Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The search for searchlights

Many of you enjoyed reading about the Corregidor Basketball League games last November and December. It appears that there will be no league this year. With the past year’s budget cuts, there just is not enough money to pay for uniforms, referees, and trophies. We noticed that many of the men on the island wore their basketball shirts and shorts as regular attire after the season ended last year, an indication not only of their pride in having uniforms, but also that any extra money goes home to wives and children, or to parents to help with siblings. Past sponsors are unable to contribute, and most of the players cannot afford the $10 to buy a uniform. We know that this is something eagerly anticipated by players and spectators, but it looks like the league will not be possible this year.

This weekend our friends Karl and John returned for more exploring. As usual, they invited us to join them. The first excursion was to Wheeler Point, which houses the remains of Battery Monja and Searchlight No. 4. Since we have never been to either emplacement, because the point is remote and easiest to reach by banca, and since Karl had already arranged for the banca, we jumped at the chance.

There are actually eight searchlight locations on the Corregidor maps, and we had previously only been to numbers 2 and 8. Steve’s father was in the searchlight battery of his regiment, so it is almost certain that he was at one or more of these locations before war broke out. Surprisingly, he never spoke of them, but did speak of the ones they set up on Bataan. Steve’s goal is to eventually visit all eight sites. According to John, this particular location is probably the hardest one to reach. We figured we’d give it a try, and if successful, we should be able to get to the others over time. As it turned out, we made it, but we cannot find the words to describe just exactly how difficult that this turned out to be, given the steepness of the slopes and the thickness of the overgrowth that we encountered along the way. Certainly without a guide or two we would have given up before reaching our destinations.

The banca ride around the island was smooth, so we sat back and enjoyed the raw beauty of the island. We sailed around Wheeler Point, and the bancero found the best place to put us ashore. The beach there was typical of 90% or more of Corregidor’s ten or so miles of shoreline: rocky. Wearing water shoes, we got off into 12-18 inch deep water and stepped rock-to-rock to reach shore, being very careful not to slip on the algae-covered boulders. Some were barnacle crusted, a huge help. Once ashore we changed into socks and hiking shoes. The ascent to Battery Monja is steep, and in one place we used a rope to safely climb. There is a fresh water stream running down the hill, which is historically significant. Twenty Japanese soldiers hid out in this area after the U.S. recaptured Corregidor. They decided to surrender voluntarily on January 1, 1946, having survived for 10 months on this fresh water and whatever food they could scrounge.
Battery Monja actually consisted of two 155 mm (6 inch) guns, one on a Panama Mount, which allowed it to turn at least 180 degrees. The other gun was hidden in a tunnel nearby, brought out on rails for use. This second gun site, not shown on the maps, has an extensive tunnel which actually Y-splits into two branches. The idea of getting all of the necessary concrete and metal up those hills is mind-boggling.

We next proceeded to the searchlight, which is right out on the point. This part of the trek was most challenging. Whatever road existed is gone, and the clearest “route” was along the side of the hill, angled at about 45 degrees. John did a little vegetation cutting with his trusty snippers, but it mostly involved working our way carefully along, looking for footholds to prevent sudden downhill slides. The surface soil is loose, like fine gravel, with much leaf and small-branch debris. It also includes the ever-present vines seeking to trip you if you are not extremely watchful. Steve had the most difficulty, becoming severely winded and having to stop several times for rest. It turns out that he was in the early stage of a bad cold but didn’t yet know it, and that is probably what sapped all of his energy. The return downhill descent was equally interesting, and at times we opted to sit down for a controlled slide rather than trying to stay on our feet.

We took the banca around another point, and John, Karl, and Marcia went up to Searchlight No. 5, with Steve staying in the banca to rest. It turned out to be less difficult and shorter than the previous hill, with areas of thick grass providing surprisingly good handholds. There is far more outer concrete remaining at this location, although less actual searchlight shelter.

The following day the four of us took a trip to Carabao Island, which is a small island about eight miles south of Corregidor. It was known as Ft. Frank when the U.S. Army occupied it, and sits quite near the Cavite shoreline. The island rises from the water with shear cliffs, except for three steep ravines. Where there were slopes leading down to the water, the Army put in large concrete walls in two of the locations, the other being naturally too difficult to scale. In this way, its shore was unassailable, and Fr. Frank only surrendered under orders when the Japanese demanded that General Wainwright surrender all of the Philippines rather than just Corregidor. It had two huge (14 inch) guns pointed out to sea, along with several 12-inch mortars and 155’s.

At low tide on a calm day, one wall is fairly easy to duck or crawl under. Unfortunately, we arrived closer to high tide, and the waves were fairly significant. As a result, we, along with John, decided it was wisest - and safer for cameras, cell phones, and GPS units - to pass up this opportunity to get on the island. Karl, braver and crazier than the rest of us, jumped off the banca and managed to get under the wall, although he had to time his passage between waves high enough to fill the gap and potentially smash him. We patiently waited for two hours, enjoying the view and conversation. Then Karl returned, only to be walloped by waves while making his way back to the banca. We then took a leisurely ride around the island, with Karl and John orienting us to the various emplacements, before heading back to Corregidor. We include one picture of Carabao that may remind some of you of the Wisconsin Dells.

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