Ninety-five-year-old Karel Aster had a special visitor to his Florida home on April 23 who gave him a much-deserved recognition. Czech Ambassador to the United States Petr Gandalovič brought him the Gratias Agit Award—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.
“Karel Aster’s motivation to join the army immediately after the Philippines was bombed in order to stop the advancing armies was formidable,” said Jan Vytopil, Deputy Head of Czech Embassy to Manila.
Aster was then an employee of the Manila shoemaking facility of the famous Czech conglomerate Bata Co. As Aster explained, “The Japanese were now our enemies, as much as the Germans, and we fully understood that if we wanted to regain our liberty for our fatherland, we would have to do whatever we could to contribute to their defeat.”
Aster immediately became one of 14 Czech nationals who volunteered, becoming part of the Philippine and US war efforts both in Bataan and Corregidor. He ended up in Cabanatuan concentration camp and later survived the weeks on Japanese hell ships where prisoners were held like rats in wretched conditions. Aster was liberated while on force labor in coal mines in Japan.
In a long letter dated November 10 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.
“Every year, it is the honor of every Czech Ambassador to pay his tribute to these courageous compatriots, whose names stand alongside their Filipino and American brothers-in-arms,” Czech Ambassador to the Philippines Jaroslav Olša Jr. noted.
Czech nationals living in Manila continue to honor the valiant heroism of the Defenders of Bataan in an annual Memorial Walk where they trudge across the 102-kilometer historical path which stretches from Marivelles, Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga, retracing the 1942 Bataan Death March.