Mt. Samat Trip: Journey to Dambana ng Kagitingan in Bataan

It was a slow Saturday. The Friday before that was capped with a client dinner-meeting that extended until late at night. Add the trip home and it was already past midnight when we slept. The problem with having a regular waking hour is waking up on that particular hour; even if you don’t want to wake up to extend your rest hours.

At around 8 a.m., the question popped up – what are we going to do today? Equally as unexpected, the answer came easily – let’s go to Mt. Samat in Bataan. It’s a historical place. Its history is closely intertwined with that of Corregidor Island. And since we’ve long been to Corregidor, it’s only right that we take a trip to the Dambana ng Kagitingan (Shrine of Valor), found on top of Mt. Samat in the town of Pilar, province of Bataan.

We’ve been to farther places in the Philippines, as far as the southern cities and towns of Mindanao, but I’ve never been to Bataan. I don’t know the way going there, except the hunch that since it’s not towards the direction of Baguio, it could only be through Subic. Not knowing the directions, however, is never a hindrance in our wanderings.

Discovering the way, when already traveling towards a destination, is equally part of the journey.

So less than an hour after deciding to take the trip, we had breakfast, took a shower, packed little snacks for the road a bottle of water. We didn’t bring any change of clothes because we planned to go home in the evening.

Around 9 in the morning, we headed off for the North Luzon Expressway. We had no concrete idea which roads to pass, where to have lunch, where to drop by or where to have our stops (see Directions and Surprises in Mt. Samat Trip). We don’t even know where exactly in Bataan we could find the Dambana ng Kagitingan. All we know is our destination – Mt. Samat in Bataan.

The Death March

It’s easy to know that Mt. Samat is near — you’ll see the  Dambana ng Kagitingan even from a distance. And you’ll see the Death March markers along the way (see directions here).

When Bataan fell on April 9, 1942, it was just a matter of time that the last Filipino-American stronghold in Corregidor would fall. The Philippines would commemorate April 9 as an annual holiday – Araw ng Kagitingan or Day of Valor, also known as the Bataan and Corregidor Day. On May 6, 1942, after months of heavy bombing, the little island of Corregidor surrendered.

Around 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers surrendered.

Only around 54,000 reached the destination after what is now infamously known as the Death March. Many more died in the prison camps.

The prisoners marched from Bataan to prison camps in San Fernando (Pampanga) and Capas (Tarlac). The more than 100-kilometer walk was characterized by inhumane physical abuse and murder. Deprivation of food and water, throat slitting, casual shooting, bayonet stabbing, beheading, disembowelment. Those who helped the sick and the injured are attacked by the Japanese military. They are “more fortunate”, though, for those they tried to help are killed.

Today, the path of suffering is marked by white markers, designating the kilometer number. The intersection that leads to Mt. Samat is kilometer 19 (see also Kilometer 100 in Clark).

After visiting the Dambana ng Kagitigan, which we shall discuss more later, we took a left turn at the intersection of kilometer 16 marker, then headed straight to Morong. It seems a more circuitous way to Subic but since it’s a road we haven’t traveled before, it’s fair game.

I’m not sure if Robel intentionally made us pass through Morong, even if the longer route, because a welcome surprise awaits. From the intersection at Mt. Samat, the countdown of the Death March markers continued, ending at the Philippine-Japan Friendship Tower in the town of Bagac, Bataan.

It’s hard to miss the the Philippine-Japan Friendship Tower. The ghostly white-colored Death March markers, which appear to float with the green foliage background, count down to this very spot. This is ground zero. More importantly, the Tower lies in the middle of a major road fork. Go left and head on to the town proper of Bagac. Head right and you’re on your way to the town of Morong, then Subic. See map and directions.

Let’s backtrack a bit and talk about the central topic of this post — the Dambana ng Kagitingan.

Dambana ng Kagitingan: Our Mission is to Remember

There are three places of interest at the shrine. First is the altar hall, found right after going in from the gate. Second is the area around the base of the Memorial Cross. Third is the view from the top of the Memorial Cross.

Entrance fee is P20 for Filipinos, P10 for children, P30 for foreigners and P10 for car parking. There’s a parking space at the gate and another parking area at the top of Mount Samat, just beside the foot of the huge cross.

Touring hour is from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but the elevator operator takes a lunch break, from 12 noon to 1 p.m. We arrived at around 12:02, which means we have to wait for a while and miss our lunch date in Subic.

We didn’t know there’s an elevator that takes you from the foot of the cross up to the arms of the cross (another P10 for the elevator ride). Not for the claustrophobic. Not for those scared of heights. The view from up there is truly breathtaking, until you remember that you’re standing on a small piece of enclosure standing 555 meters above sea level and constructed in 1970.

It’s easy to be lost in the beauty of this place. Great view of the Bataan Peninsula. Cool air even if the sun’s heat is biting. It’s easy to forget why this shrine is here.

The huge granite walls of the altar hall, just below the huge cross, speaks of the Battle of Bataan. It’s a story of great sacrifice and extraordinary courage. Our veterans have fought and died here. All they ask is for us to remember. So we reproduce the entire story, as etched on the granite walls —

“The Battle of Bataan

On this ground gallant men chose to die rather than surrender.

From all corners of the Philippines they came, youthful and brave to make their last stand in Bataan against an implacable enemy which had marched through Asia. What transpired was a ferocious combat between raw ill-equipped recruits and seasoned well-armed troops.

On these tablets is recorded the epic, the truly unifying experience, that was Bataan. Let all who read this take  pride in the courage of our race.

The Battle. The enemy had secured the beachheads on Lingayen Gulf and the West Coast of Tayabas Province. The 14th Japanese Imperial Army under the command of Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma now started a gigantic pincer attack. The fate of Luzon was sealed.

Fighting valiantly, the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) led by General Douglas MacArthur was thrown back in fierce actions by the implacable advance of the enemy. Retreat to Bataan became inevitable. On this Peninsula the defending forces, following War Plan Orange 3, regrouped for a last stand against the invaders.

Delaying actions were fought to permit withdrawal to the Peninsula, the bloodiest of which was fought by the 8th and 21st Divisions on the Porac-Guagua Line.

The 26th Cavalry Regiment protected the west flank of the 21st Division as the entire USAFFE struggled from South and North toward the Layac Junction, the only approach to Bataan. Delaying forces held its line on open and unprepared ground from 1 January to 5 January. They stood fast against massive enemy aerial and artillery bombardment, concentrated tank attacks and banzai charges. Casualties on both sides were heavy.

The first defensive line in Bataan was the Hermosa-Dinalupihan Line where on 6 January 1942 the 71st Division, the American 31st Infantry Regiment and the 26th Cavalry Regiment fought off the pursuing enemy.

The aim of the War Plan Orange 3 was to resist the enemy on the Bataan Peninsula to the limits of human endurance.

The main battle position of the USAFFE, the Abucay-Morong Line, was attacked along its eastern flank on 9 January, but was repulsed by the 57th Regimental Combat Team, reinforced by the 21st Infantry of the 21st Division.

On 14 January, the Japanese attacked the boundary of the 41st and 51st Divisions. The 43rd Infantry, holding the left flank of the 41st Division, reinforced by the 23rd Infantry, 21st Division, sharply refused its flank. The 51st Infantry holding the right flank of the 51st Division withdrew, creating a gap through which the enemy advanced to the Salian River, but was discovered by a patrol of the 21st Division. Elements of the 21st Division were rushed to the Salian River Valley and after a savage fight, succeeded in throwing back the enemy farther to the west. The enemy surprised and routed the 53rd Infantry, penetrating deep behind the Main Battle Position along the Abo-Abo River Valley. The enemy advance was help up by combined elements of the 21st Division and the 11 Corps Reserve, the 31st and the 51st Divisions on the Bani-Guitol forest area.

The American 31st Infantry and 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, succeeded in partially restoring the abandoned 51st Division Line.

On 15 January, the Morong Sector, defended by the 1st Regular Division, reinforced, came under heavy bombardment, but the line held.

A few days later the enemy penetrated through a huge gap in the Silanganan Natib Area and established a road block on the Mauban Ridge, thus cutting off the 1st Regular Division from the Rear Area. Gravely threatened, elements of the 71st and 91st Divisions and the 2nd PC Regiment repeatedly attacked the road block but failed to dislodge the enemy.

Although the II Corps Sector had prevented a similar envelopment in the Salian River Battle, the 1 Corps Position was now untenable. The Abucay-Morong Line was abandoned on 14 January. The Orion-Bagac Line was established two days later.

Again in a desperate attempt to outflank the I Corps, the enemy landed crack units on the West Coast of Southern Bataan. The aim was to outflank and to isolate the front line units from headquarters and supplies.

There were three ferocious engagements in the Lapiay-Longosk Awayan Points Area, fought from 23 to 29 January; in Quinauan-Aglaloma Points Area, fought from 23 January to 8 February; and Silajim-Anyasan Points, fought from 27 January to 13 February. Of the 2000 enemy troops committed to these battles, only 34 wounded soldiers returned to their lines.

On 27 January, enemy troops were discovered in the rear of the Orion-Bagac Line, the Tuol River Valley behind the 11th Regular Division and in the Gogo-Cotar River Valley behind the 1st Regular Division. The series of engagements to eliminate these enemy salients became known as the Battle of the Pockets, fought from 27 January through 17 February. Of the 2,000 Japanese troops committed to this battle, only 377 enemy soldiers were reported to have escaped.

After the Battles of the Points, Pockets, and Trail 2, which were brilliant triumphs of the USAFFE, the enemy withdrew to regroup their forces and to wait for more reinforcements.

Meanwhile, on 12 March, General MacArthur, his family and some staff officers of the USAFFE left on four PT Boats for

Mindanao from where they were flown to Australia. MacArthur’s departure was the end of the USAFFE. On 22 March, the defending army was renamed United States Forces in the Philippines (USFIP) under the command of Lieutenant General Jonathan M. Wainwright.

The Japanese High Command reinforced Homma’s 14th Imperial Japanese Army, and toward the end of March the enemy struck. The entire Orion-Bagac Line was subjected to vicious artillery and aerial bombardment. About a hundred and fifty artillery pieces of various calibers concentrated in front of Mount Samat. The enemy opened fire at 1000 hours on Good Friday, 3 April. Aerial bombing was equally intense. The 21st and 41st Divisions came under incredibly savage bombardment, turning the Mount Samat area into an inferno. The forest was set on fire. Men were buried alive in their foxholes and every inch of ground was covered by enemy fire. The dust, flames and smoke darkened the mountains. The USAFFE Artillery, which had backed the defenders, was immobilized.

At 1500 hours the enemy infantry spearheaded by tanks which rolled over the bodies of the dead and living Filipino defenders, broke through the Main Line of Resistance of the 41st Infantry at Trail 29. Along Trail 6, the enemy infantry also spearheaded by tanks crashed through the Main Line of Resistance of the 21st Infantry. By nightfall, the enemy had penetrated about 1,500 yards behind the Main Line of Resistance of the 41st Infantry, 1,000 yards behind the 23rd Infantry.

On 4 April, the enemy infantry attacked the 23rd Infantry, crashing through the line along Trail 4. The enemy swerved toward the east and struck the flank of the 22nd Infantry. By nighttime, the enemy had penetrated 1,000 yards behind the Main Battle Position of the 23rd. By 6 April Mount Samat was surrounded. But the 21st Division, reforming its lines to resemble a horseshoe, still held the slopes of the Mountain. The Battle of Mount Samat was called the most vicious encounter of the Second Battle of Bataan.

On 9 April 1942, at high  noon, Major General Edward P. King, Jr., Senior American Officer on the battle-torn peninsula, surrendered the Bataan Forces. The infamous Death March began, an ordeal which annealed the Filipino spirit.

The night before the surrender a series of earthquakes rocked Bataan, two of which were on nature’s making. In the morning heavy rain fell. Then the sun shone.

The heroic resistance of the defenders of Bataan had wrecked the time-table of the enemy.

Let friend and foe recognize the martial spirit that defeat could not break. To the memory of these brave warriors, whose blood soaked every rock of this land so that this nation might endure, this humble shrine is consecrated.

OUR MISSION IS TO REMEMBER.”

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