(This is an edited version of a speech given by the author at the Bataan Legacy Symposium, October 29, 2016, San Francisco Public Library)
Basilio Valdes’ family background and education made him an orderly, disciplined man both as medical doctor and a military officer. He honored both the Hippocratic Oath and the rules of engagement of war. He served Manuel Quezon, Douglas MacArthur and the Philippines in their time of need.
Basilio Valdes was born in Manila on July 10, 1892. His mestizo father was a well-respected doctor, hospital administrator, and medical school professor. His mother was from Barcelona, Spain. She died in 1897 shortly after giving birth to the Valdeses’ fifth child, fifth son. The young boys were raised by their father with the help of a British tutor names Mr. Robertson. In 1904 Valdes’ father remarried. His second wife was the youngest daughter of the wealthiest woman in the Philippines at that time: the widowed Doña Teresa Tuason.
Valdes was schooled wherever his father’s career took him. These places included Hong Kong and Barcelona. In Manila he attended San Beda, the Ateneo and University of Santo Thomas medical school. All set the tone for a cultured man who, along with being a medical doctor, was an accomplished horseman, a pianist at the concert level and a lover of great art.
Shortly after Valdes graduated from medical school, World War I broke out. Although the Philippines was not engaged in the war, Valdes wanted to do something to help the Allied cause. One day, at the offices of an American newspaper called Cable News America where he often went to keep up with the goings on in the world, he ran into Don Alejandro Roces, who would later set up the Manila Times. At Don Alejandro’s suggestion, Valdes, using the small inheritance from his mother and some help from relatives, set sail for France to offer his medical services to the British in Paris. Unfortunately, after the long and somewhat arduous trip, the British were not interested in help from him, so he offered his services to the French, and they were happy to put him to work first in one and then in another military hospital in Paris, where he became the chief surgeon. When the United States entered the war, Valdes felt honor-bound to help the US forces. Because he was not a citizen this was difficult. However, when he was interviewed for the American Red Cross, the officer in charge asked him, “Dr. Valdes, are you a citizen of the United States?” He replied “No, I am not.” The officer asked again, looking him straight in the eye, “I ask you again, are you a citizen of the United States?” Valdes finally caught on and said, “Yes, Sir, I am,” whereupon the officer said, “Welcome to the Red Cross.”
After three years abroad and being awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government at the war’s end, Valdes came home in time for Christmas.
The years following WWl were busy ones. He opened his own practice, worked at various hospitals and taught at his alma mater, the UST Medical School. Valdes built his home on San Rafael Street, a stone’s throw from Malacañang Palace. Here he ran an open clinic where anyone, rich or poor, could be treated. He also married. on July 15, 1925 Rosario Legarda Roces. This marriage, while not a love match, was a lasting one in which I believe love grew. Bombona, as she was known, ran the household and catered to Valdes’ every need. While they were unable to have children, they adopted Rosario Matute; she was their beloved daughter whom Valdes called Charito and everyone else called Nucay. Nucay was also one of my closest cousins.
Valdes was also kept busy delivering babies as he and his wife’s brother, Dr. Alejandro Legarda, delivered all the babies of the family and those of many friends. When I was living in Manila in 1957 my cousin Ditas was giving birth to her second child. I asked her if she would mind if I attended the birth. “Not at all,” said Ditas. I then asked Tito Basilio and he agreed. On the date, I happened to be the one that brought Ditas to Lourdes hospital. As we went upstairs the attending nuns told me to wait in the waiting room. I informed them that I needed a gown as I was going into the delivery room. The nuns went into panic mode. This could not be. I was an unmarried woman etc., etc. Tito Basilio calmed them down, Ditas gave birth as I watched my godson being born.
The Valdes home was close to those of many of Bombona’s relatives. Their tennis court was actually beside my parents’ house and is involved in one of my earliest memories. There was a small opening in the high fence surrounding the tennis court, which allowed my amah Au Quay and me to slip through so I could go and play with Nucay. In 1938 there was a big earthquake in Manila which caught me passing through this hole. I remember it as if it was yesterday and the panic I felt as the ground swell under me and I got caught on the fencing.
Bombona was a woman of spirit. Before marriage she attended Cordon Bleu in Paris. At the world-famous cooking school she learned the skills that would allow her to open her own cooking school in the kitchens of the Valdes home in Manila. All of us girls attended this cooking school. Unfortunately, we did not all achieve her skills. During the Quirino presidency [1948-1953], she ran the Malacanang Palace home of the President. She did everything, from daily tasks to putting on the state dinners. She was also one of the pillars of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, where two of her sisters and her cousin, my mother, played in the string section.
The Valdes-Quezon Connection
Early on, Valdes became a close friend of the Quezon family. President Quezon was no stranger to the family of Bombona either. Bombona’s grandfather Benito Legarda Tuason along with Pablo Paterno served as the first Resident Commissioners to the Congress of the United States going to Washington in 1907. A young Manuel Quezon went with them.
An interesting coincidence is that Benito Valdes, Basilio’s father, had a long history with Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ National Hero. He attended high school and college in the Philippines and medical school in Spain with Rizal and was also with him aboard the ship which took Rizal home from exile and ultimately to his death. Benito’s son, Basilio, then went on to have a long and lasting history with Manuel Quezon who was the first President of the Commonwealth of the Philippines.
The Valdes/Quezon friendship really began with Dr. Benito Valdes who was close to the young Manuel. Soon, however, it was Basilio who bonded with the Quezon family. This friendship proved a unique one. In late 1924 the Quezons’ youngest daughter lay dying of tubercular meningitis for which, in those days, there was no cure. It was Valdes that Quezon called to attend to his daughter, and indeed Valdes stayed with her for many nights and days until she succumbed. From then on, Valdes was to be the family physician. He was even called on to travel with the family when they went abroad.
In 1922 he was asked by the Philippine Constabulary to join and revitalize their medical services. The Constabulary was the national police force. Valdes joined as a lieutenant but by 1926 was promoted to lieutenant colonel and chief surgeon. In March 1934 he was named brigadier general and chief of the Philippine Constabulary. At first he declined the position, saying he was not a line officer but a medical one. He did not want to replace a worthy line officer. His refusal was not accepted, so got the general rank and headed the Constabulary which soon was melded into the Philippine Army. By 1935, having successfully delivered me, a nine-and-a-half-pound baby out of his 85-pound sister on February 1, he went on to become Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army replacing General Santos. Douglas MacArthur was then serving as Field Marshall of the Philippine Army.
At this point, Valdes’ professional and social life connected with MacArthur who was one of only five men to rise in the United States to the rank of General of the Army. He also became friends with then-Major Dwight David Eisenhower, who also went on to become General of the Army and later, president of the United States. Both men enjoyed the company of Valdes, but more importantly, both held by them with respect. This was deeply valued by Valdes. In fact, Eisenhower sought his personal counsel on several occasions.
MacArthur’s name is deeply intertwined with that of the Philippines. His father General Arthur MacArthur and he both were given Medals of Honor by the United States Government for their service in the Philippines. They were the first father and son to achieve this.
Eisenhower was attached to MacArthur’s staff. His wife, Mamie Eisenhower, did not take to the Philippines at all and after a short stay, she left Eisenhower to finish out his tour of duty, which lasted 18 months. During that time he was often a guest at the Valdes home.
(While the MacArthurs did socialize, it was generally at large events: balls and dinner dances. Jean MacArthur was a gracious hostess. I was fortunate to grow up knowing her as she was a close friend of my American grandmother. This friendship began in Shanghai in 1937 and lasted until my grandmother’s death in 1965. Mrs. MacArthur attended my wedding in 1960. The General was by that time, staying home at the Waldorf Towers. Mrs. MacArthur continued to have a busy social life but was always home by 7:30 p.m. on orders from the General for dinner at 8:00 p.m. When the General died in 1964 my grandmother received a wire inviting her to attend the funeral, which she did.)
By late 1939 the Japanese had advanced through Manchuria and then in to China itself. People in the Philippines were beginning to worry about the war on their horizon. MacArthur had a plan to put in place in the event of a Japanese attack on the islands. Valdes was very busy seeing to the training of his troops to implement this plan. However, MacArthur’s plan did not foresee what actually happened: a sneak attack by the Japanese from the air that was coordinated with the attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941. The date in the Philippines was December 8. MacArthur was caught with most of his air force on the ground. It was systematically obliterated by bombardment from the Japanese Zeros. Valdes who had been at a party the previous night at the Manila Hotel was awakened at four a.m. by General Sutherland who said, “General Valdes, Pearl Harbor has been attacked and we are at war with Japan.” Valdes was stunned by the news.
President Quezon, who had by this time been President for six years, had early on seen the potential in Basilio Valdes. He had kept an eye on Valdes’ career and he had also helped further that career. Now, all the trust he had put in Valdes was to pay off.
Quezon at this point was already a sick man. He had several specialists treating him for his tuberculosis but Valdes remained his personal physician and it was to Valdes he turned to in all matters medical. On the day of the Japanese sneak attack, President Quezon was in his home in Marikina, a town several hours outside Manila, where the air was fresh and clean and as good as possible for someone with his illness. Valdes was tasked by General MacArthur to be in charge of the safety of the First Family, including moving them if necessary to Corregidor. That became a necessity on December 24, 1941. That day, Valdes left his family, and did not see them again until February 6, 1945. By December 28, the First Family was installed in Corregidor. That day, President Quezon appointed Basilio J. Valdes Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army and Secretary of National Defense.
Moving the First Family to Corregidor posed a true hazard to the health of the President because it meant living in one of the laterals of the Malinta Tunnel, which was dank and musty and hardly a place for someone with a dangerous lung condition. However, with the relentless approach of Japanese troops from the north, there was no choice. Not long afterward, the Japanese walked into the city of Manila. It became apparent early on that Quezon’s condition would only worsen if he stayed in the tunnel, so he was moved to a small house near the entrance to Malinta as the Battle of Bataan raged just across the water from Corregidor. At the sound of the air raid siren he would be hurriedly moved into the tunnel for safety. Valdes felt a blanket of uncertainty settle over the presidential party. It was to shroud them for the next months.
By the middle of February 1942, it became evident to General MacArthur that the place for President Quezon was not Corregidor but somewhere in the southern islands where he could rest, with clean air, away from the threat of Japanese capture but close enough to return when help from America came and the Philippines was once again in American hands. Only MacArthur knew that such help was not coming anytime soon.
On February 9, the “Don Esteban” left with the Philippine Treasury in paper money on board headed for Mindoro per orders of the President. Valdes had been loath to leave Corregidor. After seeing to the loading of the paper currency of the Philippine Commonwealth, he tried once again to obtain permission to stay with his troops. He repeatedly asked to be left behind, but Quezon and MacArthur were adamant that he leave with the First Family. He tried once again just before sailing, but was told to go and get his suitcases; they were all off to the Visayas.
On February 20, at 10:30 p.m. the First Family, Vice President Osmeña, Chief
Justice Abad Santos, Valdes, Col. Nieto, who was the aide-de-camp to the President, Quezon’s personal Secretary, and his priest, Father Ortiz, were packed and ready to go. The party was saluted aboard the submarine “Swordfish” by Commander Chester C. Smith of the US Navy.
There was an emotional meeting just before they were to leave. President Quezon and General MacArthur were seen in deep conversation. What was actually happening was the President gave General MacArthur the signet ring he always wore. He said, “When they find your body I want them to know you fought for my country.” MacArthur nodded, stoic as always.
The sub’s air conditioning ceased to function just after they left shore, and Valdes finally commandeered the refrigerator from the galley and had the President and First Lady sponging themselves with ice water. The sea was rough until they submerged, the whole party feeling desperately sea sick; but they finally made it to Antique just after the sun rose. From there they had a four-hour drive to Iloilo. They were the guests there of the Lopez family.
General Valdes being in charge of the safety and health of the President had decided on a plan of continuous movement so the Japanese would not be able to find the presidential party. This had the downside of being hard on the President’s health, but Valdes hoped to be able to get enough hours of rest in, so that that being continually on the go, would be countered by hours of rest.
In the next days they were moved by the “Don Esteban” from Iloilo to Guimaras. From there they went on the “S.S. Princess of Negros” to Bacolod where they stayed first in Hacienda Rosario, the home of Letty and Manuel del Rosario, then on to the house of Enrique Montilla. They moved the following day to the Hacienda Fortuna, home of Juan Ledesma. Valdes felt extremely fortunate that the homes of so many of the wealthy hacienderos were open to the President and his entourage.
Japanese destroyers and cruisers were spotted in the waters off Negros and it was decided to make the move to Cebu because intelligence said the Japanese now felt it was only a matter of time before they found and captured the President of the Philippines. The treasury notes were hastily offloaded from the “Princess of Negros” overseen by Major Nieto. It was not soon enough. The “Princess of Negros” was later fired on and captured by the Japanese. The ship had been President Quezon’s only way off Negros. Meanwhile, the President’s health continued to deteriorate and on March 10, the past twenty-eight days of hiding from the Japanese took its toll. There was blood in the President’s sputum. The constant travel was proving very harmful.
Valdes was in constant contact with MacArthur’s headquarters on Corregidor and was greatly disturbed when it became known to the Presidential party that because of the imminent fall of Corregidor, the General had moved his HQ to Australia. He wanted the Presidential party to join him. President Quezon was adamant he would not run. Nor would he leave the Philippines. He would rather be captured. Orders came from General MacArthur to the contrary.
The President had never flown. He was loath to take any flight, let alone one all the way to Australia. There was no choice, so PT boats were sent to Zamboangita, a beach near Dumaguete. The First Family and their cabinet boarded. Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos insisted and was allowed to stay. Later he was killed by the Japanese. Valdes too opted to stay but the President told him this was not an option for him. The general finally resolved that where the President went, so would his Chief of Staff and Secretary of National Defense.
At 3:30 a.m. Captain D. Bulkeley and two of his PT boats docked. Everyone boarded rapidly and they were off at 30 knots an hour to Mindanao. It was imperative that they land before sunrise. While en route one of the torpedoes broke loose and had to be jettisoned and allowed to blow up. For a few exciting moments it was not known if the torpedo could be loosened. It was, it blew up at sea and they were once again on course.
Right on time they landed at Oroquieta, Misamis Occidental in Mindanao. They were taken to the home of Senator Ozamiz and after breakfast and a short rest, they were once again on their way. This time they went to Dansalan, a town on the way to the Del Monte Plantation. It was here that Valdes’ resolve broke and he decided to make one more try to remain in the Philippines and return to his troops. He asked Mrs. Quezon to intercede on his behalf with the President. She said in no uncertain terms the health of the President was the most important thing and certainly trumped Valdes’ staying behind with his troops. So onwards they went from Dansalan over the horrific roads at 15km an hour arriving at Del Monte on March 23 at 3:30 a.m. The President and his family stayed at the home of Mr. Crawford, the manager of Del Monte. They had a three-day rest. On March 26, after lunch at the Crawford’s house, they boarded three B-17’s sent by General MacArthur to bring them to Australia.
The Flight to Australia
In the first plane, piloted by a Lt. Faulkner of the United States Air Force, was the President, his family, Valdes, Major Nieto and Father Ortiz. Because of the worry over succession, following in the second plane was Vice President Osmeña and his party. It was a cold and bumpy nine-hour flight. The President kept asking Valdes to go forward and tell the pilot to please fly lower. Valdes did as told, the pilot did not! When they landed at Bachelor Airfield 60 miles from Darwin, Valdes thought it was as if the blanket of uncertainty was lifted, and they knew that they would return in victory.
President Quezon, insisted he was unhappy in the air as he continued to have trouble breathing while in flight. They made a stop in Alice Springs to ease the President’s anxiety. He asked Valdes to continue to sit beside him. Valdes worried that the President’s health was deteriorating before his very eyes
The plane carrying Osmeña,his party and Andres Soriano had seemingly vanished. This caused immense anxiety. The next day, a search party found the downed B-17. It was spotted in the desert out of fuel. The people were recovered; aside from being hungry and dirty, no one was hurt.
At 8:30 a.m. on the 29th of March 1942, they continued on their way, this time on a KLM flight to Adelaide. On arrival the President’s spirits rose. The rest of the trip would be by train to Melbourne. There they were met by General MacArthur, as crisply dressed as ever, with his pipe, his sunglasses and his cap, with Mrs. MacArthur and his complete staff.
On April 11, they were all shocked to receive the news that Bataan had fallen. General MacArthur said “It was close; but that’s the way it is in war. You win or lose, live or die--and the difference is just an eyelash.” However, he was more than ever determined “to return.”
In the meantime, President Quezon decided to take his wartime cabinet with him to the United States to fight for the cause of the Philippines. General MacArthur agreed with him and assigned the steamship “President Coolidge” to take the party to the United States. April 19th they were once again on the move.
Onward to the US
The trip was long, but at least not in the air. They arrived in San Francisco for a short stay and then headed to Washington, DC by train. On their arrival they were met by no less than Franklin D. Roosevelt and his entire cabinet.
That evening the Roosevelts gave a small, informal dinner for the Quezons. They made sure to include Sec. Cordell Hull and Justice Felix Frankfurter whom Quezon had known when he was Resident Commissioner after Legarda and Paterno. He also invited Henry L. Stimson who had been Governor General of the Philippines.
The rest of the time in Washington was spent lobbying for the earliest relief of the Philippines from Japanese hands. Valdes traveled all over the country giving speeches. He also had a little time to visit with family, and so my mother and I took the train to Washington, DC. We stayed at the Shoreham Hotel and went to see President Quezon. I had turned 8 in February of 1943 and I was thrilled to be taken out of school, to travel alone with my mother, and to see my uncle. I was also looking forward to meeting the President. It didn’t happen. When my mother was taken in to speak with President Quezon I was unceremoniously left outside the door in a chair in the hallway. My mother wasn’t about to let me near someone with TB. I did have a glimpse of him as the door opened, but that was it: just a glimpse. It was good for my mother to know that at least one of her siblings was out of harm’s way.
Valdes continued lobbying in Washington for the Philippines. But by July of 1944 it became evident that the President needed to be moved yet again for his health and he was transferred to Saranac Lake in upstate New York’s Adirondack mountains. Here he was to live his last days in a beautiful house above the lake.
On July 9, Valdes arrived at Saranac Lake where he was to remain until the President’s death, which came on August 1. Shortly after hearing Mass on that day, he was informed that the President had suffered a hemoptysis. While four doctors tried to ease his breathing and with his family around him, and his faithful servant Basilio Valdes also by his side, the President of the Philippine Commenwealth took his last breath: a brave man gone to his rest.
Returning to the Philippines
Valdes’ lifetime journey with the man was also over. While he waited to attend Quezon’s funeral and burial at Arlington National Cemetery, he asked President Osmeña to be ordered back to his troops. This was granted and Valdes quickly rejoined General MacArthur in Australia to prepare for the liberation of the Philippines. He thus was part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
My dad who was drafted into the US Navy in early 1943 and who had been in many invasions in the South Pacific also took part in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. His ship, PC1134, was part of Admiral Halsey’s armada. Aboard the flagship was Valdes in his capacity as Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army. Shortly after the victorious end of the battle, and after MacArthur had rendered his famous “I have returned by the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil,” my uncle found out that his brother-in-law was at anchor nearby. The PC1134 received orders to tie up to the flag ship. The skipper of my dad’s ship could not imagine what he had done wrong, but dutifully tied up to Admiral Halsey’s ship. Quartermaster First Class Howard T. Kadelburg was told to report to the deck, and the mystery deepened. My dad did as he was told and there, waiting for him was Uncle Basilio. Dad had lunch with Halsey and Valdes and some other officers. He was delighted to get to spend time with his brother-in- law, but he told me later that the kidding he took when he returned to the ship was merciless and didn’t end for days. I love the story because it says a lot about both my uncle and my dad.
Valdes finally entered the city of Manila on February 6, 1945. On that date he was reunited with his wife, Bombona, and his daughter. It had been three long years of separation. He did not find them at his own home but staying down the street with his wife’s aunt. He was thrilled to find them well and healthy, though very thin.
His next duty was to identify the bodies of his older brother Alejo and Alejo’s son, Ramon. They had been machine-gunned and beheaded by the Japanese on February 5. The Japanese believed Alejo was Basilio and nothing would convince them otherwise. Valdes made arrangements for their funeral. He also learned of the death of another brother, Ramon, and the severe illness of his brother Francisco. His stepmother, Rita Legarda viuda de Valdes, had died on January 26, his brother Manuel’s wife had died in 1943. The good news was that Manuel had survived prison camp. Another brother-in-law, Lee E. Stevens, who had survived the Bataan death march, had died aboard a ship sunk by friendly fire as it steamed out of Subic Bay on its way to Formosa. All these deaths colored his happiness in finally being home.
As a last homage to his friend, Manuel Luis Quezon, Valdes was there when his body arrived back in the Philippines aboard the USS Princeton, having been disinterred at Arlington. It went from the pier to be buried at Cemeterio del Norte. Quezon deservedly received a hero’s burial.
Once things returned to normal, or close to it, General Valdes took off his uniform and reopened his clinic. He turned down an offer to run for the presidency of the Philippines. He helped build the Philippines’ Veteran’s Hospital and Lourdes Hospital in Mandaluyong. He served on both boards and on the boards of Pepsi Cola and China Bank, both of whom he also served as medical officer. He was the head of the Philippine Cancer Society and worked effortlessly for the Tuberculosis Society.
The Philippine government in recognition of his service named the administration building at Camp Aguinaldo after him, as well as issued a postage stamp in his honor.
Valdes lived the remainder of his life working as a doctor right up to his death, enjoying his grandchildren, and leaving them and his many nieces and nephews with the memory of a man whose whistle always accompanied his arrival, as did the scent of 4711cologne. And, best of all, they knew that when you were with him, everything would be alright.
He died on January 26, 1970. My mother and I were already at the airport in Manila about to leave for Athens, Greece when an aunt called me at the airport and told me of his death. I told my mother only when we were already in the air. She sighed deeply and looked out the window at the fast disappearing Philippines. He was given a full military funeral. I think he would have enjoyed it.
On his last visit to West Point, General MacArthur spoke to the cadets: “Duty, Honor, Country” ---those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.”
These were the ideals Major General Basilio J. Valdes lived by. In a book I wrote recently about my mother and her siblings, I asked each of the ten siblings’ grandchildren to write five words that best described their Valdes grandparent.
General Valdes’ grandchildren wrote: handsome, distinguished, gentle, generous, successful.
Information for this speech was taken from the diary my uncle Basilio J. Valdes kept during World War II and from private family memories.
Jessie Thompson Huberty was born in the Philippines. She has lived her adult life in the United States with travel every year to visit family and friends in Manila.