MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. (AFNS) --
Starvation, torture and a 70-mile march to concentration camps or dying in the process were the only options Philippine soldier, the late Ricardo Plana, faced after the U.S. surrendered the Bataan Peninsula to the Japanese during World War II.
Now, 75 years later, his grandson, Staff Sgt. Max Biser, of the 23rd Security Forces Squadron, traveled to the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, to complete the 26.2-mile Bataan Memorial Death March, March 19, 2017.
“This is very special to my family and me,” Biser said. “Those men and my grandpa survived hell. I could never truly relate to what those men went through, but this was really hard.”
Biser was beyond thrilled when a friend offered him an opportunity to attend.
“Someone who already registered couldn’t go, so they asked me to fill in and I immediately said yes,” Biser said. “They told me I could take a day to think about it, but I still just said yes right then.”
After approximately five hours of flight and 700 dollars, Biser said he was in New Mexico and excited for the march, but said that he felt a flood of different emotions from as early as the opening ceremonies and the playing of the Philippines national anthem.
“That was the first time I’d ever heard the Philippines national anthem, and it brought a powerful feeling thinking about my grandfather’s hardship,” Biser said.
Before the march, retired Army Maj. Gen. Tony Taguba spoke solemn and motivating words to participants. This wasn’t Biser’s first rucksack march, but he’d only marched 12 miles at a time before. Biser said every rucksack march brings emotional roller coasters, but this one brought even more emotion because it was important to him.
“In the beginning I was excited, then a couple miles in I was like, ‘this sucks, this hurts,’” Biser said. “By mile 12, I was really feeling the pain. I could actually feel the water inside the blisters on my feet, but every time I started to break down I thought about everything my grandfather went through.”
He attributes his drive to overcome not just from the pain and agony of the march, but life’s obstacles, to his grandfather, who - after being liberated from a prisoner of war camp by the U.S. - enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for 33 1/2 years.
Biser proclaims that every physical assessment where he’s ever felt beat down, he’d remember every time his grandfather could have given up but didn’t and he pushed through.
“I look at all the times he could have quit, and I’m thinking, ‘(Am I) going to let this little (obstacle) stop me?’ No it’s not going to,” Biser said. “He almost got killed numerous times while a POW, and could have shut down, but kept going for my family. He never gave up and was determined to survive based upon his faith and strong beliefs.”
Plana relayed his strong beliefs to his children and grandchildren, also leading Biser and seven other family members to follow his footsteps and serve in the U.S. military.
“He was a very spiritual man. He would teach (classes) and served as a deacon to our church,” said Jeannette Biser, the youngest of Plana’s seven children. “He spoke how his faith in God is what helped him survive (captivity.)”
Plana’s beliefs may have maintained his morale during and after his time as a POW. Jeannette explained how his time in captivity wasn’t common conversation or even common knowledge.
“I never realized he survived the Bataan Death March until I was almost 20,” Jeannette said. “He never spoke of it to me, although I did hear him occasionally talk to patrons at our family restaurant.”
“When I was a teen he would have bouts of malaria attacks at night that were scary,” Jeannette added. “I wish I had known so I could have been more supportive. Later, I found a box full of pictures, poems and post cards hidden in the rafters of a shed.”
Between the collection of possessions and stories over the years, Jeannette said she has a very open relationship with her children. She said it’s important that her family honors and shares her father’s story.
“I knew (the march) would be hard, but I think my grandfather would be proud,” Biser said. “After spending three years as a POW, I think he would also be proud of the military for commemorating the sacrifices of WWII veterans. He genuinely loved the United States and even used to sing ‘God Bless America’ all the time.”