Battle of Bessang Pass: 69th anniversary

Today marks the 69th anniversary of the monumental win by Filipino guerillas over Japanese soldiers at Bessang Pass, Cervantes, Ilocos Sur. I got to visit the Monument around 13 years ago only because we were in Vigan at the time. Otherwise, we went by the usual route via Mankayan from Halsema Highway. From Vigan, Tagudin was the last town that’s on flat terrain before we hit the zigzaggy road toward Cervantes. We were then working with the Cervantes local government, assisting with a socio-economic survey which they’d use as basis for development planning. If it weren’t for this work, I don’t think I’d have marked Cervantes as among places “to visit” in my personal itinerary. The town is quite isolated. Depending on where you’re ultimately headed the town is bordered by three Provinces – Mankayan (Benguet), Tagudin (llocos Sur) and Tadian (Mt. Province). One can actually hike to Mankayan and Tadian. Only locals could know the other hidden ways on that landscape, an advantage in a way and I guess one of the reasons Filipino guerillas won the battle. Geography does matter.

The road wasn’t completely cemented then. Very narrow – barely holding two vehicles at once across and the few times that we met a vehicle our driver had to edge perilously close to the side. Inside the van, we didn’t dare move because there weren’t railings or such structures then and the fall could be thousands of feet down. This was about all the horror we met up there. Otherwise, I was struck with the majestic sight of the mountain jungle, high waterfalls, and obscure silence. Breathtaking unadulterated nature. With a bloody history too.

The Monument is a little way off the road. We posed for photos. No digicams yet that time. We read the inscription and thought about the strong sense of duty, bravery, and native skill shown by the “common tao”. Many of these guerillas were local farmers known only within their villages (fast forward to today, it’s heartbreaking that as a group they are among the most marginalized in Philippine society.). Who was it who said that the decisive and resounding battles are hard fought in private places or places unknown to many? The Monument being out of the way of many Filipino’s roadmap, only locals who traverse that way – and they’re not plenty – or the few but growing in number who goes out of the usual tourist places are able to pay homage on site. When one’s there one could almost hear the fog or the mountain air singing about the state of these men, even in death: Lonely are the brave.

It’s significant that the Battle’s anniversary this year falls a day before Father’s Day. The Filipino fathers who fought in that Battle with everything they’ve got so that their families and ultimately their country will be free are specially remembered.

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