Karel Aster, the last living Czech Defender of Bataan passed away on August 13 aged 97 after living last decades on Captiva Island in Florida, US. Karel Aster’s granddaughter Jenny Ellis Murray said, “Heaven gained an amazing man today. He was 97 years young. He will be greatly missed by those who were lucky enough to know him.”
Karel Aster was one from a group of 14 Czechs who volunteered to join ranks with Filipino and US armies in November 1941. Many members of this group came from the ranks of Bata Shoe Company employees, the first ever Czech investment in the Philippines that started in Manila in 1930s. Smaller part was formed by Czech businessmen, and Jewish refugees from occupied Czechoslovakia. It also included personalities working in or with the Czech diplomatic service at the Czech Consulate in Manila. While all of the Czechs became prisoners of war, their families had to endure a life in difficulties, surviving in the wartime Manila with only scant resources, often not to meet their husbands and fathers anew.
Half of the Czech volunteers died during the war in the Philippines, on the hellships or in forced labor camps in Japan. Most of those who survived were later never allowed to come back home to the then communist Czechoslovakia and died before any recognition could have been bestowed on them by their homeland. “We appreciate that in those dark days, both the Philippines and USA have never forgotten who helped them in times of need and awarded the Czechs with medals they deserved,” said Jan Vytopil, Deputy Head of Embassy of the Czech Republic in Manila. “Though civilians, they became known in Bataan for at one point, spending more than 36 hours exposed to enemy fire while dismantling a rice mill to take back to joint Philippine and US troops in desperate need of food. For this heroism they were later awarded the US Medal of Freedom” he adds. Others received the Philippine Medals of Victory and Defense.
The names of Czech volunteers were: Aster Karel, Bžoch Jan, Dančák Karel, Fuchs Pavel, Hermann Leo, Herman Bedřich, Hirsch Otto, Hrdina Jaroslav, Lenk Hans, Lenk Fred, Morávek Arnošt Schmelkes Norbert, Vařák Josef and Volný Antonín.
Karel Aster was born on 15 May of 1920, and was the last living survivor among the Czech volunteers who took part in the wartime activities against the Japanese Invasion during World War . Aster was awarded the Medal of Victory and the Medal of Defense in recognition of his honorable civilian combat service in the Philippines by the order of the Secretary of National Defense on the year 2015. The Gratias Agit Award in 2014, which is the highest civilian award bestowed by the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs to acknowledge prominent personalities who have committed themselves to work for the benefit of society, for the promotion of friendship among nations and for the promotion of the Czech Republic in the world was awarded to Aster a year before.
In a long letter dated 10 November 1945, Aster detailed his experience as a volunteer in the US Army Service in Manila and as a prisoner of war. He also depicted in his memoirs the fate that met other Czech volunteers—seven of whom tragically died either in the Bataan Death March or in the Japanese captivity. “The conditions were so terrible it is hard for me to describe them,” he wrote in the letter to his parents. “We no longer behaved as human beings and the only thing that helped us survive was one’s instinct for self-preservation. It shows the human can endure more than most animals.” he wrote further.
The Czechs were the only other nationals that volunteered en masse and took part in the wartime activities beside the Filipino and US troops during the Japanese Occupation. Their memory is preserved with a special memorial at the Capas National Shrine in Tarlac beside the Philippine Scouts and US Memorial. No other nationalities are present here.
“With great sorrow, my condolences go to his family and also to the extended family of Bata-men who took part in the building of the largest Czech investment in the Philippines in 1930’s—the Bata Shoe Organisation—only to give it up to help saving the Philippines,” says the Czech Ambassador Jaroslav Olša, Jr.