Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tony Lopez and the 65th Anniversary of Mac's Return to Corregidor

We spent a good part of last Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon with Congressman Joseph Santiago of Catanduanes and his father/son, mother/daughter Boy and Girl Scout weekend. They invited us to eat lunch and supper each day with them. The highlight, however, was leading the 4th to 7th graders and their parents on a three-hour hike. We took them through two of the bigger tunnels on the island, Corregidor’s primary command post, and Batteries Wheeler and Cheney. The route included scaling a rather steep hill and descending a couple of short steep ones. We were amazed at how well most of the children handled these, and also the somewhat spooky tunnels.

As a part of their weekend, almost all of the campers attended Sunday morning Mass. The priest is Spanish, approaching 80, and has lived here in the Philippines for over 50 years. This was the first time we have been able to attend Mass here on a Sunday, and only about the fourth time on Corregidor in the 16 months we’ve lived here. Ironically, we’d attended a Mass in our Island church earlier in the week. Doubly ironic, that priest is Japanese, and he says the Mass in Latin. Incidentally, we are more able to follow a Latin Mass – it’s what both of us remember from our early years – than one said in Tagalog. We wonder what Steve’s father Walter, a devout Catholic, but also a POW of the Japanese for 39 months, would have thought of such a Mass. We are thankful for both opportunities.

A little later Sunday morning, Tony Lopez, his wife Mary Louise, sons Tom and Steve, daughter Yolanda, and Yolanda’s husband Ron arrived on Corregidor for a two-day stay. (One son and one daughter remained behind in the States.) Tony had been a part of the original parachute team that landed here 65 years ago to liberate the island. Tony had trouble getting approved for a passport, which made the news in Denver, Colorado, and sparked nationwide sympathy. For several days the family couldn’t get any rest as they received phone call after phone call from interested media people. Despite having served in the U.S. military, he faced citizenship verification questions due to records having been destroyed in a church fire. The passport was finally issued, but so late that he was unable to be here for the February 16th anniversary of the 503’rd parachute landing. However, thanks to continued efforts by Paul Whitman, encouragement from many people – including his family members and a blatantly pleading email from us – he decided to come for the March 2 celebration marking the day of MacArthur’s return to the island. By the way, this whole story began in December when Paul met Tony and about 20 other veterans of the 503rd at a reunion. Paul proposed the trip then, and continued to urge Tony to come to Corregidor. The rest is now history.

On Tuesday, the ceremony was held at the site of the 503rd marker. Marcia served as the master of ceremonies and Steve was one of the speakers. It lasted about an hour and consisted of several honor guards, both national anthems with raising of the flags, wreath laying, and several brief speeches. Lt. Col. Art Matibag spoke of the history of the day, Leslie Murray told her story of civilian internment as a young child and gave a brief overview of F.A.M.E., Steve expanded on the meaning of the day, and then Tony answered a few questions from Steve about his remembrances and how he felt returning to Corregidor. The emotional celebration concluded with Tony hoisting a 48-star flag to the peak of the old Spanish flagpole, the same pole that has been here for over 100 years.

All were honored to have Tony in attendance. We wonder if he will be the last American Corregidor survivor to be able to attend an anniversary here. Thanks to Sun Cruises shifting their schedules, their tourists were able to attend the festivities and greet Tony personally. It made for a very nice turnout, and Tony was overcome by the expressions of gratitude and honor he received. We really enjoyed spending time in the evenings with Tony and his family.

While all of this was going on, we met James Farmer, whose father James Jr. had been captured on Corregidor. Of particular interest to us: his father came over on the USS Republic at the same time as Steve’s father, Walter, and they were assigned to the same battery. So from April 1, 1941, until sometime in the summer of 1944, they were more or less together, both having been at Battery Way when the Japanese invaded. Walter’s last act was firing the mortar, while James was driving a makeshift ambulance evacuating the wounded to a treatment area at Battery Wheeler, for which he received a Silver Star. Eventually they were taken separate ways, with James moved to Japan on the Hellship Noto Maru and being liberated from Mitsubishi Osarizawa Copper Mine Camp Sendai 6B, AKA Hanawa. We hope that the younger James will be able to join us here for the 70th anniversary of the fall of Corregidor and the Philippines on May 6, 2012.

The day’s surprises continued. Drew and Candie Blankman arrived in time to attend the ceremony. What makes this more than coincidental is that Candie’s father, Sgt Kenneth Davis, was a Bataan Death March survivor. When we asked Candie which Hellship transported her dad to Japan, it was the Noto Maru. Not only that, her father was also liberated from Sendai Camp 6B. Talk about coincidence! Unfortunately, James had already left Corregidor when we learned this, but we will connect them via email, and look forward to hearing the rest of their stories.

What makes this part of the story even more interesting is that both Drew and Candie grew up in northern Minnesota. Drew graduated from International Falls High School, while Candie graduated from Cotton High School. “The Falls” is considered the coldest spot in the 48 states, and is less than 100 miles by road from Virginia, where Steve’s mother was raised and still lives, and where he lived before getting married. Cotton is about halfway between Virginia and Duluth, where Steve grew up. Drew and Steve enjoyed reminiscing about high school sports, especially hockey, from the “good old days” of the 60’s and 70’s. We wonder if Walter and Kenneth ever spent time – they were both at Cabanatuan POW Camp at the same time for over a year – reminiscing about their time growing up only a few miles from each other and working in the WPA and CCC before joining the army.

On Wednesday the Blankmans and the two of us took a banca to Cabcaben, tricycles to the highway, a bus to Mariveles, and then walked the first 15 kilometers of the Death March back to Cabcaben. Because they won’t have time to see Camps O’Donnell and Cabanatuan before their flight to Japan, we hope to see them again in the next few years. It is always a very emotional experience for daughters and sons of these veterans to be at the places where their fathers were. It helps make the stories come alive.

Thanks to the clearing projects that we have been telling you about – to which some of you have contributed time or effort – and the work that was done to get ready for the 65th Anniversary celebration, many trails and batteries are looking great right now. Special thanks to Benny and the Bolos, Lou and the Loppers, and the latest group, Tony (Indifonso) and the Trimmers. In addition, we have had virtually no rain in over four months, which has drastically slowed jungle growth. We encourage you to come to Corregidor before rainy season, stay a night or two, and visit some of the out-of-the-way spots such as the tunnels and guns of Batteries Wheeler and Cheney.

We’d like to thank Paul Whitman for getting Tony Lopez here for the big celebration. Also, thanks to Sun Cruises for bringing their guests to the ceremony. Of course, none of this could have happened without C.F.I. director Art Matibag, island manager Ronilo Benadero, Tony Indifonso, the C.F.I. staff, Leslie Murray of F.A.M.E., the Philippine Coast Guard, and Unicorn Security. Our special thanks go out to all of them.

Steve and Marcia on the Rock – comment and read previous newsletters at

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