As athletes take center stage at the Olympics Games Tokyo 2020, we go back in time and look at some of the lasting legacies created by the first-ever Filipino medalist in the Olympics, and a World War II veteran, Lieutenant Teofilo Yldefonso.
Lt. Yldefonzo was born in 1902 in the agricultural town of Piddig, Ilocos Norte, on Luzon Island in the Philippines. He was the middle child of three boys: Vicente, Teofilo, and Teodoro. Their father, Felipe, was believed to have been a member of the Katipunan, the revolutionary movement that rose up in arms to overthrow the Spanish government in 1898.
Being orphaned at an early age, Teofilo moved from the province to Manila, the urban capital, to improve his prospects. In 1923, he began swimming competitively as he participated in many international and regional events. He represented the Philippines in the Olympic Summer Games of 1928, 1932, and 1936. He was the first Filipino athlete to win an Olympic medal, winning back-to-back bronze medals in the 200-meter breaststroke in the 1928 Amsterdam and 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Because of this, he would later on earn his moniker, “Ilokano Shark”. He was described by European texts as the Father of the Modern Breaststroke for his unique style of doing the breaststroke.
In 1922, Yldefonzo enlisted in the Philippine Scouts, a highly trained military unit created to serve in the US Army. He served in the 57th Infantry Regiment and was part of an elite group of riflemen. He was also remembered as a strict instructor who taught new recruits swimming and water safety.
In the height of the Second World War in the Philippines in 1942, Yldefonzo’s 57th Infantry Regiment was assigned to the most critical point of the main battle position of the Abucay-Mauban line during the Battle of Bataan. As an expert rifleman, Yldefonzo may have been part of a sniper group that picked off the infiltrating Japanese. However, despite their gallant efforts, the exhausted Filipino-American troops fell back against the continuous attack of the Japanese forces.
Following the surrender of the Commander of the Bataan forces, General Edward P. King, Jr. on 09 April of the same year, the captured Filipino and American troops were forced to march 160 kilometers from Mariveles, Bataan, to the San Fernando train station. Yldefonzo survived the ordeal and was interned at Camp O’Donnell, a Prisoner of War camp in Capas, Tarlac.
According to family narratives, Yldefonzo’s Japanese Olympic rival and a lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army, Yoshiyuki Tsuruta, who won back-to-back gold medals in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, learned of Yldefonzo’s capture. He immediately requested the release of Yldefonzo, but it was accordingly too late.
Confusion remains regarding Yldefonzo’s death. Official records state that Yldefonso died from dysentery and septicemia. However, narratives from his family state that Yldefonzo was wounded by shrapnel and developed gangrene. Yldefonzo’s family indicated that he died in the arms of his younger brother, Teodoro, an enlisted soldier of the 12th Medical Regiment.
Yldefonso’s body was buried in a mass grave with hundreds of other Filipino and American soldiers who died in the prison camp. Teofilo Yldefonso is memorialized on the Walls of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery.
Former President Ferdinand Marcos also awarded Yldefonso the Presidential Award for Meritorious Service. Although his remains were never recovered, a historical marker was built for him in his hometown in Piddig, Ilocos Norte in 2006.