April 9, 1942 was one of the darkest days in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The Japanese Imperial Army , led by General Masaharu Homma, landed in Northern Luzon and pushed back the combined forces of American and Filipino soldiers into Bataan. After three months of fighting, Bataan fell to the Japanese. Maj. General Edward King, the officer in charge of defense of the Bataan Peninsula, surrendered on April 9, 1942. Corregidor and the Philippines fell shortly after on May 6, 1942 after the surrender of General Jonathan Wainwright. This coming April 9th is the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Bataan and the Death March.
The Bataan Death March will be remembered for the brutal treatment of the approximately 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers by their Japanese captors. General King attempted to surrender Bataan. The Japanese did not accept this as they wanted the surrender of the entire Philippine islands, which King had no authority to do. This is why the Japanese were particularly savage to the soldiers. The Japanese captors thought that rules regarding the humane treatment Prisoner Of War did not apply to the Bataan soldiers.
The weakened soldiers were forced to march from Mariveles in the south, and Bagac in the west up into Bataan and into San Fernando, Pampanga covering a distance of around 100 kilometers. From San Fernando, the 60,000 soldiers who survived were loaded like cattle into boxcars and shipped to Capas, Tarlac.
Here is a road trip itinerary that visits points of interest for those who might be interested to take a trip back into history.
On the southernmost part of the Bataan Peninsula is Mariveles. This city was home to logistics facilities of the US army. This was a strategic location for its close proximity to Corregidor. who needed to shuttle men and equipment to and from Corregidor. At the fall of Bataan, around 70,000 Filipino and American soldiers were gathered up in the warehouses and logistics complex to start the arduous march.
The KM 0 marker is right near the water and the unofficial Mariveles bus terminal. If you are adventurous enough, check out the hidden roads that mark the first couple of kilometers. One particularly dreadful realization is that the first 10 kilometers of the march for the hungry, sick, wounded and shell-shocked soldiers was an uphill climb towards the northern part of Bataan. You will find more death march markers as you travel north to the other destinations in this list.
Other points of interest are the viewpoint overlooking Sisiman Cove right before entering Mariveles and the swanky Oriental Hotel. Look around the city as you may luck out on sales on products that are manufactured in the export processing zones.
Bagac was the starting point for the death march. A contingent of 5,000 soldiers started out from Bagac. The road going east to Balanga crossed mountains and would have been absolute torture for weakened soldiers. JJ Linao Road, the mountainous zig-zag road that connects Bagac to the Bataan highway, has death march markers and several memorials of skirmishes in the mountains. The Philippine-Japanese friendship tower with the Friendship Bell at the entrance of Bagac is a gesture of peace and friendship from the Japanese
Today, Bagac is a sleepy seaside town. You can head for the western shore where you can find pump boats to bring you island hopping or to La Playa De Caleta beach in Morong. Las Casas Filipinas de Alcuzar, the heritage resort known for its reconstructed traditional Filipino houses, is running a specially curated photo exhibit by the Ortigas Foundation to commemorate the anniversary of the Fall Of Bataan.
- SAMAT, BATAAN
A pilgrimage to the Mt. Samat National Shrine or the “Dambana ng Kagitingan” is a must for World War II history buffs. Mt. Samat was the last stronghold of the Allied forces. Bataan fell when the Battle of Mt. Samat was lost.
The 6.5 kilometer drive up Mt. Samat is an adventure with its steep zig-zags. Before continuing up to the shrine, you may want to check out nearby Dunsalan Falls via zipline. The zipline takeoff station is about halfway up the mountain.
The first thing you’ll see is the colonnade which contains beautiful marble structure with an esplanade, relief sculptures and the eternal flame. Wander off to the side to find the stairs that lead down into the World War which contains memorabilia and documents from the war. It is absolutely heartbreaking to read the telegraphs sent by General King, General Wainwright, and General McArthur to Washington informing then President Roosevelt of their plight.
There is a path behind the colonnade that leads up to the cross. It’s very fulfilling to hike up this path as you will be rewarded with breathtaking views of the colonnade with against a spectacular backdrop of the Bataan flatlands. If you don’t want to walk up, you can just drive up to the parking lot beside the cross.
It’s overwhelming when you get to the base of the cross for the very first time. The 92 meter high structure just towers over you. Make sure to go around the base as there are more relief sculptures on all four sides.
Balanga is the capital city of Bataan. For first timers, it is a pleasant surprise to go around the city marveling how clean and how progressive the town is. The plaza itself has a mall and is home to the Balanga Plaza Hotel, something that one doesn’t expect to find in Bataan.
Balanga is also the where the soldiers from Bagac and the soldiers from Mariveles converged. A flaming sword at the city’s periphery marks the location where the soldiers from Bagac and Mariveles converged into one column to continue the march to San Fernando.
Search for the Bataan World War II museum in Balanga located at the back of an elementary school on JP Rizal St. At the entrance are bronze statues of General King and his staff seated despondently across their Japanese counterparts. Contrary to popular belief, this was not the actual surrender site of General King. That site is marked by a fenced-in memorial in Lamao a few kilometers down south.
A tour into the museum starts with a video about the fall of Bataan. Visitors can go around looking at the memorabilia, uniforms and weapons from the war. Some of these are real restored uniforms, helmets, weapons from the war. The centerpiece of a the museum is a diorama that shows the horrors of the death march. Hidden in the diorama are anecdotes of civilian bravery like children who dropped food from the treetops and ladies who tried to smuggle soldiers out of the column into freedom under their dresses.
If you are lucky, you’ll have a very enthusiastic lola as your guide who was one of the bystanders who smuggled food to the starving soldiers.
SAN FERNANDO, PAMPANGA
Getting out of Bataan near the road going to Dinalupihan, you can find a monument of the first battle of Bataan. This marks the place where the Japanese broke through the first line of defense of Bataan.
The road from Bataan to Pampanga has death march markers every kilometer or so. Follow the markers until you hit the San Fernando Train Station. At this point, 10,000 soldiers died on the road from Bataan. The Japanese could not afford any stragglers. Death was meted out to any Filipino or American soldier who showed any sign of weakness. Asking for water was asking for a bullet to the brain. At this station, the 60,000 remaining survivors were stuffed into rusty closed boxcars to make the journey to Camp O Donell in Tarlac.
From San Fernando, take the North exit of NLEX and head on over to the SCTEX heading for Tarlac. Exit at the Dolores exit and head for Capas. Death march markers will appear again denoting the place where the survivors got off the train and walked the remaining kilometers to the Camp O’ Donnell concentration camp where 27,000 Filipinos perished. A big number of these prisoners were already sick and weak from the weeks leading to the Fall of Bataan. The Japanese were just expecting 10,000 prisoners instead of the 60,000 they received at the camp resulting in woefully inadequate space and facilities. The atrocities went unabated also because Japan did not respect the humane treatment of POWs as stated by the Geneva Convention in which Japan had yet ratified its inclusion
If you are using a GPS, look for “Capas National Shrine” instead of “Camp O’ Donnell”. Camp O’ Donnell is an active military camp and going there is not recommended.
When you turn into O’ Donell road, you can’t miss the 70 meter obelisk that is the focal point of the Capas National Shrine. When you enter the 54 hectare area, you’ll see a promenade cutting into the middle of forest of young trees. You can walk the rest of the way but I would recommend just paying for the parking fee and drive to the back.
Just like the cross at Mt. Samat, the Capas obelisk is an imposing structure. The wall where the names of those who died at Camp O’ Donell are engraved is an engineering feat in itself. You can hear a whisper from across the circular area 70 meters away.
Go around the shrine to find an actual boxcar that was used to cart the prisoners from San Fernando. Seeing and touching this up close made me realize the horror of squeezing 150 people into a corrugated metal box designed to hold 50 people in the scorching heat of summer in April. It was so crowded in the boxcars that those who died on the train journey died standing up.
Right beside the boxcar is a small museum with memorials for the Americans and Czechs who died at the camp.
PANGATIAN, NUEVA ECIJA.
Camp Pangatian is the real life setting of the 2005 movie “The Great Raid” with Benjamin Bratt and Cesar Montano. It told the story of the daring rescue of 500 American soldiers by a group of Filipino and American army rangers.
It is a little hard to find. It’s not on Waze but it is on Google Maps. When you get there, you’ll find that the memorial is split into two.
One part is a children’s playground with a circular building at the back. On top of the building is the “Hour of Great Rescue” memorial which was built to look like a sundial. Surrounding the sundial are podiums with metal plaques telling the story of the rescue
The fenced off area is the Camp Pangatian Memorial Shrine with immaculately manicured lawns. The gate facing the main road was locked. If you chance upon a gardener working inside, you can circle around to the back of the park and look for a door that you can go into the museum.
This was a study in contrasts as the American part of the park was much better maintained than the Hour Of Great Rescue sundial. Graffiti was all over the sundial and a relief depiction of the raid was torn away.
CONTINUING THE JOURNEY
The WWII markers and monuments are maintained by the Fil-American Memorial Endowment group. This is a non-profit group composed of Americans and Filipinos who’ve made it their mission to preserve Fil-Am military history. It is this group that maintains volunteers that go out to clean and repaint all of the markers. Visit them at http://filipino-americanmemorials.org/ to learn how you can help or donate to the cause. You may even find a resource to guide you around Bataan when you decide to take a trip back in time.
The author would like to acknowledge Robert Hudson, Vice President of FAME, for information and insight regarding the Bataan sites and the Fall of Bataan.
NOTE: This was originally published as http://news.abs-cbn.com/life/04/09/17/mark-the-75th-anniversary-of-the-death-march-with-this-road-trip