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