Recognizing a Lifetime of Public Service
By: Suzanne K. Whang, Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Office of Public Affairs.
The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) commemorates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by remembering the remarkable life of Jesse M. Baltazar, who served in the State Department for more than 20 years, most recently in DSS, until his death in April 2016 at the age of 95.
As dawn broke in Bataan, the Philippines, on April 9, 1942, 21-year-old Jesse M. Baltazar saw his Filipino comrades holding sticks with white handkerchiefs tied to them. “We’ve surrendered,” they muttered. Within hours, soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army arrived to round up 76,000 Filipino and American POWs for a 65-mile trek to Camp O’Donnell in what became known as the Bataan Death March.
At the time, Baltazar was a member of the U.S. Army’s 71st battalion and a student in his college’s ROTC program. He recalled, “We had no uniforms, no weapons. This was the beginning of the Battle of Bataan, and the first casualty happened to be my schoolmate. He stepped on a hand grenade and died in my arms on the way to the hospital.” When the Japanese bombed the area near his camp, Baltazar was hit in the leg by shrapnel and taken to an open-air jungle hospital where he endured surgery with minimal anesthesia.
Baltazar used a bamboo stick as a cane to support himself when forced to march for 12 hours a day in the blazing sun, with no water and just one meal a day of rice and fish broth. Baltazar witnessed prisoners who fell from exhaustion getting bayonetted and beheaded. So when he tripped and fell, he thought he too was going to die. He heard a Japanese guard yell and felt the butt of a rifle rammed into his back. Sharp pain pierced his whole body, but he had no choice but to get back up and march, or be killed.
On the third night of the march, Baltazar was almost asleep when he heard a whisper in the dark: “Anybody want to escape?” Without hesitating, he and another prisoner crept away with this unknown man, paid him five dollars each, and hid in his boat for a two-hour ride through the swamps in the dead of night. They were lucky. Later that day, the Japanese figured out that local fishermen were helping prisoners escape. So they sprayed a similar boat with machine gunfire, killing everyone on board.
By the time the Bataan Death March ended at Camp O’Donnell, an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people had died.
Eventually, Baltazar made his way home in Quezon City and helped the Filipino resistance movement. “My younger brother was taken away by Japanese soldiers in the middle of the night. And my older brother went off to join the armed struggle. I never saw either of them again,” he said.
After World War II, Baltazar first came back to the United States as an engineering student. He soon joined the U.S. Air Force and became the first native-born Filipino commissioned officer. As a second lieutenant, he received intensive Russian-language training and was assigned to Korea in 1950 as a special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
He retired from the Air Force after 20 years of service. But when the Vietnam conflict erupted, he signed up for duty again, this time with USAID as a deputy provincial advisor in Vietnam. After more than 20 years with USAID and the State Department, he retired in 1988. Later Baltazar returned as a Diplomatic Security Service construction security surveillance technician on a State Department headquarters renovation project where he served until several months before his death.
Baltazar was supposed to receive the Purple Heart in 1946, but his records were lost. After years of petitioning various government entities, he finally received the medal in January 2015 at an award ceremony, complete with a full-dress parade with soldiers. Major Baltazar passed away peacefully on April 12, 2016. He was 95 years old. He is survived by his wife of 62 years, their five grown children, nine grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Looking back on his life, Baltazar said, “I will always be a prisoner to the memory of the brutality and savagery of the worst kind. Yet, I also saw courage, nobility, bravery and the best that human beings can be.”
Originally published on blogs.state.gov on May 8, 2017.