Sunday, April 15, 2012

Corregidor, Ambassador Thomas, and Davao Penal Colony

Our nine-day Valor Tours Bataan Death March tour ended on Friday.  Truly, it was one of our most memorable, being privileged to accompany seven WWII veterans, including three who served and were taken prisoner on Corregidor.  Having the students from the College of the Ozarks added something extra-special; they were delightful, both as individuals and as a group.  Our highest level of praise goes to them and Dr. Fred Mullinex, vice president and tour host for the college.  Check out their blog at and be sure to watch the videos about the trip.  We decided to take a break from writing and let the students tell the stories.
We finished the main portion of the tour on Corregidor, and had the privilege of escorting Marine Warren Jorgenson to the place where he was wounded.  During a banca ride we were able to show Marine Bob Erhart the south side of Caballo Island – not visible from Corregidor – where he manned a machine gun prior to the surrender.  And we were able to take Army veteran Jim Collier to Battery Cheney, where he worked in the plotting room, and also to C1 (“Bunker’s”) Bunker, where he was, as he says, “schlepping ammunition” when word came of the surrender on May 6.
We then returned to Manila for one last day of touring.  On our way to lunch, which was planned to occur immediately before our appointment at the U.S. Embassy, we passed a small protest taking place in front of the embassy.  By the time we ate and returned it had been dispersed.  They were young Filipinos calling for all U.S. forces on training assignments to leave the Philippines, not something we would expect to happen any time soon.  In the embassy’s ballroom, U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas addressed the group, and Steve introduced the seven veterans and John Hogue, a civilian WW II POW, to the ambassador.
Four of our guests, including Ray Heimbuch (HIME-buck) had signed on for an additional three nights and two days in Davao, one of the largest and southernmost cities in the Philippines.  Davao (DAH-vow, not duh-VOW) is in Mindanao (MEAN-duh-now).  A few areas of the second-largest island in the Philippines are best avoided, but the Davao area is considered safe for western visitors.
Our purpose was to visit the Davao Prison Main Camp, which was known as Davao Penal Colony under the Japanese during WWII.  Ray was held prisoner there for the first two years of captivity.  The six of us reached the Manila airport two hours ahead of our scheduled takeoff for our 90-minute flight, as recommended for inter-island flights.  Unfortunately – and for reasons we never learned – many of the flights arriving at the Philippine Airlines terminal were late, including our plane which was coming from Bacolod.  Our takeoff was delayed by more than two hours, getting us into Davao at midnight.  We were met by local representatives of Rajah Tours and driven straight to the very nice Marco Polo Hotel, where we got into bed as quickly as possible.
In the morning we reconnected with our Filipino guide, Tommy Soria, and local driver Alfredo.  We headed out to Davao Prison.  The drive took about an hour, going first through much of Davao City, and then into the country, which looked somewhat like the provinces of Luzon.  The countryside is dominated by tall coconut palms and much shorter banana trees.  (The banana bunches, seemingly millions of them, are bagged on the trees to protect them from pests.)  Although we did not see pineapple plants, the pineapple slices served at the breakfast buffet were the best we have ever tasted!  This area is the home of durian, a fruit that “tastes like heaven and smells like hell.”  We received durian candies to taste after lunch at a Chinese restaurant, with mixed reviews amongst the six of us.  Another fruit grown here is pomelo, a very sweet relative of grapefruit.  Tommy said he bought a bag-full to take back to Manila for family and friends.  It can be purchased in Manila, but at about double the price.
Since the site of the penal colony is still an active prison, we needed special permission to enter.  Tommy knew the right things to say, and into the prison we rode.  It is a large area, and resembles a small village, except for the barbed wire fences surrounding the medium and high security areas.  There are three classes of prisoners, each wearing a specific t-shirt color for identification.  An officer told us about the prison and answered our questions, and Ray shared some of his memories.  One interesting fact is that the vast majority of the prisoners were convicted of crimes-against-property (rather than crimes-against-persons), often due to desperation secondary to unemployment.  Although the prison today is very different from 70 years ago, Ray was quite certain that he recognized at least one area.
Steve asked the guard if the prisoners were expected to work, and if so, how much they were paid.  The answer was surprising: the inmates have assigned jobs, and are paid local minimum wage, which is 258 pesos a day, or about six American dollars.  This may sound low to you, but we learned that many of the prisoners are not eager to be released, since the tight economy means probable unemployment.  Their wages help support their families, even enabling them to send their children to college, something impossible for them on the outside if they cannot find work.  The prison officer then led us on a drive-through of part of the grounds where we saw some of the housing, and vegetable gardens planted and maintained by the prisoners.
This area of the Philippines does not have defined dry and rainy seasons, and it was predominantly cloudy and therefore noticeably cooler than in Manila and Corregidor this time of year, where it typically reaches nearly 100 degrees in April and May.  We spent some time at the hotel swimming pool but it would have been even more inviting if the sun had been beating down on us.  Not that we are complaining about a break from the heat, which has definitely set in at home!
If you want to know more about the Davao Penal Colony, we recommend Ray’s book, “5 Brothers in Arms,” available at  We also highly recommend the recently published “Escape from Davao” by author and friend John Lukacs, available at major bookstores and online.
Steve and Marcia on the Rock

P.S.  In a recent newsletter dated 4/4 we asked you who was in the photo with John Wayne eating lunch at Corregidor in 1958.  Some of you were able to guess the correct answer: Lee Harvey Oswald.

1 comment:

  1. Great story, Steve & Marcia. I posted on my FB page.

    Re the photo, the person whose back is to us is LHO?