Retracing the last 10 kilometers of the Bataan Death March

It was 4 a.m. when we arrived at the converging place. I instantly felt the cool morning air starting to diminish as the hour inches its way to sunrise. Members of the Philippine Armed Forces, war veterans, their families, sociocivic groups, government employees, Automobile Association of the Philippines (AAP) members and volunteers quickly filled the grounds of People’s Park in Tarlac. While the revving engines of military AUVs and footsteps of army boots sound off, a familiar and respected figure took to the stage and was handed a microphone to address the crowd.

The Capas Shrine honoring our courageous WWII veterans

It was then I caught sight of former Philippine and Korean war veteran former President Fidel V. Ramos (FVR)—still brimming with energy, he quickly boosted the crowd from a state of half awakening into a lively mood by leading a morning exercise and reenacting his iconic Edsa People Power jump, to the raucous cheer of the crowd.

Still retaining that jovial, yet commanding, presence, FVR encouraged the crowd, composed of civilians and military, to join him in the Capas Freedom March to Capas National Shrine and commemorate the 75th anniversary of World War II’s infamous Death March.

FVR led the march for the first few hundred meters
Themed “March for a Veteran”, Ramos reminded the audience of the sacrifices made by WWII veterans.  As their numbers continue to dwindle through the years, he pointed out the importance for the younger generation to continue remembering their heroism. “Bravery runs in our blood,” FVR told the crowd.

3rd Capas Freedom March

Now on its third year, the Capas Freedom March retraces the last 10 kilometers of the 106-km ordeal of more than 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers after the surrender of Bataan. Flagellated and forced to walk by the Japanese Imperial Army, the surviving troops witnessed the deaths of numerous brother in arms along the way from Mariveles, Bataan, to San Fernando, Pampanga where they were hauled and packed like sardines into small train coaches and transported to their final destination: Camp O’Donell in Capas, Tarlac.

Soldiers and civilians joined the Freedom March 
Organized by the Department of National Defense-Philippine Veterans Affairs Office, AAP, Department of Tourism and the Tourism Promotions Board, in partnership with the province of Tarlac and the municipality of Capas, this year’s event further eternalizes the bravery and sacrifices of the Filipino WWII veterans.

A nation of the brave

As the march started and the multitude of participants paced the streets, FVR, even with his advancing age, led the walk for the first few hundred meters before he boarded a military truck. The 10-km distance seems short on paper, but it proved to be an exhausting one, especially under the scorching sun of an April morning. One can only imagine the torturous trail the WWII veterans endured in that tragic month of April in 1942.

Soldiers signing up for the freedom march
Almost a couple of hours later, we, the marchers, finally reached the Capas National Shrine—where a towering 70-meter obelisk surrounded by black marble walls etched with the names of the many fallen soldiers of WWII—looms imposingly and pointing to the heavens.

Stronger US ties

In his keynote speech, Ramos reiterated the need for a closer alliance with the US, despite latest news surrounding President Duterte’s criticisms of the meddling of the US in the country’s war on drugs.

FVR delivering an inspiring speech
“He [Duterte] may not know it, but I’m sure he will know it very quickly that the Americans have always been our most sincere, devoted, patriotic and fearless allies in war and peace,” Ramos said, as he acknowledged the role played by our country’s longest ally since WWII. Ramos also explained that in the ensuing peace-time years, the US remained as our biggest economic, security and diplomatic partner.

According to Ramos, the real war today is not only exclusive to terrorism. He cited the clear and present threat of global warming, poverty and the menace to human health—as the wars we must wage against with the help of the global community.

A special landmark

AAP Travel Chairman and former Tourism Secretary Dr. Mina Gabor underscored the significance of the Capas National Shrine as a special landmark and expressed her hopes that this annual commemoration of WWII veterans will snowball into bigger events in the future. She explained how this year’s Capas Freedom March successfully integrated with two other Philippine Veterans Affairs Office-sanctioned events—the Bataan Freedom Run and the Padyak Para sa Kagitingan. Gabor also encouraged the audience and organizers to continue to support the annual Capas Freedom March not only to raise awareness about the bravery of our WWII veterans but also to promote domestic tourism. Encircling an area measuring 54 hectares of lush parkland, the Capas National Shrine serves not only as a fitting memorial to our country’s fallen heroes, but also a reminder of our glorious and courageous past.

The Obelisk of the Capas National Shrine as seen from its foot
Surrounded by 35 has of reforested land—with rows of trees honoring each of the demised World War II veterans, the Capas National Shrine should be visited by every Filipino at least once in their lifetime.

“This memorial is dedicated to the brave men and women who defied the might of the invaders at Bataan, Corregidor and other parts of the Philippines during World War II. Thousands died in battle, during the Death March, and while in captivity. Thousands more endured inhuman conditions at the prison camp in Capas, Tarlac. They suffered in the night so that their countrymen would wake to the dawn of freedom,” the marker at the foot of the obelisk reads.

Fidel V. Ramos pointing the name of his uncle, a World War II veteran, MGen Basilio Valdes
Reciting these words at a time when our freedom isn’t threatened nor our lives in danger of being taken away by a foreign invader, one can only surmise the unmatched valor displayed by the greatest generation our country has ever seen during WWII. They lived through every bit of the horrors of war—for us—so that the successive generations will have to never experience even a minute of it. A visit to the Capas National Shrine to honor our war veterans who passed on is the least we can do to express our gratitude.

This article appeared on the May 21, 2017 issue of BusinessMirror