Friday, March 25, 2011

Steve flys over Corregidor

I finally got a chance to fulfill a longtime dream when I was invited to fly over Corregidor on Monday. Peter Parsons and his one-time college roommate John Jenkins, came to the island for a private tour. Marcia and I accompanied them around the island. It just so happened that another of Peter’s friends, pilot Curt Perry, was on his way from Palawan to Subic Bay and stopped to join us all for lunch. When Peter and John boarded the Sun Cruises ferry for Manila, Curt took me up for a spin in his two-liter, turbo-diesel prop plane, using the mostly grass runway known as Kindley Field, which is located on the tail of the island.

Flying in a small plane is about as much like flying in a 747 as driving a motorcycle is like driving a Greyhound bus. I have no fear of flying, and Curt is as experienced a pilot as you could get, but I developed a bit of nausea during the flight. The reason is that I would spot something I wanted to see and Curt would turn the plane sharply to get us in position. At one point I mentioned the mild nausea to Curt and he said, “I forget that not everyone enjoys acrobatics.” It really wasn’t a matter of enjoying it so much as that he would turn hard right and my stomach would keep going forward for a few seconds. It probably did not help that we had just consumed a large lunch of fried chicken and pancit (noodles). You can be sure I found it well worth the minor discomfort.

Having seen many pictures taken from airplanes, I knew more or less what to expect as far as the basic tadpole shape of the island. As we approached the head of the island I spotted Geary Point, and was surprised that it appeared to have been reshaped in a rectangular fashion. Take a look at the photo to see what I’m talking about. I suspected that certain batteries would be easy to spot, and I was correct. The big disappearing gun batteries of Crockett, Wheeler, and Cheney, which are lined up along the southern edge of the island’s head, are even more impressive from the air, and the purpose of their positioning obvious: to keep big enemy ships out of Manila Bay. Likewise, the western batteries of Hearn, Smith, and Grubbs stand out clearly from the air, and spotting Topside and Middleside Barracks and the Ft. Mills Hospital were a snap.

As I suspected, spotting Battery Way from the air, my primary goal, proved much more difficult. The problem is that the trees not only grow right up to the edge of the battery, but they also almost cover the road leading to and from it. So we had to take an educated guess and fly over it several times to get any decent kind of pictures. The afternoon sun angle made it impossible to get a great shot, since shade covered part of the battery. This would be one reason to hope for clouds: less contrast on the ground. Nevertheless I was happy to spot my dad’s battery, and also could understand why the Japanese did not know of its existence until late in their barrage on Corregidor. (It was actually Way’s guns opening fire toward Bataan in late April that revealed its position. After that the battery came under heavy fire for the remaining week of American resistance on Corregidor.)

One interesting building as seen from the air is the YMCA, or Enlisted Men’s Recreation Center at Middleside, very near our house. Most visitors probably never realize what a large building it was, since they don’t leave the road. But walking into its ruins reveals that it is at least double the size that it appears when viewed from the road.

I wanted to get pictures of our house and was somewhat successful. Unfortunately we approached it from the wrong angle. The next time I get up I will ask the pilot to approach from the other side, which will also make Battery Way easier to spot and photograph. Also, I realize now that I did not get any pictures of Battery Geary, the battery that was “blown to smithereens” less than four days before the Japanese assault. The fact that it is mostly grass now, instead of concrete, and that trees grow close by are probably factors, but next time I will make it a priority.

After a few passes of the island, Curt asked me if there was anything else I’d like to see so I asked him to take me over Ft. Drum, the old “concrete battleship.” It is impressive enough from the water, and I have even had the privilege of being on board, but flying over gives a whole new perspective. It is indeed an impressive structure, and moreover, the only one of its kind in the world. Usually it can be seen from Corregidor, but often it just looks like a large, black rectangle that could be mistaken for a passing ship. This battleship was built on an island and isn’t going anywhere, but its presence certainly must have made the Japanese think twice about trying to get past it and the other three fortified islands of Manila Bay, because they never gave it a try.

On the way back to Kindley Field we flew past the northern side of Caballo Island. Since it is still a Philippine Navy arsenal, Curt chose not to fly directly over it. Most impressive are the steep cliffs, and one battery in particular. Filipino Coast Defense scholar and friend Tony Feredo clarified what I photographed: “That is Battery Gillespie, a 14-inch gun on a disappearing carriage. Together with Battery Woodruff (on the lower part of Caballo), these two may be the only remaining 14-inch DC guns (US) in the world. Notice how the gun wells were already filled with concrete. There was a plan to use the battery as a launch platform for the AFP’s rocket experiment in the 70s.” I include a picture from Tony showing him at Gillespie.

We flew over the extreme east end of Corregidor’s tail and swung around to land from the west. As we did so, we passed over the Sun Cruiser II, carrying our friends Peter and John back to Manila. The final approach was easy enough, although Curt mentioned that some maintenance needs to be done to cut the encroaching ipil-ipil trees away from the concrete landing pad. I thanked Curt, and he went on his way back to Subic Bay.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Some suggestions for you

Steve guided a group which included Mark Howard, a leader in the Latter Day Saints Church in Manila. Mark has brought several Mormon groups out and always asks for Steve. Mark’s son Scott and daughter-in-law Sarah are visiting and decided to do the Corregidor tour. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami are still on everyone’s mind, and it directly affected the younger Howards. They were on final approach into Tokyo’s Narita Airport when the major quake struck, and were diverted to another airport farther south. They eventually got to Osaka, but not before having to spend considerable time in airports. Their carrier said that since it was an act of nature they were not in any way responsible for food or lodging, but fortunately they were able to cope in a strange land. They said that the plane before them had just touched down and the passengers had to spend several hours on the plane as the terminal was locked down during the major aftershocks.

One of our friends who was spending time in Tokyo doing research had this to say on Thursday:

Due to the great uncertainty here in Tokyo, my wife and I have decided to cut our stay here short and will be returning to Manila on March 21.

We thought things would return to normal in Tokyo this week, but things have remained unsettled and very uncertain. Some of the major train lines are not running, and those that are are doing so in reduced numbers. The library in Sophia University (where we are staying) has been closed until further notice, and the National Diet Library where I have been doing research has limited its service hours. Many department stores have closed or limited service hours, and many employees are advised to stay at home. The convenience stores and supermarkets now have many empty shelves, among them shelves for milk, water, bread, instant noodles, etc. There are long queues for gasoline everywhere. And of course there is the uncertainty of the nuclear power plant - it's around 250 kilometers from here but there were increased levels of radiation detected even here (although very slight, and of no danger to people). Last night there was a strong earthquake - not an aftershock - in Shizuoka, west of Tokyo. Since there isn't much we can do here, we decided that going home early is the most sensible decision.

We have heard from our friends in Japan and all is well with them. Of course, many of them are concerned with friends and relatives who are from the affected regions and are still awaiting word. Our thoughts and prayers remain with them.

As co-founder of the Coast Defense Study Group, Glen Williford has been to Corregidor many times. His brother Steve (this could get confusing) spent the final years of the Vietnam War at the Subic Bay Naval Station, but never had been to The Rock. Both came here last weekend to spend a few days. On Sunday Steve – of Steve and Marcia on the Rock fame – spent time with the Williford brothers exploring some of the locations on the island.

They first went to Battery Cheney to search for a 155mm gun emplacement that Glen had seen years ago. It is southwest of the westernmost gun at Cheney, and in dense jungle. Since island manager Ron had been there before he offered to help them find it. Nilo went along as bolo man. After much searching they were able to find the rounded piece of concrete that was the gun shelter.

On Topside the Willifords wanted to spend time in the central area of Topside Barracks trying to determine where certain rooms had been. It was easy to locate the swimming pool, which resembles a modern day pool, except that it has no water and trees are now growing in it. The gymnasium on the second floor was also obvious. However, such things as the bowling alley and library were impossible to determine with certainty. Later, the guys went to Infantry Point on Tailside to look at Battery Kysor and to explore the medium-size tunnel which faces north.

Glen is the author of several books on coastal defense. His latest, Racing the Sunrise, is the account of the preparations that were underway to take on the Japanese, especially in the final three months before Pearl Harbor, as well as the early blockade-runner missions that ultimately led to the retaking of the western Pacific. It is a heavily researched book that took him five years to write. While not for everybody, if you are interested in the fine details of this subject, then you want to consider it.

Another book which came out last year, garnering lots of attention among Pacific War buffs, is Escape from Davao by John D. Lukacs. Despite being a Notre Dame graduate we still consider John a friend (just kidding, John), having made his acquaintance almost ten years ago. The book is subtitled, “The forgotten story of the most daring prison break of the Pacific War.” The escapees were for the most part survivors of Bataan and Corregidor and had been in the Davao Penal Colony for almost a year before making their escape. Another well-researched book, it should appeal to anyone interested in what occurred here in the first year of the war.

While we’re on the subject of recommendations, we encourage you to see the HBO Movie Taking Chance. It is based upon the true story of a U.S. Marine officer, shiningly played by Kevin Bacon, who accompanies the body of a young enlisted Marine to his home out west. The dignity and respect that both the living and dead marines are shown along the way made us proud. Although a very sad movie, if you appreciate the U.S. Armed Forces, it will make you feel good.

The following is from reader Minter Dial. You may recall that we wrote about his grandfather’s lost and found and then lost again academy ring a while back.

I am wondering if you might support (or even write up?) my social experiment around my grandfather's Facebook fan page. I am trying to garner some support to build up the community in a novel way. I'd love to have to your opinion as well on this initiative.

Here it is explained on my blog:

We invite you to check out the website, and help Minter if you are so inclined.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The tsunami

Due to a Tsunami Warning issued after an extremely strong earthquake in/near Japan yesterday, the Philippines went on alert. We are sending this to assure our family and friends that we are safe and sound on Corregidor, and the only tsunami affect noted in the Philippines was minor wave increases along eastern coastlines.

Corregidor is at the mouth of Manila Bay, and Manila is in the northeast area of the 30-mile diameter bay. Mainland Luzon geographically sheltered us from the tsunami, which originated in the north. As you can see from the map, only a tsunami coming from the southwest could possibly affect Corregidor and Manila, unless of course it originates in Manila Bay.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Japan, especially to those who have become our friends in the past five years.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The little girl who lost her shoe

Steve recently guided a group of Filipino students. While they were off taking pictures at Battery Way, he met an older American balikbayan (a native Filipino who is returning for a visit) from another group who was standing off by himself. When Steve told his father’s story of being the last sergeant on the last mortar at the battery, the man introduced himself as Jose Liberato, age 75. He said that he was born on Corregidor in 1935 while his father was serving here in the U.S. Army. He lived here for the first six years of his life, until the military dependants were evacuated from the island as war approached. He said that this is the first time he has returned to The Rock since that time.

On another tour Steve had a mix of guests from all over the world. One little girl was with her Filipino family on top of the Spanish Lighthouse when one of her shoes fell off, dropping onto the lower roof. When her mother told Steve about it he could see that the girl was quite upset, so he promised to get someone to retrieve the shoe before the end of the tour. The mother wisely bought her daughter a pair of flip-flops at a lighthouse gift shop which relieved the distress. After lunch Steve was able to return the shoe to the girl, thanks to two men from the hotel staff. Later she and a Korean girl of about the same age posed with Steve at the Japanese memorial. At the end of the tour, the tiny Filipina came up to Steve and boldly proclaimed, “Thank you!” Steve asked, “What’s your name?” “Allysa Noel!” “You lost one of your front teeth.” “That’s when I was little!” Steve smiled because he knew that the tooth had to have fallen out quite recently, and he couldn’t imagine her much littler. When Steve asked the other little girl (the Korean) her name, she held up five fingers. When he asked her mother, she had no idea what she was being asked. It did not occur to him at the time to try to ask her name in Tagalog, but in all likelihood it would have invoked the same response. We hope that they enjoyed the tour despite the language barrier.

On another occasion when Steve was guiding a group of Filipino high school students, he struck up a conversation with a man in the buffet lunch line. It turned out that he was from Iowa, and so he was very interested to talk with Steve, who grew up in the neighboring state of Minnesota. Frank Morgan invited him to join him and his fellow traveler for lunch. As it turned out, they were with the Kiwanis, and his travel mate was none other than Sylvester Neal, the International President of the Kiwanis. The three had an interesting conversation, with Frank especially picking Steve’s brain about his knowledge of the war on Corregidor. They met up again later at Pacific War Museum on Topside, where Steve and Sylvester posed under the photos of Steve’s father Walter which are on display.

The remains of a three-million gallon concrete water reservoir are very near our house. Since tour buses often stop to explain its significance, we occasionally have our helper Roy sweep its surface. The acacia (monkey pod) leaves had really begun to accumulate, so we asked Roy to clear them. Before he began, we heard him working on something behind the bodega. After a while we noticed a scraping sound, and we wondered if Roy had come up with a device to make his work easier. Sure enough, he had put together something closely resembling a snow shovel, using extra roofing metal for a blade. When we asked him if he had gotten the idea from watching movies with snow scenes, he just kind of laughed and said, “No.” Very inventive, very effective.

Finally, one of our devoted readers sent the following about the composition of the rock and ash wall we described in our last newsletter:

Not being there and seeing [the wall] first hand, I am making a guess from the picture. It is an old ash flow. The army cut through it to make a road. When a volcano blows, tons of this ash comes down like hot cinders with rocks and blobs of lava mixed in, it can flow in a way similar to lava. When it compacts over millennia it is like a soft stone with all the bits of rocks built in. This happens on more than one occasion, and layers can be very thin or thick. The mix of rocks/lava/ash differs for each blow. Some are more ash, some more chunks of rock. This creates distinct layers. The layer in the middle of the picture looks like a mostly ash layer that was softer than the layers above and below, due to lack of stabilizing rocks. It has eroded by wind and rain more than the other layers. It is not from scaring due to equipment running alongside.

Volcanoes (like Mount St. Helens) can blow the entire top off, and then the expelled lava/ash/rock creates a void and the center collapses down forming a bowl. You see better from the air, where you see a circular ridge, the caldera of an old volcano. Looking at the size of the caldera that left the ridge islands of Corregidor and Caballo, it was a huge ancient volcano. You are seeing firsthand the old volcanic action that created this ancient Caldera rim. The top was blown off, probably many times. The rocks hurled up along with the hot ash fell back and compressed into the concrete like substance you see. When the US Army cut through it to make a road it was left open to fall away bit by bit depending on each layer's hardness, leaving a structure that looks like a retaining wall.

We thank the reader for her response. We are still hoping for someone who can tell us the types of equipment that were used to form the wall and road that we talked about and that are shown in the attached picture.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Brealwater Point

When we head out to explore parts of Corregidor Island unfamiliar to us, we rely on copies of old, declassified army maps. More often than not, these maps – made over 75 years ago – can be used to find old road and rail beds, and to locate buildings, bunkers, and gun emplacements. The key is to follow the old roads to an approximate location, and then start searching. Major turns, ravines, and intersections help to pinpoint your present location. Best bets for finding ruins are high spots and points, where they would logically be located, since the fortification of The Rock was done to prevent assault from the sea.

One recent morning, we decided to hike the road that leads downhill from Battery Ramsey, which is just across Middleside Parade Ground from our house. When this route, Government Road, is well cleared it takes about 15 minutes to get from Ramsey to the road junction (not in the map photo) for the turnoff to Battery Geary. Government Road continues basically southward, heading farther down the hill. It eventually comes to a spot – Road Junction # 61 on the map – where you can hook back and to the northeast (a tight left) toward Bottomside, a trail we have hiked a couple of times, or you can go southwest (an easy right) along a route that originally went above four of Corregidor’s searchlight locations. Beyond RJ #61 the road southwest essentially disappears, and you must work your way through and past trees and vines, keeping between the decline to the left and incline to the right.

The purpose of our expedition was twofold: to look for structures on Breakwater Point, and to see how far the trail would take us toward the searchlight positions. Breakwater Point, so named because it rises above a breakwater, actually has three mini-points. The northern one has what we have referred to as a “bathtub bunker” for want of a more specific term. It is a small, in-ground stone and concrete-walled bunker that was used as a machine gun location. It is marked as VI-M-2, which stands for Sector 6, Machine Gun # 2. Just south of it, there is another point which has a larger, three-walled structure, its fourth side open and facing away from the sea. It shows no sign of having been roofed. The seaward end of the structure shows evidence of a direct hit. It is labeled as VI-S-2, indicating Siege Gun # 2. On the southern point we could see four three-foot high walls, five to ten feet long, spread out near the cliff edge. The map calls this area VI-F-4, indicating Field Gun # 4. The map indicates other structures in this area, but they are more difficult to locate because this particular point is totally covered in tall grass, vines, and a few lantana bushes. There are almost no trees, strikingly different from the surrounding jungle. We were not able to locate Siege Gun # 1 or Machine Gun # 5. Another project, for another day.

We had hoped to follow this trail much farther, since as we said, the road shown on the map continues at least a mile and leads to four searchlight positions. However, we were only able to go another 100 yards at most before the road disappeared. It appears that the road was destroyed at that point. Instead of a flat road, we encountered a steep, overgrown hill. It’s likely that artillery shells from the south hit the cliff above the road, causing enough of a collapse that it left only rubble, and at a very steep angle. The vegetation is thick again here, obscuring whatever path might still exist. It is obvious no one has passed this way in a long time. We may plan a return trip with an experienced bolo man and see if we can go farther. Steve’s father was originally assigned to the searchlight division of the 60th Coast Artillery Corps when he arrived on Corregidor in 1941, so we’re motivated to extend the trail if possible. Currently, access to these searchlight positions is gained from the shoreline, hiring a banca to get close, and then wading ashore to climb the steep hills up to the sites, so gaining access from above would be great if possible.

On our homeward trek, just after passing Road Junction # 61 we paid closer attention to a wall along the trail’s west side. At first glance it appears to be made of concrete embedded with stones, essentially a 10-25 foot high retaining wall. In reality it is a crosscut of the ground which makes up the island itself. What looks like cement is in fact semi-solid, can easily be scraped away with a stick, and in some places is soft enough to scratch with a finger. Our guess is that it is ancient volcanic ash mixed with small-to-large stones and compressed over the millennia. We can only imagine the machinery that must have been required to slice into the side of the hill to create the wall and roadbed. If you look closely at the picture of Marcia standing by the wall, you can see that the equipment left a fairly smooth horizontal groove at about her shoulder height, roughly four and a half feet, and above the groove you see rougher cut wall. We’d be interested to hear from anyone knowledgeable about such equipment and the techniques that would have been used 100 years ago to create such a wall. We saw no evidence that any part of the wall has collapsed, indicating that no large bombs ever fell in the area. Given the soft composition of the wall, it would have crumbled, leaving the road covered in rubble such as we encountered beyond Breakwater Point.

March 2nd marked the 66th anniversary of General Douglas MacArthur fulfilling his pledge to return to The Rock. We joined Corregidor Island Manager Ronilo Benadero and four of the security men from Ground Zero for an early morning flag-raising to commemorate that event. The 48-star flag was donated to the Corregidor Foundation, Inc. by James Zobel, curator of the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia, USA. It flew proudly above the island for the day.