Capas National Shrine and the Bataan Death March: Peace Comes in Three

Quick! Do you know what this is?

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Need a little better view?

Maybe you might recognize it by now?…

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If you answered the Capas National Shrine in Capas, Tarlac, in the Philippines, then I bow down to you and your extensive geographical and historical knowledge. (Or, you Googled it.)

Now, don’t cheat and search or skip ahead for a second. What does this obelisk monument stand for?

… Need a hint?

Okay. The three prongs of the obelisk represent three countries: Japan, the Philippines, and the United States.

Another hint, from the Gospel of John (yes, Scripture always offers us hints, if not the direct answer): Jesus walked into the midst of his disciples, on a Sunday evening, as they were gathered together behind locked doors after Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion. He said to them, “Peace be with you.” He gave them peace.

Okay, a third hint. World War Two, and the Bataan Death March.

…Got it?

Yes. This is the Capas National Monument, a memorial in honor of the roughly 27,000 American and Filipino soldiers who died between April and June of 1942 on what is known as the Bataan Death March, and the subsequent internment at Camp O’Donnell. If you haven’t heard of any of this….well. Read on.


Begun in Mariveles on the Bataan Peninsula across Manila Bay from the Philippine capital, this war march of terror started on April 9, 1942: the day the United States General Douglas MacArthur officially surrendered the Philippines to the Japanese.

Did you know? The Bataan Peninsula surrender under General MacArthur was the largest American force to admit defeat in US history.

On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Japan began the invasion of the US occupied Philippines. Things did not go well for the Americans. By January, Manila had fallen to the Japanese, and it was only a short time later that things had swung too far away from the Allied power. By April 9, 1942, General Douglas MacArthur had officially admitted defeat, and the Japanese occupied the island nation. That very same day, the American and Filipino forces on the Bataan Peninsula south of Olongappo and Subic had their fate decided for them: the Bataan Death March. Simply because of the number of soldiers and lack of Japanese forces to control them in Bataan, they were forced north out of the peninsula to the converted concentration camp in Tarlac. Over the next four months until June, the steady stream of troops left a wake of bodies, blood, trauma, and memories that are all now honored in this small parcel of land, this monument of peace, in Capas, Tarlac.

According to the shrine curator, over 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war were forced to make this journey of roughly 65 miles, from one end of the Bataan peninsula to the internment compound at Camp O’Donnell in Tarlac. This was a Filipino training base 7 miles from Capas Shrine, converted into a concentration camp by the Japanese from April 1942 until liberation in 1945. Tens of thousands of prisoners of war ended up here. A small fraction of them survived.

Roughly 66,000 Filipino soldiers and about 10,000 American troops made the journey from Bataan beginning that April of 1942. It is estimated that more than 3000 died on the trek itself, and an additional 27,000 at Camp O’Donnell. The Capas Shrine honors these victims: those who died en route as well as those who succumbed to the ferocities and atrocities at Camp O’Donnell, until the Philippines was liberated and World War II ended.

Ferocities and Atrocities

If you haven’t been to the Philippines or the tropics, it’s impossible to imagine the heat. If you have been to the Philippines or the tropics, it’s impossible to believe the heat. It’s ferocious. It’s murderous. It’s insidious and deceptive, playing tricks on your mind and your body. It’s wet, too, which is perhaps the worst. And the Bataan Death March began in April, which happens to be summer. Temperatures can easily exceed 110 degrees in this inland area of Luzon Island: and that’s not even the RealFeel temp or Accuweather from your smartphone.

The heat? That’s one.

The Japanese also used water, or lack of it, as an especially brutal form of torture. That’s two. Stories abound from survivors, of Japanese generals and soldiers forcing their hostages to sit along the trail in the burning midday sun for hours and hours, in sight of a canteen of water but out of reach. The captive would sizzle and sizzle until he was begging for water, and then the water would be kicked over, or the canteen drained right in front of them. Often times it was reported the soldiers were first beaten for begging for the water, or even bayoneted. If any men broke ranks or tried to escape to go fetch water, they were beaten, burned, or beheaded. If any men fell down or behind because of dehydration or weakness, they were also beaten, bayoneted, or beheaded. If any one POW was to offer water or food to another, they could both be beaten or beheaded. These vicious forms of treatment were not exclusive to the Bataan Death March, but they certainly took on a special poignancy along this hot, brutal and unforgiving journey. The Japanese took full advantage of their surroundings to inflict maximum suffering. In fact, this is one of the reasons Japanese were famously so brutal in their torture methods during World War II. It comes from the sense of honor versus shame in Japanese society.

In traditional Japanese military formation and training, it is instilled that it is better to die than to surrender or admit defeat.

Now. Just imagine the ramifications of this for a moment, in terms of war. Just imagine that this is the mentality and modes operandi of your aggressor. You, as captive, had better die first before admit defeat.

Can you even begin to imagine the extent to which your captors might go, to try and break you? Can you even begin to feel that pain, perhaps not just physical but mental?

Can you feel that anguish?

… Try Googling that, my friends.

This torture would be atrocities three, four, five, six, seven, and probably eight.

Bataan death march
Historical photo of the Death March, copyright Britannica Encyclopedia, taken from NARA, 1942.

The physical trail, of course, wasn’t the end. If the men made it to San Fernando in Pampanga, about 26 miles from Capas Shrine (that’s a marathon, for my runners out there; just think about that). ­ The prisoners were then stuffed into boxcars and endured the rest of the journey by train. This is as the Jews and other Holocaust victims famously endured in Europe on their way to concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen.

This is one of the boxcars:

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And the testimony from one of the Camp O’Donnell survivors, 2nd Lieutenant William Chavez of the USAFFE Regular Division:

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A recounting of the train journey by a Camp O’Donnell survivor, 2nd Lietenant William Chavez of the USAFFE Regular Division. Recorded in San Francisco, 1995.

Looking at these things, the first thing you notice is how small the train cars are. No. Not just small. Toys. Like, my first thought was: “Are these real?” I thought for sure they were miniature replicas.

Purportedly able to fit about 40 people, 100 or more soldiers went into one boxcar.

There were no windows in these trains, of course, just small slats at the top under the roof. Now, as a reminder, the ambient temperature at this time would have been 110 or higher. Inside, these trains would easily have reached 130 degrees or higher. Diseases that were already ravaging the soldiers would have had an especially productive time here: malaria, dengue, cholera, diarrhea, among other heat related illnesses would have been most common. There would have been no water in the boxcars, no toilets or space to relieve yourself, no place to sit or even crouch. Soldiers reported standing in inches of human excrement, which would have festered in the heat. An unknown quantity of soldiers were reported to have died standing as they were inside the boxcars.

Once at Camp O’Donnell, the prisoners of war faced a whole different set of horrors. Starvation, dehydration, weakness, heat, and brutal torture compounded the suffering. Soldiers were worked to death left and right under the savagery of the Japanese. In the entire compound, one small stream offered the source of water for the tens of thousands of prisoners.

The rough estimate is over 27,000 American and Filipino soldiers died at the camp. This may not be exact count by any means, but a precise number is immensely difficult if not impossible to attain, for various reasons. According to Britannica, hundreds of soldiers were forced into the march along the way from Bataan. Others were not counted among the dead; bodies were often left where they were. Others did manage to escape from Camp O’Donnell during their internment: again, an untold number. Further complicating matters, many of the numbers that originally floated around came from survivors of the Bataan Death March. When they released their stories, you can imagine many of them grossly exaggerated the number of fatalities and fallen comrades. Some estimates are that the number of casualties was inflated by over a third.

Regardless, at least 25,000 names have been confirmed and are inscribed on the Wall of Heroes that encircles the Capas monument itself. This, my college friends, is the size of a decent university.

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The Wall of Heroes surrounding the Capas obelisk. It takes a good four or five minutes to walk all the way around this circle, taking in all the names. Just for perspective, this is one panel of more than 1300.

So. What then, was all this talk about peace?

Peace, you say?

Yes. Capas Shrine is a monument of peace and reconciliation. It is a place of hope.

Wait…how can this be?

Let me take you back to the Gospel of John to explain. Despite the terrors, the horrors, the unspeakable savageries that took place along the 65 miles Bataan route of death, Capas Shrine stands as a testimony to the fallen war heroes, and also to the scene in John’s Gospel mentioned above. Jesus stands in the midst of the disciples, in a moment of nothing short of panic and despair. Why does Jesus come right then?

The disciples are reeling from having witnessed and experienced his crucifixion. They are terrified, as John writes. I’m sure they’re not feeling peaceful, or particularly happy.

And Jesus walks in, right into their midst. He offers peace. He holds out his hands, the universal gesture of goodwill (and, might I add, an especially poignant message coming from those hands.)

He offers peace once, then twice, and then later on he appears when Thomas happens to be there, and offers peace a third time.

John 20:27

Peace, then, at this moment, comes not just in one passing comment. It’s not just a nod of the head, or a handshake or hug at mass. Peace from Jesus comes deeply, in threes. It comes, as Jesus says, not as the world knows it, but as the Father offers it. It comes in completely, in the number of perfection.

Three. The United States, the Philippines, Japan.

Peace also comes not just to one nation, or to one people, but to countries that fought each other. Peace comes to nations embroiled in war, and it can weave through us all even if historically we have murdered and committed all kinds of atrocities. Peace comes to us, even as we’re struggling, even as we’re reeling from the stories of a war that just seems too atrocious to believe.

Of course, peace might stand out awkwardly and harshly in our lives, perhaps. The Capas Shrine monument juts out stoutly, solidly, darkly against the lush hills of the Tarlac region. This dark stone monument doesn’t seem to make sense against its verdant background. Neither does peace seem to make sense, sometimes, in our lives. It certainly didn’t make sense to the famously doubting apostle, Thomas!

Yet peace comes.

Peace comes from a place we might not recognize, perhaps because we’re not in touch with that place. But it comes.

Peace comes to us. Despite all the horrors we may be surrounded by, historical or current in our own lives, peace is offered to us. It’s here, it’s real, and it’s free. It’s abundant. Ultimately, it’s up to us to open to it.

One comment

  1. Wow.. Well done Luke.. I think you have done better than my history teacher in discussing this fateful event..Filipinos are truly resilient.. :-)and reading your article just reminded me of how important this take is.. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of this bit of history for us as a nation.. I really loved how you connected this to Christ’s message of peace.. You are right.. Peace is free and abundant.. We just have to open ourselves to it. Peace is what i wish for you.. for us…

    Liked by 1 person

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