We recently spent some time with Hugh Ambrose, son of the late historian Stephen Ambrose. Stephen was instrumental in the very popular miniseries Band of Brothers, on which Hugh also worked. Hugh spent years as the historical consultant for the more recent miniseries, The Pacific, and also wrote a companion book of the same name, which covers the same subject matter and much more about the war in the Pacific, including battles on Bataan and Corregidor.
We were asked to represent Valor Tours by joining the final three days of their tour led by Hugh through several of the islands that saw heavy action in WWII. The group started in Guadalcanal, and visited other islands such as Tinian, Pelelu, and Palau. Several of the group members were instrumental in the founding and expansion of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, including President and CEO Gordon “Nick” Mueller. The group also included Richard Greer, a WWII veteran who speaks at the beginning of many of The Pacific’s episodes. He was among the first troops to land at Guadalcanal, and after recovering from a leg wound, also fought at Cape Glouchester.
Another of the members was the son of the man who started McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, traveling with his wife – the only female in the group – whose father served in the Pacific theater. Yet another was a lawyer who had once represented such stars as Bing Crosby, Alan Ladd, William Holden, and Marlon Brando. The group also included Pete Wilson.
Pete’s name will no doubt ring a bell for many of you. After three years in the Marine Corp and then graduating from law school, Pete went into politics, first serving in the California Assembly, then as mayor of San Diego, a United States Senator, and finally as Governor of California. Even at 77 Pete stays active, consulting to help businesses comply with the growing number of federal and state regulations. Over the course of the three days we spent time talking to Pete about life in the public spotlight.
Our role in their tour started with meeting their private jet at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport early on Saturday afternoon. We proceeded to the American Cemetery in Manila, where the group presented a wreath in honor of the almost 17,000 American war dead buried there, and the over 36,000 names on the Walls of the Missing. We then went to the old walled city, Intramuros, the oldest part of Manila. We checked into the nearby Manila Hotel, touring the MacArthur suite on the top floor of the old section of the hotel. After Nick’s presentation on the status, goals, and planned expansion of the National WW II Museum, we had dinner and were off to sleep. The hotel has undergone massive rehabilitation. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, with the bathrooms having undergone the biggest changes. In addition, their breakfast buffet, which used to be very small for a top-rated hotel, has been expanded to include nine food stations and a much larger seating area. It is unrecognizable to anyone who may have eaten there before. They are doing their best to rise to the competition from the many newer five-star hotels in Metro Manila.
Sunday belonged to our home island of Corregidor. After the 80-minute trip on the Sun Cruises ferry, Steve led the group on a private five-hour tour of the island. This island was far different from the other islands that they had toured, since the other islands were only scenes of Americans taking them from the dug-in Japanese. There were few buildings, mostly “pill boxes,” and almost no guns to see. In contrast, Corregidor had been an established pre-war American fortress with massive guns and barracks, site of Japanese invasion and capture followed by the American retaking nearly three years later. There were a few similarities, most notably the tunnels in which the Japanese fought and sought shelter.
On Monday we boarded El Corregidor II, a large banca, and took the seven-mile ride to Mariveles, Bataan. We began at the KM0 (kilometer zero) memorial, the traditional start of the Bataan Death March. We proceeded to the top of Mount Samat, “the last line of defense,” then to the Balanga Elementary School, where General King surrendered about 76,000 American and Filipino troops in the biggest capitulation in American history. We went to Camp O’Donnell to visit the Capas National Shrine, with most of the guests walking the final kilometer of the Death March route. Finally we went to Subic Bay, making brief stops at the Hellships Memorial, Subic International Hotel for showers and fresh clothing, The Lighthouse Marina Resort for supper, and finally delivering Hugh and his group to Subic International Airport where their jet was waiting to take them to Honolulu and then home. Then we had a three hour bus ride to our hotel in Pasay, Manila. It was Valentine’s Day, so late-night traffic in Metro Manila was as bad as is typical at 6 P.M. due to the many couples celebrating the day. By the time we got to bed, we realized that we needed an additional day just to recover from the extremely long days and early mornings we’d had.
We returned to Corregidor on Wednesday morning. We had heard that the USS Blue Ridge, an American Navy command and control ship, was in Manila Harbor for a few days. As it turned out, 32 sailors and marines were on the Sun Cruises ferry with us, and Steve was assigned to provide their tour of the island. It is always a pleasure to guide for Americans, and a particularly special honor when it is for the men and women of our armed forces. It just so happened that it was February 16, the 66th anniversary of the parachute drop and barge landing that marked the beginning of the liberation of Corregidor from the Japanese. There was a short flag-raising ceremony at the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team marker at Topside, attended by well over 100 tour guests and island staff. Three of the USS Blue Ridge servicemen were selected to present a wreath, followed by brief remarks from Steve.
While Steve was talking with two of the sailors, he mentioned that it was his father Walter’s 31st birthday on the day that the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending the war and saving his life. Steve was stunned when Petty Office Second Class Travis Ellis of Portland, Oregon, said, “Today is my 31st birthday.” Steve looked at him and said, “It’s hard to imagine my father being exactly your age on the day he could have been killed.” He then went on to explain that Walter was in a POW camp in the city of Kokura in northern Kyushu on that day, August 9, 1945. This city was the primary target for the second atomic bomb. The crew could not see the ground due to clouds and smoke and thus flew on to their secondary site of Nagasaki.
Interestingly, the crew is stationed 50 miles from Tokyo, and a few are married to Japanese women. It is truly a different and better world than it was 66 years ago.
P.S. Consider visiting the museum the next time you are in the New Orleans area. You can visit the National WWII Museum Website at www.nationalww2museum.org