One of the most famous of the 7 000 islands constituting the Republic of the Philippines is Corregidor. It lies at the entrance to the bay of Manila and gets its name which means “corrector” or “to correct” from the Spaniards who ruled the country for 400 years. In 1898 the Americans defeated the Spaniards in a great naval battle, took over the country and achieved more in 50 years than in the entire Spanish occupation.
Corregidor was an important strategic outpost and before World War I America spent 150 million dollars fortifying it. In World War II it became synonymous with tenacious defence. General MacArthur made it his headquarters after the Japanese had taken Manila and pushed the American and Filipino forces into the Bataan peninsula. I was fortunate to meet President Marcos who was one of the survivors of the Bataan death march. He told me about Corregidor and his description was so vivid that I was determined to visit the island at the first opportunity.
My chance came three weeks ago during another visit to the Philippines. Along with a group of Americans and Australians I went on a tour and learnt how the Japanese attacked the Island and on one day alone over 16000 shells were fired. Waves of planes dropped so many bombs that a survivor described the whole island as shaking like jelly and making it impossible to stand. Ammunition dumps received direct hits and one 10 ton mortar was hurled through a metre of reinforced concrete. But the American and Filipino troops hung on grimly, inspired by General MacArthur, who it is said, never took cover.
When the forces on Bataan surrendered, it was the beginning of the end for Corregidor. President Roosevelt recalled General MacArthur and General Wainwright continued to fight. Then the Japanese brought in landing craft and after more shelling and bombing had drastically reduced the island’s defenders the Japanese landed. Still the Americans and Filipinos fought on hurling the invaders back into the sea. But the Japanese were a brutal but courageous foe and when they landed tanks it was the end. Seldom in the war has any island been subjected to such devastating fire power. I walked among barracks over two kilometres long, only the shell of the building surviving. Roofs, windows and doors were gone. The concrete bunkers that had housed men and ammunition were empty husks. Huge mortars, the main defensive weapons, stood silent and ominous in their concrete pits.
I left the group to walk to the Pacific War memorial, an impressive building glowing in the midday sun. Beyond the dome was a futuristic steel model and beyond this the land dipped and there lay the South China Sea. Deep purple waves rolled in almost psychedelic succession to crash on a beach of blinding white sand. The vegetation around me was dense and familiar. Poinsettias, bouganvillea, fig trees, bamboo, Lantana, oleander and the strong scent of frangipani. The only sound was the faint swish of waves on the shore far below.