Saturday, April 2, 2011

A true Corregidorian

Corregidorians are people who have had the privilege of calling Corregidor their home. This week we were visited by Harriette (Muffy) Marshall Olson, a Corregidorian who lived here from 1929-31. A little family history is in order. Richard Jaquelin Marshall, brought his wife Nell, son Richard Jr. (Dickie) and daughter Muffy to the island when he was assigned here. In 1941 Richard returned as Deputy Chief of Staff to General Douglas MacArthur, and went with him to Australia in March, 1942. For one year he was Mac’s Chief of Staff in Japan before becoming Superintendent at his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute. Later, Muffy married John E. Olson, an officer with the 57th Philippine Scouts, and a survivor of the Bataan Death March. Accompanying Muffy were her son Randy and family friend/“son” Ifeanyi Njoku. Both men are filmmakers and plan to use the footage of Muffy shot during this trip as part of a movie.

General Charles Kilbourne brought Richard Marshall to Corregidor in 1929, wanting to complete the stalled Malinta Tunnel project. Muffy says that the family temporarily stayed with the Kilbournes upon their arrival. There was an exceptionally large house on the eastern endof the senior officers quarters, and Muffy pointed that direction, indicating where she thought the Kilbournes lived.

We were curious regarding her nickname. She explained that when she was very young, maybe two, the family had a cat named Muffy. Little Harriette used to curl up by the fireplace and purr, imitating the cat. Someone in the family started calling her Muffy and the name stuck. On Corregidor their pet was Joe the monkey, but after the cook teased Joe, the only person who could hold him was her father.

Muffy made a brief visit to Corregidor with her husband in 1979, but that trip was almost entirely devoted to John’s Bataan and Death March remembrances. For the first time in 80 years that she was able to seek out these especially memorable places from her youth. Her family left soon after her eighth birthday, so she has some very vivid memories. There were specific areas that she particularly wanted to revisit, and for the most part we were able to accommodate her. In a few cases, such as the Officers Club near the swimming pool, wartime destruction and subsequent degeneration have left only ruins virtually swallowed by the jungle.

Muffy said that her father was busy with his job and her mother Nell loved bridge and “played all the time,” leaving Muffy and Dickie in the care of their Amah. “We had the run of the whole island.” She recalled the two of them playing at Batteries Way and Crockett, and we asked Muffy if they had encountered many soldiers. She answered, “We rarely ran into soldiers. They were only here once in a while – they had other duties. We climbed up and down the stairs, and all over the guns and concrete.” She added, “It was beautiful then, not like now,” referring to the condition of the batteries. “The place was just sitting here waiting for a war.”

She and her brother would also go out into the jungle. They sometimes looked for tarantulas, which Dickie would stick into glass jars, bring home, and “drive our father nuts.” It didn’t matter where they went; she always wore a dress and a big ribbon in her hair. She can quickly spot herself in photographs from those years because of the bows.

When we went by the old Fort Mills Hospital, she told us about jumping from a dock into the ocean. She landed in a school of jellyfish, which can be virtually invisible. Her legs were covered with stings which had to be treated at the hospital, but she was not kept overnight.

Muffy was uncertain which house along the row of senior officers quarters on Topside was the one in which her family lived. Six two-story units are west of the flagpole along a straight road, overlooking Topside Parade Ground and Barracks. Eastward from the flagpole are two one-story houses followed by nine two-story structures along a slight curve. There is a picture of Muffy at age seven standing in front of the houses. The curve in the road is evident, so if this was taken in front of their house then they were on the eastern side, downhill from the lighthouse. She thinks that they could walk down the hill from their house to the Officers Club and swimming pool, which would also indicate a house on the east side. Interestingly, she has no recollection of the lighthouse, so the exact location remains a mystery.

Muffy told about learning to ride her bicycle on the veranda of their second-floor dwelling, where the children played during rainy season. The veranda wrapped around three sides and could be enclosed with sliding windows. She remembers their home as very large, including bedrooms for her parents, her brother, and herself, plus quarters for their Amah, cook, and houseboy. She recalls hiding with Dickie under the external stairway to avoid neighbor boys’ BB guns. The Officers Row houses are mirror-image paired, and she believes their stairway was on the west side of the house.

Muffy recalls Topside as “the busy part of the island.” Although she does not remember the old Spanish flagpole, she clearly recalls the movie house, “Cine Corregidor.” She doesn’t think she ever saw a movie there, only attending stage shows presented for the children.

One time Muffy was walking outdoors carrying her doll Bess, named after Mrs. Kilbourne who had given it to Muffy. She was going to visit a friend, looking around and telling Bess about the wonderful things she was seeing. All of a sudden she fell into an open manhole! She says that the only thing that kept her from falling completely through was the large doll with her arm wrapped around it, which caught at one side of the hole. She yelled for help but no one answered. She wiggled around, got one foot against the opposite side, and pushed herself and Bess forward until she could set Bess down and creep out of the hole. Muffy says she grabbed Bess, ran home, and never again walked around without watching where she was stepping. That is still excellent advice when on Corregidor.

At the edge of the swimming pool, Muffy told another story. Here and at several other settings, her first comment was, “Wow! Oh, wow!” at seeing something that she could clearly remember from 80 years ago. Once she added, “A hunk of history comes back.” Today the pool is surrounded by jungle, although the area is cleared to be visible from the road, and the edges of the pool are evident. General Kilbourne was responsible for the installation of this large, saltwater swimming pool by the officers club. At the grand opening there was a beauty contest for the little girls. Since General Kilbourne was “her good friend,” and he and his wife were like grandparents to Muffy and Dickie, she said, “I just knew that I was a lock to be the winner.” Muffy showed how she’d strutted her stuff along with the other contestants. When Kilbourne announced the winner, a tiny two-year old girl, Muffy ran home in great distress. Later he explained to her that the committee couldn’t decide on a winner so they opted for the youngest contestant. Muffy was okay with it then.

She talked about General MacArthur, saying, “The first time I met Mac, he and Jean (his wife) came to our house for a cocktail party. I went over to talk to him – he didn’t waste any words, but he was nice. She was very nice – Jean was a love. They had a good partnership; she was the love of his life. I talked more with Mrs. MacArthur – he was always busy with the men. He was a very official man, had a strict way of doing things.” She told us that her father, who spent 1939-46 at Mac’s side, never had a bad thing to say about him. “Dad was often the peacemaker behind [Gen. Richard] Sutherland and MacArthur who had to be tough.”

Muffy says that during their days on Corregidor, Dickie enjoyed spending time with the local fishermen. They would give him lead sinkers, which he stashed. When they were packing to leave in 1931 he put the sinkers in his suitcase. When their father picked up the suitcase he said, “This feels like it’s full of lead!” When they arrived in the U.S., the two children melted all of the lead and made toy soldiers. Twelve years later, Dickie, who was a year and a half older than she, died onboard the U.S.A.T. Dorchester after it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1943. While walking near their Topside home, Muffy told Marcia what a blessing it was to have spent so much time with Dickie when they were young.

Muffy seems to have caught “the Corregidor bug,” and we would not be surprised to see this Corregidorian return with her sons in the not so distant future.

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