I feel proud to be Pinoy whenever I think of Bataan. History tells us that the province helped place anew the Philippines on the global map during the last World War, because of the heroism we displayed there.
Historical accounts say that in 1942, Japan launched an all-out offensive—an air, sea and land assault that destroyed foxholes, hospitals and ammunition depots—against the combined Fil-American forces which have retreated to the province. After six days of intense fighting, Bataan fell. The defenders had no other choice but to capitulate to the Japanese Imperial Army to put an end to the carnage.
After the surrender came one of the most horrifying episodes of the Pacific War — the Death March! A 105-kilometer harrowing trek from Bataan to Tarlac that lasted for five cruel days, leaving over 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers weakened by hunger, thirst, illness and fatigue. Many of them were either tortured or killed for attempting to quench their hunger and thirst.
Yesterday’s theater of war, however, has turned into today’s tourist attraction. Nestled at the peak of Mt. Samat in the town of Pilar is the Dambana ng Kagitingan (Shrine of Valor), the monumental beacon of bravery erected to commemorate the gallantry of the soldiers who died in defense of freedom in Bataan.
Built under the orders of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, who was a war veteran himself, the Shrine of Valor stands on a 73,665-hectare area at the highest point of the mountain. Completed and inaugurated in 1970 in time for the 25th anniversary of the end of World War II, the shrine consists of a colonnade and a memorial cross.
On a recent trip to Manila, I found time to accept some friends’ invite to climb Mt. Samat and take a look at the shrine. One fine Saturday morning, my three friends—Juju, Minnie, Luz—and I left the metro at around 6 and, after a relaxing two-hour trip aboard an aircon bus, we reached Balanga City.
We then hopped into a jeepney that took us to the town of Pilar. To reach our destination, Juju, the most irrepressible adventure junkie I’ve ever known, flagged two tricycles plying the route to and from the shrine. The less than 20-minute ride along the serpentine road not only gave the four of us some adrenaline rush but also treated us to snippets of the breathtaking view down below.
Upon reaching the entrance to the shrine, we wasted no time and hiked towards the colonnade. Made of marble, the structure is surrounded by esplanade. Inside the structure, we had a blast taking snaps at the various works of art found there: the marble altar, the religious stained glass murals, the large bronze chandeliers hanging from the building’s ceiling as well as the huge lateral walls where a narrative about the Battle of Bataan was inscribed.
From the colonnade, we then headed towards memorial cross found at the highest point of Mt. Samat, which is about 555 meters (1,821 ft) above sea level. Along with other groups, we passed through a zigzagging footpath on the mountain’s slope that led to the base of the cross. After several starts and stops to catch our breaths interspersed with snaps here and there, the four of us made it to the cross.
Rising some 92 meters (302 ft) from its base, the cross is a massive structure that’s made of steel and reinforced concrete with an elevator and viewing deck at its arms. Its exterior is capped with sculptural bas-reliefs by National Artist Napoleon Abueva, which depicted Philippine historical figures and events like Dr. Jose Rizal’s execution, among others.
Having taken enough pictures of ourselves, Juju led us up the elevator to catch a glimpse of Bataan’s mountains at the viewing deck. Needless to say, the view was spell-binding! We lingered there for several minutes to snap at anything that fancied us.
Nowadays, the shrine in Bataan attracts busloads of tourists and excursionists, especially during weekends. So, adventure junkie and history buff, what are you waiting for? Grab that backpack, scale Mt. Samat and join the throngs basking in the glory of Bataan’s beacon of bravery.