Sunday, August 5, 2012

Conquered by Corregidor’s Courageous Past

With one of Corregidor's amazing guns
I can’t remember the exact moment when the idea of seeing some of the country’s old war zones, especially those laden with vestiges of World War II, first struck me. It’s something that seemed to have grown upon me over time. What occasionally crosses my mind though are images of death, destruction and deliverance in the many war movies I’ve seen over the years, which I suspect helped feed my fancy to gravitate towards those former hotspots.

For the record, I’m not some bloodthirsty, trigger-happy fellow brandishing a fetish for guns, gore and glory. But I did fire a rifle! And I managed to hit the target a number of times during our ROTC combat exercises in college. But then again, I’m basically a peacemaker, more of a lover than a fighter.

Even so,  the history junkie—not to mention the photography buff—in me had been insisting time and again that “invasions” of historic places like Bataan and Corregidor should be part of my bucket list. Having visited the Shrine of Valor at the summit of Mt. Samat in Bataan, I thought it would be a historical milestone of sorts for me as a true blue Pinoy if I made it to Corregidor this time.

Corregidor (a.k.a. Fort Mills), one of the major battlegrounds in the Asia-Pacific region during World War II, is the biggest among five small islands—the other four being Caballo (a.k.a Fort Hughes), Carabao (a.k.a. Fort Frank), El Fraile (a.k.a. Fort Drum) and La Monja—guarding the entrance to Manila Bay. Flanked by the equally historic provinces of Bataan and Cavite, these islands fall under the territorial jurisdiction of Cavite City (not Bataan as I’d thought).

Nestled 48 miles west of Manila, the once heavily fortified island fortress, which is known as “The Rock” because of its craggy landscape, is where anyone interested to know about the Philippines’ involvement in the Pacific war can come to reconnect with the not so pacific past. And reconnect I did recently.

The chance to see the Rock came my way courtesy of Manila-based long-time friend, Juju, who accompanied the five of us—Joel, Marisa, Minnie, Luz and Wines—to the tadpole-shaped island one gloomy Saturday morning. Joining a throng of local and foreign tourists, we headed for the historic battlefield, sailing from Manila aboard one of Sun Cruises’ catamarans docking at the pier beside the Folk Arts Theater.  

Cruising for over an hour in the choppy waters of Manila Bay, our catamaran had a tough time dealing with the strong currents which bashed it for the most part of the journey. Alas, the turbulent motions of the boat triggered seasickness among a number of the passengers—including Joel, Luz and me (my first time!). Good thing, I had the foresight to bring along my reliable lifeline—a soothing liniment—which helped tide me over the rough voyage.

Upon our arrival at the island’s pier, all of us hopped into one of the tranvias owned by Sun Cruises. Serving as our tour vehicle, the tranvia is an open-air public utility vehicle plying around Manila during the early American times. It really seemed surreal as we boarded the tram, making me feel like we were about to be transported back in time. As the tranvia meandered through the well-paved roads of the island, I tried to recall some of the things I’ve read about Corregidor’s history. 

MacArthur's monument
Spain was the first foreign power to take control over the Rock during the time of Legazpi in 1571, using it initially as an alternative refuge for Spanish galleys. Given its strategic location, the Spaniards later turned it into a military fortress, an early warning outpost watching over hostile ships, a correctional facility, and a customs inspection station. Corregidor’s name, in fact, was said to have been derived from the Spanish word, corregir, meaning 'to correct' considering its role as a penal colony and a customs outpost for Manila-bound ships. 

It was America, however, who converted the Rock into a seemingly impregnable stronghold that would put to shame the fictional island fortress of Navarone and its formidable guns that are feared for their awesome firepower. In the early 1900s, the U.S. poured millions of dollars to develop Corregidor into a military reservation, establishing an army post named Fort Mills and deploying a battalion of soldier-engineers who worked on the embankments, bomb-proof shelters, roads and trails. 

As part of the Rock’s fortification, the Americans put up an underground passageway known as Malinta Tunnel and installed 23 batteries on the island, consisting of 56 coastal guns and mortars. Initially used as a bomb-proof storage facility and personnel bunker, they later turned the tunnel into a 1,000-bed hospital.  There was a separate fee for the facility tour so our group opted to skip it.

As the tram headed for the middle side and topside sections of the island, we soon found ourselves gasping at the plethora of vestiges from the last world war. I never knew what a “theater of war” looked like until I saw those remnants of aggression that were strewn here, there and everywhere in the island. Along the way, the tranvia made about five stops to allow us to take snaps at the many interesting points in Corregidor: General Douglas MacArthur’s Park, President Manuel Quezon Park, Filipino Heroes Memorial, Battery Grubbs and the Eternal Flame of Freedom Monument, to name a few.

Caballo Island
But what really interested me and my friends were the ruins and artillery found at the topside and middle side sections. Staring at the crumbling spectacles and decrepit weapons of mass destruction, I saw, albeit vicariously, how thousands of Fil-American soldiers displayed courage and gallantry while making one of the most heroic stands against the Japanese.  Surrounded by those stark reminders of armed conflict—heavy artillery, mortars, canons, old barracks, ruined buildings and structures—I  thought about how difficult it must have been for those soldiers to defend the Philippines and how agonizing it was for the country to be entangled in one of the bloodiest military wars ever fought throughout the ages. 

After the fall of Bataan, Corregidor succumbed to the Japanese on May 6, 1942, with close to 12,000 Fil-American soldiers held as prisoners. Three years later, however, Allied forces under the command of General MacArthur recaptured the island, making good of his promise to liberate the country. He and his men thought of using a combination of airborne and amphibious assaults—quite a difficult maneuver considering the island’s terrain—to take back Corregidor. So, on the last days of February 1945, two weeks after executing the strategy and sacrificing so many lives, the Americans liberated the Rock, a victory regarded as the crowning glory of the Allied military campaign in the Pacific.

For more than three scores now, the guns of Corregidor have fallen silent. But the remnants left  in the island still echo with countless tales of heroism that were valiantly displayed there. For this alone, I think generations of Pinoys ought to pay homage to those who gave up their lives for independence and democracy, keeping in mind that the freedom they are enjoying, which, sadly, many seem to take for granted, would have remained a dream if not for the thousands who sacrificed their lives in the Rock during those harrowing days of the Pacific War. 

I once told myself that if I made it to the island, I’d be able to conquer one more historical place in the Philippines. On the contrary, however, it was Corregidor which ended up conquering my mind, heart and soul in more ways than one. Indeed, the island had me at the tranvia. And who wouldn’t? There’s really no choice but to surrender sweetly to the island’s historical charms.

Today, an average of 10,000 local and foreign tourists flock to the island every year. On this score, it can be said that the Rock has succeeded in morphing itself from a war zone to a tourist hotspot. But that doesn’t mean that tourism authorities can now be complacent. For Corregidor to continue attracting more visitors, those managing it must keep on creating more value-added services to shore up the island’s competitiveness in the cultural-historical tourism market.

Why not consider offering alternative rides to the Rock—a hot air balloon flight, a cable car drive, a skydiving cruise, or a helicopter whirl—which would literally take tourists to the next higher level? Any of these would certainly compel adventure junkies to keep on conquering the island if only to experience these joyrides. Now, these treats would surely make Corregidor rock! :D

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