HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 14, 2008
Corregidor, Farewell

John R. Guthrie


Corregidor may break your heart. Guarding the seaward approach to Manila Bay, it is a precipitous outcropping of rock, sand, and soil shaped like a tadpole. It is four miles long and a mile wide. Corregidor means “the corrector,” because of a Spanish penal colony that was once there. It was ceded to the United States along with the rest of the Philippine archipelago after the Spanish-American war of 1898. Bataan and Cavite are respectively to the north and south across the water. Due west, 500 miles across the South China Sea, is Vietnam.

Because of its strategic position, Corregidor was heavily fortified by the Spanish. When the United States took possession of the island in the early days of the empire, existing fortifications included 10 and 12 inch mortars. These were enhanced by the addition of concrete breastworks and coastal artillery pieces. The island then basked peacefully under the tropic sun, a bucolic duty station which included a baseball diamond, a parade ground, and a club for enlisted men.

If the routine became bland and cloistered, there was always Manila, splendid, decadent Manila, that great and sprawling oriental bazaar across the bay. Money will buy anything you might wish in that ancient sun-baked town. Anything but love, some say, but even something quite similar to love can be purchased quite reasonably there. With its panoply of hotels and markets, beggars and brothels, night clubs and manufactures as well as a very fine medical school, it is a vibrant city of light and warmth and color closely coupled with dreadfulness and poverty in equal parts. Its cathedrals and churches are monuments to three centuries of deeply religious though often brutal Spanish colonialism. Religious festivals are frequent, colorful, and well attended. Yet they occasionally surprising in their manifestations, having incorporated aspects of indigenous religions.

On Manila’s waterfront I booked passage on a 30 foot diesel cargo boat. It nosed out into the harbor, heading due west, bobbing deeply in the swells as we approached open sea. We c hugged along for two hours before Corregidor emerged through the early morning haze, arching out of the water like a sounding whale. There is a coral sand beach, shallow and crescentic, on which sits two docks; the Engineering Dock, once used by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the nearby Navy Dock. We landed on the Engineering Dock where palms and Liana abounded. The air was sweet with the perfume of Bougainvillea and Frangipani that speckle the precipices behind the beach.

An ancient bus of uncertain pedigree smoked and rattled to the foot of the dock and squealed to a stop. I boarded and rode up the narrow road, rocky and serpentine, that takes one from Bottom side to Middleside to Topside. There is a hill along the way on Bottomside with the uninviting name of Malinta, from the Filipino word meaning “full of leeches.”  Before WW II erupted, rumors of war abounded. An immense tunnel was dug through the base of the hill by Filipino convicts supervised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They used mostly picks and shovels. These sweating, barefoot, bare-chested workers also brought heavy timbers from the Jungles of Luzon to reinforce the thick concrete walls. The tunnel makers then dug some three dozen laterals.

As one walked through the immense barred entrance to the tunnel, it was suddenly cool with a vague mildewy smell. The string of electric bulbs hanging from wires overhead give off a twilight glow. The tunnel complex is immense. It once included a 1,000 bed hospital as well as accommodations for thousands of U.S. Soldiers, Marines and Filipino Scouts.  Some of the laterals are collapsed, the dirt from them oozing out into the main tunnel. These are in fact graves. After Japanese soldiers wrested the island from its American and Filipino defenders eventually their own defeat became certain. Many committed Hari Kari by high explosives. Emerging from the other end of the tunnel it was steamy and bright at 10 A.M. Light flickered back from the sea. A few modest yet charming houses of matting, palm thatch, native lumber and stone stand nearby. Scrawny chickens pecked about for subsistence. Several small brown children nearby were caught up in the ageless rhythms of children at play.

Looking at the ground before me, I quickly spotted the rusty but intact body of an American pineapple style hand grenade. The soil was rich with artifacts; jagged chunks of shrapnel, shell casings, spent shells, the clip from some long ago soldiers M1 rifle. I leaned over and picked up two Japanese Nambu heavy machine gun projectiles, their bases scribed from the lands of the weapon that fired them. They are copper-jacketed, and little the worse for wear after over half a century in the tropical soil.

I reboarded the bus and wound through Middleside to Topside. There the much shelled remnants of stone, stucco and masonry barracks stand. Their arches, porticoes and columns recall the distant grandeur of their Spanish origins. Before the ruins of the barracks is the parade ground on which the paratroopers rained down when the American forces returned. A flag pole, once the mast of a Spanish sailing vessel, stands front and center. General MacArthur, on his victorious return to Corregidor in 1945, said with typical grandiloquence, “I see the old flagpole still stands. Have your troops hoist the colors to her peak and let no enemy ever pull them down.”
In commenting on the capture of Corregidor, the victorious General Homma, a Samurai, pointed out that taking the island was a matter of “spiritual necessity.” It was of less than overwhelming military significance, and could well have been leapfrogged, a tactic MacArthur used so successfully as he made his way across the Pacific. That isolated garrison, given time and the lack of resupply would have withered away without the horrendous loss of life which the Japanese conquest carried with it. General Homma felt the presence of Corregidor and the continued resistance of its garrison was “an affront to the Emperor and an affront to the Greater Southeast Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” that it represented.

MacArthur, “with the help of God and a few Marines” did indeed return to the Philippines. Allied troops entered Manila in March of 1945. MacArthur was the captain of armies so mighty that they harnessed the power of the atom to destroy a determined and resourceful enemy. The war in the Pacific was over in September of that same year. In photos of MacArthur signing the Peace Treaty on the Battleship of the USS Missouri, standing in a place of honor directly behind him is General Wainwright, the general who surrendered Corregidor.

MacArthur became not only a conquering lion but an avenging angel. He was instrumental in bringing about the trial and death by execution of Japanese charged with war crimes. General Homma was a complex and interesting person. He was known as “the poet General” because of his fondness for poetry. After the Japanese defeat, he was sentenced to death by firing squad. As a final rebuke, he was not allowed to wear his uniform at his execution.

On Corregidor’s highest plain there is a war memorial listing names of American and allied dead. Its inscription reads:

Rest well my sons, upon your bed of hallowed sod
Or in the oceans deep
Your job well done
And wait there the lonely reveille of God.


This verse captured well the terrible poignancy and the remoteness, the loneliness, and the pain of this island place, an island now burdened by the remains of those American, Filipino, and Japanese legions who await that “lonely reveille of god.” Corregidor is at once cathedral and charnel house, the spirits there as restless and intrusive as the waves that play upon the crystal beaches and the breezes that stir and sway the palm and bougainvillea and cool the island children at their play.

I took the rickety bus to Bottom Side again and soon boarded the utility boat to return to Manila. I leaned against the r and looked back across the wake. Corregidor was soon an emerald in a sea of topaz, as lovely as a travel bureau poster.  But persistent in my inner eye were the spent shells, the jagged chunks of shrapnel, the remnants of the fallen that lie beneath the orchids and sampaguita. Though nothing but the rumbling of the diesel engine, the frothing of the water against the hull and the occasional cries of a sea bird were audible, the hillsides still echoed with the rattling of riflery, the insistent chatter of the machineguns, relentless pounding of the cannonade that made the shimmering beaches "quiver like jelly.”  Corregidor is the repository for the spirits of the youthful dead, those who transcended pain hunger, sickness, sleeplessness, during the shell-rocked days and nights. It is not possible to walk the beaches, climb the hillsides, see the fortress remnants there without sensing those restless spirits there who await “the lonely reveille of God.” Corregidor, then, is an intrusive guest in the keeping rooms of one’s memory; a worrisome reminder of the complexity of human endeavor and motivation, and the intertwining of that which is good and evil, of that which is brightest and best and that which is the most base and cruel in human endeavor. It is difficult to truly bid the island farewell, for if there is such a thing as hallowed ground, that distant place certainly is. Resting in a distant and ancient sea, Corregidor may break your heart.


John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He then garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)


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Source: Google Images
Barracks, Corregidor
The names of the units manning the defenses on Corregidor on the day the Japanese attacked the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor are scribed in blood in the nation’s history: 4th Regiment, United States Marine Corps. Formerly China Marines, they arrived one week before the assault on Corregidor began. The 91st and 59th Coastal Artillery Regiments, U.S. Army; 92nd Tractor-Drawn Artillery Regiment; the Philippine Scouts and the 1st Coastal Artillery Regiment, Philippine Army; Philippine Harbor and Seaward Defense Units and other assorted Philippine naval and army sub-units. Shortly after Pearl Harbor the Passion of this island fortress and its defenders began.

Japanese General Homma brought ashore his regiments of heavy infantry on the Engineering dock. They had been bloodied in the defeat of the outnumbered and isolated American garrison on nearby Bataan. In the 27 days of bombardment previous to the landing of the first Japanese troops, Emperor Hirohito’s troops lobbed 115,000 heavy artillery shells onto the island, one for every five meters square of the island’s tortured soil.
Heavy Mortars, Corregidor
Source: Google Images
The heavy mortars were still intact and served well against he amphibious troops that emerged from the surf. The Americans and Filipinos mounted an impressive defensive with machine guns and small arms. The first Japanese regiment to land consisted of 2,500 men. 1,750 died in the surf before they ever set foot upon Corregidor. General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific and General Jonathan Wainwright, Commander, Allied Forces in the Philippines, sought refuge along with their commands from the carpeting of Japanese artillery shells in Malinta Tunnel. They were outnumbered, undermanned, and isolated. They were also beyond the reach of the logistical routes of the U.S. armed forces in 1942. The island had no indigenous source of potable water, much less food or military materials. Inevitably, Wainwright was forced to surrender. Though this was a matter of military necessity, this left the old soldier filled with anguish.

Prior to the fall of Corregidor, under direct orders from President Roosevelt, Macarthur and his family escaped to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on a P.T. boat. From there they flew to Australia, MacArthur, vowing publicly that “I shall return,” continued to command the allied forces of the Pacific until the successful resolution of the war in 1945.
Malinta Tunnel Entrance
Source: Google Images