Corregidor: Island monument


A Different Drum

Malaya Pimentel-Santos, MD

THROUGH the centuries, the tadpole-shaped Corregidor Island has stood at the mouth of Manila Bay, guarding it from pirates, invaders, and warships. The island fortress is reachable via fast craft from the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) complex in Manila. Alternatively, a motorized boat can take you across three miles from the port of Mariveles in Bataan.

I have been to Corregidor twice, first on a day trip from Manila several years ago, and another time when I stayed a night on the island. My second visit took place this year, just a couple of weeks before April 9th, the day we commemorated the Fall of Bataan as Araw ng Kagitingan, or Day of Valor.

Paradise lost

It’s not hard to imagine the island as an oasis in the midst of the battles, misery, and desperation of war. The sunset, as seen from the ruins of Battery Grubbs with its huge 10-inch “disappearing” guns provides a stark contrast of the beauty of nature against a backdrop of heavy-duty artillery. These guns – said to have been damaged early in the war – were designed to fire in a northwest direction, as part of the Manila Harbor defenses.

In the area known as “Topside”, one can catch a spectacular view of the sunrise (weather permitting). Also found here is the Pacific War Memorial, built in 1968 by the United States government. Inside the dome with its circular altar is a haunting inscription: “Sleep, my sons, your duty done, for Freedom’s light has come; sleep in the silent depths of the sea, or in your bed of hallowed sod, until you hear at dawn the low, clear reveille of God”.

The Pacific War Memorial also houses a small museum displaying war relics and memorabilia, including a replica of the document signed by General Tomoyuki Yamashita after his surrender in Ifugao on September 2, 1945. This milestone marked the end of the Japanese occupation in the Philippines, and the end of World War II. On a side note, some believe that Yamashita’s gold (treasure) is still hidden somewhere in the Cordilleras.

Elsewhere on Corregidor, are the remnants of an airstrip, train system, hospital, theater, shopping center, sports facilities, barracks, clubs, and quarters. The most notable of course are the armaments, batteries, guns, and mortars that reveal its true purpose, as an instrument of warfare. The wreckage of the buildings and even the bomb craters left intact are a poignant reminder of the historic events that unfolded here during World War II.

Malinta tunnel and garrison hospital

Deep in the bowels of Malinta Hill is an 836-foot East-West passage that cuts through solid rock reinforced with concrete, indisputably the most strongly fortified part of the Island. It was here that Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon and Vice President Sergio Osmena were inaugurated into their second term on December 30, 1941. It also served as the headquarters of General Douglas McArthur and the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) after Manila was declared an open city in December 1941, following the Japanese invasion.

In addition to the main tunnel is an extensive network of lateral tunnels, branching off on either side. A portion of the tunnels were later converted into subterranean hospital with 1,000 beds, where the sick and the wounded were attended to with minimal supplies, makeshift equipment, and often in complete darkness.

27-day siege

Following the Fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942, Corregidor bravely held its defenses for 27 more days, continuing to inflict damage on enemy troops, by virtue of its strategic location and its extraordinary ability to withstand aerial bombings. However, the island was by this time completely cut off from support and supplies. Rations – not to mention morale – were running low, and conditions even inside the safety of the tunnels were rapidly deteriorating.

Over a thousand bombs and hundreds of tons of explosives are said to have been dropped over Corregidor. It is estimated that 16,000 shells hit the island on May 4, 1942 alone. General Jonathan Wainwright ultimately surrendered on May 6, 1942, sending via radio this famous, heartbreaking message: “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed. Without prospect of relief, I feel it is my duty… to end this useless effusion of blood and human sacrifice…” Over 11,000 prisoners of war (POW) were captured after the fall of Corregidor, a day that also marked the beginning of the Japanese occupation.

Testament to valor

Not far from Corregidor is the Dambana ng Kagitingan (Shrine of Valor). The memorial cross at the top of Mt. Samat – the site of the final stronghold during the Battle of Bataan – was built as a tribute to those who lay down their lives in the battle that ended with the surrender of General Edward King on April 9, 1942.

This was the starting point of the infamous Bataan Death March where approximately 75,000 POWs were taken on foot under brutal conditions to San Fernando Pampanga, some 65 miles away. The exact numbers are unclear, but it is believed that as many as ten thousand POWs perished during the march. Those still alive were later transferred to Capas, Tarlac, where the Capas National Shrine now stands.

Today, Corregidor is essentially as it was after World War II ended in 1945. All that remains now are its ruins and memorials, preserved for history, and for posterity.

Notwithstanding the beauty of the island, the mood on Corregidor will always be somber. These ruins – many of which are now slowly being reclaimed by forests – stand as a silent testament to the bravery and strength of heart of those who fought and died for our country, some 75 years ago.

 Vital Signs Issue 86 Vol. 4, April 1-30 2016