Monday, August 4, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Twelve: Corregidor Island

Manila bay is a large bay ringed in by horseshoe shaped land and at the throat of the bay where it is the narrowest, sits Corregidor Island which as you might expect, is a very strategic island for protecting the capital city of Manila. During the period of U.S. rule of the Philippines when World War II was approaching, the U.S. military knew the significance of the island and heavily fortified it along with two other nearby minor islands. Corregidor Island was America's last stand as the Japanese over ran our defenses and the last force to surrender was here before they were shipped off to what would be known as the Bataan death march. Lorcha Dock overlooking the Bataan (pronounced Ba-ta-an and not with just two syllables as is common here in the States) peninsula is where General Douglas MacArthur boarded a boat for southern Philippines on March 11, 1942  to avoid capture by the Japanese. Two days later he boarded a plane for Australia  and upon safely arriving there the way uttered the famous words "I shall return," which makes him a hero to all Filipinos. On October 20, 1944, MacArthur kept his promise and returned with a huge military force to retake the islands of the Philippines. Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945.

Because the United States left in a hurry, they left lots of hardware all over the island. I'm sure it was all disabled so that it wasn't used against them on their return but it remained there physically. During fighting, the shelling denuded the island vegetation but after the war, the jungle returned and all was lost in it. Only in recent years have the Philippines begun to cut through the jungle uncover these relics of the past and perhaps preserve them for the future.

Staring down the barrel of one of these guns pointed across the bay towards the Bataan peninsula, I can't help but be in awe of the courage of the men who fought and most likely died here. The barrel is full of shrapnel wounds from incoming fire. When we had first started across the bay on a ferry, the day was overcast and threatening rain which I had thought would put a damper on my historical visit. Instead as I saw these relics of the past, the dreary day somehow felt right and put me in a proper mental state to truly appreciate what I was seeing.

After the American's retook the island in 1944, they buried the many dead Japanese that remained in a cemetery. The jungle swallowed the cemetery and it was lost to time. In the mid 1990's, a man in Seattle, Washington found a picture showing the cemetery and more importantly, it location in relation to a mountain on a nearby island. The cemetery was reclaimed from the jungle and the bodies exhumed and returned to Japan. Where the soldiers were buried is now a peace garden dedicated to those Japanese who died in the battle.

The U.S with the help of local Filipinos began digging the Malinta Tunnel a couple decades after the Spanish-American war. It is a hole through the heart of the island meant to be a bomb proof shelter in case war came to the Philippines. War came and in 1942, the last contingent of American marines made their stand here. In order to preserve lives, we surrendered and those marines and Filipino soldiers were transferred over to the Bataan peninsula were they began the death march north. When we retook the island, the Japanese didn't surrender and so to root them out of the tunnel, napalm bombs were dropped down the airshafts and they were incinerated. On the day we visited and walked the length of the tunnel, there were no lights to see much beyond what flashlights in the main tunnel could reveal. I think that was fitting.

Much of the vegetation was destroyed on the island during the war. The Japanese dropped 365 tons of bombs on the island and later the American's returned the favor with over 2800 tons of bombs on the retaking. The pictures I have seen of the aftermath shows a mass of splintered wood littering almost every square foot of the island. I'm guessing that means this tree which appealed to my senses is less than 70 years old.

This is one of the largest guns on the island and was capable of firing huge shells almost 20 miles. About twenty feet to the right of where I stood when I took this picture was a huge crater from a bomb that hit during the war.

About 50 feet behind the gun along the road sat a spare barrel for the gun. It was never used and the rifling on the inside still looked pristine.

I'm guessing a lot of these shrapnel wounds came courtesy of the bomb that left the crater off on this side of the gun.

As with most tourist attractions in the Philippines, an armed soldier was present on the ferry. Although northern and central Philippines are considered safe by the state department for American tourism, there is a group of muslim extremists affiliated with Al Queda on an island in the very south and before America got involved, bombings were more common as little as ten years ago. Now with U.S. intervention in an advisory role, they are contained on their island way to the south.

Finally, here is a picture of the ferry that we road to and from Corregidor Island upon. It took about an hour to cross the bay to Manila on the way out and slightly longer on the way back. About halfway back, a heavy rain squall hit and encompassed our ferry. A few miles from shore, the motors were turned off and as the boat rocked wildly in the chop, the captain told us it was too rough to dock and that we would be waiting out the storm out in the bay. It was only then that I realized that unlike other forms of transportation, when the going got rough on a boat, you were pretty much out of luck. There is no pulling to the side and waiting for it to pass. As the boat rocked wildly in the wind and rain, I took the opportunity to verify that my emergency flotation device was indeed under my seat and within easy reach. I also carefully read the directions on the emergency exit door one row behind my seat. Hedging my odds, I also took a sea sickness tablet that I had packed just in case. Fortunately we only sat out there for about 15 minutes before the captain deemed it calm enough to dock and soon I was back on land.

The land around Manila Bay is barely above sea level and very prone to flooding and for the second time in my time in the Philippines, I found myself in a van navigating a maze of streets flooded with several feet of water. Because the rain was still falling heavily, we also had a time element to try and escape to the outskirts of Manila before it got deeper. We did but only just.


Anonymous said...

The core problem with the island was it was out of date as a meaningful military installation round about the time Fort McHenry became the source of your national anthem. Every place else where curtain fortifications stood before ports and were held they became iconic to a point where vast manpower and material was devoted to keeping them. Even after the ports themselves were lost to a landward assault. Mind you, the US were far from the only ones at that game in East Asia. The Japanese built Yap, or at least expanded the base the German begun. And the biggest of them all, Singapore. Where again the expected approach was ignored, and the place taken for the landward.
It must be lovely to see it all the same. Oh, if my reading is near correct, the island was kept like a lawn to allow clear fire from those guns

Ed said...

Vince - It was jungle when fighting began and all the bombs dropped on the island reduced it to a pile of kindling. Old photos of the island right after the war just show piles of splintered wood everywhere you looked. Now it is mostly jungle though they have hacked away clear spaces and replaced it with lawn where ever the tour stops. I'm sure though that they probably hacked away some of the jungle for clear line of sights when firing when the fighting began.

malor said...

We planned to visit Corregidor but did not make it because my son got a little ill. My patient gave me a book Unbroken that I finished reading on our flight to the Philippines. He told me to visit Corregidor or Bataan. Anyway, next time. Thanks for sharing this. You have very good photos of the Philippines

Ed said...

Malor - I bought the book Unbroken upon my return. I'm finishing up another book and then that one is next on my list along with a couple more about that region of the world.