Philippines travel: Courage and legacy

The ferry back to Manila was very quiet.

Along the Death March

To drive Bataan's roads, to see its landscape, is to begin to know more fully the story of the Death March. Bataan fell April 9, 1942, and the Death March began soon thereafter. Troops were assembled along the road beginning at Mariveles, then a fishing village and now a nondescript industrial city of about 100,000 at the tip of the peninsula.

The Japanese were unprepared for the huge number of prisoners, and even today, the number of POWs isn't really known. Some say 100,000; others, 75,000. There were more Filipinos than Americans, but the Filipinos had a better chance of surviving an escape because they could blend into the villages.

What is known is that thousands who started the march didn't complete it. Already weakened, soldiers trudged under a blazing sun. Some died of heat stroke. Others, crazed by thirst, drank from drainage ditches, which further sickened them. Still others who staggered were executed on the spot.

On our way to the start of the march, we detoured up the winding road to Mt. Samat National Shrine, near Balanga. The elevator inside the 300-foot-tall cross shimmies up to a view of the peninsula. From this vantage point, the suffocating canopy of vegetation explains much about the nightmare of its defense.

From there, we drove to Mariveles, where the nightmare deepened. Kilometer 1 of the Bataan Death March is in Mariveles, and on this day, American and Filipino flags stretched out in a breeze. Plaques nearby describe the 66-mile march. The soldiers who survived walk to a railroad station, then embarked on a three-hour "death ride by cargo train," the plaques say. The boxcars, which could have accommodated perhaps 50 prisoners, were stuffed with three times that many. Many of them died gasping for breath.

Those who survived that torture began a final walk of nearly four miles that took them to Camp O'Donnell, a converted U.S. military facility at Capas. The Mariveles plaques describe it as "one of the most hellish concentration camps of World War II." The Japanese, who had never ratified the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners, had said they would follow the rules but did not. Thousands of prisoners died, sometimes scores each day, at O'Donnell. Some prisoners were sent to other camps and some to slave labor camps in Japan, but in all cases, the mortality rate was as shocking as the cruelty.

Markers that tick off every kilometer of the march may understandably be the wallpaper of everyday life, but each of these obelisk-shaped mini-monuments — at two, three, eight, 10 kilometers and onward — brought a growing sense of doom because by then I understood how wildly misplaced were King's hopes for mercy.

As we drove back to Manila, guide Edward Baguio mentioned that Americans usually mispronounce "Bataan." It has a glottal stop — a sort of throaty stutter — between the double A's. After spending the day here, I found the catch in the throat came naturally.

Standing together

The war's toll is still evident in ways large and small in Manila. The walls at Ft. Santiago, a historic stronghold where the Japanese imprisoned soldiers in underground dungeons, are pocked with bullet holes from fierce fighting. Indeed, the struggle to wrest Manila from the Japanese was so intense that the city, once called the Pearl of the Orient, was nearly destroyed. In fits of fury, Japanese soldiers slaughtered as many as 100,000 residents in what became known as the Manila Massacre.

This is the Manila my father saw in 1945. It was liberated but not yet free of the horror — and maybe never would be. And it was to Manila, to my puzzlement, he chose to return 19 years later as part of the mission to administer benefits to the Filipinos who fought for the U.S.

Why return to a country that, then or now, is charitably described as a developing nation? I pondered this on a Sunday morning in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, honoring killed or missing soldiers from across the Pacific theater. I read some of the 36,000 names of the missing soldiers inscribed on the walls of the circular memorial, and I walked among the headstones of the more than 17,000 graves: Sol Margolis of Ohio, Aug. 2, 1942; Junior L. Jackson of Tennessee, Nov. 9, 1944; Wilson Scott of California, Nov. 12, 1944. Other markers said simply, "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms, known but to God."

Filipinos fought for the United States at the hour of our greatest need. American servicemen and women gave their lives for freedom. They had stood by us. My father would stand by them. It was no more complicated than that.

In the silence of that Sunday morning, I saluted them all.