These Gun-Toting Geeks Give History Lessons You Won't Sleep Through
Picture this: a bunch of grown men fighting about fabrics, shoes, and bags. Presenting the Philippine Living History Society—a group of gun-toting, costume-clad history geeks who are hell-bent on educating the public through period-correct re-enactments.
The Philippine Living History Society started out sometime between 2008 and 2009 as a bunch of guys playing airsoft in World War II impressions. Back then, WWII airsoft guns were suddenly available on the market, and so, come game day, they’d be the oddballs walking into a field armed with what appeared to be antique equipment. With period-correct guns in hand, reenacting for these WW2 enthusiasts became a real possibility.
However counterparts in the United States, most of which were Filipinos, were only so eager to dismiss the idea. They’d often point out that Filipinos just don’t care about history and besides, how can a bunch of airsofters be serious about such a complicated matter? But in the next four years, the group staged reenactments with 100 participants, with cannons firing over their heads and sponsors helping out with the production costs.
The PLHS has unsurprisingly found partners in veteran-affiliated institutions and groups such as the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO), Philippine Veterans Bank, and the HERO Foundation—an organization that raises funds for the rehabilitation of wounded soldiers and for the welfare of orphans of servicemen. They’ve also worked closely with Local Government Units (LGUs) and schools to bring this kind of history lesson to the public. Since then, the PLHS has also reenacted scenes from the Philippine Revolution, Philippine-American War, and even recent ones from the Martial Law Era.
Meeting Real Heroes
Reenactments serve as an education as well as tributes to the many unsung heroes of this country. And one of the privileges that come with this gig is meeting them in the flesh.
“Personally, I’ve met eight or nine Bataan veterans of whom four have already passed away,” shares Albert Labrador, Head of the PLHS. “And the insight that you get, personally talking to them, is very very rewarding.”
“Twenty-thirteen was the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society Reunion that was held in Fort Stotsenburg in Clark, [Pampanga.] So these guys came home from the [United] States to tour the battlefields that they fought in. For example, one of the cavalry men whom I spoke to was one of the first men in that unit who ran into the Japanese and he told me the story with his hands in my hands, trembling.”
“Felipe Fernandez, [a sergeant in the Philippine Scouts] cried tears as he was talking about the day the quartermasters took their horses away. So he had to say goodbye to Mike, his horse of several years. None of the cavalrymen ate the horses, even though they were starving at that time, because it was like eating your own brother.”
“Dan Figuracion [another sergeant who survived the Bataan Death March], nasa Mt. Samat kami noon and I said, ‘You must have some pretty good memories here in this area.’ Sabi niya, ‘There are no good memories in Bataan. I walked down that road with my friends and they were dying.”
And though talking about such trying times could be very difficult, the veterans were more than eager and willing to share those memories—a sign of their appreciation for such a tribute. Even if they were in their early 90s, these tough old men would stay for hours and give their personal accounts to give the group a better understanding of what happened.
And it’s not just the veterans who appreciate the show. Active servicemen would walk up and say a word of thanks. These re-enactments of encounters and battles often teach them of things they wouldn’t know otherwise. Watching becomes a way of learning more about their heritage as soldiers, which is a source of great pride for them.
These re-enactments are—to say the least—a great form of entertainment. They have the ingredients of a good show: a compelling story, period-correct costumes, guns, and pyrotechnics. So often, people do enjoy watching them. For the people who do the show, the story the audience walks away with makes it all worthwhile. Through the show, history isn’t merely a page in a book anymore, or something too distant. In fact, there were times when re-enactments have properly disturbed some people because they just hit too close to home.
The group was once requested to re-enact the execution of Father Burgos (of GOMBURZA) in Ilocos. When the guy billed as Father Burgos—dressed in his cassock with a sack over his head—started marching across the town plaza towards the actual garrotte used to strangle the priest to his death, another re-enactor spotted a boy in the audience who was starting to cry. He had to go out of his way to pacify the young man and said, “Hindi totoo ito. Hindi totoo ito.”
A couple of Bataan re-enactments left people running away from the show. A lady said to have been victimized by the Japanese during World War II ran away when the guys dressed as soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army entered the scene. On the other hand, an American veteran of the Iraq War also ran away from a show when the pyrotechnics started to go off. He apparently was suffering from PTSD. He later came back and apologized to the group, “I’m sorry but I really can’t.”
A more immersive one for the audience was when the group was tasked to act as the Metropolitan Command (Metrocom) for the Great Lean Run in UP Diliman. Positioned as a checkpoint right after a turn, the unsuspecting runners would stop dead in their tracks the second they would see the car’s headlights. Then came confusion and downright fear when they spotted the airsoft rifles.
There's Always a Script
Re-enactments are done with a script, simply because they involve history and need to be accurate. In the States, private unscripted re-enactments are preferred so that actors can be immersed in their roles, treat it as a real encounter, and just let it play out. But public re-enactments serve as an education to both the actors and the public who probably have minimal knowledge or understanding of that particular point in history.
“You don’t walk away from a re-enactment with in-depth knowledge but it’s a spark,” explains Albert. “All these kids who would never have known, never would have read a single page about it—what is Bataan in our history books? Maybe it’s half a page and it’s just Death March, Death March, Death March. That’s all it is. Due to our re-enactments, you’d find out that before the Death March, there were several victories that happened. [They] stopped the Japanese cold for three months, whereas the rest of Asia was falling quickly. It was the first time that the Allied Nations had the notion that they could actually win this. It was good for propaganda. The stories of Bataan would be told in the States, on the radio.”
One of the latest projects the group has been involved in is the Spyron-AV Manila production of the film Honor: The Legacy of Jose Abad Santos. The production company tapped the men to act as both Filipino and Japanese soldiers all in their accurate WWII costumes. Still in keeping with their advocacy of education, the film asks the question: who is Jose Abad Santos? What role did he play in our nation’s history? Why is he on the one-thousand peso bill?
There are people who joined the group for the costumes and guns. But as they participate more and more in re-enactments and talk to the very people who lived through it, their minds open up. And there comes a point where the costumes and guns aren’t enough. One is compelled to know more. Sadly, history can’t be taught on superficial level because of its many nuances. But reenactment is like an open door and it wakes people up. If they want to know more, they study more even on their own. And the more one knows, the better.
You can find Philippine Living History Society on Facebook.