Saturday, October 17, 2009

Leyte Tour part 2 - Subic, Clark, Prison Camps

Wednesday, Oct. 14

In the morning we went to JEST, the Jungle Environmental Survival Training Camp. It includes a scenic overlook of Subic Bay and an aviary. The highlight is always a man demonstrating how to use a bolo knife to make a spoon, fork, eating dish, cup, rice and viand cookers - all from bamboo. He also shows how to build a roaring fire in less than five minutes, also using only his bolo and bamboo. Afterward we had seafood spaghetti at an Italian restaurant near the bay, and some of our guests went shopping at the duty-free stores.

Thursday, Oct. 15

During our April tour, this day is very busy. Because we had to restructure this itinerary, we can take our time getting back to Manila before our trip to Leyte. The first stop was San Guillermo Church, which was buried in 20 feet of ash from Mt. Pinatubo. Every time we return, the church is in better shape, and now it looks like it is functioning well again. The altar area is fully restored and beautiful.

Next, we stopped at the old San Fernando (Pampanga) train station. We were shocked to see that the houses along the street leading to the train station are in the process of being torn down. They were put up by squatters 30 and 40 years ago, and the railroad finally decided to get rid of them along their right-of-way. To be honest, most of them were more shack than house, but nonetheless they were homes to many families. Whereas Steve used to buy sodas for 20 or so children each time we stopped, this time there were no children near the station. The historical significance of the building, which was used by the Japanese as a staging point to load prisoners onto railroad cars, will keep it from being torn down. Because the cars were packed so tightly, many of the POWs suffocated during their 20-mile, four-hour ride to Capas, Tarlac.

We ate lunch at the VFW in Angeles City near the old Clark Air Force Base. We all enjoyed great filet mignon dinners, with the exception of two guests who are vegetarians. Afterwards our veterans posed with a couple of the veterans from the club. We then visited a cemetery which is the only one in the Philippines that has a significant number of American civilians buried in it. Finally we visited Ft. Stotsenberg, the original army base which is more or less an extension of Clark Field. We went through the museum and also took a look at the house of the base commander, the most famous of whom was Jonathan “Skinny” Wainwright, the general who surrendered the Philippines in May of 1942.

This morning’s Philippine Daily Inquirer had an interesting headline: “Dam managers called liars”. Some people might say the first word is missing an “n”. The story has to do with managers of dams, of course, which have been difficult to manage since the recent typhoons. Just one example of how easy it is to use English entertainingly in a country in which most people are at least somewhat fluent in the language.

Another example occurred when the two of us tried to settle into our room in the new Fontana Resort at Clark. No matter where we set our air conditioner, we got cold air. It didn’t matter if we set it at 95 degrees. It didn’t matter if we turned it to “Heat.” We brought it to the attention of a maid but couldn’t get her to understand. After first assuming we wanted the room even colder, she then showed us how to turn the temperature dial warmer, as if we had not already tried that. Later we explained the problem to a male member of housekeeping, with the same result and no solution. We finally had to turn the system off, which meant having to listen to outside noises. It was frustrating because we were very clear, and even used the Tagalog words for hot (mainit) and cold (malamig), along with pantomime to indicate that we were shivering. The thermostat had only one temperature – arctic! (By the way, when the maintenance man finally showed up as we were checking out Friday morning, we went through the whole explanation yet again, with the same non-results.)

Friday, Oct. 16

We stopped at a Kamikaze airstrip monument. There are two Kamikaze memorials, one for takeoffs and one for landings. You ask, why would a Kamikaze pilot need a landing strip? Good question. The answer is that they landed here when arriving from Taiwan, then took off from here for their one-way missions. We visited only one because the other is off the road and is still flooded.

Next we saw the Capas train station, terminus for those POWs who were forced to make the train ride. They still had an 8km march to Camp O’Donnell. There is a small museum with a guest book. Marcia noticed that the last person to sign the book was a guest from our visit in April. How sad that such an historic site is so seldom visited. Then we went to Camp O’Donnell, where around 2,000 Americans and 20-25,000 Filipinos died in a few short months. The names of all those who died either during the Death March or at the prison are in two locations, depending on nationality. It is a very emotional experience to stand in such a place.

Lunch was at a small shopping area with multiple food choices. We ate with three guests at Max’s, a Filipino chain. We entered the back door, passing through a large empty dining area. Almost immediately we heard a sound which resembled athletic shoes squeaking on a basketball floor. We looked at each other trying to determine who had the squeaky shoes. The squeaks continued, even in the main dining area. Then we realized that it was low-battery chirps from smoke detectors overhead. This particular restaurant must have a smoke detector every few feet, because the chirps could be heard randomly from all parts of the building. We couldn’t believe that this was standard operating procedure. Maybe they think their guests are impressed. Our lunches were excellent, so putting up with the chirps makes for a good story.

Due to the age-group of our guests, and several minor ailments, we have had to make pharmacy stops almost every day. Steve can remember making one stop in 2002 for a guest who needed diarrhea medicine, and on one subsequent tour we remember one pharmacy stop. It seems that the most common complaints are always diarrhea and constipation. Pharmacies here are usually small, don’t all carry the same medications, and don’t stock in quantity due to the heat, so we walk down the street from pharmacy to pharmacy until we meet our guests’ needs.

Because the stops planned for yesterday and today are normally done in one day, we arrived in Cabanatuan much earlier than is typical. It was nice to see the city and the people before dark. Due to slowdowns from typhoon flooding and construction on one street, requiring a detour after finally getting our big bus turned around, we reached the hotel an hour or so later than expected.

Saturday, Oct. 17

This was mostly a travel day, as we had to go back to Manila from Cabanatuan. But before the return trip we visited the site of Cabanatuan Prison Camp Number One, the main camp. Steve’s father was imprisoned here for 16 months before being shipped to Japan. He arrived nine months after the camp opened, by which time the conditions had improved enough that prisoners were no longer dying every day. We also visited a bridge two miles down the road, where Philippine Scouts – without sustaining a single casualty – killed 1,000 Japanese soldiers while the raid was ongoing. If you are interested in the daring rescue mission to free the last 500+ prisoners, read the book, Ghost Soldiers, or see the movie, The Great Raid. One of the POWs at Cabanatuan was Major Thomas Smothers, Jr., who died on his was to the Mukden, Manchuria, prison camp. His sons later became a famous comedy team that we enjoyed 40 years ago.

The ride to our hotel in Manila was long, lengthened due to the traffic snarl that greeted us once we got off the expressway. We stayed in the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Hotel, a huge, upscale facility on Manila Bay. Collis Davis, co-author and photographer of Corregidor in Peace and War, joined several of us in the lobby to sign copies of his book, which is available on

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