CAPAS, Philippines – The moment U.S. Army Sgt. Jesse E. Untalan, 33, a broadcast specialist and Hayward, Calif., native assigned to the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, U.S. Army Pacific based at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, was notified he would be participating in exercise Balikatan 2013, he knew a lifelong dream would be fulfilled: to walk along the once deadly path his great-grandfather trekked during the Bataan Death March of World War II.
Balikatan, an annual bilateral military exercise focused on enhancing cooperation and military-to-military relationships between Philippine and U.S. forces, offered Untalan a unique opportunity to train shoulder-to-shoulder with Filipino and American forces, but also the chance to seek out his own heritage.
“I was excited for the opportunity to come here … it’s a long time coming to come and see where we started and to find my roots,” said Untalan.
The Filipino-American was born in San Francisco and raised in surrounding cities across the California Bay Area, including Daly City and Hayward. From an early age, he was exposed to a military lifestyle with the structure of the family influenced by his uncles who served in the U.S. armed forces.
“I used to flip through my family’s photo albums … mostly black and white photos of my grandfather and uncles in uniform at ceremonies and gatherings, in their old
Class A uniforms,” said Untalan.
“I saw pictures of him and felt a sense of greatness and accomplishment … something that I wanted to aspire to one day,” said Untalan.
His great-grandfather, Pedro, was born in the Philippines and enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. Working in the Signal Corps, he later earned a commission and eventually rose to the rank of major – retiring at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in 1961.
Untalan described his great-grandfather as a driving force behind his initial decision to enlist. Being in the Philippines only strengthened that sense of duty.
“This moment is special. Had he not survived the Bataan Death March, I would not be here today, and I would not be a U.S. soldier,” said Untalan. “It is a little surreal. Coincidentally we are both Army, and he was the first to be in the Signal Corps.”
Other relatives, including his great-uncles, served in the same occupational specialty.
Pedro was one of an estimated 60,600 Filipinos and 9,900 Americans who painstakingly marched in the Bataan Death March, April 9-15, 1942. Another estimated 21,000 were reported dead at nearby military base Camp O’Donnell, due to harsh conditions negligence, according to an inscription at the Capas National Shrine in Tarlac province.
Untalan visited the shrine April 15, exactly 71 years to the date the march ended.
“This is a surreal moment … to come thousands and thousands of miles and see this. It is a piece of history, something concrete … I am getting a true sense of belonging and a better sense of where I come from,” said Untalan.
The Capas shrine was developed as a living memorial to pay homage to the thousands of service members who were part of the death march and in captivity at surrounding POW camps in the region. The memorial features a needle-like tower, with three sections symbolizing the Filipino, American and Japanese people associated with the period.
Coincidentally and unbeknownst to Untalan, his aunt, Sheryl Caramanzana, a writer for the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific Experimentation Center in Hawaii, also made the trip to the Philippines to take part in Balikatan in Crow Valley.
Neither knew the other would be participating in the exercise or working in Crow Valley, where the majority of infantry units trained alongside the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Both Caramanzana and Untalan passed the Capas National Shrine daily on their way to exercise events.
“It is a very spiritual journey being here in the Philippines. I was looking for the markers for the Bataan death march, and once I saw them, it was very humbling,” said Caramanzana.
Caramanzana was not surprised when Untalan joined the U.S. Army and said Pedro would have been extremely proud that he continued the military legacy.
Wearing his Army Combat Uniform, Untalan stood in front of the polished black memorial walls of names. He paused when found his grandfather’s.
“To actually be here and touch the memorial where his name is and physically experience this is my equivalent of an Ellis Island moment,” said Untalan, referring to the millions of immigrants who traveled through Ellis Island Immigrant Inspection Station in Upper New York Bay until 1924.
Untalan described his great-grandfather’s sacrifice as selfless and incomparable to today.
“He went through a lot…. It was life and death for him, something we cannot imagine today … they had been through a lot of segregation and hardship in the concentration camps.”
Balikatan 2013, which officially ended April 17, left a lasting mark on Untalan.
“It’s a long time coming, I’m 33 … but better late than never,” said Untalan. “I get a better sense of belonging and direction. It helps me put things in perspective as a Filipino-American.”
Untalan plans to visit the Philippines with his daughter in the coming years to continue this new tradition.