Wednesday, October 27, 2010

We meet Ray and Esther Ong

Last week we made a trip to Manila for the first time in two months. We were invited to stay with Ray and Esther Ong, whom we had talked with only via emails, thanks to a mutual acquaintance, Paul Whitman, of

Ray is a retired Philippine Army general, while Esther is a retired nurse. They spend about half their time in the Philippines and half in the U.S., where they have a bachelor son and a married daughter. Although Esther was born in the Philippines, she grew up in America and is much more comfortable with English than Tagalog. She is an American citizen. Her father was a sergeant at West Point, which is where and why she met Ray. After nursing school, she worked in a New York City hospital, where she says that, among other things, she personally administered shots in the butts of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961. With their troubles apparently “behind them,” Maris went on to break Babe Ruth’s single season homerun record that year, with Mantle a close second. Esther says that she even had an autographed baseball bat which included their two names, which meant nothing particularly to her at the time, so she left it in a basement when they relocated. Wonder what that bat would be worth today!

Ray, who is a dual Filipino-American citizen, graduated high school from prestigious Ateneo in Manila at the age of 15. After three years at the University of the Philippines, he was awarded a place at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. At that time, one Filipino was given an appointment each year. Twelve years earlier that scholarship had gone to Fidel Ramos, later President of the Philippines (1992-98), and someone we now also consider to be a friend. The scholarship program ended when the U.S. military left the Philippines in 1991.

We spent our first evening mostly talking about West Point. Ray has a book that lists every students from the academy’s first year, 1802, through 2000. It was interesting to look up such men as George Pickett and George Custer, both of whom finished last in their respective graduating classes. But it must be pointed out that about one third of all entrants never graduate, and that all of those selected were outstanding candidates or they would never have been admitted in the first place. Robert E. Lee finished second in his class. Douglas MacArthur, later the West Point superintendent from 1919-’22, was number one in 1903 and had the highest accumulated point total (academics, athletics, and leadership) in 25 years. Ray said that Wesley Clarke, who finished number one in 1966, was a freshman when he was a senior. Ray finished in the top 25%, a great tribute to his preparation at Ateneo and UP, and most of all to his own hard work.

Ray served in the Philippine Army for over 30 years, attaining the rank of brigadier general. He was involved with, among other things, Special Forces, and taught such subjects as calculus and engineering. Esther was a nurse in the United States for many years. As is common in so many Filipino families, they were physically separated for many years due to their careers.

The Ongs treated us very well, and one of their special treats was several great meals. They tend toward more American-style cuisine, so we enjoyed spaghetti and grilled chicken and steaks. Esther made some scrumptious deserts, something we seldom get on Corregidor. In fact, having desserts after meals may very well be one of our definitions of “civilization.” Our waistlines are benefitting from having desserts as a rare event, so our “simple living” on Corregidor is a good thing.

The Ong home is in Fort Bonifacio, not far from the American Cemetery. They are also near a large shopping center called Market Market, a multi-level mall with outdoor shops and kiosks as well. Marcia was able to get a high quality haircut – much needed! – and also found a wing with several fabric shops which will most certainly be revisited during future Manila excursions. Market Market has a number of shops selling used books, a favorite of ours, since there are very few lending libraries here. Steve looked for a CD player, the “Walkman” type, but had no success. They have apparently faded into history, replaced by the newer and smaller electronics such as iPods and cellphones.

The trip back to Corregidor on Saturday morning was fairly uneventful, although we did get the opportunity to talk to several Americans who were coming to the island for the day. Steve was not scheduled to be a guide, so we bid our adieus at the dock. Most of the boat had been filled with 122 members of the Nikon (pronounced NEE-kone by the locals) Club of the Philippines. They were obviously hoping for a good photo shooting day. Unfortunately they picked the wrong Saturday, as it was cloudy with rain from about two o’clock on. They stayed overnight, and Sunday’s weather was better, so it seems that their trip was at least somewhat a success.

We are finally having to run our diesel genset regularly. It is near the end of rainy season, although we are not getting heavy rain, and sunshine is significantly decreased and often filtered by thin cloud layers when not obscured by heavier overcast. The good news is that the temperatures are more moderate. The bad news is that the humidity is up. Still, it is much more comfortable right now than it will be in a few months.

A few newsletters ago we included a picture of a red, semicircular object and asked if any of you could identify it. No one replied, meaning it was either too hard or so easy that no one bothered to tell us. So we are including it again and ask if you can guess what it is. We’d love to hear from you.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Typhoon Megi; bugs and insects

On Saturday we were told that a “super-typhoon” was heading towards the Northern Philippines, and that by Sunday night we would be under assault here on The Rock. We checked the internet and it looked to us like the worst of the weather would bypass us, well to our north. Saturday was calm and sunny. Surprisingly, so was Sunday. We had been having more clouds recently and had to run our diesel genset twice during the week to supplement the solar panels, but we got 100% possible sunshine over the weekend. It made us wonder if typhoons suck all of the clouds within a thousand miles into their clutches, since despite the superstorm in the general vicinity, it could not have been clearer here.

On Monday morning the latest news indicated that Megi, locally named Juan, was going to hit northern Luzon (the northernmost major island of the Philippines) as a category 5, the strongest to make landfall in 15 years. The website had sent out the following: “MEGI is comparable in strength to Super Typhoon ANGELA (ROSING) of November 2-3, 1995, which battered Bicol & Southern Luzon including Metro Manila...and is considered one of the worst typhoons in Philippine History.” However, the weather on Corregidor was still relatively calm. The Coast Guard had issued a “signal one” for Manila Bay, meaning that the banceros would not be coming, nor would Sun Cruises operate its normal day tour. To our knowledge this is SCI’s first cancellation since rainy season began in June. While we were in the U.S. in July, Typhoon Basyang managed to storm its way through during days when SCI had no trips scheduled.

Around 10 o’clock Monday morning the wind began to pick up. But throughout the day we got almost no rain and only intermediate winds gusts of up to maybe 30 MPH. We closed up all of our windows just in case. Overnight we had a total of four inches of rain with off-and-on wind gusts, but nothing that appeared threatening. We had a good night’s sleep. Once again there was a signal one, so SCI’s Tuesday trip was cancelled. Steve had been scheduled to guide for a group from the U. S. Embassy, so that was a bit disappointing. Throughout the day the weather alternated between times of relative calm (maybe 5-20 MPH winds) with no rain, and quick bursts of rain with accompanying winds that probably gusted between 30 and 50 MPH. Overnight was similar, with gusts decreasing in frequency, although a couple seemed the strongest yet. The total rainfall for the previous 24 hours was a little over three inches, bringing the total for the storm to just over seven inches. We saw very little storm damage, mostly downed branches.

The Coast Guard gave Sun Cruises the go-ahead for a Wednesday trip, so we are taking the ferry to Manila for a couple of days in the big city. This will be the first time for us in two months, the longest stretch so far in our two years of staying on the island. The trick is in knowing what you need to have that you can only get in Manila and stock up. The rest we buy on Bataan, usually on an as-needed basis from a bancero.

We want to add that although Corregidor was essentially spared, due to the fact that we have yet to read any accounts of the storm, we have virtually no knowledge at this time of the effects of Megi in the rest of the Philippines. Because of its size, it quite likely left a wake of destruction and human suffering. Most of you probably are more aware of it than we are. At last report, our friend Jhun the plumber’s family in La Union – a province that appeared to be in the direct path of the storm – incurred no storm damage.

A few days ago Marcia noticed a large black ant with a cockroach much larger than itself in tow. By the time she grabbed her camera, they were over the edge of the concrete and on the ground beneath the bench, making for a much more difficult picture. For some reason the ant turned around, pulling the cockroach back up onto the concrete. Considering that the ant may have been ¾ long and that the drop-off was more than an inch, this seemed an incredible feat of strength. Hope it tasted good enough to be worth the effort!

The same day, she spotted a rather large spider – body one inch long, six-inch leg span – running up a table leg. The spider was similar in coloration to the table and maybe felt comfortable there. She was able to get very close to it without the spider moving in the slightest, making it an easy photo model. It stayed around all day, only moving when Steve touched its leg with a stick to see if it was still alive. It darted about two feet in a second and then “stopped dead” again. Later this was repeated with the same results: a very fast spider that preferred to remain absolutely still. The next morning it was gone.

Some of you have asked about mosquitoes. Unlike Bataan, which before and during the war was considered one of the worst places in the world for mosquitoes and the illnesses they can spread, Corregidor, as far as we know, has never had a mosquito problem. There is very little standing water, and when mosquitoes are present they are in very low numbers. We have seen more of them in a single walk outdoors in Michigan and Minnesota in May or June than we seen the two years we have been here. Unlike the ones we are used to, which are relatively slow to react when smacked, mosquitoes here are as attentive as flies, and are thus very hard to slap dead when they are on your skin.

We see many interesting bugs, insects and arachnids, and are including some pictures for your enjoyment. Some are good subjects, almost posing deliberately, and some are much more skittish and challenging to capture with a camera. This year we are seeing far more butterflies than ever before in our experience – both in total numbers and in different species. Most are not happy to be photographed, however, either refusing to sit at all or sitting with wings tightly folded so that their colors are hidden from view.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Dinner at Ron's

We continue to meet interesting people here on Corregidor, usually when Steve is asked to guide “walk-ons,” - people who come here by hiring private bancas from Bataan. One of those was a retired Lt. Col. in the United States Air Force. When asked if he was a pilot, the man said that he had logged a record 6500 hours in the F4, a jet still in use by some countries in the Middle East. He had often flown at Mach 2.5, and also had been forced to eject on several occasions due to malfunctions and having been shot down during missions in Vietnam.

Last weekend Steve had a mixed group on a Sun Cruises tranvia. One man in the group was particularly interested in anything to do with Douglas MacArthur. In fact, Jim W. said that he was a huge MacArthur fan, so Steve made it a priority to spend a little more time at certain spots than normal, including the steps to the Administration Building, where it is said that Mac was almost killed, saved only by a Filipino aide whose body came between a bomb and Mac. Jim also posed by the nearby Spanish flagpole, site of one of the most famous pictures ever taken on Corregidor, in which Mac witnesses the re-raising of the American flag on March 2, 1945, nearly three years after he’d left for Australia. Additionally Steve took the group to see Mac’s house on Tailside, a place that many visitors are interested to see but is often skipped on the regular tour.

When asked why he was such a fan, Jim explained that he had been a congressional page in April, 1951, when Mac made his famous “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away” speech on the floor of Congress. Jim said that he was standing under the painting of Lafayette, and near enough to some senators to see their tears during the speech, the most memorable being Richard Nixon of California. Nixon was not alone, as the 34-minute speech is said to have been interrupted 30 times for raucous ovations. Our opinion of MacArthur, as we have stated before, is that he was a great general who also had a tremendous ego, and that to understand him means understanding both his vast strengths and flaws. As Steve’s best boyhood friend pointed out, Mac was responsible for the “Bonus Army” tragedy, one of the most shameful acts imaginable of a leader against his own soldiers.

Most nights find us at Ronilo’s house for dinner. We provide the liquid refreshments and usually the meat. Less frequently Ron supplies fish or other seafood, and always the rice. Ron moved recently to another house in the same complex at the stockade level between Bottomside and Middleside. The old location afforded a view of the west end of Malinta Tunnel. Now there is a great view of Caballo Island and the province of Cavite. Often we are treated to a lightning show off in the distance, and if we are there late enough, we see the lights of the fishing boats on Manila Bay.

When it is not raining – which has turned out to be most of the time despite this being rainy season – we sit outside Ron’s house at a table which is situated below a sampaloc (tamarind) tree-branch. The very tip is the home of a spider (gagamba), and we have spent lots of time simply watching it spinning its web (bahay gagamba, literally “spider home”). The spider, which is at most two inches long, appears to be suspended in midair as it goes from branch to branch. Once Steve got too close and accidentally knocked the spider off a branch. It landed on his leg, and he quickly brushed it off. Nilo, who often cooks dinner, coaxed the spider onto a twig and placed it back on its branch. Soon it was back to business as usual, again spinning its web.

Ron has gotten into raising chickens, so we are joined by them at each meal. They are hoping that someone will give them cooked rice. It is interesting to watch his hens with their chicks. Currently one has nine and another eight. Each brood sticks close to its mother, although there is always one or two who are more independent and stray a little further away, only to come running back when it gets to be too far. As sunset approaches, they find their way to their sleeping places. One of the favorites is a mango tree in front of the house. Since chickens are poor fliers, Ron has a couple of poles slanted up into the tree to assist them. There is an overnight light in the tree to discourage pythons.

Although neither of us is a “cat person,” there is a pretty and friendly tomcat that joins us at dinnertime. “Ming Ming” has beautiful green eyes and loves to sit between us while we eat. He’s happy when the menu is fish or chicken, since there are always bones for him. Free range chickens are cannibals, so we have to give bones directly to the cat, or the chickens will dart in and run off with them. Ming Ming is usually quiet until the food arrives, at which time he starts yelling “now now” at the top of his little kitty lungs. He is capable of standing upright on his hind legs, begging for food. Interestingly he does not bother the chickens or their chicks, something that you would think would be natural. He also tolerates being held, unusual for what is essentially a feral cat. Allergies prevent us from ever having a cat, but if we could, Ming Ming would certainly fit the bill.

One of our latest dinner guests was Jim Valenzuela, on the island for a little personal R&R. We talked about him a couple of years ago, and were very glad to see him again. Jim’s father, now 92, served at Fort Frank (Carabao Island), surrendered on Corregidor, spent 18 months at Cabanatuan, and then was forced to work at what is now the U. S. Embassy in Manila. One day he managed to escape, and fought against the Japanese as a guerilla for the last year of the war.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

We review two books by former POW Ray Heimbuch

Since living on Corregidor we have had the privilege of meeting many interesting people. There are many others, like ex-POW Ray Heimbuch, who have signed up for our newsletter and become internet friends. Over the past year or so we have been in correspondence with Ray.

Following our review of last year’s bestseller, “Tears in the Darkness,” Ray emailed us and asked if we would like to read his books and tell our readers about them. He sent them to our U.S. address and we received them this summer. The two are entitled, “I’m One of the Lucky Ones: I Came Home Alive,” and “5 Brothers in Arms.” For brevity, henceforth we shall refer to the former, published in 2003, as “ONE,” and the latter, published in 2008, as “FIVE.”

We have read a number of firsthand accounts by former POWs recalling their experiences during the war. Some are, quite frankly, more difficult to read than others, often due to the fact that they are self-published random recollections, yet valuable reading for historical purposes. Others, such as “No More Uncle Sam” by Tony Bikek, and “Unconquerable Faith” by Everett Reamer, are obviously well thought-out and more polished. This is also true of Ray’s two books – we found him an excellent storyteller.

Books in this genre tend to be somewhat boilerplate. Most of the American soldiers who defended Bataan and Corregidor were, like Ray, enlistees. They fought, were ordered to surrender, spent time in POW camps in the Philippines, in most cases were sent to Japan, China, or Taiwan, and were ultimately liberated. The “unlucky ones,” close to 40% of these American POWs, did not “come home alive.” In most cases, those who did survive returned to America to resume their lives, finding jobs and raising families as if the past four years had not happened.

Ray’s story diverges from many of the others in that he was not captured on Bataan or Corregidor, but on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. As a result, his treatment in the early months of captivity was admittedly not as harsh. Later he was sent to the Davao Penal Colony, where he spent the better part of two years under increasingly severe conditions. Also, his brother George was in the same unit, and they spent the initial months in captivity together. Although the two brothers were very close, they reached an agreement that, if the chance arose, they would go separate ways under their captors, to increase the odds that at least one of them would make it back home alive.

Although both books are primarily Ray’s story, and to a lesser extent George’s, there are mentions of the other siblings in the family. The two oldest brothers were exempted from service, one due to health issues and the other because he held a critical job. A younger brother, Erv, was in the third wave of Marines to land at Iwo Jima, one of only three non-casualties in his company. Another, Floyd, served in the Navy, also in the Pacific theater. The fifth, Mylo, joined the Army Air Corps in 1946. FIVE gives a brief biography for each of the four who, along with Ray, were WW II era veterans.

Ray’s points of capture and internment were entirely different from Steve’s father Walter’s, but they shared one horrible experience; they were transported from Manila to Japan on the same “Hellship.” (“Hellships” is the term adopted for the unmarked ships used by Japan to relocate POWs between camps in the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and China.) The “Canadian Inventor” was nicknamed the “Mati Mati Maru” (“Wait Wait Ship”) because its boiler kept breaking down, extending an approximately five-day trip into 62 days. Despite its snail-like pace, the ship avoided attack by American airplanes or submarines, something that claimed over 20,000 allied lives during that period of the war. We personally appreciate Ray’s description of that two-month voyage, since this was one thing that most of these POWs, Walter being no exception, were loathe to discuss. Including his trip from Davao to Manila, Ray was on Hellships for three straight months, not counting a very short stay at Bilibid prison camp. Unbelievable. Courtney Krueger from Salt Lake City, Utah, a guest with us on our 2008 Valor Tours excursion, was on the same two Hellships as Ray.

According to its preface, ONE was primarily meant for the author’s children and grandchildren. As such it is shorter and an easier read. FIVE is a revised expansion for the general public, giving more details about military service and POW life. If you are a collector you may very well want both. ONE spends more time discussing his pre-war family life and service in the WPA. As such, it contains a funny incident involving a very young boy who later became a famous sportscaster. Also, the preface to ONE contains a superbly worded statement of Ray’s feeling for the Japanese prison guards whose treatment he would not, and possibly could not, ever forgive, and his feelings about the Japanese people, whom he never blamed for his sufferings.

True to his word, neither book is a rant against the Japanese people. Ray points out several incidents where Japanese soldiers put themselves at risk to assist POWs, yet pulls no punches in describing some of the awful things he witnessed and experienced. Ray traveled to Japan in the past year, not bad for a man who will reach 91 during October.

Both books are available directly from Ray, at or at (707) 438-0222. The price per book is $15.00, plus $2.50 for shipping. Ray autographs each copy. ONE is only available from the author. FIVE is available elsewhere, but would cost you significantly more and would not be autographed. At the very least, send Ray an email wish for a Happy 91st Birthday. We’re sure he would be thrilled to hear from you.

Ray is planning to join us for our April tour, and also an extension to Davao. If you might be interested in joining us for what could well be the very last tour attended by a WWII POW of the Japanese, contact Vicky Middagh of Valor Tours at or visit the website at