Around the Bataan Peninsula, there are Death March markers standing on every kilometer. Two meters high, each marker has an engraved plate with an image of a person, slumped and on the verge of collapsing. The markers pay tribute to the 75,000 Filipino and American troops forced to make a 65-mile march from Mariveles, the southern end of Bataan Peninsula, to the prison camps in San Fernando, Pampanga.
It was in the middle of World War II, and the U.S. had just surrendered to the Japanese in Luzon, Philippines, on April 9, 1942. Thousands perished along what became known as the Bataan Death March, a five-day ordeal under the intense heat and cruel treatment of the Japanese guards.
My grandfather, the late Vergel Dela Fuente, survived the Death March. A few years ago, my clan and I visited the relatives of Lolo (Tagalog for grandfather) in his hometown, Bataan. After seeing Mt. Samat National Shrine and the Bataan World War II museum, I said, “Tell us again about your Death March story.” Lolo told us the story a few times when we were kids, but it felt more significant after we saw real-life artifacts of the war.
“I worked for the American soldiers back then,” he said in Filipino. “I was in charge of picking up stray bullets and bullet shells.” He narrated how, during the surge of the Death March, he was able to blend in as one of the soldiers, thanks to the uniform he had on. He was able to gather his family and escape the grueling march. His siblings went on to rebuild their lives and raise families in Bataan, while my Lolo was sent to teach music and art in Daet, Camariñes Norte, where he met and fell in love with his fellow schoolteacher, my Lola, Evelina Dela Fuente.
That is all I remember of Lolo Vergel’s Death March story. He passed away on Christmas day in 2009, and all of his siblings are also long gone. I wish I listened more to Lolo’s stories, and asked him more questions about the war.
Last weekend I was in Bagac, Bataan, to attend a friend’s wedding. On our way home, I asked my friends Doj and Neil to help me spot the markers along the way. I wanted to pay my respects to the thousands of POWs and their families who perished in the Death March. I also wanted to pay tribute to my beloved grandfather.