Corregidor Island: History in the Ruins

Corregidor Island is where Filipino and American forces made a last stand against the invading Japanese forces in World War II, our school textbooks would tell us. The books bear photos of the guns and the ruins. Seeing the real thing must be a totally different experience, I thought when I was younger. So, today, after more than 30 years of delay, I finally crossed Manila Bay to invade what the forces during WW2 fondly call “The Rock”.

The violent history of Corregidor may be lost when one sees the still waters softly hugging its beachhead, surrounding the port where the tourist ferry docks. The calm is further heightened by the sight of yachts that seem to be sleeping at the Manila Yacht Club, where the tourist ferry leaves early in the morning from Manila Bay to embark in a 45-minute trip.

Going to Corregidor

Many foreigners and balikbayans visit Corregidor, so it’s always best to book a tour in advance. While the island could be accessed through a pumpboat in Bataan, the ferries and buses that come with the guided tour make the trip more convenient. The first of two trips leave around 8 a.m. from Manila. You could wait at restaurant complex beside the port (Jollibee, Starbucks, etc). Once you’ve checked in, no need to rush because the seats are numbered and assigned in advance. The 45-minute boat trip isn’t always smooth, so better take in biyahilo medicine an hour before the trip, just to be sure you won’t be defeated by the waves and throw up.

Corregidor Island is near Manila, just 48 kilometers west of the Philippines’ capital. Shaped like a tadpole, it’s 3 miles long and 1 ½ miles at its widest point. Yet, I would surmise that not a majority of Filipinos have seen this historic island. The difficulty in setting foot on Corregidor, while based on reasons other than economic, was experienced by the Japanese forces during the Second World War. Corregidor, the last to fall before the surrender to the Japanese, was heavily armed and fortified. It’s also one of the most heavily bombed islands on earth during the war.

Corregidor is a Spanish term which means corregir — “to correct”. The Spanish lighthouse and the marker nearby, as well as the flagpole at Topside taken from a Spanish warship, are witnesses to the fact that before Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in 1898, after the Spanish-American War, Corregidor Island used to be a checkpoint for vessels entering Manila Bay. A marker reads in part: “Corregidor Island became a part of the Spanish Crown on May the 19th 1571 after its occupation by the dauntless Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, who found the City of Manila. Due to its strategic position, Corregidor, which was a Spanish island for 327 years until May 2, 1898, served as a fortress, guarding Manila Bay.”

Ruins of Corregidor

The Americans designated three areas when they took over Corregidor — the Bottomside, the Middleside and, as you may have guessed it, the Topside. At the Topside could be found the ruins of the parade grounds, Cine Corregidor, the golf course, and the Mile-Long Barracks (near the Pacific War Memorial, photos here). There’s a tribute at the parade’s ground to the men and women who recaptured Corregidor. It’s here that Gen. MacArthur uttered after recapturing “The Rock” (no, not “I shall return”, words he uttered in Australia after leaving Corregidor): “I see the old flagpole still stands. Have your troops hoist the colors to its peak and let no enemy ever haul them down.”

Batteries of Corregidor

By “battery”, we’re not talking about something that makes your toy run. A battery, in military parlance, is an emplacement for pieces of artillery. The United States didn’t waste time in rebuilding Corregidor as a defensive fortification. The regular tour in Corregidor would bring you to four batteries.  One would easily be impressed with the size of these artillery pieces — that is, until one gets to learn the history of Corregidor. We’ll get into that in a while. Let’s go back to the four batteries you’ll encounter on a regular tour — Battery Way, Battery Geary, Battery Crocket and Battery Hearn. Nothing substantial is left of Battery Geary, so let’s focus on the three others.

Battery Way, with its four 12-inch mortars, was constructed between 1904 and completed in 1914. It can fire up to 8.3 miles (13.135 kms) in any direction. You’ll also find a tribute to Major William “Wild Bill” Massello, Jr., who led his men to repair the battery and continue firing at the heavy assault of the Japanese forces. Battery Way was the last big gun to continue firing, even during the morning of May 6, 1942 — the day Corregidor finally fell (at noon). It had been firing for 11 straight hours amidst constant heavy firing from the Japanese, killing over 70% of those manning the station and seriously wounding Major Massello. He is thought to be the most decorated soldier of the Philippine campaign.

Battery Crockett is one of the 12-inch “disappearing” emplacements. Battery Hearn’s two 12-inch guns were originally named Battery Smith Gun No. 1 and 2, the “Smith Brothers”. The guns have a range of 17 miles (7.4 kms), capable of reaching Bataan and Cavite. In February 1942, it commenced almost daily counter-battery fire against the Japanese in Naic and Puerto Azul (in Cavite). It also tried to halt the Japanese advance to Bataan. After April 9, 1942, both guns fell silent as it’s location is highly visible from Bataan, perfect for target shooting by the Japanese. Battery Crockett could be seen in this photo (right), as well as Battery Hearn (left).

Malinta Tunnel

Constructed in 1922 and completed in 1932, the tunnel complex provided a bombproof shelter. “Linta” means leeches and “malinta” roughly means full of leeches, but but we didn’t encounter any.  There’s a lights and sound show at Malinta Tunnel, called “The Malinta Experience”, for 150 pesos. You have the option of incorporating this in your tour and I suggest that you take this. Your ticket will reveal that the show is written and directed by National Artist Lamberto Avellana, as his final tribute to valor and peace. Video-taking is prohibited, but pictures are allowed.

On 30 December 1941, Manuel L. Quezon and Sergio Osmena were inaugurated into their second term as President and Vice-President of the Philippine Commonwealth at the west entrance of Malinta Tunnel.

Hungry in Corregidor?

We were told by our tour guide that with the additional personnel, including the wounded, brought in from Bataan after its fall on April 9, 1942, the food stockpile rapidly ran out. Tourists, on the other hand, would probably feel a bit hungry as the tour winds up around lunch, but while the soldiers back in 1942 would probably duck for cover to get food, tourists would be treated to buffet lunch, not in Malinta Tunnel, but at Corregidor Inn. There are a number of buses full of tourists and each bus has a different schedule for the Lights and Sounds Show at Malinta Tunnel. That’s 30 minutes gap between buses, which is the approximate time difference each bus would arrive for lunch. So better come prepared.

Remember the significance of the place. Bataan and Corregidor Day, or the Araw ng Kagitingan (a regular national holiday on April 9), is a commemoration of the bravery, courage and heroism of those who fought and perished in Bataan and Corregidor.

See map and directions