Monday, March 26, 2012

Steve and Marcia ride on the whirlybird

Until this week, we had never flown in a helicopter. Last year Steve was given a small-plane ride over Corregidor, but until now, Marcia had never seen “The Rock” from the air. We got the chance, thanks to two acquaintances who wanted us to show them local World War II sites, and who preferred flying to the usual boat ride. Eagerly anticipating this new experience, we proceeded to the Manila Domestic Airport, where we met Captain Harry Lero, our pilot and the President/CEO of Airgurus. The company provides air travel anywhere in the Philippines, as well as having a branch, Assist Pilipinas Corporation, offering emergency medical evacuation and services with EMTs in attendance.

Because of the combined weight of passengers and crew, Harry had to take off much like an airplane, something we had not expected. As we lifted off, we hovered only feet above the ground, in essence taxiing to a place from which we could take off. The helicopter then reversed direction and accelerated. All of a sudden, we rose higher into the air, climbing over Metro Manila, and soon we were over Manila Bay. Although it seemed that we were no more than 100 feet above the water, Harry told us we were cruising at 300 feet. Apparently, flying over open water can cause you to think you are much lower than you really are. This became obvious once we passed over objects that we could identify, such as fishing platforms and boats.

Harry told us that he occasionally takes clients to El Fraile Island, Fort Drum, aka “The Concrete Battleship.” Our companions decided that it would be fun to stop there first. Marcia had never been on the old fort, and was surprised that it felt considerably smaller than she had expected, having seen many pre-war photos of the fort as well as viewing it from bancas. We spent a few minutes walking around on the “deck” and checking out the huge 14-inch guns at the “bow” of the fort. Then we were off to Corregidor. It was a little startling to take off from such a relatively small surface and then instantly be over its edge and looking down at the water.

Harry flew over the Rock’s major gun batteries before setting us down on Topside, with Steve identifying the batteries as they came into view. Marcia was impressed with the short distances between some of them – when we are hiking we follow trails which often wind back and forth to get from one location to the next because of the island’s extreme terrain. That can make it seem like two batteries are far apart, when in fact they are relatively near to each other “as the crow – or chopper – flies.”

Once on the ground, we accompanied our friends to the major gun and building sites on the island. We ate lunch at the Corregidor Inn, where we asked Harry how he became a helicopter pilot; he often flew with his father, also a pilot, and learned a lot by observation before beginning formal training. He flies planes as well, but enjoys the more demanding challenges of helicopters. Then we continued our sightseeing. Our friends were particularly interested in the locations that were important to Steve’s dad, Walter, such as Middleside Barracks, and Batteries Geary and Way. Then we returned to the copter and flew from Topside down the length and over the tail of the island, and then headed back to Manila.

Our friends decided that it was more time-efficient to fly to Mariveles, so on the next day our driver Alex took our bags on ahead and we took the 20-minute flight later in the day. He met us at the landing site, a business owned by Harry’s friend, and drove us along the first part of the Bataan Death March route, beginning at the Kilometer 0 Memorial. We spent the night at the unique Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar Resort in Bagac. The next morning we started out at Mt. Samat and then rode to Olongapo, stopped at the Hellships Memorial, and spent the afternoon and overnight at the new Lighthouse Marina hotel on beautiful Subic Bay.

Realizing the length of the drive scheduled for our last day together, our companions once again opted to send the driver ahead while going by chopper. Harry met us at the Subic International Airport, and then flew us to Camp O’Donnell, the POW camp that was the stopping point of the Death March. It is now the Capas National Shrine, located outside Capas, Tarlac. Our route took us through Luzon’s western mountain range. Harry wove his way between the mountain peaks, and we could see Mt. Pinatubo in the distance. Pinatubo ash lines the river valleys, and some of the high peaks are many feet thick with ash and have been strikingly sculpted by rainwater runoff. We could see homes, walking trails, and even some small roads at high elevations. Just before we reached Capas, the terrain switched to plains with rice fields as far as the eye could see. Then it was on to Cabanatuan City and its namesake former prison camp a few miles outside of the bustling city. As we approached Cabanatuan, we began to see hillsides with terraced pastures and fields, some for rice and some for other crops such as corn and sugar cane. Terracing enables the farmers to maximize the watering effect from rainfall and irrigation by slowing runoff.

The big advantage of a chopper over a small plane is maneuverability. Steve felt the ride was smoother, and Marcia found it much less scary than her one trip in a small plane. Not surprisingly, it was much noisier inside the copter. There were headsets with speakers, and you needed them to communicate with one another. We were one set short, but Marcia preferred not to wear one anyway. She sat opposite Steve, who rode facing backwards. Every time that Marcia wanted to say something, Steve had to uncover an ear, and we both had to do some lip-reading. At one point, Steve went to take a drink from his water bottle and found a microphone in his mouth instead. It gave us a good laugh.

Another thing we noticed; you constantly see the shadows of the two propellers as they pass overhead, essentially a constant strobe. You really wonder how those two relatively small blades can lift that big whirlybird and all of the people inside. (Steve always says to himself, while waiting for a loaded 747 to take off, “There’s no way this thing can get off the ground.”) Marcia tried to take a picture of the propeller, something Steve thought nearly impossible. On her fourth attempt, the timing worked and she got a blurred picture of one of the blades.

Who knows if we will ever get the opportunity to fly by chopper again? We thoroughly enjoyed these opportunities to see from the air areas we have come to know well, since it gave such a different perspective and added to our understanding and appreciation of the geography.

Steve and Marcia on the Rock

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Battery Ramsey debris field

Our exploring has continued. One of our goals was to find the remnants of Corregidor’s “Searchlight Number Three.” There were eight major searchlight positions on the island, seven on the western or “head” end and one on top of Malinta Hill, facing east. SL3 was located near the bottom of Cheney Ravine, southwestern head area. Without a GPS we would never have attempted to find it.

Our friend John, who has been there, said that the easiest way to get to SL3 is to follow the ravine bottom. Since it is dry season, we did not expect to be wading through water. We walked to Battery Cheney and then began the descent down to the bottom of its namesake ravine. There used to be a concrete bridge, but it was destroyed in the war. Whenever we walk from Battery Cheney to Battery Hanna we have to find our way down one side and up the other of this usually dry ‘riverbed’ near the old bridge. In reality, there are no rivers on the island, although many of these run-off channels remind us of such.

We started down the rocky ravine. The GPS said that we were 425 meters from our destination – not very far, really. It turned out to be rougher going than we had thought, with many large boulders to negotiate, and requiring great care not to slip on the rocks. A whole ‘nother meaning for “rock and roll!” There were a few areas with almost flat sand and gravel surfaces, too, much easier. On our left bank we could see that there had been a road or path at one time, which would have made our going a lot easier had it had been cleared, but it was totally overgrown, so we stuck to the rocky riverbed. About halfway to our goal, we had to maneuver around a very large obstruction, probably the remnants of another bridge. Soon afterward, we came to a part of the ravine that was narrow and had standing water. We decided then that we would not go on, given the difficulty, slipperiness, and footwear unsuitable for walking through water. So our quest to get to SL3 was scrubbed, at least temporarily.

Very near our house is Battery Ramsey, which had three, 6-inch disappearing guns. When you visit the site now, you will find that the gun on the left is still in place. The gun on the right was thrown from its pit, and its pedestal stands tilted on its side. The center gun is gone entirely, and there is a huge crater where it and a powder magazine were located.

Battery Ramsay survived the Japanese invasion. It was not until 1945, when the Americans were bombing the island to “soften it up” for an invasion, that Ramsey was destroyed. Considering the large amount of concrete that made up the battery, it was not unreasonable to assume that there must be chunks of concrete located nearby. Once again, our friend John provided us with some helpful information. He and Karl had come across several sizeable chunks of concrete on the hill below Ramsey, and they told us if we followed the old road we would see the concrete.

So off we headed. Once again we relied on the GPS to get us started. We had no trouble finding the start of the road, which, like almost all of the old roads, is easily spotted as a level area with an upward slope on one side and a downward slope on the other, since Corregidor has very few naturally flat areas. We managed to go about halfway to the hairpin turn that we knew we had to reach to access the lower road. All of a sudden, the going got tough – some of the thickest bamboo we’d ever encountered and no bypass option. We kept looking for the path of least resistance, and Marcia used snipping shears to make a passage, while Steve kept an eye on the GPS to make sure we stayed true to the course. By the time we reached the hairpin turn, we were exhausted and decided to call it a day. Since we were just below Battery Ramsey, we opted to climb up the steep hill and shortcut our way home. It was somewhat strenuous, and we encountered another – smaller – stand of bamboo, but we made it. The next day we headed back, able to get to the hairpin okay following the path Marcia had made the day before, and followed the sharp turn to the right. We ran into more undergrowth, but could see through it to what looked like clearer road.

All of a sudden we broke through, and sure enough, the road was much more passable. Soon we came to the Ramsey debris field. Chunks of concrete were everywhere. Two chunks were huge, with one at least 2-by-2-by-2 yards. Imagine the force needed to throw a chunk of concrete weighing 10-plus tons several hundred feet. Smaller pieces were everywhere. On the homeward trip, we again opted to climb straight up the hill, eliminating the walk back to the hairpin turn. (It is much easier going up a steep hill than down, since a fall going uphill means you drop onto your hands and knees, while a fall going downhill is much harder to control, and can lead to a bad tumble or worse.) In the photos, Marcia is wearing gloves, highly recommended unless hiking a cleared trail.

Recently, while clearing an area around their houses, our friends Ronilo and Gilbert found a metal plate lying on the ground. We include a close-up photo. The plate is about 1.5 by 2.5 inches. As you can see, the manufacturer reads Westinghouse, and there are numbers at the upper left including (6-1-26) which we interpret as June 1, 1926. You can also clearly see the words “switchboard panel” as well as other information. We hope some of our readers can tell us about the equipment that would have carried such a plate. We suspect it was from a phone switchboard.

We will be on a private tour the next week, occasionally reachable by email. We may or may not report on the tour depending upon the wishes of our guests.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Full moon, reader responses

Last night we enjoyed a beautiful full-moon rise from Battery Crockett. On the far left just below the horizon is the tail of Corregidor, while on the right is Caballo Island in the picture. The moon was very bright overnight, and lit up our bedroom from midnight on. This morning we went to see the moon setting from Battery Grubbs. In that picture, La Monja Island is to the left and the southern tip of the Bataan peninsula is to the right.

We received a number of responses after the lost eyeglasses escapade.

Steve and Marcia.

Your eyeglasses story reads like a great mystery novel!

For a while, I thought the monkeys snatched them. I always wondered why the Corregidor monkeys seem to be docile. In Indonesia there is a temple with super aggressive monkeys. The tour guides warn everyone not to have anything loose, especially glasses. One grabbed my friend's glasses and crushed them in the one minute we chased it.

Could it have been a docile monkey hanging from a tree playing a trick on Steve? Haha. Take care. - D

Yes, D, we have lots of monkey here, as you well know, but they are wary of humans so we don’t think that’s what happened. Maybe Bob has it right when he writes:

I know from personal experience that each pair of glasses has a protective "gremlin" that hides it from time to time just to see if we're paying attention. Said gremlin will snatch a pair of glasses off your face and hide them. If we show proper contrition and diligence in searching for them, he will eventually return them to the last place they were supposedly seen, and allow you to find them in "a place you've already looked." Trust me -- I know that's the case. - Bob

That has to be it. Yes, it must have been a gremlin… But Eli is not so sure:

Hi Marcia & Steve,

I too have experienced many times not finding my glasses where I thought I left them, but only because of the usual senior moments. Worst were the times when I was doing something downstairs and had to go up to get something but could not remember what it was when arriving upstairs. – Eli

Certainly Steve (who will turn 60 in a couple of months) could not be experiencing senior moments already as Eli suggests, could he?

Dear Steve and Marcia,
Good morning. Enjoyed reading your 200th newsletter. I didn’t know, but re-reading the "Lost Glasses" you can very well excel as short story mystery writers! Cheers! The article also refreshes our fading memory about the deeds of the great general who immortalized that "Old soldiers never die, they only fade away..." Best regards and God bless. - Fred

Look out, O. Henry, here come Steve and Marcia! Tom appears to like our writing as well:

Marcia and Steve,

Congratulations on your having provided all of us now with 200 newsletters; how much so many different people with different interests in Corregidor must appreciate your writing about your always interesting adventures living there. Salamat [thanks], and, as they say, keep up the good work. - Tom M

We also got a couple letters from other experienced “butt pullers.” Our former neighbor in Lansing, Michigan, writes:

At that time 300 yds was the standard. Rifles were zeroed for 300 yds. Springfields and Enfields...also, the new at that time M1 Garand. If it was Army run, it would have been no more than 300 yds. The rifles could hit and kill out further but the ability of the average soldier wasn’t that good. John B. gave me a real secret...if aiming an old rifle..M1 or Springfield or Enfield.. if you look through rear site and cover the enemy with the front leaf sight completely...he's dead at 300 of mass...not a lot of aiming needed. Sure ’ works...targets are like small specks. My combat shooting improved immensely...not a lot of skill, just look and if your target is covered by front sight your gonna kill something. Today most ranges are at 100 yds. Different rifles and for sure today’s troopies can’t shoot like they used to. Ed

And, last but not least, from a female U.S. Marine veteran who lives in the Subic Bay area:

BTW Steve, being a butt puller sucks and makes the upper body so tired that sometimes you can’t hold your rifle. I laughed at the description below. The only picture I have of me in the butts is with my M-16 and an unhappy face. Brought back such memories to read your story. My unhappy face was due to the fact that the CR was being used by 200 people who were also in a hurry. It was a hot summer in Cherry Point. Have you ever tried to balance on a toilet where you don’t want to touch anything and hold an M-16 at the same time? Thanks for the memories!

My husband, also a veteran has never been to Corregidor. One of my squadron mates will be visiting in September. I just got an e-mail from the AWA group in Hong Kong that they will be visiting. Well done. Good day. - Trish

No, neither of has “ever tried to balance on a toilet where you don’t want to touch anything and hold an M-16 at the same time.” Next time we have an M-16 and we have nothing better to do...

Seventieth anniversaries of the fall of Bataan and Corregidor are just around the corner, and as a result we are going to be busier than usual before we head back to the States on July 1. That means we will be away from Corregidor for extended periods of time. For those who may be visiting Corregidor soon and might want to see us, or if you are still contemplating joining one of the Valor Tours groups we will accompany, keep the following dates in mind. The dates include our travel dates to and from Manila.

March 17-23: Private tour co-arranged by Hugh Ambrose Tours and Valor Tours.

April 4-17: 70th Anniversary Fall of Bataan Tour, Valor Tours. We are expecting a U.S. veteran who was captured on Davao to join us, and we will accompany him to the site of the Davao Penal Colony at the end of the tour.

April 28-May 9: 70th Anniversary of the Fall of Corregidor and the Philippines, Valor Tours. We are hoping to host an American ex-POW who was captured on Corregidor on May 6, 1942.

May 25-June 5: Tour for AWON (American War Orphans Network), Valor Tours.

We’ve included a few pictures from past Valor Tours. Ogee, the photographer from Rajah Tours (the Philippine tour company that works with Valor Tours of San Francisco) and who accompanies us on the larger excursions, took all of these photos.

Steve and Marcia on the Rock

Friday, March 2, 2012

Newsletter 200: The lost glasses

It’s hard to believe, but this is our 200th newsletter since we started sending them about our life in the Philippines. It’s already been three and a half years.

Friday, March 2, marked the 67th Anniversary of General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Rock. There was a traditional wreath-laying ceremony at 11 A.M. Then Steve gave a short talk about the significance of the date to students and professors from Cordillero College in Baguio who had come by banca from Bataan. Steve stressed that General MacArthur was undoubtedly the most loved American of the students’ grandparents’ generation, and how he kept his promise to “return” to liberate the Philippines.

In our last newsletter, we did not mention that Steve lost his eyeglasses during our second expedition to the firing range. We decided to wait until we knew whether we would ever find them. The story follows.

When we first reached the 300-yard-line wall, Steve sat on the top to get a GPS reading. Marcia started clearing vegetation from the stairs that lead into the trench behind the wall so she could take photos before descending. After a couple of minutes, Steve, leaving his backpack and most of his equipment on the wall, descended the steps as well. Marcia continued photographing the wall, and Steve went on ahead to see how long it was – about 100 feet. At one point, Marcia had Steve turn around to include him in a picture to put the wall into perspective. Then Steve walked to the end of the trench and went uphill to the right to explore above the wall, with Marcia slowly following.

As Steve started walking above the wall, his glasses were suddenly pulled from his face by a small vine or branch that caught near his right ear. He stopped immediately but never heard the glasses hit the earth, which seemed odd because of the dry-leaf layer on the ground. Since his vision without glasses is about 20/750, he called for Marcia to help him search. Steve went to hands and knees, starting at his original point, and we both moved very carefully. We spent the next hour moving slowly outward from the tree where he’d been – going so far as to search below the wall, in case they had flown that far. We even looked up into the vines and trees above the area, thinking that maybe they had snagged on a branch, and shook the small trees in hopes of dislodging them, all to no avail.

We never figured out exactly what could have caught on his glasses, since he stopped instantly and there did not appear to be anything in the exact spot where this had taken place. Very strange, indeed. Eventually, being hot, sweaty, and tired, we decided that we would head home and return the next morning. Fortunately, Steve has several other pairs of glasses, so it would not have been too bad if they were truly lost, but they are his favorites – most accurate prescription and transitions lenses. (We find it helpful to wear glasses in the jungle for eye-protection. Steve had no choice but to walk several hundred yards to the main trail without that help, while relying on his poor vision.)

As we walked back, Marcia asked if Steve might have left his glasses with his backpack, since he would have taken them off to work with his GPS. (Steve sees very well up close – up to about six inches – without glasses.) Steve thought it was a vague possibility – that he might have felt the contact against his face and just assumed his glasses had been snagged. Then we remembered the photo that Marcia had taken of Steve alongside the wall; surely this would tell the story.

After showering, we took a close look at the photo in question. (In it, Steve is standing in sunlight while the wall, on the right, is essentially invisible due to shadows.) Steve was far enough away that trying to determine if he was wearing his glasses required considerable enlargement. At first glance, it appeared that he had been wearing the glasses at the time. The bows seemed to be visible, although vine shadows might have accounted for the lines. On the other hand, we could not see the plastic bridge between his eyes. In addition, the glasses have transitions lenses, so we thought they would be darkened. Look at the close-up. Can you be sure he is or is not wearing his glasses at the time?

Steve was pretty much convinced that he had been wearing the glasses for two main reasons: one, he thought he remembered seeing the stairway clearly enough to walk down it safely; and, two, he believed that he went from good to bad vision at the instant the glasses left his face. But the more we both thought about our lengthy search, the more convinced we became of the possibility that he’d left his glasses with his backpack and GPS, then simply did not see them with those items when he went back to collect everything after we suspended the search.

The longer we thought about it, the more hope we had that we would find the glasses on the wall above the stairway. If we found them there, Steve would forever wonder how he could have walked so far without them, and then all of a sudden been aware that they were gone. On the other hand, since we had already searched all around the spot where he thought they were lost, where could they have gone? Granted, the frames are a tawny color that matches the fallen leaves, but we still thought they should have been easy enough to spot in the relatively open area.

The following morning we returned to the scene of the mystery. Being convinced that the glasses would be on top of the wall where Steve initially sat, we were disappointed to find that, in fact, they were not. So he must have been wearing them all along, as he had thought. Next, would we find them in the area where we had hunted for at least an hour the day before?

We located the tree past which Steve had been walking when he lost his glasses, and once again began to look in exactly the same places as the day before. What else could we do? We looked for maybe five minutes, and then met back at the tree, once again talking about where they could possibly be. Marcia looked down, and not more than a few inches from the base of the tree, where Steve had stood – and crawled – the day before, there they were!!! The morning sun was shining on the edges of the lenses, or they might have remained hidden from us forever. The previous day we had searched in concentric circles, Steve on hands and knees for a while, but somehow had missed them at the very middle of the search area. As you can see in the picture, taken by Steve at the spot where the event occurred, the glasses fell straight down and maybe a foot to his left. Look at the picture. Can you see them? But why did he hear nothing when they landed? Why did he not quickly find them? It will forever remain a mystery.

We suspected that the wall at the 300-yard line was a place for men to shelter and possibly for yet-to-be-used targets to be stored. We weren’t too far off, as our friend Jack Duncan, 44-year US Navy veteran and longtime NRA member, describes in the following email.

Steve and Marcia, you're probably aware of this, but the "back wall" of the 300-yard targets where Steve is looking down is known as the "butts." The targets were raised and lowered on frames very similar to old-fashioned sash windows, including counter-weights just like the windows. The "butt-pullers" were rotated from the relays of shooters, each relay taking turns. Spotters (large colored cardboard disks) were fitted with wooden pegs in the center that would be put in the bullet holes in the targets so that the shooters 300-yards away could spot where their bullets were going and make sight corrections accordingly. Black disks (tsk, tsk) if your shots were outside the black "bulls-eye," white disks for shots inside the black. There would have been a sloping berm of dirt in the direction of the firing line to absorb any low shots and the concrete wall behind that berm was where the butt-pullers did their heavy work. Marlene and I have both taken our turns as butt-pullers across the nation. There is only one set of butts on a range, while the shooters themselves move back from 200-yards to 300-yards to 600-yards to 1,000-yards for "across the course matches." Usually, using good spotting scopes the shooters can spot their own holes at 100-yards. If terrain and real estate is a problem, then the 600-yard line may be located at 500-yards, such as at the rifle range at MCAS, Miramar, CA, last time I fired there.

I tried to find an illustration for this without success.


Looking at our maps and the steep hillsides and ravines of Corregidor, we believe that the firing line here was fixed; the men would not have been able to move back and forth as Jack describes for normal circumstances. It is hard to tell how much the 200-yard line was used, and there is certainly no room for targets at 500- or 600-yard distances.

We received the following email from Morgan French of Houston, Texas:

Steve, wanted to let you know that my Dad, Morgan French, passed away on Friday, February 24. As we discussed last year, he was the last living member of the 192nd Tank Battalion, Company D, that served on Bataan in 1942. Dad was captured on Ft. Drum on 5/10/42, spent 5 months at Cabanatuan, and then almost 3 years as a POW in Japan.

I don't know how many of our group from last April that you're in touch with, but if you could share with them that Dad has passed away, and others you communicate with and who might have an interest in this, I would appreciate it.

Congratulations on your & Marcia's 39th wedding anniversary - that's quite an accomplishment!

Hope all is going good for you guys - take care.


Our thanks to Jack for his information, and our condolences to Morgan on the passing of his father.

Steve and Marcia on the Rock