In Their Footsteps- page 3 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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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

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In Pilar, a man slows his motorcycle and pulls alongside of me. “Here, have a mango,” he says in a mix of Spanish and English, handing me the fruit and roaring off. It’s mango season in the Philippines, a sort of unofficial holiday period where, for a month, it seems that everyone is eating mangoes. Other than Aurelio, the coconut seller 15 or so miles back, the mango man is the only Filipino along the route who acknowledges my existence. Only later will my Filipino friend Arlen Villanueva offer an explanation.

“They think you’re CIA,” he says. “During Ferdinand Marcos’ regime, when the U.S. Naval Base at Subic Bay was still in commission, Bataan was thick with the NPA, the New People’s Army, a Communist rebel organization. The NPA posed a threat to Subic and the Americans there. Consequently, CIA agents were all over the peninsula, trying to gather counterinsurgency information. The people living here today would not act against you, but old memories die hard. They will keep their distance.”

After covering perhaps 15 miles, I cross into tidal marshlands on a highway elevated above the swamp. Soon I come upon another Death March marker: 75 kilometers, about 45 miles. Just beyond it, boys sell crabs in stacks of three, wrapped tight with string, from bamboo-and-plywood stands. On the outskirts of Bacolor, a community three miles southwest of San Fernando, the landscape turns eerie: much of it is covered in a layer of thin, white ash. Bacolor, I learn, was directly in the path of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption. The lava flows and volcanic-ash fallout hastened the closing, in 1992, of American military bases at Subic Bay and nearby Clark Field. As I pass the town’s reconstructed houses, now built on up to 15 feet of once-smoldering rock and ash, the roofs of still-buried shops, houses and churches jut from the grayish soil like buildings in a flood. More than a decade after the disaster, huge earthmovers and front-end loaders are still scooping ash.

It was near here, in San Fernando, that surviving POWs began what they called the Bataan Death ride, packed so tightly into narrow, 1918-vintage boxcars that there was no room to sit or even to fall down during the four-hour, 24-mile trip to the town of Capas. Dozens died of suffocation in the airless, rolling ovens. From Capas, the soldiers were forced to make a six-mile hike to CampO’Donnell, established just a few years earlier as a training post for the Filipinos.

By the time the men reached CampO’Donnell, at least 11,000 of the 70,000 had died along the way. Conditions in the camp were primitive. There was little shelter, sanitation or fresh water. (Only one spigot worked.) During the first three months at the camp some 1,500 Americans and 20,000 Filipinos would die of dysentery, malaria and malnutrition. “CampO’Donnell was an absolutely horrific place,” says Sides. “American soldiers had not experienced conditions so wretched since Andersonville prison camp during the Civil War. Of O’Donnell, one prisoner wrote that ‘Hell is only a state of mind; O’Donnell was a place.’ ”

No trains go to Capas these days; the tracks have disappeared, torn up or paved over as urban sprawl spread from Manila, 60 miles away. My friend Arlen Villanueva, who works as a driver, was born near CampO’Donnell and knows its history; he will take me there in his van, following the renamed MacArthur Highway north along the route of the former rail line. “There’s not much left of the old war here,” he says. “History has been covered by Pinatubo’s ash or obliterated by development. It’s strange how the past and its artifacts can vanish.”

At Capas, we turn onto a smaller road that winds pleasantly through small barrios of low stucco houses bordered by flame trees and red-flowering bougainvillea. Ahead, on the left, just past Marker 112, we come to a triangular marble monument built recently by the Philippine government in honor of veterans living and dead. The Capas National Shrine, as it is called, rises into the twilight sky. Then, just ahead, a yellow road sign reads, “Caution: Tank Crossing.” We have arrived at CampO’Donnell.

With its chain-link fence and a single structure—a whitepainted headquarters building—the camp looks like an army training outpost at the end of a long road in the middle of nowhere—pretty much just what it is. Beyond it, terraced hills lead to volcanic mountains. When Arlen and I explain why we’ve come here to an MP standing at a gate, he nods.

“There’s nothing left of the Death March concentration camp,” says the MP, Sgt. A. L. Dacibar. “But let me telephone headquarters to see if you can look around.” He steps into his guard shack for a moment. “OK,” he says, “you’re free to explore a bit.”

Inside, I stare across grassy hills shaved of trees. Sixty years ago Americans and Filipinos labored here virtually as slaves—burying their own dead—with little food and water. They had no medical care and were entirely cut off from the outside world. Survivor Manuel Armijo recalls that when he had first arrived in the Philippines in 1941, he tipped the scales at 150 pounds. After several months at CampO’Donnell, he says, “I weighed 80 pounds. We never got anything other than rice to eat, and didn’t get much of that. I also had long-term cases of dysentery, malaria and dengue fever.”

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