Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Steve visits Fort Drum (the "Concrete battleship"

There are a few things that I (Steve) have hoped to do for many years. Probably my biggest dream is to fly over Corregidor (the once formidable Fort Mills) to see it from the air and to take photographs. I have also hoped to explore Caballo Island (Fort Hughes), El Fraile Island (Fort Drum), and Carabao Island (Fort Frank).

Last November Marcia and I went to Carabao with Karl and John, but when we got there, only Karl was brave (or crazy) enough to climb beneath the massive wall during the heavy seas. Caballo Island is closest to Corregidor but has been restricted because it is an arsenal with tons of bombs from WWII awaiting proper disposal, so it is almost always off limits to visitors. The closest we ever got was when an exception was made for the family of Wes Shoop in April, 2007 so that they could try to locate the site of his uncle’s remains. Our banca landed at the Caballo dock long enough to let the Shoops and their guides disembark, but only their group was allowed on the island. We have ridden around Fort Drum numerous times but have never set foot on the massive structure, nicknamed the “Concrete Battleship” because essentially that is exactly what it is, the only one of its kind in the world. I recommend searching the internet for specific information if you wish to know more about this fascinating fortification after reading this newsletter.

One reason that we have not set foot on Fort Drum has been that whenever we have had the opportunity, usually when guests here have wanted to go onto the island, the waves have been too rough. It is safe only when it is quite calm and it is also best to go during high tide. The extra five feet can make quite a difference in disembarking and returning to the banca. Banceros have to be careful that their boats are not smashed against the unforgiving concrete walls. We have heard stories of explorers getting onto the structure only to be stuck there for several hours, and even overnight, before they could be retrieved. So, adventurers must keep an eye out for a morning when calm wind and high tide coincide. When we have sailed around Fort Drum with our April guests we have had trips with seas almost as smooth as glass, while in 2008 it was an up-and-down experience that left all of us wet and the men in the front absolutely soaked. Fortunately no one got seasick. The point is, predicting what day or month that sea and wind will be calm is not a simple matter.

However, the first several days of September were exceptionally calm during the mornings, with minimal winds until well after noon each day. I remember my father saying that the rains in rainy season were so predictable on Corregidor that you could set your watch by them. We have not experienced that, although we have not spent any time here in July yet, and maybe that is when the phenomenon can occur. In any case, having observed nearly a week of calm mornings, I decided that now may be the time to get on board Fort Drum.

On Monday, after consulting with island manager and friend Ronilo, we made arrangements for Randy, one of the island residents with his own banca, to take me to Fort Drum on Tuesday at 7:00 A.M. as long as the weather looked good. I really did not want to get there only to find that the waves were too strong to complete my mission, but I also wanted it dry to protect my camera equipment. In addition, wet concrete can be very slippery, and I didn’t want to risk personal injury.

Marcia decided that she was going to stay home, planning to use the dry weather to get laundry done. Having seen Fort Drum from the outside many times, and being very familiar with the bunkers of Corregidor, she was not as interested in making the trip.
Based upon what I already knew of Fort Drum, plus having spent years observing the concrete bunkers on Corregidor, I had a pretty good idea in my mind of what I would see. I expected lots of small below-deck rooms with very little light, so a camera with a good flash would be essential. Having been warned about holes in the structure big enough to fall through, good flashlights were also in order. On Monday night things still looked positive for a trip the next morning.

Following is my account of the excursion to Fort Drum.

Tuesday morning. It’s cloudy but absolutely calm. I am a little concerned about rain, but Marcia says that it’s looked like this the past few mornings, so it will probably clear up in a little while. So I grab my camera, flashlights, lots of water, and “just-in-case” plastic bags, kiss Marcia goodbye, and head down to Bottomside. It’s 10 minutes ‘til; Randy is already waiting for me. He says that there is an 85% chance that we will get onto Fort Drum. Ed, not to be confused with Edmun, brothers who look quite similar, will be crewman. Ronilo decided that our helper Roy should also go along. Roy arrives, and at exactly 7:00 we pull out of the harbor. Randy laughs as I show him my watch, commenting to him that we are not on “Filipino time” today.

It takes a few minutes to leave the north harbor, mostly to slowly back out while Ed pulls in the anchor. A larger banca is parked to one side and we have to pass over one of the mooring ropes. I cannot figure out how we can pass over the rope without getting it all tangled in Randy’s propeller, but somehow we slide right over it. Randy guides the banca out of the harbor, and then Ed takes over steering while Randy handles the throttle. As we start to accelerate I notice that we are heading toward the east end of the island. I ask Randy about this and he says it is the shorter way. Every other time we have gone to Fort Drum we have always passed around the west end (head of the island), so I always assumed that it was shorter, but maybe I was wrong. Or maybe it’s “half of one, six dozen of the other.” In either case, this route takes us around Corregidor’s tail and close to Caballo Island.

As we begin to head east I can see that it is raining in that direction, probably over Manila. There is not much to see along the north side of the tail other than steep, tree-covered cliffs and rocky beaches. Now I can see a few very dark clouds ahead of us, but as we clear Corregidor and start to turn south it appears unlikely that they will rain on us. That’s good. Also, the sea is still calm, so I am very hopeful that we will actually be able to get onto Fort Drum.

Out on the water Roy and Ed point to disturbed areas that they say are schools of fish. To me it just looks like little ripples but then I did not grow up on the water nor has my next meal depended upon catching fish as is the case with so many Filipinos. There is one barge being towed that will pass behind us, and a few fishing bancas, but pretty much the water is as quiet as I’ve ever seen it out here.

Because of the overcast it is not the best day for distance viewing. Everything looks dimly purple. I can see Fort Drum straight ahead now, with the mountains of Cavite province right beyond. Things are still looking real good as the large structure now looms above us. I can see no evidence of waves hitting the side. Randy drives straight in, something that I figured he would have to do, since the outriggers on his medium-sized banca would keep us from disembarking from either side. Just now we hit the concrete hard enough to make a slight clunky sound but obviously not hard enough to do damage to his banca. Roy, I, and finally Ed walk straight off the front of the banca and onto Fort Drum, easy as pie! It’s amazing what good conditions can do.

The first thing we see is the large opening onto which we set foot. It goes up at a fairly gentle incline, flattens out for a few feet, and then goes back down the other side. It appears to be the only normal way onto the island, although I suppose it would be possible (but much more difficult) to scale the walls, scuba dive underneath from the outside, or land on top by parachute or helicopter. This way is just fine with me.

At the flat area we take a second to get out the flashlights and camera. The Ed leads the way through a large opening to the right, which is westward, towards the front of the “ship.” Immediately we are in a large passageway with small rooms off to either side, exactly what I had imagined, and very like many of the bunkers in the more remote parts of Corregidor. For the most part the floor would probably be in fairly good shape, but all of the concrete chunks make it a bit hard to walk without risking turning an ankle.

Flashlights are an absolute must, and I am having Roy shine two of them around my feet while Ed highlights areas that I might want to see and photograph. After 100 feet or so we turn right again, walk through more rubble and see more rooms off to our right, then up a few broken steps. We are now in a room with what appear to be two extremely rusted turrets. I believe these are the remains of two of the six-inch guns that were mounted on the sides of the ship. Then it is up to the top deck, which we have to get to via stones that have been piled up to replace a stairway. Being tall helps, as does Ed, who takes my camera from around my neck long enough for me to get up, which I have to do by getting on my knees on some very rough concrete. Oh, well, a scrape or two is small payment for what I am about to see.

We are now on the deck of the “Concrete Battleship.” I know from old pictures that there used to be a large tower on top, much like that on a real ship. It has been replaced by a much smaller one, possibly just something to act as a lighthouse. I start by walking toward the back of the ship, being careful to avoid falling through openings or tripping on the uneven surface. Under ideal conditions such as today it is really very safe; I don’t want to give the wrong impression. On the other hand, if it were windy, or if you were paying more attention to taking pictures than watching your step, I’m sure that it could be very dangerous indeed. As I walk around the back of the ship and continue clockwise around the outside, I find a place where I can look down at the rusted remains of what must have been the outer protection behind which another two six-inch guns were located. I remember them from trips around the fort in the past.

Continuing forward, I now see the turret from one of the twin-barrel 14-inch guns. Sadly, one of the barrels is completely gone while the other has been sawed off to maybe two or three feet, the evidence of scrapping that has been going on here. Fortunately, as I head toward the bow of the ship I can see that the two barrels in the other turret have been spared. One barrel is pointed straight ahead, the other is pointed up at a 45 degree angle.

As I climb to the top of the turret I can see that there are deep burn marks on the barrels, evidence of phosphorus from bombs that Americans dropped on the ship while it was being occupied by the Japanese. The view from the top of the turret is great, with Carabao Island not far off to the southwest, Corregidor and Caballo to the north, and the mountains of Bataan behind them. The sky is still very gloomy so I am not sure that I am going to be happy with the pictures I am taking up here. It appears that the ones I’m taking inside are actually coming out better, thanks to the strong flash.

After spending a few minutes exploring the upper deck, we head once again into the bowels of the ship. Now we are in the south side of the belly, which, as I expected, is much like the north side. I would not be surprised to find that most of the ship was designed in mirror image. Certainly this six-inch gun room is identical to the first one we saw. Six inch guns are the same size as some of the ones still seen on Corregidor, notably the disappearing guns of Batteries Morrison and Ramsey. But there is nothing on Corregidor to quite compare with the massive 14-inch guns we saw up top. The closest would be Batteries Hearns and Smith, although the difference between 12 and 14-inch bore is significant, both in firepower and range. These 14-inchers, and Fort Drum itself, were clearly designed to take on enemy battleships entering Manila Bay, which the Japanese avoided doing.

Through more rooms and more rubble, we work our way back to the center of the ship. Suddenly we are back to the ramp leading us down to Randy’s banca. Randy is safely parked well away from the island. There are the slightest swells now, nothing to be concerned about, but I see that Randy is going to have us board at the very eastern tip of the concrete island instead of at the opening in the wall. It’s a short, safe walk along a ledge, then I jump down a foot or so onto the front of Randy’s banca, and walk quickly straight into the boat to make sure I maintain my balance. Roy and Ed follow, and we are on our way back.

Because we will pass so close to Caballo on our return, I ask Randy to find the rusted old Sherman Tank that is on the southern shore near the east end. I have seen it many times before but have never been able to get a good picture, so I am hoping today is the day. When Randy points it out I am surprised because it is completely in water this time, I guess because it is maximal high tide. I have no problem getting good pictures of it, and am surprised to see that there is still so much of it remaining after 65 years. True, salt water and scrappers have taken their toll; there is ample rust and the gun barrel has been cut short. Like the phosphorus burns on the gun barrels, this tank is another reminder of the Americans returning to the Philippines in 1945.

We return to Corregidor’s north harbor just a few minutes after 9:00, barely more than a two-hour roundtrip. The weather cooperated, although I am pretty sure that the pictures I took on the deck of Fort Drum will not be the best. Now that I know my way around the ship I am sure that I can accompany other people there should the opportunity arise. All in all, a very rewarding morning.

Steve (with Marcia editing) on the Rock

P.S. As I sit writing this article, loud rumbles of thunder can be heard to the north over Bataan, although it is still calm enough that Marcia and I sit outside with the fan oscillating between us, something that we haven’t done in a few months. – Steve


  1. wonderful. thank you.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I just returned from a trip to the Philippines. We were not able to tour Corregidor this time, but we will on the next trip, but we toured the Bataan Death March sites. I had assumed that Fort Drum was completely off limits, but apparently only to the extent that weather and water conditions dictate.

  3. the missing guns just collapsed inside the batteries. it is too thick to be sawed off.