Friday, June 1, 2007

Rock & Redeemer

16 March 2007
The MV Sun Cruiser arrived at the North Dock at exactly 9:15am just as the brochure said it would. Like clockwork military precision, I noted to myself.

Moments earlier, when the outlying islet of Caballo and the tail of the tadpole-shaped Corregidor Island came into view on this clear Friday morning, I wondered if the majesty and sense of wonder that had hung on me was the same felt by those who came decades and centuries earlier whether on galleons or landing craft.

The ferry was full to capacity with the staff from Fitness First on a team building exercise, tourists from America (a few of who were World War II veterans), Canada, Japan, and Switzerland, employees from the local government of Pangasinan, a television crew filming an episode for Trip Na Trip, a travel show on local channel ABS-CBN, and the usual gaggle of honeymooners, adventurers, and people like me on a journey of discovery. En route, the passengers were entertained and treated to a history lesson by a tour guide who was a deadringer for former US President Jimmy Carter.

One of the tourists was a Canadian assigned to the European theater in World War II and this was his third trip to Corregidor. This time around, he brought along with him his son and two grandsons. He’s been to Normandy and Berlin, two of the bloodiest battlegrounds in that last Great War and yet he’s always drawn to a battlefield he never even set foot on. “This island is one reason why we live in relative peace today,” he said.

As we all disembarked, I looked at the waters that gently lapped against the concrete docks and on the shore and wondered if there were any other leftover war material and equipment underneath the waves. Per square mile, Corregidor was the most heavily bombed piece of real estate in World War II. It was a fortress from the time the Spaniards realized its strategic value in thwarting seaborne invasions. Although the rise of airpower in World War I somewhat devalued the Rock’s military significance, it was nevertheless a symbol of resistance and of the resolve of both the Americans and the Filipinos and eventually, the Japanese. So they put up one mother of a battle there as hundreds of tons of bombs cratered the hills from aerial and naval bombardment. As our tour guide, Richard, would later relate, people still unearth unexploded ordnance every now and then.

We were bused in a small replica period trolley called the tramvia (much like what they have in San Francisco) except that they run on gasoline as opposed to the electric cables that once hauled them over a stretch of 19.5 miles worth of paved roads throughout the island. The open-aired tramvia would serve as our tour bus around the island. The vehicle we rode on was half full and fortunately, we were with all the American tourists whose memories of the war and surprising candor about their experiences would all the more make this trip down one of history’s most hallowed corridors fun, insightful, and infinitely memorable.

Our first stop was the Lorcha Dock where General Douglas MacArthur took the submarine the Swordfish to Australia to prepare for the eventual re-taking of the countries that had fallen to Japan. A bronze statue of MacArthur stood there commemorating his vow of “I shall return” for all time.

We went down for a few minutes of a history lesson about MacArthur’s flight and our first photo ops. It was my first real steps on the island and I touched the ground, my way of genuflecting, and a communion with those who fought and gave their lives in the cause of freedom.

War plan
As gruesome and even devastating last stands are, history has been kind enough to lend them an ironic air of romanticism. But these last stands beginning with Thermopylae and their more modern cousins Rorke’s Drift, the Alamo, and Dien Bien Phu to name a few have been catalysts of change; battles that altered their country’s history. The Philippines, for better or worse, has had three of them -- Tirad Pass during the Philippine-American War and Bataan and Corregidor both during World War II.

For as long as I could appreciate history, I’ve loved visiting our historical monuments and landmarks. I’ve been to Bataan and the cross at Mt. Samat, I’ve walked time and again around historic Fort Santiago and Intramuros. I’ve visited the homes of Jose Rizal and Emilio Aguinaldo and have gone to Malolos, the former seat of a then-fledging Philippine Republic.

In fact, there was this old commercial they used to play in movie theaters when I was a kid that celebrated the heroism in Bataan and Corregidor. I don’t remember much of it save for the scene where a bloodied and fatigued Filipino soldier crouched behind a sandbag who opened the palm of his hand to reveal his last three bullets left to keep the swarming Japanese soldiers at bay. That scene remains a vivid memory in my mind to this day and it was so powerful that it served as an inspiration for a Philippine Centennial PLDT commercial storyboard I proposed years later (it was shot down because it was too costly).

Our country’s colonial past has always been a source of fascination for me. Having read and re-read whatever material I could get my hands on. Now after all these years, it was time to turn one last history lesson into a historical experience.

Moving inland
Richard showed us a couple of preserved foxholes built by the Japanese along the road that circumnavigates the whole of the island from bottomside to topside. There was even one at the foot of a rocky cliff that once contained suicide boats used by the Japanese as human torpedoes on oncoming Allied ships during Corregidor’s retaking.

And I wondered…
What was it like for the Japanese soldier to lie prone in the darkness with his back literally against the wall in the face or the onrushing Allied ships? This time around, he was facing well-armed and motivated US Marines not the emaciated and battered ones who made a stand in 1942.

What was it like knowing he was badly outgunned with his Arisaka Type 99 rifle? The shoe was on the other foot several years ago when the bulk of the USAFFE forces they faced were using antiquated equipment.

What was it like knowing he faced certain death?

The tide in the Pacific turned in the aftermath of the battles for Papua New Guinea and in Midway. Both were major victories for the American and Allied forces who up to that point had not scored a victory over the Japanese save for morale boosting Tokyo bombing raid by General James Doolittle. Unlike in Europe where the Allies bypassed a few countries to make a dash towards the Rhine, in the Pacific War, they went island hopping. And the Philippines was important for it offered a strategic position to launch more operations against Japan.

With the Japanese forces on the defensive, they hoped to make a last stand. And when defeat seemed imminent, many committed hara-kiri like the 200-plus soldiers who jumped to their deaths in what has since been called Suicide Cliff along the bend that leads to Topside.

From there, it was to the Malinta Tunnel that had served as the main storage area as well as the improvised USAFFE headquarters and hospital for Corregidor when War Plan Orange was put into effect.

In the east side of the tunnel, there was a Japanese machine gun nest that guarded its entrance. The gun has long since been stripped of its firing mechanism and is nothing but for Kodak ops nowadays.

And before we could enter the famed tunnel, we were warned that some of the sound effects – the explosions and artillery barrage – from the light and sound show that recreated the Allies’ darkest hour on the Rock could be disconcerting for those faint of heart.

The tunnel faintly smelled of stale air (because of the poor ventilation) and was yet strangely a little cool. But a long time ago, Malinta reeked of a mixture of fear, cordite, sweat, the sickening stench of blood and the dying. Most of the laterals including the hospital wing throughout the tunnel have been cleaned up and sanitized for show. However, some others such as the top-secret Navy tunnel that the Japanese blew up when the Americans returned have been largely unexcavated. Attempts to retrieve the bodies and whatever secrets they contained have been futile as the structures have been unwieldy and dangerous.

Literally walking through the length of the 925-foot long tunnel for the dramatization of Corregidor’s gallant last stand (as conceptualized by the late National Artist for Film Lamberto V. Avellana), we could all commiserate with the sense of foreboding, despair, and helplessness of those fateful days.

And we all wondered aloud with all the death and destruction, were there any ghosts who still inhabited the tunnel?

Our guide had all the answers. “For Php 150, you could join the Malinta Night Tour where you will be taken deep into the hospital laterals and go ghost hunting.”

Fire for effect
After the Malinta Tunnel Tour, we zipped by the Memorial for the late President Manuel Quezon then it was off to a buffet lunch at the 32-room Corregidor Inn where I was to be staying that night. From the outside dining area, one could see the west entrance of the tunnel. Down the road from the Inn was the seaside town of San Jose that was evacuated before the war. Not many people live here today save for the caretakers of the island.

After checking in what little luggage I had, it was off to our tramvia to check out what the island is more popularly known for… its big guns.

Our first stop was the Middleside barracks that once housed American and Philippine servicemen. The now-hollow barracks were constructed using steel from Bethlehem Steel Corporation in Pennsylvania with the cement ironically coming from a company from Japan that closed down seven years ago.

After that, we were off to Battery “Way” (all the batteries or gun emplacements were named after American servicemen, in this case Lt. Henry Way who served in the Philippine-American War) with its four guns that although repainted to keep from rusting showed all the nicks and hits it sustained during its artillery duels with the Japanese. The doors to the observation posts and ammo dumps bore marks of bullet holes. No doubt a result of a firefight when the Americans were clearing the battery of Japanese defenders.

I tried to picture in my mind the artillerymen as they raced about hauling the huge shells on trolleys from the ordnance depot just around the corner. And with four guns, the noise must have been deafening.

But by the time we arrived at Battery “Hearn” with its 12-inch gun, the merciless summer afternoon sun had somewhat sapped the life from us. Most preferred to stay inside the tramvia rather than go down to take souvenir photos. It is here where the Japanese posed in the famous shot where they were all cheering, “Banzai” after the island fell.

From the main road, we viewed what was left of Battery “Geary” which almost right up to the fall of Corregidor was engaged in a deadly artillery duel with the Japanese who were on Bataan. “Geary” was destroyed after its ammo dump took a direct hit and shook the island to its very core. The 27 men manning this battery were all killed instantly. Nothing is left of the battery save for the remains of a few wrecked metal emplacements.

The fourth and last gun emplacement we went to was Battery “Grubbs” (I don’t know why we didn’t go to Battery “Crockett”) with its vanishing carriage that made it difficult for enemy scouts to pinpoint the location of the gun and its majestic view of the Bataan peninsula.

All throughout the tour, I would compare pictures of the ruins and landmarks from shots taken years ago whether from some of the vets or at the War Museum. I wondered if there was anything being done to at least preserve the ruins that seemed darker and dirtier. I fact, the following morning, according to some of the caretakers, a chunk of masonry from the Topside Barracks fell. And that begs the question -- how do you clean and take care of ruins?

Many of the trees are suffering from termite problems and there are few trash dispensers around. The trail leading to the Japanese Tunnel (which I would explore the following day) was littered with trash.

The final tour of the day was the Topside area that included the parade grounds, the Milelong Barracks, the Headquarters of Fort Mills (as the Army outpost on the island was named after an artillery office who served in the Philippines at the turn of the century), the old Spanish lighthouse, and the War Memorial.

The light posts outside what was once the Fort Mills HQ were converted Spanish cannons, spoils of the American victory during the Battle of Manila Bay.

Our penultimate destination of the day was the reconstructed Spanish lighthouse that was destroyed during the war. Now going up was going to be a challenge since I am suffering from an acute sense of acrophobia. Nevertheless, I made it up the steep climb although it was somewhat agonizing. The 360-degree view while not as breathtaking as being on the highest point of Boracay that is Mt. Luho, being atop the Spanish lighthouse got my imagination working and wondering what it was like during those colonial times. But after the buffeting winds made me feel like a kite, I decided that my attempt to rid myself of the fear of heights had to be temporarily suspended.

The day tour’s last stop was the Pacific War Memorial and its adjacent Museum. Now like the cross in Mt. Samat, this is Holy Ground. The bodies of soldiers who gave their lives in this battle were buried beneath a marble tomb. Every May 6th, the anniversary of the island’s fall, the sunlight is said to filter through the hole at the top of the dome to shine on the tomb.

I knelt before the tomb and ran my fingers across the inscription that pays tribute to the fallen and it forever etched itself in my mind.

After the War Museum that continued my walk through history (here you’ll find the American flag that flew on the island during the war years), it was time to take the other tourists to the south dock for their return trip to Manila.

As for me, I was on my way back to the hotel to get some shuteye.

D-day plus one
A friend of mine who relocated from Manila to Boracay says that one of the perks of living far from the congested and highly stressful urban jungle that is Manila is waking up to a beautiful sunrise and taking a cigarette break to an amazing sunset.

Fortunately, Boracay hasn’t cornered the market share on nature’s most breathtakingly simple yet amazing wonders. I woke up at 5am to catch the sunrise at 0603 that would sneak up from the tail of this tadpole-shaped island. Along with another guide, we took the hotel shuttle back to the Pacific War Memorial.

The “view deck” was the hill at the far back of the memorial that was used as part of those adventure games and where it was best to view the sunrise. Birds fluttered all about in a postcard perfect setting as the skies turned in a morning blend of blue and orange and red colors. The clouds were in a “V” formation and somewhat stanched the full sunrise from shining through. But nevertheless, it was still a sight to behold.

By 0620, we were off to the nearby Japanese Tunnel that served as a machine gun nest and escape hatch. We backtracked from the path that we took coming from the Spanish lighthouse yesterday but at some point we take the trail that descends down a hilly slope. There were industrial strength ropes along the path for us to hold on to. Even with the ropes, one still has to be careful for the path is rocky and a little tricky. The tunnel is located at the back of a bombed out American warehouse with an escape hatch to higher ground where there was once a machine gun and mortar nest.

We had to crouch to get inside the tunnel but once inside, the ceiling was high enough to accommodate a person of Asian size. I was given a flashlight to help navigate my way around. Being a cautious person, I bathed the tunnel in light to check out the ground I’d be walking on as well as the far end. The guide noticed my thoroughness and I remarked that it was because of a pathological fear of snakes. I wondered aloud how a tunnel of this size could readily make a home for the slithery kind. Our guide told us that the caretakers routinely check the tunnel (as are other tourist spots) and occasionally they find some unwanted houseguests. Somehow that didn’t leave me with a warm feeling.

The tunnel isn’t too long and there are air shafts built along the way. The Americans dumped gasoline or used flamethrowers on the air ducts to flush out the Japanese.

To get above ground, there’s a steep wooden ladder that led to another cement bunker. It was an easy climb; my only worry was making sure my video camera was strapped on tight to me.

Once we reached the surface, we made our way back to the parking area outside the Pacific War Memorial. I told our guide that I preferred to hoof it all the way back to the hotel.

Outside the parade grounds, there is that famous flagpole that was actually constructed from the mast of a Spanish warship captured during the Battle of Manila Bay. It was here where that famous and emotional exchange between Col. George Madison Jones and General Douglas MacArthur after Jones’ paratroopers secured back the island in 1945.

Col. Jones: “Sir, I present to you Fortress Corregidor.”
Gen. MacArthur: “I see the old flagpole still stands. Have your troops hoist the
colors to its peak and let no enemy ever haul them down again.”

There’s a forlorn beauty to Corregidor. On one hand, I am happy that it’s more or less unspoiled by commercialization although there has been talk of building a golf course on the island and other resort-like amenities. On the other, it sits out there 26 miles from Manila Bay for the most part forgotten. Remembered only when the anniversaries of their fall (Bataan on April 9 and May 6 for Corregidor) arrive for taps and a gun salute only for the trumpets to once more recede with the falling of day.

The Rock has seen so much bloodshed from the Spanish rule to the final days of World War II. Thousands and thousands of soldiers and civilians carved out their names in sweat and blood on the island’s sun-baked and bombed out terrain so that we would live in freedom. Perhaps as a blissful coda to its history of war and strife, the idyllic setting of today offers one truism -- Corregidor has found peace.

As the MV Sun Cruiser departed for Manila at exactly 2:30pm, I cast a long look back at the Rock that for so many years was more than a history lesson to me. I said a silent prayer for the opportunity to live in freedom’s light and to actually give thanks to those who gave their lives for us to revel in it.

And I repeated the inscription upon the marble tomb beneath the dome for the fallen Allied soldiers:
“Sleep my sons, your duty done. Sleep in the silent depths of the sea or in your bed of hallowed sod until you hear at dawn the clear low reveille of God.”
It’s been a couple of weeks now, but the memories linger like ghosts. And if you listen closely for the anniversary is on nigh, you’ll believe in them.

Post script: I wasn’t able to join the Malinta Tunnel Night Tour because I had slept the afternoon away of my first and wasn’t able to arrange for a guide to accompany me. I also missed the Japanese Garden. Guess there’s one more trip back to the Rock for me.

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