Chair Maria Serena Diokno of the National Historical Commission received last Jan. 6 the descendants of a man who, although of neutral nationality, freely chose to take part in the Philippine fight for freedom against the occupying Japanese.
He was Norbert Schmelkes, a Czech national in stock and commodity trading in prewar Manila. He was married to a Mexican lady, Lydia del Valle, and their daughter Corina was born in Manila. But with war clouds darkening the international horizon, he deemed it prudent to send his wife, with their 10-month-old daughter, back to her home country, in what would turn out to be a long separation.
The present visit is a much delayed homecoming for Corina.
In Schmelkes’ commodity trading, he was a member of the Philippine Commonwealth Government’s National Produce Exchange, of which Benigno S. Aquino Sr. was chairman.
Schmelkes was one of 14 Czechoslovaks who, after the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific, volunteered as civilian employees in the motor transport division of the US Army. A marker at Capas Memorial Shrine honors half of that number who died in captivity. The other half survived, and Schmelkes escaped during the Death March.
He was sunburned and dirty and did not look European, and so was able to slide into a civilian column and, later, with four others, bought a banca and paddled to the Pasay shore near the house of the legendary Commander Charles “Chick” Parsons.
Schmelkes had lost 90 pounds in weight during the campaign from malaria attacks. He spent much of 1942 recuperating while a countryman gathered papers to attest to his neutral citizenship.
But he felt the need to do something, in this case, to boost public morale by publishing and reproducing (possibly by hectograph) accurate news reports drawn from shortwave international broadcasts. In these activities, he developed a deep respect for the courage of his Filipino coworkers, without whom he could have accomplished little.
This was done under the aegis of Edwin Ramsey’s guerrilla group. When it was known that American submarines were landing arms and supplies in Mindanao, he was sent there to procure supplies for Ramsey, leaving Manila on Feb. 10, 1944, and arriving in Mindanao on March 14. After he left Manila, his unit was broken up, he became a wanted man and stayed on with Fertig’s guerrillas in Agusan.
He was assigned to run the auditing office and, after several moves in response to Japanese counter-guerrilla operations, he wound up in Dipolog. With Americans being evacuated by submarine, he also asked to be evacuated, but was refused for not being an American citizen. This he strongly resented, and wrote Parsons to that effect.
But he continued his work, and downed American airmen rescued by guerrillas near his station wrote admiringly to his brother in the US about him.
With liberation in full swing, he applied for repatriation in February 1945, was flown to Leyte and then to Manila in April, and, in May, received his evacuation orders, leaving on June 1, landing two days later in the US, and then going straight to his family in Mexico, where he later became general manager of Getz Bros.
When he died and was laid in state, the Philippine flag was draped on his coffin.
Corina’s present homecoming visit is a reminder to us Filipinos of men like Norbert Schmelkes who, although he did not have to, voluntarily joined us in our struggle for liberty.