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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

“You are following the Death March?” he asks.

“Yes,” I reply. “One coconut, with the top cut off.”

“OK.” Aurelio grabs a machete. With a flick of the wrist, he slashes into a coconut’s inner cavity, the clear milk running down the outer shell. He hands it to me. The juice is sweet, tart and cool. “Just remember,” he says, “at Limay this road splits to the right from the newer superhighway. Don’t go left, or you’ll miss the old route.” I hand over six pesos, the equivalent of about ten cents—the best dime I’ve ever spent.

Heeding Aurelio’s advice, I follow the road to the right nearing Limay; it drops down the hilltop into a valley of rice paddies. Amile in the distance sits the town’s cathedral and its harbor, where fishermen hew vintas, outrigger canoes, in a small boatyard. Following the road past recently harvested rice paddies in which water buffalo and oxen wallow, I spot a white-painted steel sign bearing the words “Death March Route.” As recently as the 1980s, I’m told, there was a marker for every kilometer. Not anymore.

About ten miles northwest of Limay, I come upon a green mountain that juts from the jungle. It is topped by a towering, 30-story-high concrete cross. This is MountSamat. Here, in April 1942, a fearsome Japanese artillery barrage, followed by an infantry attack backed up by armored tanks, finally crushed the weak, hungry American and Filipino soldiers. “The fall of MountSamat was the final blow to the Fil-American fighting forces,” says Sides. “After their battle lines collapsed, everyone knew that defeat was inevitable.”

On a marble monument, set on a grassy lawn below the cross, words etched into a wall pay tribute to the Allied soldiers who “spilled their blood on every rock” and hastily buried thousands of their dead in unmarked graves.

The monument, a small museum and the gigantic cross on MountSamat’s summit were all built by the Philippine government after the war. One can take an elevator from the cross’s base 242 feet up to an observatory platform, mounted at the point where the bars of the cross intersect. The vista extends in every direction—to ManilaBay and the steeply eroded, 4,000-plus-foot volcanic cones of MountMariveles and MountNatib—out to the vast sweep of the South China Sea.

After the surrender at MountSamat, the prisoners were trucked back to Mariveles for a procedure the Japanese called “registration,” and were divided into groups of 100 to 200 men to be dispatched over the coming days. By the time the prisoners reached MountSamat again, on foot, several days later, death was everywhere. Some Allied soldiers, felled by exhaustion or malaria, were bayoneted where they lay. The late Richard Gordon fought with the 31st Infantry at Bataan’s battlefront. He recalled seeing an American soldier, prostrate with disease and exhaustion, at the edge of the road as a column of Japanese tanks approached. Suddenly, the lead tank swerved from its path and crushed the soldier. “You stand there watching a human being get flattened,” Gordon once told me, “and, well, that sticks in your mind forever.”

I spend the night in BataanProvince’s capital city, Balanga, where the exhaust of thousands of taxis turns the air a smoky blue. It was not until Balanga that the POWs, having walked all day and into the night from Mariveles, were finally given water and allowed to rest.

By 7 the next morning, a day that dawns cooler, I loop back down to the town of Pilar, where there had been no accommodations the night before, and then head toward the settlements of Abucay and Orani. The road between these settlements is narrow and clogged with traffic, so I cover my mouth with a bandanna in a vain attempt to filter out the exhaust.

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