Thursday, May 6, 2010

May 6, 1942: The fall of Corregidor

I first came to the Philippines with my sister Paula in 2002 to attend the ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the surrender of Corregidor and the ultimate “Fall of the Philippines.” Traveling with Valor Tours of San Francisco, we were very fortunate to have five Corregidor survivors in the group, as well as two men who had survived the Bataan Death March. I’ve included a couple of pictures from that commemoration of eight years ago.

My father Walter arrived in the Philippines in late April of 1941, having successfully gained entry into the US Army after initial denial due to a perforated eardrum and flat feet. His first May 6 here was spent in paradise-like conditions, assuming Paradise is sunny and a bit on the warm side. But I’m sure that he gladly traded the freezing cold of Northern Minnesota, along with the shortage of job opportunities, for warmth, a steady paycheck, and “three squares” a day. His barracks was only a couple of hundred yards from our house here. His good friend Ray Makepeace of Minnesota told me that on hot nights the two of them sometimes slept on the walkway bridging the downhill slope between the road and the barracks.

Everything was wonderful for the next six months. Apparently his age (27), height (6’6”), and brains impressed his commanding officer, Major William Massello, because he promoted Walter from private to private first class, then corporal (see picture taken with unknown private on Corregidor), and then sergeant in just a few months. Certainly rumors of war with the Japanese must have had an affect on the psyches of the men here, but for the most part a service assignment on Corregidor was considered one of the best that an Army guy could get.

That all changed, of course. Not long after Walter arrived, the Army began sending all military dependants home, so they were safely away when the first bombs fell, unlike the family members of American civilians working in the Philippines, who were for the most part to spend three years in interment camps. I’m not sure just how many wives and children we’re talking about, but there were many buildings for married-officers’ housing on Corregidor, most still in evidence today.

On December 1, 1941, Massello and his men were sent to Bataan, where they initially set up searchlights and tents at Little Baguio. We have visited the area often, it being the relocation site for Hospital Number 1. Walter remembered being there and seeing his first Japanese planes. Even knowing that the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor, they were told not to fire until fired upon!

For the next four months Massello’s men were on the Bataan peninsula, up until the night of April 8, just before General King’s surrender of Bataan itself. Massello did his best to round up as many men as possible to return them by boat to “The Rock.” Once back on Corregidor, Massello sought permission to get Battery Way up and running, and by the time that the Japanese were hitting the beaches on the morning of May 6, the 12-inch mortar assigned to Walter was the only big gun on Corregidor that was still in action.

Thus his second May 6 bore no resemblance to the paradise of the previous year. For the first several hours Walter, under the command of Major Massello, was giving the Japanese hell, hitting at least 14 landing barges and killing hundreds of Japanese assault troops, while he and his men were under very heavy fire. Massello had already been injured, but stayed around on a stretcher despite a severe leg wound, barking out orders and urging the men on. Around dawn they were told to stop firing at the beach on Tailside, since their terrible 700-pound shells were possibly killing some of their own men. About the same time the breech refused to open, having become so hot that it had expanded inside the barrel.

In a way, Walter had it easier than most of the men on Corregidor that May 6. He was one of the “lucky ones” who could keep busy while the enemy was pounding the island at the rate of one shell every five seconds. He had no time to think about being frightened. It was the other men, the ones hunkered down in tunnels or foxholes, who had it the roughest, wondering which shell might be the one to kill them, or if, God forbid, they surrendered, what the Japanese had in store for them. Since more than one in four of these POWs would not live to return home, such fears were well-founded.

Later that May 6, Walter saw his first Japanese soldiers, so small that they reminded him of school children. But these were little men with big guns, holding his life in their hands. Walter and his fellow soldiers saw their lives transformed instantly into over three years of starvation, sickness, humiliation, beatings, torture, and slave labor. The following two May 6ths, Walter was in Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines. May 6, 1945, found him forced to work in coal mines in Japan. Little could he imagine that in another three months, the Enola Gay would drop the first of two atomic bombs that shortened the war and paradoxically saved millions of lives, mostly Japanese. And by the following May 6 he would be back home in Minnesota, his weight returned to normal, and by all outward appearances no worse for the experience.

So today we once again will gather at noon to remember May 6 at the World War II Memorial on Topside. I don’t expect that we will have Corregidor survivors attending today’s or future ceremonies, although if we are lucky maybe we’ll be graced with a descendant or two each year. There will be a short ceremony, with Marcia as emcee and me as a guest speaker.

Ironically, as I am writing this a small prop plane is buzzing the island, diving near us time and again. This has become a common occurrence, and to be honest it kind of sounds like a dive bomber without the bombs and machine guns. To say it is disturbing the peace would be an understatement. But it sure beats the alternative of 68 years ago.

Steve (writing) and Marcia (editing) on the Rock

P.S. Valor Tours has announced that it will be offering a “Liberation of the Philippines” tour similar to the one last October. We will again host the tour, which will include visits to Manila, Corregidor, Bataan, Subic Bay, Clark Field, Camps O’Donnell and Cabanatuan. Also included is a flight to the island of Leyte to attend the 66th anniversary ceremonies commemorating MacArthur’s return to the Philippines. One of the guests is expected to be a writer for the Washington Times, who will be researching his grandfather’s exploits, which included escaping from Cabanatuan, then being recaptured, tortured, and finally liberated from Bilibid Prison in Manila. Visit and click on “TOUR DETAILS” for exact dates and costs.

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