In Their Footsteps

Retracing the route of captured American and Filipino soldiers on the Bataan Peninsula in World War II, the author grapples with their sacrifice

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On a sun-scoured, early summer morning in Mariveles, a seaport town at the tip of the Philippines’ BataanPeninsula where jungled mountains kneel to the sea, the temperature quickly rises above 100 degrees. The tide is low; the few fishing boats not already out for the day have been left tilting on the beach of the inner harbor, their outriggers turned against the pale blue sky like the ribs of a skeleton lying on its back. Beneath the grounded boats, crabs scuttle for food across the mud under every wooden hull.

This is where it began, the ordeal we have come to know as the Bataan Death March. In this place I am about to begin retracing a tragic, heroic chapter of World War II.

Sweat pours off my face and onto my notebook as I copy words off a bronze plaque at the start of the Bataan Death March. Thousands of “Filipino and American troops were marched day and night, under blistering sun or cold night sky.” In December 1941, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched a lightning-fast aerial assault on the Philippines. American and Filipino troops mounted a courageous defense of this densely forested peninsula. But after four months, the unprepared and undersupplied Allied troops were left so wholly destitute that they had no choice but to surrender. According to 92-year-old Manuel Armijo, an American who was with the 200th Coast Artillery in Bataan in 1942, “We had lots of weapons, but we didn’t have any ammunition.”

Beneath the withering sun, I set out on the 65-mile route those soldiers followed more than 60 years ago. From Mariveles, on April 10 of that year, some 70,000 Allied prisoners of war—about 14,000 Americans; the rest Filipino— commenced a deadly forced march into the jungle. Their destination was a former Filipino Army training base, CampO’Donnell. Nearly one in six of the marchers would not arrive. (Of those who did, most would be shipped out over the next few months to other Japanese prison camps.)

The story of Bataan is one of those episodes in American history many are reluctant to acknowledge, implying as it does a betrayal of American troops by a succession of commanders who abandoned them to their fate. Americans had occupied the Philippines for more than 40 years—since 1898, plenty of time to prepare adequate defenses on these strategic islands. The Japanese threat had been clear for years. Yet the roughly 25,000 Americans under the Philippine command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur had only begun to train more than 100,000 green Filipino troops for combat when a force of 50,000 Japanese came ashore on December 22, 1941, quickly overrunning Manila. MacArthur had ordered the evacuation of the city, advising his headquarters and staff to retreat to CorregidorIsland in ManilaBay, 30 miles away. The bulk of his troops and the untrained Filipino forces withdrew along ManilaBay into the mountainous BataanPeninsula north and west of the city. From January to April 1942, Allied troops on the island fortress of Corregidor and in Bataan were pounded relentlessly by artillery and small-weapons fire. With access to weapons and supplies cut off and a location less defensible than Corregidor, the Bataan troops were the first to collapse. On April 9, 1942, Maj. Gen. Edward P. King Jr. turned over more than 70,000 men under his command to Japan as prisoners of war. “In the end,” says Steve Waddell, a military historian at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, “what happened at Bataan came down to an underestimation of the enemy. We were training the Filipinos for what appeared to be a coming war, and we were cut off from our stores of weapons and provisions, which filled warehouses in Manila. Under those conditions, collapse becomes [only] a matter of time.”

Today, on the National Road from Mariveles to the city of San Fernando, most of it highway, crowded towns and housing subdivisions have largely replaced the banana trees and jungles of World War II. In daylight, the road is choked with trucks, cars and smoke-belching, sidecar motorcycle taxis. Small hotels, family-run groceries and wayside colddrink stands crowd the highway’s shoulders.

Passing by the huge Dunlop Slazenger sports manufacturing facility at the edge of Mariveles, I walk beneath spreading acacia trees, nodding to fishermen who mend green nylon nets on the shady sidewalk. I am really sweating now; it cascades down my arms and drips from my fingertips. But at least I am not sick and weak from four months of jungle fighting and skimpy rations, as were most of the surrendered Allied troops. Ahead, the narrow Zig-Zag Road, a series of switchbacks, begins its long, steep climb up the escarpment. After an hour’s walk dodging a steady stream of vehicles, I reach the top of the rise where, mercifully, a cool breeze blows in from ManilaBay. From here, I can see the green peaks of Corregidor ten miles out at sea.

After the fall of Manila, MacArthur retreated to this rocky island fortress. Then, two and a half months later, on March 11, 1942, he abandoned Corregidor and some 11,000 American and Filipino troops on the island to take command of the Allied Australian Theater at Brisbane, famously vowing: “I shall return.” On May 6, Gen. Jonathan Wainright would be forced to surrender Corregidor to the Japanese. Most of Wainwright’s men would be sent north of Manila to the Japanese-run prisons at Cabanatuan. According to historian Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers, a best-selling history of the Philippines in World War II, “After the war, many soldiers from Bataan came to resent the men from Corregidor who, they would learn, generally had better food, better living conditions and a far lower incidence of malaria than troops on Bataan. Everyone suffered mightily in the battle for the Philippines, but the Bataan guys got the worst.” As for MacArthur, he did return—but not until the October 1944 invasion of Leyte.

I am breathing hard. Just ahead on the roadside’s right shoulder, a whitewashed cone rising to about three feet carries a mounted plaque embossed with two angular black figures, one trudging forward, the other fallen. The plaque reads: “Death March 7KM.” Seven kilometers. Just over three miles. Amere 62 to go.

The sun beats down relentlessly. Twelve miles along, after passing through the town of Cabcaben, I top another rise. At a bamboo-latticed roadside stand, a shirtless Filipino man named Aurelio is selling freshly harvested coconuts from behind a makeshift plywood counter.


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