Island nation moves haltingly forward, still bearing scars of World War II

Posted Online: Jan. 19, 2013, 3:50 pm
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By Catharine Hamm
BALANGA, Philippines -- The school day at Balanga Elementary on the Bataan Peninsula was winding down, and children poured from classrooms into the stifling afternoon heat and played around thestatues of grim-faced U.S. and Japanese officers.

This improbably placed monument memorializes the surrender of thousands of U.S. and Filipino troops in the spring of 1942. By giving up, Gen. Edward King, commander of the forces on Bataan and one of the men depicted here, hoped his starving, sick troops would be spared further agony. "You have nothing to be ashamed of," he told them.

The happy cries of the kids told me they didn't yet understand what had happened here.

As we returned to the highway along which Filipino and American soldiers marched, without food, water or medical help, I hoped the kids would remember this tragedy with more pride than sorrow.

That wouldn't be easy, but then, little about the Philippines is.

What comes to mind when you think of the 7,000-island nation in Southeast Asia? Such unsettling terrorism that the State Department continues to renew a travel warning? Such grinding poverty that the country's annual per capita income of $4,100 is almost four times less than neighboring Malaysia's?

Such profoundly dishonest shenanigans, political and otherwise, that the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy ranked it in 2011 as among the most corrupt countries in Asia?

This is a hard place to love, and hard place to visit (heat, traffic, smog). But its people are such effective ambassadors that I couldn't help but overlook its other shortcomings on my second trip there, this time to revisit World War II history on an important 70th anniversary.

In September, I returned to Manila, my onetime home, determined to understand as an adult what had eluded me as a child. The city, which also is the capital, wasn't my primary destination, but it became a good launching point for trips to Corregidor and the Bataan Peninsula.

Manila sits on a large, natural deep-water harbor guarded by tadpole-shaped Corregidor, its strategic location prized by its enemies. The Bataan Peninsula sits across the bay.

Ferries to Corregidor leave early, taking tourists to the onetime penal colony. This was my second trip to the island, but, in retrospect, I am certain that my first visit was under protest. What 10-year-old wants to visit ruins of a war about which her father had said so little?

I knew he had been in Manila, courtesy of the U.S. Navy, soon after its liberation, and I wasn't sure why he chose to come back a second time for a two-year stint for the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs).

This time on Corregidor, the history and hardships began to sink in. The ferry whisked us 35 miles from Manila to a dock, and a tour bus took us to the high points: the batteries, where the big guns are mounted; the crumbling ruins, some of which housed soldiers, others of which contained such amenities as a swimming pool and a movie theater; the memorials to American and Filipino soldiers who fought here until Gen. Jonathan Wainwright was forced to surrender a little more than 70 years ago.

The presentations by tour guide Rowena Alvarez were evenhanded, never blaming the missteps America's leaders made, never condemning the U.S. for its "Europe first" policy. At water's edge, the statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, pipe in one hand, the other raised in a farewell salute, made me blanch.

MacArthur retired from the U.S. Army in 1937 but was recalled in July 1941 as commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East. In their meticulously reported book "Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath," authors Michael and Elizabeth Norman write that MacArthur had given Washington a more optimistic picture of the Philippines' readiness for war than was warranted.

Except for the Philippine Scouts, a group of elite, well-trained soldiers, most of the Filipino troops were poorly trained -- told to dig foxholes, some had to ask what those were -- and so ill-equipped that some were forced to don coconut husks for the helmets they didn't have.

Together with U.S. troops who shared MacArthur's misplaced optimism, they were thrown into a war that began just eight hours after the attack on Hawaii. Like U.S. aircraft at Pearl Harbor, aircraft here were nearly all destroyed by the Japanese air attack.

The Japanese thought they could take the Philippines in three weeks, maybe less. U.S. and Filipino forces held them off for five months. It was an amazing show of strength by soldiers weakened by disease and malnutrition, stemming from poor provisioning by military leaders.

MacArthur, meanwhile, was hunkered down in Corregidor's Malinta Tunnel, the 831-foot-long passage now the site of a gripping sound-and-light show. From here, MacArthur wrote this to his sick and starving soldiers: "Help is on the way from the United States. ... Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes are being dispatched. The exact time of arrival of reinforcements is unknown as they will have to fight their way through Japanese attempts against them," the Normans reported in "Tears."

It was, the authors say, a "Judas kiss." Help was not on the way -- at least, not then, and MacArthur knew it.

By orders of President Roosevelt, MacArthur and his family were evacuated from Corregidor to Australia in March 1942. The statue on Corregidor is inscribed with the general's famous quote, "I shall return." He kept his word, but it took him and his troops more than two years to fight their way back. By then, thousands of soldiers had died at the hands of their captors.

About 6,000 Japanese soldiers were killed when Corregidor was retaken in 1945. In the 1980s, the remains of the enemy fallen were cremated and returned home. Today, their onetime burial place is Corregidor's Japanese Garden of Peace, presided over by a 10-foot Buddhist statue, and our last stop.

To drive Bataan's roads, to see its landscape, is to begin to know more fully the story of the Death March. Bataan fell April 9, 1942, and the Death March began soon thereafter. Troops were assembled along the road beginning at Mariveles, then a fishing village and now an industrial city of about 100,000 at the tip of the peninsula.

The Japanese were unprepared for the number of prisoners; even today, the number of POWs isn't really known. Some say 100,000; others, 75,000. There were more Filipinos than Americans, but the Filipinos had a better chance of surviving an escape because they could blend into the villages.

What is known is that thousands who started the march didn't complete it. Already weakened, soldiers trudged under a blazing sun. Some died of heat stroke. Others, crazed by thirst, drank from drainage ditches, which further sickened them. Still others who staggered were executed on the spot.

On our way to the start of the march, we detoured up the winding road to Mt. Samat National Shrine, near Balanga. The elevator inside the 300-foot-tall cross shimmies up to a view of the peninsula. From this vantage point, the suffocating canopy of vegetation explains much about the nightmare of its defense.

From there, we drove to Mariveles, where the nightmare deepened. Kilometer 1 of the Bataan Death March is in Mariveles, and on this day, American and Filipino flags stretched out in a breeze.

Plaques nearby describe the 66-mile march. The soldiers who survived walked to a railroad station, then started a three-hour "death ride by cargo train," the plaques say. The boxcars, which could have accommodated perhaps 50 prisoners, were stuffed with three times that many. Many died gasping for breath.

Those who survived that torture began a final walk of nearly four miles that took them to Camp O'Donnell, a converted U.S. military facility at Capas. The Mariveles plaques describe it as "one of the most hellish concentration camps of World War II."

The Japanese, who had never ratified the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners, said they would follow the rules but did not. Thousands of prisoners died, sometimes scores each day, at O'Donnell.

Some prisoners were sent to other camps and some to slave labor camps in Japan, but in all cases, the mortality rate was as shocking as the cruelty.

Markers that tick off every kilometer of the march may understandably be the wallpaper of everyday life, but each of these obelisk-shaped mini-monuments -- at two, three, eight, 10 kilometers and onward -- brought a growing sense of doom because by then I understood how wildly misplaced were King's hopes for mercy.

The war's toll is evident in ways large and small in Manila. The walls at Ft. Santiago, a historic stronghold where the Japanese imprisoned soldiers in underground dungeons, are pocked with bullet holes from fierce fighting.

Indeed, the struggle to wrest Manila from the Japanese was so intense that the city nearly was destroyed. In fits of fury, Japanese soldiers slaughtered as many as 100,000 residents in what became known as the Manila Massacre.

This is the Manila my father saw in 1945. It was liberated but not free of the horror- - and maybe never would be. And it was to Manila he chose to return 19 years later as part of the mission to administer benefits to the Filipinos who fought for the U.S.

Why return to a country that, then or now, is charitably described as a developing nation? I pondered this on a Sunday morning in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, honoring killed or missing soldiers from across the Pacific theater.

I read some of the 36,000 names of the missing soldiers inscribed on the walls of the circular memorial, and walked among the headstones of the more than 17,000 graves: Sol Margolis of Ohio, Aug. 2, 1942; Junior L. Jackson of Tennessee, Nov. 9, 1944; Wilson Scott of California, Nov. 12, 1944.

Other markers said simply, "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms, known but to God."

Filipinos fought for the United States at the hour of our greatest need. American servicemen and women gave their lives for freedom. They had stood by us. My father would stand by them. It was no more complicated than that.

In the silence of that Sunday morning, I saluted them all.

Dec. 7, 1941: Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Dec. 8, 1941: Japanese bomb the Philippines, destroying many aircraft at Clark Field.
Dec. 22, 1941: About 43,000 Japanese troops begin the main invasion of Luzon; American and Filipino troops begin to amass on Bataan.
Dec. 24, 1941: Manila declared "open city."
End of December 1941: Ground war in progress on Bataan.
Feb. 8, 1942: Japan decides to regroup after its forces are repelled.
March 1942: Having received reinforcements, Japanese strengthen attacks.
March 12, 1942: Gen. Douglas MacArthur evacuated to Australia from Corregidor.
April 9, 1942: Gen. Edward King surrenders Bataan; death march begins.
May 1, 1942: Final Japanese assault on Corregidor begins.
May 6, 1942: Gen. Jonathan Wainwright asks to surrender Corregidor.
October 1944: MacArthur returns, coming ashore at Leyte in the southern Philippines.
Feb. 3, 1945: Battle of Manila begins.
March 4, 1945: Manila officially liberated, but the city is devastated by bombing and the Manila Massacre, in which about 100,000 people were killed.
Aug. 6, 1945: U.S. drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
Aug. 9, 1945: U.S. drops atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.
Aug. 15, 1945: Japanese Emperor Hirohito announces Japan's surrender.
Sept. 2, 1945: Japan officially surrenders aboard the Missouri.
December 1945: Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita sentenced to death for the Manila Massacre and other war crimes.
Feb. 23, 1946: Yamashita hanged in the Philippines.
April 3, 1946: Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma, who directed the battle for Bataan, is executed for his role in the death march and atrocities committed in prison camps. American and Filipino forces make up the firing squad.

TELEPHONES: To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 63 (country code for the Philippines) and the local number.

Manila Marriott, 10 Newport Blvd., Newport City Complex, Manila; 2-988-9999, www.lat.ms/ZENkNR. Glittery property about 4 miles from the airport and part of the Resorts World complex, which includes a casino. Doubles from about $195.

Intercontinental Manila, 1 Ayala Ave., Manila; 2-793-7000, www.lat.ms/ZELdd5. In upscale Makati near lots of shopping. Doubles from about $144.

Manila Hotel, 1 Rizal Park, Manila; 2-527-0111, manila-hotel.com.ph. The grande dame of hotels in the city. Just turned 100 but doesn't look it. Doubles from $205.

Gerry's Grill, Level 3 Greenbelt 3 Ayala Center, Makati; 2-903-0713, gerrysgrill.com/ph. Part of a chain but with tasty local favorites and a sports bar atmosphere with inexpensive prices. Appetizers such as lumpiang Shanghai (spring rolls) for $4 or entrees such as beef kalderata ($5.70) can fill you up on the cheap. Most items $3-$9.

Jeepney, in the Intercontinenal (see above). Amazing breakfast buffet; good dinner entrees from around the world. I liked the curried chicken. Entrees $12-$24.

Hap Chan, various locations. It's a chain of Chinese restaurants, but reliably good. We ate at the one in Mariveles on the Bataan Peninsula (922-805-2245, newhapchan.com); beef with asparagus was good. Main dishes $5-$43 (roast duck).

Blue Horizons Travel, 23rd Floor, Pacific Star Building, Makati Avenue, Makati; 2-988-5000, bluehorizons.travel. Drivers (almost mandatory -- traffic is wild), guides and excursions and can arrange hotels and flights.

Sun Cruises, 2-527-5555, corregidorphilippines.com. Tours to Corregidor leave about 7:45 a.m. and return about 4 p.m. Package for the day, including lunch at the Corregidor Inn, starts at about $54 a person. You can stay overnight at the inn for an additional $49 for two.

TO LEARN MORE: Philippine Tourism, tourism.gov.ph.


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1914 -- 100 years ago: Wires of the defunct Union Electric Co. are being removed by city electricians.
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