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Corregidor: Fortress island, time capsule and monument to wartime valor

Corregidor, the tree-covered rocky island set in the sparkling waters of Manila Bay is a key location in the Second World War, though many may never have heard of it. Today the island is mostly silent apart from the sound of the lapping waves, birds and cicadas, but this tiny island, also known as 'The Rock' was the scene of wartime victory, valor, defeat and destruction. It is said to be haunted by the spirits of dead American, Filipino and Japanese soldiers.

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Corregidor was first occupied by the Spanish and used as a prison. When the Americans took over the Philippines after the turn of the 20th century, they set up a garrison here and gradually developed it into a military stronghold, housing a large number of soldiers.

In the 1920's the Malinta Tunnel was bored through the rocky heart of the island. First used a store for explosives it later became a hospital, its side tunnels or laterals serving as wards. Legendary American General McArthur came to Corregidor and set up his headquarters here.

As a Commonwealth under the United States during the early part of the 20th century, the Philippines was of key strategic importance. Corregidor was one of a number of US bases, each of which was like a little bit of America transplanted into South East Asia. Huge barracks housed the soldiers, who moved around the island on an electric trolleys or trams. Mess rooms, recreational facilities, even a cinema provided home-style comforts.

As the thirties progressed and the clouds of war gathered, grim times lay ahead for Corregidor. In 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and shortly after, Corregidor. General McArthur left the island and later made his famous assertion 'I Will Return'. The island was under siege until the Americans were forced to surrender on May 6th 1942.

Where the Americans had been in control, now the Japanese took hold. The imperial flag was hoisted, and the remaining Americans and Filipinos were taken captive, or worse. So it continued until 1944 when the Americans returned in force, surprising the Japanese commander by mounting a parachute invasion of the island. He had assumed no such assault was possible due to the limited landing space. The Americans placed decoy ships in the bay, making a land attack seem imminent. After a bitter fight, the island was wrested from Japanese control.

General McArthur returned to find the remains of the American base, bombed and devastated. He ordered the American flag to be hoisted again on the old flagpole.

After the war, the island was left as it was and for many years lay forgotten. Only in the post 1986 Aquino years was it opened up for visitors and developed as a memorial and tourist destination by the Corregidor Foundation.

Today you can travel to Corregidor on an all inclusive day trip, departing from Manila port near the Cultural Center. A high speed ferry takes you across Manila Bay to the island. During the journey, a video documentary provides an insight into the illustrious history of the island. It contains remarkable footage and is superbly scripted.

On arrival visitors are ushered into one of the trolley-style cars which take you around the main sights of the island. These are modelled on the American style electric-powered trolleys or trams, which ran on tracks all the island. Today's trolleys are converted Japanese Hino buses wheels and tyres, not quite the same as the originals.

The first stop is the statue of General McArthur, the first of many photo-calls when visitors climb out of the trolley and have their picture taken. A photographer takes photos which can be ordered later. The Japanese memorial garden has a shinto shrine in memory of the Japanese dead. Japanese visitors are made to feel welcome on Corregidor. Many come to pray for relatives killed in action and to pay homage to their bravery. The Japanese, and Filipino flags fly side by side as a sign of reconciliation.

The highpoint of the tour is the Malinta Tunnel. Visitors enter at the southern end and are treated to a multimedia experience with flashing lights and sound effects recreating explosions and gunfire. Visitors walk in a group along the tunnel and stop at various points to hear dramatizations of key events in English, Tagalog and Japanese. In the tunnel laterals, scenes have been created with mannequins representing figures such as General McArthur and Philippines President Manuel Quezon.

Finally the end of the tunnel is reached and you can peer into the empty and eerie blackness of the lateral tunnels extending into the rock. At night the tunnel is said to be haunted by the restless spirits of Filipino, Japanese and American men killed in action. It would be an interesting experience to spend the night here.

After lunch at the hotel, the tour continues with a drive around the western part of the island. The huge guns which once fired shells on besieging ships can be inspected from up close. Many still carry dents and holes sustained during wartime action.

A tour round the vast ruined American barracks is one of the most visually compelling aspects of the trip. The twisted and derelict remains of the American barracks, have hardly changed in the intervening decades, making it seem as if the war ended only a few years ago.

With a bit of imagination you can conjure up a vision of the GI's in their smart uniforms walking out of the barracks, stepping onto the trolleys, going to the restaurant or entering the cinema to the sound of Glenn Miller or the latest Humphrey Bogart movie.

Today the cinema is still there, but it is an empty shell. Next to the ticket booth are two cars, one of them General McArthur's staff car, set up as a permanent memorial to the legendary military leader. You can see the flagpole where General McArthur hoisted his flag, and the building where he set up his offices in the closing stages of the war.

Nearby are the recently constructed memorials to American war dead and the Pacific campaigns which would liberate the Philippines and the rest of this vast, ocean-covered region. This is a place where America had its finest hour, and was widely recognised as a liberator of nations. The Korean, Vietnam and Iraqi conflicts lay far in the future.

The final stop is a visit to the lighthouse and the souvenir shop, before returning to the ferry for the crossing back to Manila.

Many visitors are people from America and Japan who once served on Corregidor, or their relatives as well as tourists. Corregidor is like a time capsule, allowing you overcome the bounds of time and experience a taste of life during wartime. But it is only a taste. Those of us who have grown up the postwar peacetime years can never fully grasp the horrors experienced by the soldiers who served here.

The Pacific War is often described as the forgotten war. A visit to Corregidor will help to keep the memory alive. I am proud to have visited Corregidor and would like to go there again. In the words of a famous American general, 'I shall return'.

More about Corregidor on the Philippines News Agency website

2 June 2004 1211 words (American spelling).

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2004-06-02

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