A 100-year-old World War II veteran and Bataan Death March survivor shares his life stories and health practices on his way to reaching the centenarian mark
By Mylene C. Orillo
When it comes to living long, 100-year-old World War II veteran and Bataan Death March survivor, Captain Alberto Tuico Orillo, believes that genes aren’t everything. While there are many habits that can help you live longer, for him there are only two: Avoiding meat and not smoking.
“We used to eat nilagang pako (steamed fiddle head fern) and laing (taro leaves in coconut milk, a Bicolano dish) with fried kabasi (gizzard shad). We get coconut and firewood from the farm. We only eat meat when my father brings us. Celi (referring to his late younger sister, Araceli Orillo Arone) looked healthier because she lived with our father,” Orillo said in Filipino.
Born on Feb. 17, 1919 in Nagcarlan, Laguna, Orillo is the second child and only boy in the family of three children. His father, Mariano Orillo was a municipal police officer and his mother, Andrea Velasco Tuico was a housekeeper, who died when they were still young.
Genes aren’t everything they say, but partly it is, as Orillo’s paternal grandmother, whom he fondly called Andang, and elder sister, Rosalina Orillo-Cortezano both lived their lives well until the age of 101. Araceli passed away at 90.
Orillo admitted he used to smoke, but when he retired, he quit smoking and drinking entirely, and seldom (or never) ate meat. According to studies, red meat consumption is liked to an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. If one can’t really avoid meat, two to three servings a week are still beneficial.
“When I retired from the food and beverage company I used to work for in Manila, I discovered that meat has this ingredient or chemical that is poisonous to the body. Since then, I stopped eating meat, or I seldom eat meat/pork,” he added.
His favorite food includes sinigang na bangus (milkfish porridge) and vegetables like okra and kamote (sweet potato), saying they also helped in bowel movement. His morning routine usually consists of drinking coffee or milk, eating two pandesal (bread roll) with peanut butter and sunny-side-up egg, and reading a newspaper. Orillo also sleeps and wakes up early.
“Now that I’m old, I only have one vice and that is buying Lotto tickets [or I ask my son to buy for me]. I already won PhP 2,000 in two-digits, PhP 800 in four-digits, and PhP 2,000 in EZ2 before, so I kept on buying,” said Orillo.
Orillo used to be an altar boy until he reached high school. In college, he studied in Sta. Cruz, Laguna, but only got to finish third year when war erupted in a nearby town. To make use of his free time, Orillo collected bets from jueteng, then worked for a slipper’s factory and furniture shop where he would get 20 cents to PhP 20-PhP 30 a day.
At 20, he was recruited by the government to undergo a six-month military training in Guagua, Pampanga. After his training, he applied in Fort Stotsenburg in Camp Dau, Mabalacat, Pampanga, but was rejected due to hypertension.
When he went home to Laguna, his father accompanied him to see a doctor, who advised him to take a bath in the afternoon before going to sleep to help lower his blood pressure. He followed the advice, but his blood pressure fluctuated.
Orillo later joined the Philippine Constabulary and got promoted to private first class. He was later inducted to United States Army Forces in the Far East Liberation Army when Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was attacked on Dec. 8, 1941.
Bataan Death March After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese quickly invaded much of Southeast Asia. Apparently, the combined American- Filipino army, even with the presence of military bases in the country, was not enough to defeat the Japanese forces. After months of fierce fighting, the allied forces surrendered and the Bataan Death March followed.
The Japanese forced about 76,000 captured Filipino and American soldiers to march about 65 to 80 miles across the Bataan Peninsula in April 1942, from Mariveles to San Fernando and from Capas Train Station to Camp O’Donnell in Tarlac. Orillo took part in the infamous Bataan Death March.
During the march, the Japanese did not give the soldiers food or water, so they became weak. Many fell behind and were killed or beaten up by the Japanese.
Upon reaching the camp, thousands more soldiers died from starvation and disease.
“We slept together like sardines. Sometimes we get drenched by the urine of our dying comrade sleeping beside us. When they die, we let their bodies dry in the open. When the pile reaches 20, we would bury them all together in a deep well,” Orillo recalled in Filipino.
Luckily, Orillo kept a canteen so he can sip just enough water to wet his dry lips or throat. Orillo said that it was his prayers and faith in God that helped him survive the ordeal.
In February 1945, US-Filipino forces recaptured the Bataan Peninsula and Manila was liberated early March. The 23-year-old Orillo then met the beautiful 22-year-old Constancia Arbilo in a dance party. They got married and were blessed with seven children: Alice, Carmelita, Bienvinido Jose, Eva, Emma (deceased), Roberto and Alejandro.
When Orillo retired from the service with a rank of a guerilla captain, he opened his own store and copra business, but they didn’t flourish. So, he decided to work for a food and beverage company in Manila where he retired after 20 years of service.
In recognition of his military service during WW2, Alberto was granted US citizenship in 1992 at the age of 72. But after seven years, he decided to go back to the Philippines from homesickness as his wife couldn’t be with him. Constancia died on Nov. 5, 2012 at the age of 90 from illness.
Today’s life span
According to Dr. Shelley de la Vega, past president and lifetime fellow of the Philippine College of Geriatric Medicine, the lifespan of humans was about 120 years old.
“Lifespan is the maximum duration of life of a species. What has changed is life expectancy. In the 1990s, the life expectancy of Filipinos varied between 65 to 68 years. Now it is 68 to 72 years,” she said.
Dr. De la Vega noted that Orillo is the best example of how to eat and live long. He probably also had a healthy mother. However, there is really no secret and no answer as to how one can live longer.
In low-middle income countries like the Philippines, the biggest contributor to increase in life expectancy is the reduction in maternal and child mortality. In high-income countries, it is declining fertility rate and mortality in the older age groups.
“You can read books such as the Blue Zones. Genetic predisposition accounts for 30 percent of your longevity. The other 70 percent are improving nutrition and sanitation, disease management and medicine, use of antibiotic, having vaccines, drugs for hypertension, diabetes, improved surgical techniques, early screening, and diagnosis [of a certain disease]. Being safe in roads, workplace and healthy lifestyle such as no smoking and being active,” she added.
Not everyone gets to live up to 100 years old, so Orillo is just one of few blessed to last a century, but one can live healthy by consulting a geriatric doctor regularly and maintaining family and social connectedness.
“Improve your nutrition, manage your disease by taking appropriate medicines [drugs for hypertension, diabetes], get vaccinated against flu and pneumonia, get into fitness and rehabilitation to avoid falling, discuss goals of care and end of life choices and issues to your doctor, and maintain family support and counselling,” she advised.