For the past nine days we hosted a World War II tour for Valor Tours of San Francisco. Tommy Soria of Rajah Tours was our local guide. Normally we start by touring Manila for two days, but since this tour coincided with Holy Week we had to rearrange the schedule and move the Manila portion of the tour to the end.
We got up at 3:00 A.M. to meet our 11 guests arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on a flight scheduled to land at 3:30. It was close to 5:30 by the time they deplaned, got their bags, went through passport clearance, and exchanged dollars for pesos. We all went straight to the Manila Hotel for breakfast and then to the ferry terminal to board for Corregidor. Steve led the standard Sun Cruises tour in the morning and early afternoon. Later we watched the sunset and some went on the Malinta Tunnel night-time tour.
The next morning most of the men took a banca ride around Corregidor and Ft. Drum, the “concrete battleship.” It turned out to be windier than expected and all got wet, but we enjoyed the ride nonetheless. In the afternoon Steve led a tour to the Middleside Tunnel known as the “bat cave,” and Battery Wheeler’s tunnel. Others went with Tommy and Marcia and spent more time at the Pacific War Memorial and the museum.
On Monday we took a boat to Bataan to begin the Death March route. There are two traditional starting points, one being Mariveles, where we began our bus trip with a Jollibee (MacDonald-like) meal. We visited other spots along the way, including Little Baguio, where a field hospital had been set up, and which provides a great view of Corregidor. We went to the Balanga Elementary School, where a monument recalls the surrender of Bataan by General King to the Japanese. We spent the next two evenings at the Montemar Beach Resort, which is located on the western shoreline of Bataan facing the beautiful South China Sea.
Tuesday, April 7, was the official celebration of Araw ng Kagitingan, “The Day of Valor.” It was moved this year from the traditional surrender date of April 9 because it fell on Holy Thursday. Malcolm Amos was the sole American Death March survivor present, and he was given a prominent seat on the stage. He sat only a few feet from the U.S. and Japanese ambassadors to the Philippines, as well as Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, President of the Philippines. Ambassador Kinney gave a very good, non-political speech, and the Japanese ambassador offered a personal apology, similar to last year, for atrocities committed by Japan against Filipinos and Americans in WW II. While there we met the Assistant Secretary of Philippine Veterans Affairs, “Jerry” Adevoso, whose office is in Malacanang Palace, the Philippine White House, with whom we have been in email contact.
On Wednesday we drove to Subic Bay. We toured the city, seeing the Olongapo Museum, the Hell Ships Memorial, and JEST, the Jungle Environmental Survival Training school. There we were given a demonstration on how to use bamboo to make eating utensils, a cup and dish, and rice and meat cookers. The man showed how to get safe drinking water from a length of one type of bamboo, and also how to use bamboo to start a fire in less than five minutes. The only tool he used for the demonstration was his bolo (machete).
We spent Thursday back on the Death March trail. One stop we always make is San Guillermo (St. William) Catholic Church in Bacolor. It was originally 20 feet taller, but has been re-floored on top of the ash that has accumulated throughout the area during the 18 years since Mt. Pinatubo erupted. Then we visited railway stations at the start and end of a 20-mile stretch where prisoners were packed so tightly into railway cars that many suffocated or went mad. After the second station we drove to Camp O’Donnell, now know as the Capas National Shrine. Several people walked the final kilometer. The shrine includes the names of over 2000 Americans who died at the hands of the Japanese in the few weeks before their transfer to Cabanatuan Prison Camp, and the names of over 29,000 Filipinos who died there in the months before the Japanese released the survivors in the hope that this “kindness” would bring support for their Asian campaign.
Then we drove to Cabanatuan City to spend the night. The next morning we visited the site of Camp Cabanatuan No. 1, where Steve’s father lived for 16 months, and from which Malcolm was rescued in what has become known as “The Great Raid,” days before the Japanese planned to “annihilate” the 517 remaining prisoners of war. The book, “The Ghost Soldiers,” by Hampton Sides tells the story. We then rode for about three hours, back to Manila.
On Saturday we toured Manila, seeing the walled city of Intramuros and Ft. Santiago, which is inside the 24-30 foot thick walls built by the Spanish hundreds of years ago. It was also one site of fierce fighting at the end of WW II, so fierce that over 100,000 civilians were killed in the crossfire between the Japanese and the Americans. Almost all of the city’s buildings were severely damaged or destroyed, putting Manila in the same category as Dresden, St. Petersburg, and Warsaw.
We also visited the American Cemetery in Manila, the largest American cemetery outside the United States, with its 17,206 graves, along with the names of over 36,000 missing in action. Normally the city tour takes two days, but because of the very light traffic on “Black Saturday,” plus the fact that Santo Tomas University was closed – we did stop there – we were able to see everything in one day. So Sunday became a rest-up-for-the-flight day. We went to Easter Mass at the Manila Cathedral with three of our Catholic guests.
Part of touring Manila was trying to find streets so that one of our guests could see where his parents lived and he spent his very earliest days. Many of the streets have been renamed and the addresses renumbered, but at least the driver was able to get him into the neighborhoods, and he could get photos of street signs where names remain unchanged.
During the tour, we saw something which we had never witnessed before. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday we saw people, mostly young men, walking along the road reenacting The Way of the Cross. In each group one was carrying a cross while others were beating him. Still others were flagellating themselves, using whips with wood at the tips. By Friday their backs were raw. Tommy explained that this is common in the Pampanga and Tarlac provinces, discouraged by the bishops, but seen as a sign of faith and repentance by the practitioners.
On Easter, everyone prepared to travel, with six returning to San Francisco, two going on to India, one to Vietnam, and two to Baguio. We moved to The Heritage Hotel for the night, ready for our return to Corregidor.