Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Marcia's Heidi-Heidi-Ho, Jungle Girls Adventure

Steve usually writes the newsletters and then Marcia edits and reworks them, often spending at least as much time fixing them as it took Steve to write them. Marcia wrote today’s letter, which she calls “Heidi-Heidi-Ho, Jungle Girls Adventure.”

Each April we host a group from Valor Tours, timed to include the Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor) ceremony on April 9th at Mt. Samat in Bataan. This year, as you read in April, we had one ex-POW, many family members of veterans, and a few “history buffs.” Our unusual tour guest was Heidi, neither a descendant of a veteran nor a history buff. She came with a unique story.

Several years ago, at a particularly rough point in her life, she began running. She participated in the “Bataan Death March Memorial Marathon” in White Sands, New Mexico. This is far more than a typical race, with numerous events and opportunities for the runners to meet surviving POW veterans, hear their stories, and learn about the Death March. Heidi was so moved by the veterans she met that she’s become a regular at the marathons, collecting the ex-POWs signatures on a special T-shirt, and she also began attending the annual American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (ADBC) conventions. She developed close friendships with many of these men and stays in communication with them. Heidi credits “My Guys” with giving her a new focus and passion for her life at a time when she very much needed it.

There is an obvious risk in building relationships with WW II veterans – they are old now, well into their last years or months or, in some cases, days. Sharing affection and love with them opens the heart to the pain of each last farewell when the time comes for another veteran to “fade away.” Heidi embraces this fact, writing each departed vet’s name on a particular part of her shirt when she learns that he has died. She is able to be thankful for the precious time they had as friends, while saddened by the loss.

One of Heidi’s guys, David, wrote to her before his death, telling about his last hours during the fighting before the Fall of Corregidor on May 6, 1942. He described the Tailside areas through which he moved as one of the defenders while Japanese troops were landing near the airstrip and fighting their way toward Malinta Hill.

Heidi wanted to find the area where David’s foxhole had been. His letter gave enough information, including maps showing roadways and the old civilian cemetery, that I was confident I could get her close to the correct location. And so our adventure began.

Our second day on Corregidor no full-group events were scheduled after lunch. Steve was taking some on a longer trail hike, two of the men were looking for a specific spot on Tailside with guidance from island manager Ron, two of the ladies made plans to spend more time at the 92nd Garage Area where the POWs from Corregidor and the other fortified islands were held after the surrender, and others made their own activity or relaxation choices. Heidi and I set out on foot for Tailside.

We walked the South Access Road around Malinta Hill, enjoying the views and talking about how we came to be where we are in our lives. Heidi mentioned that she might also want to spend some time alone at the 92nd Garage Area after our foxhole hunt, so I pointed out the route she could take when we returned from Tailside. Just then we heard a large monkey. He was about 100 feet up the road, growling and barking at us in an attempt to convince us to turn back. As soon as we took a few steps closer he ran for the nearest tree and scooted up the trunk. We could hear him and his companions leaping from treetop to treetop away from us. At that point, Heidi decided we were sticking together, not wanting to face a monkey by herself even if it was only bluffing.

It was a hot day, and Heidi soon noticed that she’d forgotten drinking water. We were near the east entrance to Malinta Tunnel, so we detoured there to use the CR (restroom) and get water from the gift shop. After a short visit with a group of Girl Scouts participating in the day-tour, we resumed our trek. As we passed the Philippine Heroes Memorial, we spotted a spent shell from a 21-gun salute fired during a ceremony held there earlier that morning. Heidi decided to add it to her little memento bag.

When we reached the airstrip, we walked to its southeastern corner. Heidi pulled out David’s photo, a reminder of our purpose, and then we followed the passably-cleared trail that heads toward the tip of the tail. The vegetation is mostly tall coarse grass – cogon grass – which is very dry this time of year. There are lantana bushes, vines, and ipil-ipil trees, also very dry right now because the previous rainy season was less rainy than usual. We could see evidence of bolo-clearing, probably Ron and the men who had set out earlier than we had, and it looked like their goal was in the same general direction as ours. They had not, however, cleared just one pathway. There were off-shoots to left and right, so we had to take our best guess as to which path was going to continue in our desired direction. Sometimes we chose well, sometimes we had to back-track, sometimes we had to crawl through vines or over downed branches. Once I got a little spooked by something skittering over one of my feet, and of course my “YIKES” made Heidi jump, too. I never saw what it was – just as well, in my thinking – and as soon as heart-rates normalized we were once more underway.

Eventually we came to a particularly difficult spot – no obvious trail, a fallen tree, and very uneven terrain. I knew we were approaching the cemetery, so we had to be close to David’s foxhole, too. It was time for a rest and a good drink. Then I tried going around to the left of the obstacles. No way! Back again, and try to the right…no better. Finally I decided to push straight ahead, through the vines and branches right in front of us, with Heidi close behind me so we could help each other. We got through with only a few scratches each, and right in front of us was an apparently man-made depression beneath a small trees – almost certainly a foxhole that has partially filled with leaf debris and washed-in soil over the years.

We rested again. Suddenly Heidi said, “After how hard we had to work to get here, this feels like the right spot!” I agreed that it seemed a little like we’d been led here, being unable to go around to either side of the trail obstructions. Heidi pulled out the photocopy of David’s picture and his letter. She buried her mementos in the bottom of the depression, deciding to include the spent shell, and laid two sticks over the spot to form a cross. After several quiet minutes, Heidi decided she was ready to head back to the inn. We were hot and sweaty, tired and a little scratched-up, but very pleased to say, “Mission accomplished!”

Marcia on the Rock

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