By Jon D. Melegrito
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“As we prepare to march, let us be inspired by their duty to country and their supreme sacrifice,” Taguba exhorted the 7,200 military personnel, civilians and veterans families who massed at the staging area. “We will feel pain, but let us also have some fun.”
Rey Cabacar, 90, of Fort Washington, Maryland joined eight Bataan Death March survivors in front of the stage. Although not a survivor himself, Cabacar’s older brother, Herran, was. He died in 1981. The last time a Filipino Bataan Death March survivor attended was two years ago when Jesse Baltazar of Arlington, Virginia, a Purple Heart awardee, came despite his ailing condition. He died a few months later.
As a son of a Filipino World War II veteran, I participated for the first time and joined friends and comrades “suffer” a challenging trek through high desert terrain and sandy trails. It definitely was not a walk in the park. But as a re-enactment of the grueling 65-mile death march endured by my father, Gregorio Melegrito and uncles (Gil Dizon, Arsenio Dizon, Justino Vigilia and Romulo Villa), my recent journey across the desert pales in comparison to the brutal experience of 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers following the surrender of Bataan on April 9, 1942. As many as 10,000 men died in the march—9,000 Filipinos and 1,000 Americans. Many more died at prison camps.
Remember our heroes
Two of my uncles escaped from the POW camp in Tarlac and later joined the guerrillas. They tried to convince my father to join them, but he was too weak to even try.
Since its inception in 1989, the Bataan Memorial Death March has grown from about 100 to more than 12,000 marchers, spectators and volunteers from around the world. An ROTC unit in New Mexico started it to honor the more than 1,800 New Mexicans who served with the 200th Coastal Artillery and 515th Coast Artillery at Bataan. Of this number, 829 died in battle while 987 survived. They chose the White Sands Missile Range because it comes close to simulating the terrain of the Bataan Death March.
It took me eight and a half hours to walk 14 miles. I’m glad I did because it gave me a deeper appreciation of my father’s and uncles’ suffering, a sense of the brutal toll on their minds and bodies and their will to survive.
Let’s remember our heroes and let’s keep telling their story. And please donate to FilVetREP, filvetrep.org, so we can preserve their proud legacy for our children and for generations to come.