It was a hot and dusty trek today to Mt. Samat on Bataan. But we mostly did it in air-conditioned buses - which were hot nevertheless. Nothing compared to the "Death March" made by 70,000 American and Filipino GI's 35 years ago, on April 9, 1942.
Today, nearly 200 American veterans, wives, and widows of Philippien campaigns and about 50 of their Japanese counterparts met at Mt. Samat and shook hands to heal the wounds of war. But mostly, the reminisced about battles lost and battles won.
Burt Ellis of Fredley, Midd., formerly of the 31st Infantry Regiment, looked out the window of the bus we were riding and pointed out battle scenes to his companions: "There were no houses on this road then."
Ellis, along with all other Allied troops on Bataan, surrendered and was forced to make the four-day Death March of more than 70 miles to internment camps in Tarlac Province to the east. Of some 60,000 taken prisoner, only 41,451 arrived at the camps. Only 20,308 came out alive at the end of the war.
Paul Nagurney of Niagara Falls, N.Y., the only surviving member of the 17th Signal Platoon, recalled the food in the camps: "The maggots in the rice. You had to close your eyes." He was transferred to an internment camp in Osaka, Japan, in 1944 and says, "It wa worse than the Philippine camps. At least in the Philippines you could keep warm."
One of the former Japanese soldiers who escorted the GI's on the march was Masaru Takeshita. He says that he was carrying a machinegun, walking alongside the Allied soldiers, and did not understand why they could not keep the pace since they had no guns to carry.
The reason they couldn't was that they were malnourished from eating only half-rations and most were ill with dysentery and malaria. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of all forces in the Philippines, withdrew his divisions - mainly raw Filipino recruits and American National Guardsmen - to the Bataan peninsula, hoping to tie down the Japanese in a six-month siege until reinforcements came. But he had failed to stockpile provisions for even a one-month siege. The troops ate all the horses of the 26th Cavalry Regiment, according to Nagurney.
Survivors who returned for the reunion here claim that MacArthur actually lost the Philippine campaign on the first day of the war - Dec. 8, 1941, on this side of the international dateline. They said that despite information on the outbreak of hostilities, he did nothing to protect his air forces.
The former governor of Indiana (1969-1973), Edgar Whitcomb, a B-17 navigator in 1941, explained: "We were confident that we could prevail in a matter of about six months - that we would have the situation wellin hand . . . But most of our planes (50 B-17s) were destroyed on the ground at Clark Field th first day of the war, and we were relegated to ground troops from that time to the fall of the Philippines."
Whitcomand 11,000 other troops surrendered on Correigidor a month after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor to fight to the death. Insdore Hanken, a veteran of Miami Shores, Fla., says: "I hated MacArthur because he thought he was God."
The commemorative marker at Mt. Samat, which is topped by a 275-foot cross, reads: "On thid ground gallant men chose to die rather than surrender." Some did, but most were too diseased, too poorly trained, and too poorly fed to have much stomach for fighting.
Had MacArthur accepted an earlier Japanese request to surrender his troops, many more would have lived, survivors say. They add that the stand at Bataan accomplished nothing, since the remainder of the country had already fallen under the Japaneseoccupation.
In a speech at today's anniversary rites, U.S. Ambassador Willian H. Sullivan concluded, "There are no solution in warfare . . . Warfare is not a proper instrument of national policy." Japan's charge d'affaires, Makoto Taniguchi, struck a different note when he said: "Every man needs a Bataan - an altar and a cross where he can pray." He went on to point out that "peace in out time' is indead illusive."
Yet it was clear that among the veterans and widows of both sides, there were painful memories not yet stilled. As Whitcomb, who had been tortured for weeks in a Manila dungeon, said "I just thank the Lord for making it possible for me to be here today and tobe alive."