The first time I visited our factory in the Philippines, I was mainly on a work trip and, although I enjoyed many of my surroundings just as a tourist would, I didn’t really have the time or the freedom to fully absorb the significance of the area. Our factory is located on the Bataan peninsula, and if that name sounds vaguely familiar it’s because of the infamous Bataan Death March of WWII. I capitalize it because it wasn’t just a typical wartime event, it was widely-condemned war crime for which several Japanese leaders were summarily executed shortly after the war.
In 1942 American and Filipino forces held the Philippines but as the Japanese foothold in the Pacific strengthened, the Philippines came under fire and Manila was evacuated and became a ‘free city’, at least in the sense that the Japanese were free to move their forces in unopposed. The Allies, under the direction of General MacArthur, moved to the Bataan peninsula to guard their strategically-placed fuel and armament stations. It was thought that allied forces could hold off the Japanese until the US pacific fleet could fight their way to the Philippines but due to the damage it sustained in the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the allies were left on their own to fight a battle they couldn’t win. They eventually surrendered to the Japanese.
The allies numbered around 75,000 with the majority of them being Filipino, the rest mainly American. They were immediately stripped of weapons and all personal effects and herded into POW camps located in Marivelles, where we now manufacture our backpacks. From there, the hell began. They were forced to march 102km through sweltering jungle without food or water, a journey that took roughly a week. The weak and injured who lagged behind were crushed under the merciless tracks of Japanese tanks. In the end roughly 25% of the allied soldiers never reached their destination.
Bataan today is quiet and there are few remnants of the war, although it is easy to imagine the intense jungle fighting that occurred here. I suppose the battle nowadays has become as economic one, and one that Japan’s ruthless attitude seems well suited to. But the closer you look, the more you see. What looks like an ordinary road marker to the unobservant, is actually a Bataan Death March marker, noting the distance they had marched from Marivelles. They are actually fairly gruesome markers, depicting 2 soldiers; one crawling and one barely standing yet trying to help his compatriot. Both would likely have been killed. These days, there is an annual race – no, not the Bataan Death Race – the Bataan 102. It almost seems crazy that endurance runners would attempt such an unnecessarily arduous trip, but they do, and for many its more than just a test of their will and stamina – its reverence to fallen ancestors and to the Americans who died to keep their country free.
I didn’t find much else in the way of war evidence, although I didn’t venture into the hills. Undoubtedly, there are still burnt tanks, artillery placements, and thousands of undiscovered human remains in those thick jungles. Just this year, a Japanese bomber known in WWII folklore for its part in a famous air-to-air battle was discovered high on Mt Samat, directly above Marivelles. The skeletized Japanese pilot was still in his seat, samurai sword at his side. The US pilot who shot him down and who was in turn shot down is still in those jungles, waiting for his turn. The search for him continues to this day and the remaining WWII ex-pats who now reside in Bataan will never cease searching or remembering.
People in Bataan carry on their day to day lives as if none of this ever happened but I wonder how many of them still say prayers for the fallen soldiers in this ultra-Christian country. I know that during my visit my thought often drifted to this time and it made an impact on me. Some people might say that its water under the bridge, or that we should let bygones be bygones, and its true that holding grudges is not productive in any way, but on the other hand, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.