The foundations of four concrete pillars are all that remain of the original structures, and rice fields cover most of the land where the prison camp once stood.
But the place still holds hard memories for thousands of American servicemen who fought the Japanese here 40 years ago. For some it was the end of the line after the infamous Bataan death march--in which 10,300 U.S. and Philippine prisoners died. For others it was a transit point to prison camps elsewhere, including Manchuria and Japan.
For the survivors, Cabanatuan above all was a place to be remembered, a place where 3,100 GIs died between May 1942 and February 1945, making it the worst prisoner-of-war camp for Americans since Andersonville during the Civil War, according to U.S. veterans' groups.
Earlier this month about 250 U.S. veterans and more than 1,000 Filipinos gathered here to honor their dead comrades. In a simple ceremony, the American and Philippine flags were raised, then lowered to half-staff above a marble monument marking the site of the Cabanatuan camp and inscribed "to remind mankind of man's inhumanity to his fellow man."
The ceremony capped a week commemorating the 40th anniversary of the fall of Bataan and Corregidor. Along with the Americans and Filipinos, nearly 200 Japanese veterans also took part in the Philippine-sponsored "reunion for peace" and made excursions to the former battlegrounds, sites of some of the most desperate fighting in World War II. But in a reminder that some memories die hard even after four decades, the Japanese stayed away from the ceremony here.
Some of the organizers feel this might be the last such reunion. According to retired Air Force Brig. Gen. William Hipps of St. Petersburg, Fla., it was decided to make a major occasion of the 40th anniversary because "we were concerned that at the 50th anniversary there would be so few people left."
For the most part, the veterans of the three countries observed the theme of the commemoration and many agreed to be photographed together at battle sites on the Bataan Peninsula and the island fortress of Corregidor. But there were also difficult moments and the Japanese largely kept to themselves.
"I didn't want to have anything to do with them," said Joe H. Clements, a retired Navy chief warrant officer who survived the death march and the Cabanatuan camp. "I know it's over, but they gave me a bad time for three years."
The death march began when about 75,000 beleaguered U.S. and Philippine troops, out of food and ammunition after a three-month defense of Bataan, surrendered to the Japanese invaders. The route from Bataan to central Luzon included a forced march of 85 miles and another 40 miles in crowded railway cattle cars. Thousands died of exhaustion and lack of food and water in the intense heat and humidity.
By late 1942, the Japanese had freed the Filipinos and sent about 6,000 Americans to the Cabanatuan prison camp. Disease, hunger, overwork and executions took a heavy toll. In the last months of the war, about 2,000 remaining prisoners here were shipped to Japan. Hundreds suffocated or starved in crowded holds or drowned when U.S. planes and submarines attacked the unmarked prison ships.
About 500 U.S. servicemen, considered too feeble or sick to work in Japan, were kept here after November 1944, virtually abandoned to die, according to survivors. This gave rise to one of the most daring raids of the war, in which 100 U.S. rangers backed by Philippine guerrillas penetrated 27 miles behind Japanese lines and liberated the camp on Jan. 30, 1945, after a battle with Japanese guards. With the loss of only two rangers and one POW who died of heart failure, the commandos then brought the prisoners back out through enemy territory.
Recalling the rescue, former POW John Culp pointed to a place in a rice field about 100 yards from the new monument.
"Over there was what we called the 'death ward,' " he said. "I was one of the few people to walk out of there." At the time, he said, he was near death from malaria, dysentery, beriberi, pellagra and scurvy.
Another former POW, retired Navy Cmdr. Samuel B. Moody, lived through the death march, Cabanatuan, a 33-day trip on a Japanese prison ship and work camps in Manchuria and Japan. Moody, secretary of the Cabanatuan Memorial Committee that conceived the idea for the monument, said he bore no ill will toward the Japanese. In fact, he said, he was proud that he and other U.S. prisoners had prevented British and Canadian POWs from killing their guards at a prison in Japan at war's end.
The commemoration underscored the longstanding bond between the United States and the Philippines, as old veterans from the two countries reminisced.
For many, that bond of a shared resistance is perhaps still best exemplified by the words broadcast from Corregidor by Philippine defenders on the day of defeat in April 1942.
"The world will long remember the epic struggle that Filipino and American soldiers put up in these jungle fastnesses and along the rugged coast of Bataan," the broadcast said.
"Bataan has fallen, but the spirit that made it stand--a beacon to all the liberty-loving peoples of the world--cannot fall."