WORLD WAR TWO TIME CAPSULE ON CORREGIDOR
January 1, 1970April is the hottest month on Corregidor. The midday sun beats down unmercifully on this onetime island battlefield and sparkles off the intense blue waters of the South China Sea. Hibiscus and acacia bloom orange and white and flame trees embroider the light green hills with fiery bursts of red. Across the narrow channel on the island of Luzon the rust colored landscape rises precipitously from coastal plain to the 4660-foot Mt. Bataan whose summit is intermittently capped in a halo of clouds.
On most WWII battlefields that I have visited the scars of war have long since disappeared; the bullet holes patched, the trenches and shell holes filled in. But the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay is a time capsule where evidence of vicious fighting in 1942 and in 1945 is everywhere. Batteries of 12-inch mortars and coastal guns are still in position although many are blown askew and left as they were after the American surrender. All across the island are the concrete skeletons of old barracks, headquarters, and maintenance and ammunition storage buildings. Many are pocked by shrapnel and caved in from bomb bursts. Craters still dot the island.
A 12-inch U.S. gun blown from its mount remains in place while below the skeleton of Mile Long Barracks on Topside still stands
I found Corregidor an easy and inexpensive visit from Manila on a recent visit to the Philippines. Corregidor became the center for the U.S. defense of the Philippines in the opening months of WWII after 50,000 Japanese troops landed on Luzon in December 1941, and marched on Manila. As the enemy advanced, U.S. forces met them on the Bataan Peninsula that forms the northern rim of Manila Bay. The Japanese onslaught was invincible. Bataan fell on April 8, 1942 and Japanese troops stormed Corregidor on May 5.
I was drawn to the island because it holds a mythical place in American history. While it symbolized defeat, it was defeat of heroic proportions and the futile struggle to hold Corregidor proved to be the wellspring of America’s ultimate victory and its emergence as a superpower three years later in 1945.
The un-heroic proportions of Corregidor surprised me. It is tiny – only 1,735 acres – unremarkable in beauty or ruggedness and the flora are somewhat scruffy and not jungle-like, as I had imagined. It is one of five small islands that formed the defense of Manila Bay. The sweltering serenity today cannot mask the tumult of war that swept over the island 60 years ago.
Tours wind past shattered barracks and old mortar and artillery batteries. At “Topside,” near the island’s summit, one finds the remains of the sprawling “Mile Long Barracks” that had the capacity to house 2,000 soldiers. In February 1945 American paratroopers used the area as a drop zone. Today, in the brilliant mid-day heat the barracks’ smashed skeleton stands silhouetted against the sun and resembles the remains of an ancient temple. Nearby, are the bombed out bachelor officer’s quarters and the post theater where, ironically, the last show was Gone With The Wind. The one-time Fort Mills headquarters building where General Douglas MacArthur briefly had his command post is just up the hill. He moved to the protection of the Malinta Tunnel after enemy planes began bombing the island. The headquarters was demolished a short time later by a bomb and evidence of the damage is clearly visible today with parts of the second floor tumbled onto the first.
From Topside one is was aware of the looming presence of Mt. Bataan. It is not difficult to imagine the despair of Corregidor’s defenders when they heard the guns go silent on the Bataan peninsula in April 1942 and realized that the American and Filipino troops there had surrendered. Thus began the infamous Bataan Death March.
The highlight of an island tour is a walk through Malinta Tunnel, located near the island’s waist that once was the nerve center of the American defense of the island. The tunnel’s entrance formed the backdrop of the famous photograph of American soldiers surrendering to the Japanese. Today tourists walk through its length and experience a powerful sound and light show that reenacts the last days of Corregidor in 1942.
Corregidor is uninhabited except for hotel staff, island maintenance personnel, and some 2000 monkeys that frolic in the dense underbrush that has overtaken areas that were once golf courses, tennis courts, lawns and assembly areas.
David P. Colley