MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
Starvation, torture and a 70-mile march to concentration camps or dying in the process were the only options Philippine soldier Ricardo Plana faced after the U.S. surrendered the Bataan Peninsula to the Japanese during World War II.
Now, 75 years later, his grandson, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Max Biser, 23rd Security Forces Squadron, traveled to the White Sands Missile Range, N.M., to complete the 26.2-mile Bataan Memorial Death March March 19.
“This is very special to my family and me,” said Biser. “Those men and my grandpa survived hell. I could never truly relate to what those men went through, but this was really hard,” said Biser, who 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,” said Biser. “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, Biser said he was in New Mexico and excited for the march, but said 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,” said Biser.
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,’” said Biser. “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 breakdown I thought about everything my grandfather went through.”
He attributes his drive to overcome not just the pain and agony of the march, but life’s obstacles to his grandfather, who after being liberated from a POW camp by the U.S., enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for 33 1/2 years.
Biser said every physical assessment he’s ever felt beat down during, he’d remember every time his grandfather could have given up but didn’t and he pushes 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,” said Biser. “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, 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 [years old],” said Jeannette. “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,” added Jeannette. “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,” added Biser. “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.”