Dispatches From Manila
Robin Hemley is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He’s spending the year on a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Philippines with his family. Why the Philippines? Read on and find out—he’ll be checking in regularly.
Old Ghosts of Corregidor.
BY Robin Hemley
It’s an odd sort of person who continues the campaigns of the dead. But there are many of us. War re-enactors, battle historians, the children of veterans. The dead often inspire more passion in us than the living. I’ve come to the island of Corregidor over the years five or six times, taking the same tour around the battle-scarred island on an open-air tourist mover or tranvia, wishing I could stay for more than a day and walk among the ruined bunkers, crawl through abandoned tunnels, and examine at my leisure the giant fallen guns that litter the island. It’s an odd wish, I know, and I can’t well explain it except that I love history and I love ghosts. The two are sometimes the same—for me, history is one long ghost story, and this island has more than its share of both.
I finally get my chance when my friend Peter Parsons tells me that he and a small group are going to spend several days in March to commemorate the 64th anniversary of General MacArthur’s return to “The Rock,” as American vets who fought there called it. It was from here that MacArthur was spirited away in the early days of the War, when it was certain the island would fall to the Japanese, who invaded the Philippines ten hours after attacking Pearl Harbor.
“I shall return,” MacArthur said famously. And “Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.” MacArthur’s ghost hasn’t faded in the Philippines, where he’s still considered a hero. My wife doesn’t like me besmirching his name. So I won’t, but I’ll just say he had a Filipina mistress nicknamed “Dimples,” (coincidentally, Margie’s nickname, too, though one I’ve never used) whom he brought back to Washington with him, keeping her a secret from his mother, and finally paying her off and sending her packing back to the islands. Poor Dimples killed herself in the early sixties. I’ll just say that after he finally obeyed Roosevelt’s order to leave Corregidor (the third time was the charm), he left command of his forces on Corregidor to General Wainwright, and expected Wainwright to fight to the end. But Wainwright surrendered in May of 1942, sending a wire to Roosevelt stating: “There is a limit to human endurance and that point has long been passed.” I’ll just say that after Wainwright was freed from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, MacArthur tried unsuccessfully to block Wainwright from receiving the Medal of Honor. What really pissed off MacArthur was that Wainwright ordered other forces not on Corregidor to surrender to the Japanese, countermanding MacArthur’s order that they go guerrilla. I’ll just say that during the Korean War, he wanted to use nuclear weapons, for which Truman sacked him. I’ll just say finally that some of my ambivalence towards MacArthur comes second-hand, from a crusty Filipino tour guide who bent my ear during one tour of Corregidor, telling me how he lobbied successfully for a memorial to Wainwright on the island.
If the wraith of MacArthur wanders anywhere, it’s undoubtedly on Corregidor, which seems to have its share of ghosts. Peter and his wife Tea once stayed on Corregidor at the island’s only hotel. Out walking one night a figure dressed in black flashed passed them in absolute silence on a bicycle and then disappeared over a cliff. I’ve known Peter for nearly a dozen years. He was born in the Philippines, the son of war hero Chick Parsons. When Peter was a young boy, the American soldiers who were captured on Corregidor marched past his family’s house. Several collapsed in the road and he brought water to them. His grandmother, who was helping the guerrilla forces fighting the Japanese, was caught and beheaded. I have no such emotional attachment to the battles that were waged here. My father had a desk job. My ghosts are secondhand, from my own Dimples, whose grandfather narrowly escaped execution by the Japanese when American planes flew overhead and scared off the Japanese guarding him.
So on an early sultry morning in March, our driver takes me to Manila Bay where I’m to meet Peter and Tea and the other adventurers who are going to spend the next several days on Corregidor, followed by a jaunt across the bay to the Bataan Peninsula, another famous site of resistance to the Japanese, where thousands of Filipinos and Americans perished in the Bataan Death March. I’ve begged off this portion of the trip. It’s really only Corregidor that holds me in thrall.
The only practical way to get to Corregidor from Manila is by one of Sun Cruise’s ferries—it’s about a 75 minute journey to the mouth of Manila Bay, where Corregidor sits. Like nearly all forms of conveyance in the Philippines, you don’t go anywhere without an ear splitting accompaniment. On busses, it’s pirated movies played continuously. In taxis, it’s love songs on the radio. In jeepneys and on motor tricycles, it’s the sound of the engine shaking your teeth out of your head. On the Sun Cruise ferry to Corregidor it’s a documentary on the war-torn island cranked up to Psychological Warfare levels.
Ironically, the island of Corregidor now must be the most peaceful of all inhabited islands in the Philippines. It houses little but the ruins of gun batteries, and ruined shells of barracks, a demolished movie theater, a hospital, the Corregidor Inn, a couple of small snack bars, including the MacArthur Café, all surrounded and sometimes reclaimed by jungle. First used by the Spanish as a fortress, Corregidor was taken over by the Americans who fortified the island shortly after colonizing the Philippines. It’s now an island-sized shrine to the Allied dead in the War of the Pacific
Not many people would want to live on a shrine to the war dead, but Steve Kwiecinski’s father was one of Corregidor’s defenders. Captured by the Japanese, he survived transport on the infamous Japanese “Hellships,” boats that supplied Japan, manned by POW slave labor, and often bombed by American forces. Steve and his wife Marcia lived in the Lansing, Michigan area for thirty years, where Steve worked as a computer programmer and Marcia as a Physical Therapist Assistant until they decided to quit their jobs, sell their belongings, and move to Corregidor. They’ve lived on the island since October of 2008, and they arguably know it at least as well as anyone who has ever set foot there. Steve is tall and lanky like his father and wears a fourteen-size shoe, (it’s impossible to find a 14 size shoe in the Philippines, he likes to tell people). Marcia’s typical hiking outfit on the island consists of running shoes, shorts, T-shirt, and floppy hat. Like Steve, she’s fit and equal to the task of bushwhacking jungle trails, searching for lost historic sites, and shimmying through abandoned tunnels. Still, there’s something a little odd in encountering a pair of middle-aged Minnesotans living in the shattered ruins (though comfortably in a solar-powered house) of an island fortress.
My other companions include the curator of the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia, James Zobel. Jim has carried with him a 48 star flag (as Alaska and Hawaii hadn’t yet become states in the WWII era) from the memorial to be hoisted on the flagpole that MacArthur presided over 64 years ago today. This is Jim’s first visit to the Philippines—the others are veterans, though only one literally so: 67-year old Karl Welteke. A lifer in the U.S. military, he was born in Germany and spent part of his youth sheltering from allied bombing raids. Cigar-chomping Paul Whitman from Australia carries a vintage ‘42 issue Australian machete. His dad was an attorney who was offered a post in the Middle East by a General whom he told, "I wouldn’t cross the bloody street with you, you bastard." After that remark, he was offered the choice between a court martial and a transfer. Luckily, he was a good typist and he wound up on MacArthur’s support staff, compiling the daily list of air raids. Finally, there’s Lou Jurika, Peter’s first cousin, whose father, like Peter’s also fought the Japanese in the Philippines.
The lot of us pile into one of Corregidor Hotel’s tranvia’s and are whisked to Topside, one of the two parade grounds of Corregidor, where a Philippine army honor guard stand in formation, flanked by the U.S. and Philippine flags. Three Philippine officials, one dressed in the traditional barong Tagalog, lay two wreaths, one for Filipino soldiers and one for Americans, on either side of the memorial while the soldiers salute and Steve follows solemnly behind, wearing slacks and a tucked-in Hawaiian shirt. Steve carries off an impromptu speech admirably, under a drizzly sky, within site of the gray ruins that dot the island. Even without such a sky and such ruins, even without such speeches, I would find the landscape somber and melancholy in a way that seems most in line with my wistful and restless soul.
I’m not sure why I’m here except that I love Corregidor. I love digging around in history. But I’m not a full-throttle Corregidor buff. I probably wouldn’t choose to live here and my father wasn’t a war hero. Perhaps in that I’m fortunate. Less to live up to, in this regard at least. I am definitely the least relevant of this rag tag platoon. If this were a war movie, I’d be the fresh meat who lands on the island, lights a cigarette and gets his fool head blown off before he even opens his mouth.
On the first day as Peter and Steve talk about what happened to the men who surrendered on Corregidor, how they were brought first to Manila, and marched through the streets, Peter feels with growing certainty that he, a young boy, gave Steve’s father some water when a group of soldiers collapsed in the street in front of his family’s house. Although the soldier was lying down, Peter remembers his great height in relation to the other soldiers. And why not? Who’s to say the universe doesn’t sometimes deliver such impossible answers to its odd equations. “Thanks, buddy,” Peter remembers the young soldier saying, nothing memorable in any other circumstance. " I won’t forget that," Peter says, as though the soldier’s words were a well-known phrase of MacArthur’s.
There’s no such thing as an innocent stroll on the island with my companions. Each turn in the road elicits a story of a deadly encounter. Here, at this bend in the road, a group of Americans stumbled upon a group of Japanese. Here, at the top of this cliff overlooking the sea and the beach hundreds of feet below, a group of Americans trying to retake the island in 1945, were pinned against the cliff’s edge all night, fending off their attackers. Here at Battery Ramsey is the largest crater on the island, where a two thousand pound bomb hit. Here, in the ruins of the movie theater (the projection wall still intact), a makeshift morgue was set up. Here is where the dog tags of a paratrooper who died in the fighting were found only last year.
And here is the bunker discovered by accident (“it wasn’t on any map,” says Paul), with geckos watchfully on the walls and a swallow’s nest and flip flops on the floor and rebar. And here is a cave big enough to stand in, but you’ve got to dodge the insects and hermit crabs inside and Paul adds hopefully, “I don’t know how many tropical islands you can go to and not expect to be bit by a scorpion or a snake.” Ah, but I’m not that easy to scare off. I married a woman from Kidapawan, Mindanao, where they once found a cobra in the bathroom, and I used to catch snakes and let them go as a child. Scorpions! Ha. I once found a scorpion on the toilet tissue roll in a bathroom on the island of Negros. And I bit its tail off! Well, no, I’m getting carried away. I’m fine with anything alive. Just keep me away from ghosts. I don’t want any black-robed bicyclists headed my way.
I have my chance to meet the ghosts of Corregidor that evening when we go for an after dark trek through Malinta Tunnel. This underground fortress was gouged into one of Corregidor’s mountains and from this network, sheltering thousands of men (and a smattering of women, mostly nurses), MacArthur waged war against the Japanese without reinforcements for five grueling and increasingly desperate months. At the end of the war, as the Americans were retaking the island, many of the Japanese defenders committed mass suicide by setting off charges in the tunnels. As a result, many of the laterals have collapsed and can’t be penetrated, at least not without heavy machinery. What most tourists see is the main shaft of the tunnel, wide enough to ride several tanks across. It’s here that tourists are treated to a “Light and Sound Show.” As an announcer tells the history of the siege, tourists proceed along the tunnel in stages, spotlights beaming on successive life-size dioramas depicting MacArthur and Wainwright, MacArthur and President Quezon of the Philippines, nurses tending to wounded soldiers while actors read lines meant to encapsulate what the people trapped here went through. The highlight is when a bombing run is simulated. Lights flicker and go out, the mountain seems to shake as the sounds of bombs explode. It’s pretty convincing, but of course can’t come close to the real thing. Still, by the end of it, when the spotlights shine on the Philippine flag, I’m always moved.
But tonight, I’m in for a tour that isn’t scripted or orchestrated in any way. Paul and Karl know these tunnels better than most and they lead us through a warren of laterals past partially collapsed roofs and piles of rubble into rooms that few people have explored since World War Two. I follow at a slight distance from my companion, glancing down empty corridors, walking on my own down an empty part of the hospital, which in 1942 would have been full of wounded and dying men. “The stench in here must have been unbelievable,” says Jim Zobel of the MacArthur Memorial. We switch off our flashlights and take in the darkness. It’s as close as we get that night to becoming ghosts ourselves, to playing dead.
The following day we hike up past cliff-side bunkers overlooking a beach with an abandoned resort, now itself in near ruins, built during the Marcos era on the site of the 92nd Philippine Scouts Garage area, used by the Japanese to concentrate the POWs captured on Corregidor and the other fortified islands in the bay. I suppose it’s only proper that this ruin should stand as a memorial on this battered island—why shouldn’t greed and insensitivity have its own unmarked shrine? Rumor has it that a group of generals and Korean investors want to turn Corregidor into an upscale condo and golf resort, another money-grubbing travesty. When I hear such things, the idea of becoming a ghost seems almost appealing if one of the perks might be the opportunity to haunt whomever I wanted. I would lobby for some cross-cultural haunting, commuting in the spirit world between Seoul and Manila, doing my best to drive the bastards to their graves, too.
But the imbalances and injustices of the material world are probably not so easily corrected, even in the spirit world. The big problem of course is that in time every memorial loses its force and is overgrown by the jungle, by greed, by apathy. Some of my companions feel especially affronted by the Japanese tours that are now offered on the island. When I took my first tour of Corregidor in 1999, Japanese tourists sat uncomfortably in the same tranvia’s as Filipinos and Americans, but now they’re segregated and given a version of history less unpleasant for them. The Japanese tour guide wants to put a Japanese flag on Topside apparently. “I’ll tie him to it and shoot him,” one of my companions says as we’re discussing this. But that’s just bravado speaking. The most you can do really is grumble or pee on the foot of the Goddess of Mercy at the Japanese memorial as one of my Filipino guides did once. “They didn’t know mercy during the war,” he told me, “when they slaughtered a hundred thousand civilians in Manila. Maybe they knew some girl named Mercy. They probably killed her, too.” And then he laughed ruefully.
We were standing at the ruins of the hospital when my companion made the remark about tying up the Japanese guide and shooting him. And I’m not trying to be coy when I say I don’t remember who said it and I didn’t write it down. It could have been any of them. It could have been me. It could have been the ghosts of our fathers. Really, we were all there for them, even me, though my father’s biggest war accomplishment was writing the History of Censorship in the Mid-Pacific (a classic, I’m telling you!), for which he, Lieutenant Hemley, was given a special commendation from his superiors. I never really knew him because he died when I was only seven. But I have a desk job, too. I’m a writer like him, and I’m out here for him, reenacting and preserving the memory of all those poor guys who died on this island. It’s boggling for me to think of all their unborn children, my Never playmates, my Never fellow re-enactors. The world is crowded with the ghosts of their collective possibility. As odd as this makes me feel, I probably owe my life to the atomic bomb. My father lobbied successfully finally to be shipped overseas and was on his way to be part of the invasion of Japan when the Bomb dropped. It’s not hard to guess his fate: the Japanese would not have surrendered (of the roughly six thousand Japanese soldiers on Corregidor, fewer than fifty survived) and I would have been nothing but an asterisk in my father’s dead eyes on some Japanese beach.
As is my habit, I wander off alone into the ruins of hospital, looking for relics, looking for ghosts. Like all the buildings on the island, it’s a warren of blasted rooms of stagnant puddles, vines and trees growing from the concrete, staircases to oblivion, and rusted rebar, here there are miraculously, a few rooms intact. I find myself drawn to one in particular, in the middle of the complex, a door leading into pitch darkness. I make my way towards it, my shoulders tensing and shivering, and as I reach in and shine my flashlight, a flock of swallows, perhaps a hundred, shoot past me, some grazing my face and hands. I jump at this apparition, nearly drop my flashlight. Curses are going off in my mind like flares. It takes me a moment on this dark threshold to calm myself, to take stock of what’s happened. I’ve hardly moved an inch since they erupted from the doorway. They’re birds, just birds, I know, but all the same, I stop in my tracks, turn around, and head back outside, ready, while there’s still life in me, for a promised beer or two at the MacArthur Café.
Robin’s book DO-OVER! _is available in stores everywhere. _
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