Sunday, August 22, 2004

14 August 2004: Corregidor Island

With Jeff here, we finally took the trip across the Bay to Corregidor Island. Part of a set of 7 islands in the Bay, Corregidor is the one that looks like a bumpy tadpole.

Plenty of people visit the island though it’s not inhabited by islandfolk anymore, and there’s a scheduled CLO trip coming in October (which will not only include the boat and bus tour, but you can sign up to stay overnight, take in a round of paintball and add in the nighttime Malinta Tunnel tour).
There’s a regular day trip that goes to the island on Sun Cruises, so that’s what we did. Arriving at the terminal, we retrieved our boarding passes and lunch ticket and took our seats on the ferry. I hadn’t thought about what the ferry might be like, but was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a well-kept machine (from the outside at least), the crew was sharply dressed in white uniforms, the seats were worn but relatively clean… and in fact there were bona fide cushioned seats. Rows of wooden benches wouldn’t have shocked me, but the air conditioned lower deck with multiple TVs and a snack cart was indeed pleasant. The upper deck was split between an indoor air conditioned section with a little snack bar and an outdoor section for the smokers and those who felt less than fine on the trip.
Mostly on time, we left the little harbour around 8 a.m. and took off at 23 knots across the Bay. We’d chosen a row of seats in the lower deck, chatted, watched some history programs about Corregidor and munched on some snacks for the first 30 minutes. The snack cart came by a couple times, the first time the crew giving Nicholas a full package of Pringles then taking it back… as a joke! OK, that’s just mean to a 4 year old. On the second swing by they gave him a pack of Piknik potato strings… and let it be a gift. Either they thought he was really cute or they realized that taking back a snack from a 4 year old is wrong and were trying to make amends. Either way, he was thrilled and did share it with the rest of us.
The girls couldn’t eat much, including me. The rocking of the boat took its toll. Rebecca lost her breakfast into the bathroom sink. Katherine paled and curled into a ball. I watched TV hoping that looking up would even out the rocking, then resorted to closing my eyes and trying not to think about anything. Later Ian said he hadn’t felt too great either and neither did Jeff, but since the rest of us were a mess they didn’t fall apart like we had. Did I learn nothing from crossing Cook’s Strait?
The hour and twenty minutes could not go by quickly enough. It should have taken 10 fewer minutes but we sailed through a small rain storm on the way. The skies were fairly clear when we arrived though and we discussed options for alternate return methods. How sad. The only thing we could think of was to request air relief. Ian texted the flight school.
So we boarded our bus and packed 40 people into 35 seats. We were off. Corregidor’s tadpole shape had us start at the tale end and work our way over to the head, passing Japanese dug foxholes along the way. Our first stop was a memorial to various victorious battles fought by famous Filipinos. Jeff later noted that it was a memorial to valiant fights that didn’t bring about future success. In every conflict in history the Filipinos have failed to claim overall victory. It was a testament to a good try. Our hero, Lapu Lapu had a segment of wall for defeating Magellan, but we all know where that ended.
Our tour continued and we wound our way around the island seeing batteries, bombed out buildings, craters, and more memorials. One garden was for the Japanese who had died in battle. It was a lovely area even with the guns still mounted and had the distinction of also being the Drop Zone for American paratroopers during the final recovery siege. A small gift shop sold “Drop Zone” gear, but with only 7 minutes to tour around it was the gift shop or actually seeing the place, so I missed out on purchasing some nifty gear. Unfortunate, because that little shop was the only place on the entire island to get those items and I don’t see us going back to Corregidor any time soon. Perhaps some kind soul can be bullied into buying me a souvenir on their future visit. Being a drop zone may not seem like a big deal, but the zone was the worst designated zone of the war being a narrow strip of land with cliffs all around, and jagged concrete waste littering the ground. Because of this, they expected a huge casualty rate. Instead, 280 were killed or severely injured, a 13.5 % casualty loss. That’s impressive for what they faced.
Another stop was the “disappearing battery”, a couple of hydraulic powered guns that could rise up from the ground when they fired, then sink down again to be a more difficult target. Under the guns were a number of doors with stairwells leading down to the depths to keep munitions and bunker soldiers. Katherine had the idea to go down a set and check things out. Though I could see that it became pitch black rather quick, we started down. About 10 to the bottom and couldn’t see any firther, though we could tell the tunnel turned sharply to the right. Trying to let our eyes adapt, we stopped and listened. Ssssss. Ian, what was that? Sounded like water to me. Sssss. From behind us, Rebecca said I made that noise. It was coming up, not down, it wasn’t you Rebecca. Yes it was. Ssss. OK, that’s not water. Watch everyone turn and head back up the steps to daylight.
We chatted amongst ourselves about our failed adventure as we returned to the bus, when our tour guide casually mentioned that the island is crawling with cobras. Perhaps she was pulling our leg, but it seemed plausible so we decided not to venture off the main path again. Granted we’d been given no warning not to go into the depths, nor were there any signs or barriers telling us to stay away, but now there was no question. Katherine’s curiousity would have to be satiated at another time.
Further on we visited an “aviary” because it seems that every Philippine attraction has to have a bunch of birds and small creatures in cages. Yet again, we saw sorry creatures with nothing of interest to look at or do. There is no limit to the space available on Corregidor to make a huge sanctuary, yet one small bearcat was housed in a birdcage of all things. It was just big enough for it to turn in a circle. A pond of turtles had a wire screen over top, presumably to keep them from escaping, but the water was foul and there were too many turtles crammed in to draw anything but pity. Yet another cage held tiny monkeys and a keeper brought one out for the kids to pet. I visibly shuddered at the sight of my children touching its fur and paws. How wonderful it would have been to glimpse these same creatures out in the wild taking their chances with a free life as we bounced along in our open air bus than in those wire cages, “safe” and miserable.
The aviary was adjacent to the tennis courts. Not terribly exciting until you learn that Corregidor has no source of freshwater, so all drinking water is brought over from Cavite and Bataan. During the war, some freshwater was safeguarded under the tennis courts and it was a bombing target for the Japanese though I don’t believe it was ever directly hit.
General Macarthur was a big man on Corregidor. Lorcha Dock is where he said his famous “I shall return” before setting sail for Australia to run the Pacific theater. For a long time I’ve wanted to get to Leyte, another island, where he actually did return. There’s a pool with statues of Macarthur and his entourage walking ashore. Thing is, there’s nothing else there but a couple midgrade resorts. Now that we’ve seen where Macarthur spent a good deal of time, seeing Leyte is less pressing. Corregidor is also so much easier to get too with the regularly scheduled hour long ferries. Reaching Leyte takes a plane, a boat and a bus. No wonder there’s not much else there.
The highlight of the trip is the Malinta Tunnel. Ma means many and Linta means leech. When in use, the tunnels were dark and damp with poor air circulation. Morale was low for the soldiers there and illnesses rampaged. The tunnel was constructed in the 1920s and then during WWII it was used as a hospital, MacArthur’s headquarters and President Quezon’s wartime residence. I recommend spending the P150 to take the “light and sound” show. It’s quirky but informative. I didn’t know what to expect when it started, so I don’t want to give it away for those who take the tour themselves. Jonathon was unimpressed though. Once you’re near the exit of the main tunnel there are several laterals in various degrees of disrepair, and Jonathon would have nothing to do with any of them. Not that they’re open for inspection, really, but when Ian would veer any bit from the middle of the tunnel, Jonathon would react “No daddy! No tunnel!” Poor kid was traumatized.
Ft. Drum, aka El Fraile, would be an amazing place to actually walk through if it were safe and stable. We glimpsed it off in the water, from high atop Malinta Hill and it looks for all intents and purposes, like a ship. In 1909 construction on the island began to change it from the plain rock it was to a multideck concrete battleship with two 14” guns. There’s a book all about it called The Concrete Battleship: Fort Drum, El Fraile Island, Manila Bay by Francis J. Allen.
Lunch was at the Corregidor Hotel and for typical Filipino fare it wasn’t that bad. The kids ate enough spaghetti and watermelon to make it worthwhile, but Jeff was confused by the pork dish, basically finger long strips of pork where ¾ of each piece was skin and fat with barely a nibble of pork at the bottom. We don’t wonder anymore, we just shrug and skip over it. With our view of Malinta tunnel, the serenade trio sang “Que Sera Sera” to our table and put in the requisite Beatles tune to another table. All that was lacking was an ABBA song. We stopped into the gift shop then climbed back onto the bus for the remainder of our tour. I won’t tell you the rest, consider it your duty to find out should you take the trip yourself.
The return boat trip was so much better. Our attempts at finding an alternate way off the island had all fallen through, but it didn’t matter. Loads of folks must have been staying overnight because the formerly packed and smoky outdoor deck was empty. We stayed outside to enjoy the breeze and view while sucking on some ancient Mentos from the snack bar. No seasickness this time around and we considered our trip a complete success.
Addendum: Since our trip last week I have been spending a lot of time on-line reading about Corregidor, Ft. Drum and Bataan. I purchased a book on the island about the history of Corregidor and while the printing job is simply awful, the writing is very readable and completely enthralling. I have found a new interest. And isn’t that the point?

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