Corregidor Island, Cavite City, the Philippines
February 11, 2012
During the American occupation, Corregidor Island went by the name Fort Mills or, simply “the Rock,” a moniker suggesting more than a dash of testosterone. The sperm-shaped island seemingly swam at the mouth of Manila Bay between the Bataan Peninsula and Cavite, the province that held jurisdiction over it. Fortified by the country’s colonists, the rocky island lay at a strategic point that guarded one of the finest natural harbors in the world and the city of Manila, about 16 miles within the bay. Belligerent superpowers, the US and Japan, took turns in seizing control of the Rock through two battles that bookended WW2 in the Philippines.
At 8:00 AM, my mother and I boarded a Sun Cruises ferry at CCP Bay Terminal. In no more than an hour, we docked at the Rock. The day’s visitors were met by several tranvia buses, reminiscent of streetcars that plied through prewar Corregidor, when Filipinos were relegated to the back rows, out of sight from the Americans up front. Today, we occupied the entire bus.
Alas, the tranvia was far from being elderly-friendly. Without inclined steps, my mother needed at least two people to get her on and off the vehicle. Considering the nine stops in this day tour, it was a taxing and a potentially precarious exercise. Provisions for the older set should be in order; after all, this island steeped in war history had always attracted veterans, their spouses, and people who have lived through WW2 – all senior citizens by now.
One of our first stops was the Malinta Tunnel, now a venue for a light and sound show, a dramatic crash course in WW2 history that would inform the rest of the tour. As the tunnel’s metal door closed behind us, the tour group was plunged into the darkest years of the 20th century. Drones of tora tora planes, volleys of gunfire, and bomb explosions reverberated through the tunnel as it did during the war. Grainy newsreels and crackling radio sound bites imbued history with the urgency of news. Two thumbs up for film director Lamberto Avellana, the show’s creator, for this atmospheric account of WW2 events with Corregidor as the focal point.
The tunnel network served as ammunition storage and bunker, and later as wartime HQ of President Manuel L. Quezon and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Interestingly, it was built by the Americans more than a decade before WW2. Was it a foreshadowing of a war to come? The prescient Americans had laid the groundwork, quite literally, in preparation for any eventuality of war, using prison labor and Baguio gold mining technology. The tunnel construction progressed slowly in the 1930s until the imminent world war gave it a shot in the arm.
The immaculately restored tunnel was once a deathtrap, the site of a mass suicide of Japanese soldiers, numbering in the thousands, trapped underground by approaching American forces on February 23, 1945. Where the Americans and Filipinos, emaciated but nonetheless alive, had surrendered three years before, the Japanese detonated bombs, in kamikaze fashion, and pulverized themselves as they had almost done to the Rock itself during the siege of Corregidor in 1942.
This was what we came here to see: vintage artillery in ruined fortifications called batteries, of which there were 23 on the island.
A phalanx of four rotating mortars lined a concrete pit in Battery Way. Gleaming with a fresh coat of camouflage green, the mortars were cocked erect. The gun barrels could be rotated 360 degrees to catapult 450-kg shells 13 kilometers away at every direction. The impressive numbers were not in any way as potent as seeing these massive but silenced killing machines, like dinosaur fossils, tower over a human being.
The biggest gun on the island adorned Battery Hearn. After defeating the American and Filipino forces in the Battle of Bataan, the Japanese Imperial Army chose it as a war trophy; they posed under its long barrel with arms raised in victory for publicity photos. We chose it as the perfect backdrop for a group photo.
Battery Grubbs harbored disappearing guns behind its concrete parapets, where cannons descended out of enemy view after firing. The battery was, nevertheless, heavily damaged by a round of Japanese shelling. Despite their spotty performance during the war, the weapons still display the military muscle, oiled and flexed, of the US.
The complex of barracks at the highest point of the island, the Topside, was grand enough to merit the name Mile Long Barracks, although it was only a third of a mile. The manicured lawn and ballpark in front of the crumbling ruins gave it a sort of forlorn elegance. A prewar community of military personnel and their families lived here, the island’s administrative and living area, perhaps comparable to Camp John Hay in Baguio.
Mom opted to stay put in the tranvia. By this time, she had had enough of struggling up and down the bus.
Indeed, the Americans were here. A tell-tale sign was a vestige of Hollywood, Cine Corregidor, a shell of a cinema that used to premiere the latest movies half a year ahead of their release in Manila. It would leave to the imagination what other amenities, obliterated by war, the Americans had here, living a colonial lifestyle in their Pacific paradise. I peeked through the space created by a collapsed wall that was once the silver screen, a window to the outside world that had become a window through which I conjured up the world of yore.
As they had spilled their sons’ blood, so they would share the memories of their lost heroes. Both the US and Japan, former nemeses, established memorials on the island to remember the lives lost and to reclaim peace and freedom, twin hopes they had inscribed on their respective memorial sculptures’ plinths.
A statue of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, stood at the Japanese War Memorial, looking down to hear the cries of agony of their fallen soldiers. The mercy they had denied giving in life redeemed them in death.
A steel sculpture called The Eternal Flame of Freedom rose over a promenading strip of the Pacific War Memorial, a white domed chapel built by the American government to honor both American and Filipino soldiers who fought together in WW2. A ray of sunlight – “freedom’s light” – streamed down at midday from an oculus, a puncture at the dome’s zenith, to the circular center altar, engraved with a poignant prayer.
The Spanish lighthouse was perhaps so named as a nod to the country’s first colonizer. The original lighthouse built in 1836 had not survived, but a replacement was erected at the same site. I scaled the winding staircase to the top from where the coastline of Bataan Peninsula was clearly visible. Half of Manila Bay separated the island from the peninsula, but the trajectory of cannon fire from the giant mortars I had just seen traversed this corridor of water.
The first American flag flown at the end of WW2, staked on the Rock where the Americans had established their presence in the country and the rest of Southeast Asia, was preserved at the Pacific War Museum. A bronze sculpture at the Filipino-American Friendship Park, Brothers in Arms, depicted the brotherhood of the two allies tellingly: an American soldier holding and supporting his wounded, helpless Filipino counterpart.
Upon this rock, the relationship dynamic that would define this long-lasting bromance between Juan dela Cruz and Uncle Sam was established, for better or for worse.
Dubbed as a “cruise for life,” the tour was organized by Victory Christian Fellowship for the benefit of the Real Life Foundation scholars.