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

In Their Footsteps
Japanese tank column advancing in Bataan Wikimedia Commons

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.

“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.

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.”

Sergeant Dacibar turns out to be correct: there is nothing left of the tragedy that unfolded in this place.

On the drive back to San Fernando, Arlen suggests one last stop, back in Capas, close to the place where the POWtrain offloaded and the prisoners began their final push on foot. There is one more Death March memorial Arlen wants me to see. About two acres square, the site—just off the MacArthur Highway—consists of a circular driveway, raised grassy areas, and a 50-foot-tall, inverted V-shaped marble sculpture. At its base, a carving depicts emaciated men staggering, fallen.

Inside broken gates, flowering plants encircling the monument have died, and leggy weeds choke the lawn. The sculpture’s marble sheathing lies in shards, exposing a skeletal frame of concrete and rusting rebar. Water buffalo hoofprints in the dried mud suggest that livestock, not people, now congregate in this deserted precinct. The back of the monument is defaced by sexually explicit graffiti. Where the bas-relief depicts a Japanese soldier bayoneting an Allied soldier, birds have built shaggy straw nests in the concavities. The Death March has been consigned to the netherworld of our rapidly receding collective memory.

By making this journey into the past, and experiencing the heat and sweat along the way, I’ve tricked myself into believing that somehow I could better understand the suffering of those who came before me. In the end, though, the ordeal of the men who walked this route lies beyond words or even comprehension.

As I pick my way through briers toward the car, thick sheets of rain begin to cascade down.

“This is the first night of the monsoon,” Arlen says. “The rainy season is late. People will be putting buckets on their roofs tonight. It’s a cause for celebration.”

Walking from the ruined memorial through the year’s first downpour, the prospect of a celebration seems beyond imagining. “Let’s get out of here,” I say.

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