Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Old Photo Friday (Bataan, Philippines: 1982)

Friendship Tower of Bagac, Bataan, Philippines. 1982.

I found this while flipping through the old photo albums. It’s a picture of the Friendship Tower of Bagac in Bagac, Bataan, Philippines. It was dedicated in 1975 as a monument to peace and friendship between the Philippines and Japan.

I took the picture in spring 1982 with my old Kodak 110 Instamatic. I took three pictures of it and as soon as they came back, I taped them together to make this collage in an attempt to capture the whole thing. Not bad for an eleven-year-old.

We moved to Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines in 1979. In that time and place World War II was still close at hand. Only thirty-four years had passed, which to an eight-year-old represented several lifetimes but now doesn’t seem like much time at all. About the same as the span of years stretching from this moment back to ’82.

Physically, World War II was everywhere: relics, monuments and blood dried into the soil. In those years after Vietnam, I’m sure it was the war people on base preferred to remember. To a child, though, it existed in a dream world between heroic fantasy and rusted reality.

The fantasy came from books and stories seasoned with a little bit of Dungeons & Dragons-inspired battle romance. We read the books, enacted our war games wearing camouflage and rank insignia we’d pinched from our dads, and fought each other with mangos, avocados and guavas plucked from trees.

Despite the games, though, there was also the undeniable reality of the whole thing lingering in the air and throughout the jungle we were all strictly forbidden to enter. I remember one day hiking with my scout troop on Grande Island, a small resort—formerly a fort—island in the mouth of Subic Bay. We found an overgrown bunker facing toward the sparkling South China Sea complete with a gun emplacement rusted orange and ruined by years left to the rainy season’s whims. Had anyone fought there? Had anyone died?

Along the trail of the Bataan Death March. 1982

These were questions that rattled through my mind when I participated in the annual reenactment of the Bataan Death March by scout troops from throughout Southeast Asia. My troop participated each year, and I was as excited as could be in 1982, when I was old enough for several grueling days of hiking.

The real Bataan Death March occurred in 1942 when Japanese forces captured over 70,000 Filipino and American soldiers after the Battle of Bataan and marched them to prison camps. Along that route, thousands were killed or died of starvation and disease.

Forty years later, we camped on the beach, played D&D in our tents and each morning after breakfast, we were bused to wherever we’d left off the previous day to trace the route of the death march. I remember it as exhausting and yet throughout, I had the awareness that this was nothing next to what those victims and survivors of the real Bataan Death March endured.

Somewhere along those dusty Philippine roads my fascination with war turned to recoiling as I realized it was one thing to reenact battles with my friends, but quite another to walk endless miles along a trail of brutality, hopelessness and murder. I think it was then that the idea of war began to move from fantasy to nightmare as we walked through Bataan imagining the sheer horror of the reality our reenactment was meant to remember.

It was quite a walk for an eleven-year-old with a vivid imagination, but I think I learned more about the cost of war than I ever did from books or school.

Along the trail of the Bataan Death March. 1982

There’s another Old Photo Friday from 2006 featuring a picture from the Bataan Death March.


  1. how I wish all these boys that went to school with my oldest daughter — so many that we’ve stopped counting — could get a practice run before they sign themselves up to die, chasing dreams in the desert dust. maybe it wouldn’t all seem like just another video game to them then.

    I like your old pictures.

  2. where is that war memorial? i am from bataan but i never saw that tower..

    • Sherryl, The tower is in Bagac. It is The Friendship Tower of Bagac. It is a monument to peace between the Philippines and Japan, erected in 1975. I’ve edited this post to reflect this new research.

  3. Hi,
    My two sons james Micahel age 11, and John age 6, and I walked the Bataan Death March in 1977. We lived in Makati, Manila and my children attended the International school and the scout troop active in that school.
    We lived all over the world and I am now writing storeis about events and place from we lived. I just finished writing about our amazing feat—the Bataan Death March re-enactment. We walked from Mariveles to the summit of Moutn Samat. I also met some of the original walkers and two of the Filipino original walkers from 1942 worked for my husband in Makati

    sofiea elean

  4. What an amazing experience to be able to talk to those people.

    We stopped at Mt. Samat also. I wish I had taken some pictures there.

    Thanks for your comment.

  5. We were stationed at CLARK AB, THE PHILIPPINES from 1980-1983. My Girl Scout Troop was fortunate enough to participate in this, too.

    I remember it being brutally hot – however, we had water & the were not in fear of losing our life.

    I’m 40 now, but I’ll always remember that day.

    I pray for all the men who did not make it home, the men who survived and who have had to live with this. I pray now for our men and women who lovingly serve this country. My son being one.

    Thank you for posting this.

    Grown up AIR FORCE BRAT and Proud mother of an AMERICAN SOLDIER.

  6. I was in the P.I. from ’82 to ’84 as a dependent. I remember this!
    I can’t remember the troop number, was it 360? I remember a muscular, bald Marine who was a leader and hero figure for me. Was trying to track down troop and patrol info. Any help?

    • Hi Joe, thanks for you comment. You must have arrived around the time we left. It was Troop 360, but I don’t recall the scoutmaster you mention. I do however remember a lot of young Marines serving in leadership roles and like you I looked up to many of then.

  7. James,
    We arrived in July of ’82. I played soccer, football, and did scouting. ’83 was the Jamboree!

    I am in S. California now, and my son has just joined Cub Scouts. It is a legacy in the making.

  8. Matthew Reemelin

    December 11, 2012 at 2:31 am

    I was there in Subic 79,80,81. I died on the death march in 80 went with a cold and got sicker and sicker running from … wish I had pics. from that time but I do have our troop neckerchief and the Death March neckerchief and the medal. wish we could reproduce the troop t-shirt, and make a contact list from those days. I am an ASM and Webelos Den leader in Anchorage, Alaska Pack 316 Troop 1316 and my son is working on Star.

  9. I participated in the GSA & BSA Jamboree reenactment of the Bataan Death March in the summer of 1977. I remember having to audition to be part of the group. I asked my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Miller, to write a recommendation. I was surprised when she did (I was not an achiever =p) and I got to talk to the selection committee. and got to go. I’ve forgotten my GSA troop number and all but I recall wanting to quit on day one! We had to carry a full load (which was weighed, no cheating!) but we got frequent water breaks. I was scolded by one of the committee members for wanting to quit. Girls were quitting left and right. I grudgingly continued. It was fun. Wish I still had my GSA commemorative T-shirt. Good times… I didn’t realize the reenactment was an annual event.

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