Saturday, April 9, 2011

Another amazing veteran

In 2008, Corregidor defender and former Japanese prisoner of war Courtney Krueger, approximately 85 years old at the time, made the climb to the top of Malinta Hill, having to stop only occasionally to rest for brief periods. In January of this year, former Corregidor liberator Dick Adams made the climb at age 88, and didn’t slow the gang down one bit. We thought that his record might last a long time. Sorry, Dick, but “records are meant to be broken.” We are amazed to announce that Oscar Leonard has, at the age of 91 years, 11 months, and 12 days, made it to the top. And back!

Oscar, his wife Mary, and their daughter Sarah are three of our 20 guests who are currently participating in the Ghost Soldiers of Bataan tour given by Valor Tours of San Francisco. Oscar served on Corregidor for several months before being transferred to Mindanao, where he was part of the surrender of the Philippines. He spent most of the war as a slave laborer in Japan. He is, to our knowledge, the oldest returning American veteran, and it is exciting for us to be able to spend time with him and his family.

The following is Steve’s account of our days on Corregidor.

The first day I led the group on the tranvia tour of Corregidor. In the afternoon, Marcia and I led seven guests, including the very willing and insistent Oscar, up Malinta Hill. Oscar, who still chops wood, made it to the top without breathing hard, something not all teenagers can accomplish. After dinner several of us had Pulang Kabayo (Red Horse) beer at MacArthur’s CafĂ©.

Doris Ho of Sun Cruises had asked me to come up with an alternative to their standard Corregidor tour. It would be intended for those who want to take a somewhat aggressive hike, and is it hoped that people who have already taken the standard tour might return to experience the out-of-the-way trails that lead to some of the remote gun batteries and tunnels located on the island.

I already had a route in mind. The perfect opportunity presented itself with our tour group, since we had a second full day on the island. We took a magnificent three-hour banca trip around the four fortified islands of Manila Bay in the morning, Following an early lunch, nine members of our group joined me and George, one of the Corregidor Inn staff, for a short ride up to Battery Grubbs where we began the hike. Oscar volunteered to be one of the “guinea pigs” for the experiment. I was hesitant, but since Sarah was going to accompany him, and he had proven to be such a strong hiker, I decided he was up to the challenge. The route I had chosen goes into the jungle, emerges at Topside, and then goes back into the jungle, giving hikers the chance to opt out should they get too tired or hot.

The ferry typically arrives at 9:30 in the morning and boards at 2:15 in the afternoon. With luck you could start the hike at 9:45 and be picked up at 2 o’clock. That would leave just under four hours to hike and sightsee with a half-hour lunch. So the goal was to complete our mission in no more than three hours and forty-five minutes. To be able to approximate the time between places of interest, I planned to take pictures at several points, since the camera time-stamps the photos. So off we went.

From Grubbs we proceeded downhill and went through a tunnel/bunker. After a few minutes of exploring, we emerged at Battery Smith. From there we continued west and downhill until we reached Battery Hannah. Several of our guests went down into the tunnel, while others, including Oscar and Sarah, stayed above ground and enjoyed the beautiful view of Conchita Island and the South China Sea.

From there we proceeded to take a rather long walk down to a dry river bed which is halfway to Battery Cheney. At present there is no good way to get across the gorge, so it took longer than usual to get to the other side. We were all up to the challenge, but I told George that a bridge will have to be constructed here before the project proceeds. From there we began our first serious ascent, since it is almost all uphill to Cheney. By the time we reached Cheney we had used up half of our allotted time. After again allowing for some exploring, we headed up past the so-called suicide cliff and to Battery Wheeler. Since the plan is to provide a lunch along the way, Wheeler might turn out to be the place. It would be reached a little after two hours into the hike and is convenient for a vehicle to do the delivery.

At this point, Sarah and Oscar, along with two other hikers, decided that although they could probably go on, it might be best to call it a day. I called for a ride while George took the remaining five guests into the remarkable Wheeler Tunnel. When the tranvia arrived I rejoined the group, and we walked along the paved road from the old Spanish flagpole down to Battery Geary. From there we walked the Geary-to-Ramsey trail, passing the “wall of caves.” When we finally reached Ramsey we found that we had taken exactly three hours and forty-four minutes, just what I was hoping for. We did not wait for a ride, but walked down the hill to the Corregidor Inn. Along the way the remaining five were telling me how much they had enjoyed the hike.

There are some logistical issues that will need to be worked out, but all things considered I think that it is possible to offer this as a viable alternative to the traditional tranvia tour, and one that some tourists will find more to their liking.

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