Converging on Capas: The Bataan Death March Memorial

Bataan death march memorial

Bataan death march memorial (Photo credit: Jeff Youngstrom)

The Second World War remains an abstract concept for most young Filipinos. We learn about the facts and dates from books and classes. We may look at some pictures, browse a museum exhibit, or at best pay a visit to a historical site. But it’s an entirely different matter to actually meet a war veteran, someone who has lived through hell and more. To be in the presence of these warriors and survivors is enough to make history seem real in a way that words never could. Their bodies may be frail, but their spirits are resilient, burning with a fierce pride that cannot be extinguished by age nor neglect. Today they fight a different war, the battle to keep their legacy alive. Taking up the flag of their cause is the Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (DBC) Foundation, a group founded in 1952 and sustained by those who took part in those legendary battles and their descendants, all without financial support from the government or dues from its members. As the original members dwindle in number due to the inevitable, the struggle to maintain the group’s fervor mounts.

The DBC has been most visible in organizing regular activities and gatherings for its members. At these events, old comrades reconnect, reminisce over their adventures and ordeals, and pay tribute to the fallen and departed. Their activities climax during the yearly commemoration of Araw ng Kagitingan or Veterans’ Day in the Philippines, every April 9, the anniversary of the surrender of the combined US and Philippine forces to the Japanese in 1942. During the week-long tribute to war heroes, the veterans and such notable officials as the President of the Philippines, the US Ambassador, and Japanese Ambassador visit the various shrines erected around the country in honor of those who fought, suffered, and sacrificed their lives.

Remembering Capas

One such memorial is the Capas National Shrine (Paggunita Sa Capas) in Capas, Tarlac. The area of the shrine originated as a cantonment center for military training of Filipino youth in 1941. On July 15, 1941, on orders from US President Roosevelt, it became a mobilization center for the 71st Division, Philippine Army, USAFFE. After the fall of Bataan, the camp was transformed into a POW Camp in mid-April 1942. Renamed Capas POW Camp, an estimated 60,500 Filipino and American POWs were marched here, sick and dying from disease, injuries, and maltreatment. By July 25, 1942 an estimated 30,000 had died here. The camp became part of the Clark Air Base Military Reservation, and then was turned over to the Philippine Government on April 9, 1982.

Wall of names at the Bataan Death March Memorial at Camp O’Donnell (Photo credit: ReverendMungo)

A proclamation by then President Corazon Aquino in December 1991 kicked off the conversion of the site into the shrine it is now. Built and maintained by the Philippine government, the shrine stands as a monument to the Filipino and American soldiers who died in

Camp O’Donnell at the end of the Bataan Death March. Encompassing 54 hectares of parkland, 35 hectares have been planted with rows of trees to represent each of the fallen. Last April 9, 2003, a new memorial wall of black marble and a 70-meter tall obelisk were unveiled. The memorial wall is engraved with the names of the Filipinos and Americans known to have died there,  as well as statistics about the total numbers of prisoners and deaths, and poems extolling peace. The wall is divided into three segments to represent the Filipino, American, and Japanese people. The obelisk’s soaring height is meant to signify all those groups’ great desire for world peace. The tall black structure stands as the shrine’s centerpoint, towering over the grounds of the former interment camp and visible from the entire Capas area. A small monument built by an American group calling themselves the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” honoring the American war casualties, a museum, and meeting area also lie within the area.

English: Battling Bastards of Bataan Memorial ...

English: Battling Bastards of Bataan Memorial at Camp O’Donnell, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Lay of the Land


On the way to and from the shrine, one can follow the path delineated by the Bataan Death March Markers. The final mileage markers of the death march are located outside the shrine, at kilometers 111, 100 and 109. Each marker was donated by a private individual or organization and is listed on the rear of the marker. The front indicates the mileage of the death march, with 0 km being the start at Bataan.

The Esplanade is a wide paved walkway extending from the shrine’s main gate to the central obelisk area, with a line of flag poles stretching on either side. It is reminiscent of the Mall in Washington DC, except that in this case the obelisk is black with striking carved flourishes instead of plain white. Surrounded by lush greenery, the dramatic lines and perspectives struck by the various monumental elements create an atmosphere of both serenity and majesty.

To the east of the Esplanade is a field containing a replica of a POW Camp constructed for the 2003 dedication. The replica includes two guard towers and a prisoner’s quarters building. To the west is the nature park with rows of trees planted as living memorials and also to promote environmental consciousness. A few kilometers from the shrine itself is the new Camp O’Donnell which now serves as one of the headquarters for the modern-day Philippine army.

Underneath the obelisk at Bataan Death March Memorial at Camp O’Donnell (Photo credit: ReverendMungo)

One of our guides around the shrine was Defender Atty. Rafael Estrada, Founder and First Supreme Councilor of the DBC, a survivor of the prison camp and a highly respected driving force among all the veterans. He proudly toured us around the garden planted and tended by the DBC Foundation, nimbly crossing the hanging bridge that dangles over the river from which he and his fellow prisoners took their water. “We owe this river our life,” he stated, pointing out that after the memorial, the bridge is the most visited spot within the shrine. Veterans and survivors come to Capas to look back at an unforgettable period in their lives and bring with them their children and grandchildren to make them better appreciate our current freedoms. Generations have been raised with an ever-fading memory of the war, and it takes a trip to monuments such as these to put history into sharp focus. From around 50,000 survivors after the war, the DBC can now muster only around 400 at each get-together. But even when these hardcore old-timers have been laid to rest, awaiting the low clear reveille of God, the DBC is sure to keep soldiering on, for generations to come.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2007

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