during the Battle of Luzon and didn’t return, Hart was considered missing in action, though at least one account indicates his commander considered him a deserter.
But according to most accounts, including Dela Cruz’s and a group called the Bataan Project, Hart worked out of his jungle hideout with his squadron for 17 months. In the jungle, he became the “captain” of the Luzon Guerrilla Force known as the 101st Squadron. Among other things, Hart is credited with helping an Army major who had been shot in an execution attempt and who escaped from an open grave. The major later died of his wounds.
Then, in the early morning of Sept. 3, 1943, a Japanese platoon surrounded the hut and started shooting. His guerrillas tried to crawl to safety while Hart opened fire to give them cover. He was found dead next to a nearby stream with a bullet hole in his forehead.
Capt. Ted Spaulding, who had roomed with Hart at Salinas Junior College before the war and who was commissioned with him, later insisted that Hart shot himself instead of surrendering. According to some versions of the story, Hart’s body was buried initially at Clark Field, but his body was later laid to rest in Ellis County, Okla., near his birthplace.
Around the Tarlac Province, Hart is known as the Father of Guerrilla Resistance.
But now the museum — the keeper of Hart’s flame — is being threatened with the road work. Planners apparently hope to build a whole new city around the site. Dela Cruz said he’s trying to convince government authorities to work around his museum, but he’s up against the march of progress.
“Our museum is a private one, operated by me only with some volunteers and with no support from our government,” he told Voices of Monterey Bay.
He said he doesn’t have the means to move the displays and the exhibits elsewhere. . “We do not intend to transfer the contents of the exhibits to (an)other venue, as there will be complicated questions taking care of the artifacts and displays, curatorship, research and publications without my control,” Dela Cruz wrote in a statement to government officials.
After retiring from his career as a migrant accountant — Dela Cruz worked for National Chemical Fertilizer in Saudi Arabia and for a metal fabrication plant in Japan — he used his savings to create the museum as a tribute to relatives who fought in the war.
While the museum is small and private, it is one of the few remaining research resources left in the Philippines dedicated to World War II. Ricardo T. Jose, a researcher with the Department of History of the University of the Philippines, said Dela Cruz’s museum plays an important role in the study of World War II in the Philippines and of the Philippine-American War.
From Salinas, Rogers is trying to help. She set up a GoFundMe page in an effort to raise $100,000, which Dela Cruz would use to salvage what’s left of the museum once construction starts or to move the museum elsewhere.
She said she rarely heard much talk about the war and the role her uncle played while she grew up. “My grandmother used to tell me when I was a kid that my grandfather’s brother disappeared in the South Pacific during WWII and they never found him so he could be living on some tropical island with a tiki girl,” she said. One of her cousins was given the family hero’s name, but her grandfather’s experience during the war was apparently so traumatizing that he didn’t want to talk about it.
Rogers said she got curious about her grandfather’s service after he died and started an online research project. Along the way, she came across the Bamban museum and the library named after her great uncle. It was a “total shock,” she said. The family had not been aware of his story, much less that he served in the Philippines.”
She said she has since immersed herself into the U.S. involvement in the Philippines during the war and has spent considerable time learning what she can from Dela Cruz’s museum, about 7,000 miles from Salinas.
The more she’s learned, the more she doubts that James is buried in Oklahoma. “There are so many different stories about what happened to him after he was killed and that is one thing I would really like to lay to rest,” she said.
The museum’s archives have mostly been closed during COVID-19, and now the threat of the road project looms large.
“I think that it’s my job to do everything I can to help save it or rebuild if we can’t save the building,” she said. “I think our role in the Philippines during WWII and the work of all the Guerilla American fighters is a piece of history that is too commonly left out. I knew nothing about the fact that thousands of American refused to surrender and banded together with local resistance groups to keep on fighting on their own, even at the risk of being considered deserters.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add comments from Ricardo Jose, from the Department of History at the University of the Philippines.
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