During sem breaks in college, we often passed by Mt. Samat on our way to vacation at the Philippine Westinghouse compound where engineers and their families were housed while they attended to the nuclear power plant in Napot Point, Morong, Bataan. I think that at one time I had a quick glimpse of the giant cross on top of Samat called, Banatayog ng mga Bayani.
Then decades later, when I already had a family and my youngest son was almost in high school, we went there for a field trip. You have to be less busy to be able to go with your kids to a field trip and there relax.
I didn’t think anything was exciting about a giant cross on top of a mountain. “So what?” I asked myself. Thus, I decided I was going to stay in the bus while the field trip group went up the cross. I’d just take a nap in the air-conditioned bus.
After hours of road travel (and after 3 sleeps on the bus while the tour guide talked for hours explaining things to the pupils and making us all participate in his games) we finally arrived at Mt. Samat, Bantayog ng mga Bayani (heroes’ monument) or Dambana ng Kagitingan (Marker of Bravery) on Samat Road in Pilar, Bataan.
On Top of a Hill
The bus climbed a zigzag road until we reached the top of a hill overlooking an expanse of lower hills, mountain ranges and forests. Farther beyond, you saw part of the West Philippine Sea. Wow, we’ve just stepped out of the bus and already the experience was exhilarating! It was cool up there and clouds glided lowly above our heads. But still, I wasn’t in a mood to climb up giant crosses. I’d rather stay behind and enjoy the scene below—or take a nap.
So the field trip party went up and left me and some bus drivers on the hill. You had to negotiate up a steep, zigzagging climb to get to the foot of the giant cross. How many steps was that? I think 300 to 400 steps, if I remember right. All they said was “14 flights” of stairs. I thought that was misleading. No, thanks. I wanted a simple, quiet life. But later, I learned that I could go up a bit higher some flight of stairs to enjoy more sights at the Colonnade. Okay, that was tolerable. So I went up the Colonnade.
Then I Seemed to Hear the Fierce Skirmishes
At the marble-clad Colonnade, you enjoyed a really breath-taking view of everything. I looked up the gigantic cross and wondered what could be seen from up there. Probably more. Some folks around told me there was actually an elevator inside the cross that took you to the lateral wings of the cross which were view decks. “Really?” I said rather nonchalantly, trying to hide my frustration. I should have gone with the field trip group up the cross! I mean, this might be once in a lifetime!
I’m a guy easy to pacify, so I just walked around and satisfied myself with the wall murals on the Colonnade. There were descriptions explaining what happened there in World War II when the Japanese launched its deadly assault against the joint forces of Filipino and American soldeirs. The Japanese navy fleet came crushing through the island fortress of Corregidor that guarded the entrance from the West Philippine Sea. The Japanese had just demolished Pearl Harbor and was now invading the Philippines, probably on its way to attack Australia next.
Then I read somewhere that this exact spot where I was standing on was the same spot where the Filipinos and Americans last stood their ground. They had tried to defend the Philippines from the formidable Japanese Imperial Army starting from Corregidor to the shores of Bataan. But Bataan fell that 9th day of April 1942 and Corregidor on May 6. They retreated gradually through hills and valleys and forests until they climbed up this steep hill and decided to defend it with their lives without further retreating. I turned to the direction of the sea and looked at the vast expanse of land where the valiant Filipinos and Americans slowly retreated. What an effort!
I visualized how they carried along their badly wounded comrades, the dying and the sick, at the same time firing back at the advancing Japanese or being hit themselves. I “saw” how many of them were hit by bullets, some thrust with bayonets when they tried to engaged the enemy man-to-man to somehow delay their advance, and some sliced by sharp and glinting samurai swords.
Then suddenly, I seemed to be right in the middle of it all. I “heard” the cries of dying soldiers and the shouts of army commanders motivating their men to stand their grounds. I “saw” Filipino soldiers bravely accepting their fate and firing at the enemy even when they were outnumbered and short of ammunition. I “watched” some of them open their wallets or kept pendants to see for the last time the pictures of their loved ones before finally succumbing to the enemy.
And then finally the enemy rounded them up and caught them. That was the prelude to the horrifying Death March. I tried to picture the faces of young, idealistic Filipinos falling into the hands of cruel invaders, and dying horrible deaths in the Death March. They were among 60,000 to 80,000 Fil-American prisoners of war that met their deaths along the way. They never had a family of their own. Some of them probably had girlfriends. Some engaged to be married. Only a few escaped or survived.
Then suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder. “Hi uncle!” It was my nephew. “We’re all inside the buses and we’re waiting for you to hop in,” he told me, smiling. He brought me back to 2016 from 1942. I felt tired—probably it was the anguish and exhaustion of a fallen, patriotic Filipino soldier standing his ground no matter what.