The air was arid as the gunshot was fired close to 5 a.m., signaling the start of our 10-kilometer walk. Exhausted, sleepless, and nursing a bad foot, I felt the brunt of each step as we treaded the dark streets from People’s Park to Capas National Shrine.
Midway, the shooting pain crept up to my thigh, becoming my singular obsession. Hunger, sleep deprivation and the searing rays of the summer sun bore down as we moved from one Death March marker to another. When we reached our final destination in Capas two-and-a-half hours later, there was nothing but sheer relief at the sight of the shrine’s obelisk and the bed of grass to lay my aching legs on, knowing that our exhausting walk was over.
Yet, despite all that, me and the rest of the participants of this year’s Capas Freedom March were lucky. We knew for certain that there will be an end to all of it, hot breakfast and all. We could stop as desired.
For the 100,000 Filipino and American soldiers who were captured by the Japanese in the Bataan Peninsula on April 9, 1942, it was a grim, endless punishment marked by torture and starvation. During the Bataan Death March, they were forced to trek 188 kilometers from Mariveles to San Fernando, then another 8 km to the Camp O’Donnell concentration camp in Capas without food, water and sleep. Along the way, they were beaten for entertainment and those who fell to the ground were bayoneted.
Some escaped to the jungle, but some weren’t so lucky. At the tail end of the Death March, only 54,000 soldiers made it out alive. They were imprisoned and suffered three more years under the Japanese regime before the Philippines was liberated in 1945.
The Capas Freedom March, now on its second year, is a commemoration of all those sufferings that our forefathers endured during the World War II. Spearheaded by the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office, Municipality of Capas, Automobile Association Philippines and supported by the Province of Tarlac, the Department of National Defense, Department of Tourism (DOT) Region 3, Philippine Retirement Authority, Commission on Higher Education Region 3, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and the Metro Rail Transit Yellow Line, the event gathered around 2,000 participants on April 11, consisting of civilians and military groups—including American soldiers from the ongoing Balikatan exercise—each carrying the name of a veteran as they strode.
Lessons of war for the youth
Guided by the theme “March for a Veteran,” this year’s Freedom March intended to honor the noble service of World War II veterans by encouraging active participation of youth and civilians. Through the funds gathered from these annual events, the organizers hope to one day be able to build a replica of the actual concentration O’Donnell camp, as well as an on-site war museum.
AAP Travel Chairman Dra. Mina Gabor intimated, “The theme this year gives [the event] more sense of belongingness. Before, we enjoyed it, we felt it. But it’s so nice to say, ‘We’ve marched for you. Thank you for what you’ve done for us.’ It makes it more meaningful.”
During the program, World War II veterans, including Col. Ralph F. Liebhaber, United States Air Force (RET); and keynote event speaker, former President Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) shared insights and personal experiences during the war. According to Ramos, Capas and Bataan played a crucial part in preventing the invasion of Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific islands, inspiring a friendship among nations that must not be forgotten.
He also added that the event serves as a reminder of the sacrifices of Filipinos and Americans veterans so that its lessons may not be forgotten by younger generations. Among these valuable lessons, he says, is a citizen’s primary obligation to his country is to ensure a brighter and more progressive future for the people.
“You must weave for us, millennials, a better future where there is no more poverty, no more suffering because of conflict, no more hardship because of the lack of a job, food and water,” he related.
Gabor, who headed the DOT during Ramos’s presidential term, concurred and claimed that the bigger responsibility of guarding our freedom lies on the youth—reason organizers enlisted the participation of high school and college students, girl scouts and educators across Region 3.
“The young people should not forget. The fight is still ongoing. We have to make sure that the freedom we have today is enjoyed by future generations,” she commented.
Collective will for peace and unity
Ramos, who marched for his uncle, Major Simeon Valdez—a battalion commander for a guerilla resistance movement in Ilocos Norte against Japanese invaders—called for a collective effort toward solidarity and peace, citing that families and children are often the first and worst affected victims of war.
As the program ended, I remembered entering the shrine grounds and finding a tender moment when all civilians, American soldiers and Filipino military men—all strangers before this—communed on the grass and shared meals. I recalled Gabor quoting FVR that “This country cannot really go where it wants to go if we do not care about one another.”
From the looks of it, the road going there is not too far from sight.
The Capas Freedom March is an annual project sponsored by the Tourism Promotions Board Philippines, Globe Telecom, San Miguel Corp., Jollibee Foods Corp., North Luzon Expressway Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway and Tagum Agricultural Development Co. Inc. Official private and media partners include Philippine Airlines, Philippine Veterans Bank, ABS-CBN Sports+Action, ANC, Philippine Daily Inquirer and the BusinessMirror.