Saturday, February 28, 2009

Middleside Barracks

Life isn’t always exciting on this small tropical island. Sometimes we spend our days just walking along the few paved roads here, looking for birds, cool plants, and new areas we want to explore. The views are beautiful, especially on sunny days, and there are many spots where buildings once stood, now almost taken over by jungle growth. On other days we stick closer to home, reading and working around the yard.

We can’t always be writing about adventures like opening bottles without a bottle opener, or our trip up Mt. Pinatubo, which was so well received that it will be the cover story for the March issue of “AmChamJournal,” the magazine of the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines. You might not find today’s topic as interesting as those, since I’m going to be talking about ruins. In general I write the stories and Marcia edits them, adding her perspective as she goes along. I take full responsibility for this email. If you don’t like it, send me an email saying, “Steve, quit sending me these boring stories.”

Two afternoons this week we decided to do some exploring at the Middleside Barracks. Completed in 1915, they are supposedly the second largest barracks in the world. From end to end the barracks are three-tenths of a mile in length, and three stories (about 40 feet) high. Building One (my name), home of the 60th Coast Artillery Regiment (CA), is about 650 feet long and 60 feet wide. Then there is a gap of about 160 feet. Building Two, home of the 91st Philippine Scouts, is about 775 feet long and 60 feet wide. There is a 175 foot section in the middle which is 18 feet wider. They are surpassed in size only by the slightly larger Topside Barracks, home of the 59th CA, just a short ways up the hill. Topside has the same end-to-end length but was built as one continuous, in-line building.

What makes these barracks particularly interesting to me is that my father was a member of the 60th CA, and thus billeted in Middleside Barracks before war broke out here on December 8, 1941. This barracks was capable of housing at least 6,000 men. But before the war there were less than 1,900 men in the 60th CA, and less than 800 in the 91st Philippine Scouts. Everett Reamer of Battery F, 60th CA, and a fellow Corregidor POW has visited here several times. He once told me that my father’s searchlight unit, Battery E (close to 300 men) actually lived in Building Two, at the end nearest Building One. The week before war broke out, 750 men of the 4th Marines arrived from China, and they were also assigned quarters in the Middleside Barracks. (Battery E was simultaneously reassigned to Bataan.)

The southeast end of Building One is only 200 yards from our house. It heads away in a northwest direction; then there is the gap, and Building Two veers slightly right, while the road veers slightly left. The original fronts of the buildings are on the east side, but the current road is on the west, so visitors typically only see the original backsides of the builds. A couple of years ago the front area was cleared of encroaching vegetation so you can now walk along and see the facades.

Building One is mostly destroyed. There are some sections that still stand the full three stories, but even they are rather dangerous to enter. Building Two is mostly intact, although it also has destroyed portions.

The buildings were made of concrete imported from Japan and reinforced with steel from the United States. There are no hollow pillars or walls, and they were considered bomb and earthquake proof. Obviously the architects never considered the powerful increase in bombs as they were redesigned and modified for WW II, and they caused the majority of the damage. Many were dropped from airplanes, mostly from high altitude, and crews were lucky to hit the buildings. Artillery, on the other hand, was very accurate. The Japanese inflicted the initial damage in late 1941 and early ’42, prior to its May 6 assault. The U.S. did its damage in early ’45, prior to its February 16 invasion, dropping thousands of tons of bombs on the island. In all likelihood more damage was done to these particular structures by the U.S. Army Air Corps as it pounded the island.

As you walk along, you see mostly empty, often bombed-out rooms. On the first floor there is evidence of mess halls, washrooms, and showers. But for the most part it is difficult to know exactly where the men slept, and where or what kind of other activities besides sleeping and eating may have gone on inside. In some sections, especially in Building One, you see many new reinforcing beams and buttresses to keep the walls and ceilings from further collapse when the next major typhoon or earthquake hits. In some places the roof is intact, but the second and third floors are gone, possibly indicating prior earthquake damage.

It is somewhat eerie to walk through these buildings. You must constantly be on guard for holes in the floor, of course, and for crumbling ceilings. What is in fact happening here and in all of the similar structures on the island is that moisture has worked its way through cracks in the concrete and into the rebar (steel reinforcement bars), oxidizing it and thus causing the rebar to expand, forcing the concrete to fail and peel off. Rebar is exposed everywhere, either lining the walls and ceilings or sticking out like ugly fingers.

But the eeriness comes from realizing that these now-bare, broken walls were once filled with thousands of men, mostly young and innocent, Americans and Filipinos alike, who were about to be assaulted by an enemy force much greater than their own. You realize that within these walls young men died or were seriously wounded and writhing in agony. Sections of the once-beautiful edifices were instantly turned into piles of concrete, steel, bones, and blood. Somewhere with these walls my father regularly knelt and prayed beside his bed before going to sleep. In his case, he had already been moved to Bataan before the first bombs fell on Dec. 29th, although later he returned to fight here, and witnessed death within these walls first hand.

Adding to the eeriness on both days that we visited were flocks of blackbirds that could have come right out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. They put out a very high-pitched and ear-piercing rhythmic call that is uncannily like what you would hear at a playground when children are using old and unlubricated swings.

As unsightly as they are, the reinforcements are the only reason that these barracks have a chance to survive future typhoons and earthquakes. The Department of Budget Management funded the project through the National Historical Institute after two years of persistence by the Filipino-American Memorial Endowment, Inc. I believe that plans are in the works to shore up the Topside Barracks as well. It gives the next generations a chance to observe these buildings with some of their former majesty retained, as opposed to seeing only piles of rubble.

The worldwide financial crisis has even affected Corregidor, where necessary budget cuts have recently led to the layoff of a few island employees. If you ever have the urge to contribute to the work here on Corregidor, let me know and I will direct you to the proper agency. Donations are tax deductible, at least for U.S. citizens.

Steve the writer and Marcia the editor in chief

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