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News | April 18, 2024

Army CID Special Agent Honors His Grandfather and Fallen Soldiers During Bataan Memorial Death March

By Thomas B. Hamilton III Department of the Army Criminal Investigation Division

Department of the Army Criminal Investigation Division Special Agent Ethan Pempek honored the memory of his grandfather while joining over 5,000 participants for the 35th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March commemoration and marathon event at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico on March 15-16, 2024. 

Pempek, an Army CID Supervisory Special Agent stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, is the grandson of retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Ricardo Plana, who was a Filipino veteran of WWII and survivor of the 1942 Bataan Death March. Plana later joined the U.S. Army and served more than 33 years.

The day before the march, Pempek took part in a ceremony that included receiving the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino Veterans of World War II. This Congressional Gold Medal honors the more than 250,000 Filipinos who fought in WWII alongside America troops between July 1941 and December 1946. Participants in the ceremony included retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba and Philippine Government Veterans Affairs Undersecretary Reynaldo B. Mapagu.

The Bataan Memorial Death March pays tribute and honors the special group of heroes forced to march as POWs under the worst of conditions defending the Philippines in WWII. 

The Battle of Bataan ended, April 9, 1942, when U.S. Gen. Edward P. King surrendered to Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma. At that point, 75,000 Soldiers became prisoners of war: about 12,000 Americans and 63,000 Filipinos. What followed was one of the worst atrocities in modern wartime history — the Bataan Death March. More than 9,000 Filipino and 1,000 American soldiers died.

“At times it was a painful and somber experience, but I realized that my experience was only a fraction of what my grandfather went through,” Pempek said after completing the march wearing a combat uniform and carrying a 35-pouund rucksack. “Along the course I would meet other descendants who would tell their stories of their grandparents, some who survived the march, but later died in the prison camps.”

“My grandfather didn’t speak much about his experience,” Pempek said. “That is not what his generation did. In hindsight I believe it was his humility, and too traumatic of an experience for him to speak of it.” 

Pempek is not the only descendent of Plana to serve in the military. Plana’s brother, two of his sons, five of his grandsons, two of his granddaughters and one great-grandson have served in the U.S. military and have represented the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force.