Corregidor film

1943 U.S. wartime propaganda movie

Corregidor Island is located at the entrance to Manila Bay, and "is one of the important historic and tourist sites in the country" (Wikipedia).

Manila Bay map

A visit to the island has been on my to-do list for many years.
Over the past few years I've established an e-mail friendship with Marcia and Steve Kwiecinski, an American couple who've been living on Corregidor since 2008. In March I was in Quezon City to publish my book when my publisher Dina told me the bookstore/office would be closed over the Holy Week (Easter) weekend, so I had a golden opportunity to go visit this famous rock in Manila Bay.

A Brief History of Corregidor

Spanish colonial period. The Spanish colonial government developed Corregidor as a fort, penal colony, aduana (customs) station, and signal outpost to warn Manila of approaching ships. Corregidor comes from the Spanish word corregir, meaning "to correct."
(*Note: this is not a photograph of Spanish Corregidor, but I think it gets the idea across.)

Spanish cannon

During the American colonial period, Corregidor was fortified and incorporated into the harbor defenses of Manila and Subic Bays. Beginning in 1909, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction of concrete gun emplacements, bomb-proof shelters, barracks, roads and even a tram system on the island. Eventually Corregidor was equipped with 45 coastal guns and mortars organized into 23 batteries.

Topside barracks, Corregidor

During World II, the island was the site of two horrific battles:

1. Battle of Corregidor (May 5-6, 1942) was the culmination of the Japanese campaign for the conquest of the Philippines. 75,000 soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army attacked and captured the island from 13,000 American and Filipino defenders. The battle was notable for a ferocious two-day artillery duel between the opposing armies. Casualties on the American-Filipino side included 800 dead, 1000 wounded, and 11,000 soldiers taken as prisoners of war. Japanese casualties included 900 dead and 1200 wounded.
This famous post-battle photograph show victorous Japanese soldiers celebrating at one of the big guns at Corregidor's Battery Hearn.

Imperial Japanese Army soldiers celebrating on Corregidor

2. In the Battle for the recapture of Corregidor (February 16-26, 1945), American and Filipino forces recaptured the island fortress from the Japanese. Casualties during this battle were much bigger: the Imperial Japanese Army suffered 6,600 soldiers killed and 50 wounded; only 19 Japanese defenders survived to become prisoners of war. American/Filipino casualties included 207 killed and 684 wounded. In a grisly climax to the battle, approximately 2000 Japanese soldiers inside Malinta Tunnel followed the "Bushida" code and blew themsleves up in a mass suicide rather than be captured by the American/Filipino force.
This photo shows American paratroopers landing on Topside, the highest elevation of Corregidor.

American parachutists, Corregidor

My visit to Corregidor

I showed up at the Star Cruises terminal on Manila's waterfront at 7am.

SunCruises pier, Manila

The terminal was already crowded. Fortunately, I had a reservation.

Suncruises Terminal, Manila

We got underway and within an hour were approaching Corregidor Island.

Corregidor Island

Steve and Marcia were waiting for me at North Dock.

Steve and Marcia Kwiecinski

They gave me a fabulous, personal tour of the island. We drove around in their jeep.

Steve and Marcia Kwiecinski in their jeep

First we drove and then hiked out to Battery Smith. This is a 12 inch (barrel diameter) Coastal Defense Gun, installed in 1921.

Battery Smith

We visited a nearby tunnel, which had served as a magazine (ammunition storage) and bomb-proof shelter for the Hearn gun crew.

Battery Smith tunnel

Cave life... gecko

Corregidor tunnel gecko

Cave life... frog, perched on an old hammock-hanging hook.

Corregidor tunnel frog

General Douglas MacArthur remains a powerful presence on the island.

General Douglas MacArthur statue

Malinta Tunnel is a tunnel complex built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1922 and 1932. The actual labor was done by Filipino convicts, brought out from Manila's Bilibid Prison. It was initially used as a bomb-proof storage and personnel bunker, but later equipped as a 1,000-bed hospital. After the evacuation of Manila in December 1941, Malinta served as the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur and the USAFFE (United States Army Forces of the Far East) and also the seat of government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines.

Generals Douglas MacArthur and Richard K. Sutherland in the tunnel, early 1942.

Malinta Tunnel entrance

Steve and Marcia at a similar tunnel desk, 2013.

Steve and Marcia in Malinta Tunnel

Next day we visited Battery Way. These are 12-inch mortars installed between 1908 and 1914. This particular gun, Mortar #1, has special significance for Steve because his father, Walter Kwiecinski, led the gun crew during the Japanese assault on Corregidor on May 5-6, 1942. Despite a ferocious Japanese artillery bombardment, Steve's dad and his crew fired the mortar at Japanese boats crossing the North Channel from the Bataan Peninsula to invade the island, hitting and sinking several boatloads of Japanese soldiers.
Following the surrender of the garrison on May 6, Walter became a prisoner of war and spent the next three years in Japanese POW camps in Manila, Camp O'Donnell (Pampanga) and then as a slave laborer in Japan. He was liberated and eventually returned home to Wisconsin following the Japanese surrender in 1945.

Battery Way

Battery Geary in 1941 just before the onset of World War II. Steve discovered this photograph several years ago. Although he is not identified in the original photo caption, Steve is 100% certain that the soldier closest to the gun (back to the camera) is his father, Walter Kwiecinski.
(photo by Carl Mydans, published in LIFE Magazine.)

Battery Way 1941

Steve and Marcia at their home in Middleside, Corregidor.

Steve and Marcia at home

After two days and one night on the island, I rode the Sun Cruises boat back to Manila. It was an exhausting but extremely interesting trip. On the return voyage I pondered what it all meant.....

Sun CRuises boat at North Dock

The Misinterpretation of Corregidor

I have some observations about how visitors experience Corregidor Island:

They generally have a "fun and touristy" kind of experience...

Corregidor tourist collage

Visitors see beautiful old guns and clean battlegrounds...

Corregidor tourists with gun

Visitors see the Topside "Brothers in Arms" statue which purports to show the deep, fraternal bond between American and Filipino soldiers during the 1942 Battle of Corregidor; and hence the deep, fraternal bond between the American and Filipino people.

Brothers in Arms statue

If my observations are accurate, there's a big problem with the way most visitors experience Corregidor.
Although the island itself is a beautiful place, its history is testimony to the horrors of war, colonialism and imperialism. This is hallowed ground, sanctified by the copious blood spilled, and suffering endured, here. It is not Disneyland.
Are guns "cool"? No, they are not; especially big guns like these. They were smelted, machined, transported halfway around the world and installed a century ago for the purpose of protecting America's colonial possession by threatening to rain massive destruction and death upon potential interlopers.
The "fraternal bond" between the American and Filipino people is a useful but invented fiction. Here's an example of the use of this propaganda: In 2003, speaking before the Philippine Congress, U.S. President George W. Bush said: "America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people..... Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule. Together we rescued the islands from invasion and occupation." That's rubbish. The battles for control of Corregidor were between two imperialist powers (the U.S. and Japan) for control of a colony, the "pearl of the orient seas." The actual historic connection between the American and Filipino people is not the result of shared suffering during two battles, but an involuntary bond born of blood conquest after the United States invaded in 1899 and waged a war of conquest, killing Filipinos by the tens of thousands while robbing them of their sovereignty.
(Photo caption: "Sacrifice is Aguinaldo's Ambition -- Behind the Filipino Trenches after the Battle of Malabon." 1899)

American soldiers with Filipino bodies, Malabon

Steve Kwiecinski's father suffered horribly, first as a soldier during the 1942 Battle of Corregidor and then for three miserable years as a prisoner of war. But he was not a hero of democracy, protecting America; he was a hapless victim, a foot soldier of imperialism, defending America's colonial possession in Asia. None of the American soldiers who suffered and died on Corregidor should have been there. Same for the 6,000 Japanese soldiers who died miserably during the 1945 battle; they were defending the Japanese Empire, not Japan. And certainly the Filipinos killed during both battles didn't deserve to die while the Imperialist powers fought over this colossal rock in Manila Bay.
(Dead Japanese soldiers near Navy Intercept Tunnel at Monkey Pt., Corregidor, February 1945.)

Japanese bodies, Corregidor

War and Empire: nothing to celebrate. It's not Disneyland.
(just my opinions, as usual.)
Chris Pforr, May 4, 2013.