Pacific Odyssey: Corregidor’s Iconography of Empire

This article is Part III of a series that describes a journey from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. For Part I, please click here.

Embers of the American Empire, Corregidor Island, at the mouth of Manila Bay, The Philippines. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

The taxi to the ferry terminal dropped me in front of a brightly lit café, which seemed to double as the offices and docklands of Sun Cruises. At dawn I was happy not to be poking around some seedy Manila waterfront. Even if it was too early buy a ticket to Corregidor—that American Gibraltar in the Pacific—I could have coffee in the restaurant, which even at 5:45 a.m. was doing a brisk business.

While the terminal ticket office had some signs advertising the reach and possibilities of the Sun Cruises Corporation, there was no one selling tickets to Corregidor at the desk. I stood there for a while, hoping that someone might show up. Finally I attracted the attentions of a security guard—of the kind that shuffle around malls in the evenings. He said that the 7:00 a.m. boat was cancelled and that the 10:30 a.m. boat was “sold out.” If I wanted, I could come back around 10:00 a.m. He suggested that maybe I could get there as a “chance passenger.” It sounded like the story of my life.

Nor was I reassured when the rent-a-cop took out a crumpled piece of paper and indicated that on it I could write my name and email address for the waiting list. It did not bode well for my weekend plans, as a drive to Bataan through Manila traffic might have taken four hours.

While I was having this desultory conversation and fearing that my best laid plans to visit Corregidor and Bataan were vanishing, I noticed a second line in the terminal for service on a hydrofoil to the port of Orion, on the east coast of the Bataan peninsula.

This boat was leaving at 6:30 a.m. For $16 I could buy a ticket from a cheerful clerk who was checking in passengers, all of whom seemed to be traveling with large duffel bags, as if equipment managers of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Since my choice was a boat now to Orion or the hope of becoming a “chance” passenger on Sun Cruises at 10:30 a.m., I bought a one-way ticket on the hydrofoil and skipped off to eat an “American breakfast” in the café. Later on, I could figure out how I might cross from Bataan to Corregidor, the island that is about five miles from the port town of Mariveles.

In books about the Bataan Death March and the siege of Corregidor, which followed the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in December, 1941, I had often come across the name of Mariveles, a port on the south coast, and knew that I could head there after I had made the crossing to Orion. A bus or a taxi could take me there in less than an hour, and I knew that from Mariveles fishing boats took day-trippers to Corregidor. But it did seem to be complicated equation to visit a place so synonymous with American sacrifice.

The hydrofoil left Manila on time, although not until a sniffer Beagle had gone through all of the Eagles’ luggage. On the water, Manila Bay has many pockets of sea weed and garbage. It is also a vast anchorage for container ships, which were a looming presence in the morning mist.

Because it had a been a short night of anxiety about ferry schedules, I didn’t read much on the boat, but looked out the window, sipped coffee, and brooded about possible connections to Corregidor. Everyone else on the ferry was watching television on a large screen at the head of the main cabin. Many of the shows involved contestants in sequined dresses dancing with men in day-glow suits.

On landing in Orion—a concrete dock and terminal on the water’s edge—I got the good news that a shuttle bus would take passengers down the national highway to Mariveles. At least I would get my first glimpse of the famous markers that, at each kilometer, indicate the route of the Death March. And in Mariveles, I could search for a boat to take me across the straits to Corregidor. It was still early in the day, although the heat of the sun made it feel like mid-July.

* * *

The mini-van to Mariveles was packed with shoppers and their bags, as this was a Saturday morning, and many people along the route were doing errands. The bus stopped everywhere to pick up and drop off passengers. I had staked out the front seat to have a better view of the Death March, and traveled with my backpack positioned on my lap, as if I were a paratrooper about ready to jump.

From the front seat, it was easy for me to note which marker we were passing. The symbol on all the markers is that of two Death March prisoners, one trudging and the other fallen. Some markers had a number, showing the distance from Mariveles, which is Ground Zero. Other markers took note of something that had happened here on the Death March.

There were many markers indicating the deaths of American and Philippine soldiers at that point, as on the 100-mile forced march to the north, thousands of captives died. Many were shot or beaten to beat. Others starved or died of disease. Many collapsed from dehydration and will left to die where they fell.

Some guide books talk about tours that recreate the sixty-mile march to the north (in San Fernando, prisoners were loaded into rail cattle cars), but for the most part that would mean hiking alongside a dusty highway, a coastal Flatbush Avenue.

It is hard to know exactly how many soldiers died on the march, which lasted six days, but the numbers suggest about 500 Americans and 10,000 Filipinosdied on the road, which snaked its way along the peninsula’s east coast.

Camp O’Donnell, which for many was the end of the line, is about a hundred miles north of Mariveles. There the casualty figures indicate that, of the 9,000 American and 60,000 Filipino prisoners of war on Bataan, a total of about 30,000 men died while in Japanese captivity. Of those numbers some 1,500 were Americans. In World War II, only more Americans were taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge.

The Death March was the opening act of an imprisonment tragedy that, for the survivors, would last more than three years. The cruelty of the Japanese prison guards explains why, in a few instances, when American prisoners of war were liberated from their camps in summer 1945, they turned on their captors and beat them to death with their fists while compatriots looked on and cheered.

The mini-van dropped me near the Ground Zero marker in Mariveles, which is a messy town and port. I caught a tuk-tuk (about the size of a wheelchair) and asked the driver to connect me with a fishing boat to Corregidor. He weaved through the alleys of Mariveles and dropped me at a dock, from which, in the hazy distance, I could see the outlines of Corregidor etched along the skyline.

Closer to the dock were warehouses and small wooden boats at anchor. During the fighting in 1942, Mariveles was an important U.S. navy base; now it’s a working Philippine harbor. It’s not where you come for a seaside restaurant or an afternoon swim.

The driver of the tuk-tuk pointed to a bench on a dock, and said I should wait there for a captain who could take me across to Corregidor. Some small boys were kicking a soccer ball on the wharf, and I drank bottles of water in the shade.

Occasionally a boat captain would show up and offer to take me to Corregidor for $70, which is more than I wanted to pay. I countered at $30 and sat there impassively, as if Buddha on vacation, until a father-and-son tandem agreed to run me over to the island for $30. In accounting terms, immobile tourists are non-performing assets.

* * *

In nearly all accounts of Corregidor, the island is described as the American Gibraltar, a fortress in the mouth of Manila Bay, although one that is about thirty miles from downtown. On the way over I didn’t see any other boats heading to the island, although there were fishing canoes off the southern shore.

I got a long look at its topography as the small wooden boat (stabilized by outriggers) skidded along the harbor waters beyond Mariveles. Parts of the small island (not more than three miles in length) are covered with sharp hills. The rest is rolling jungle.

In accounts of the two battles fought during the Japanese invasion (one on the Bataan peninsula and other for Corregidor), the point is often made that General Douglas MacArthur only once crossed to the mainland to inspect his army (“The Battling Bastards of Bataan”) that was holding a line across the peninsula from the attacking Japanese. His caution, if not his vanities, earned him the sobriquet “Dugout Doug”.

I actually don’t believe the whispers that MacArthur lacked courage—he saw plenty of front-line action in World War I with the Rainbow Division—but in 1942 he was sixty-two years old and, in the last six years, had prepared for battle by living in a hotel suite.

In the center of Corregidor there is a hotel and some buildings around a small man-made harbor. Several policemen met my wooden boat and ushered me into the coast guard office, where I had to pay “an entrance fee for the park” (the entire island).

When I asked about staying the night in the hotel or engaging a guide to take me around, a few touts (as if from nowhere) joined the conversation and started offering me “tour packages,” as if Corregidor had as many options as Vegas.

Flashing laminated brochures, they dangled offers of a ride on one of those silly tourist trolley trains, lunch at the top of the island, and a night in a beachside hostel.

After inspecting the hostel (rendition cells have the same amenities), I decided to try my luck at the hotel and walked up the steep hillside. In Manila I had been told it was “full” for the weekend. Well, I thought, maybe they had had a cancellation, as I appeared to be the only visitor on the island—the 10:30 a.m. Sun Cruises ferry having yet to arrive.

The clerk on duty at the Corregidor Hotel, which I liked immediately, was friendly and said that I could have a room and all my meals for $100—a king’s ransom in Asia but here par-for-the-course monopoly pricing.

When I asked her about the report in Manila that the ferry and hotel were “full,” she said something that wasn’t clear, but later confessed that the hotel was empty. Someone had made up the story of it being full so that the staff could have an easy weekend.

The clerk gave me directions to my second-floor room, which I loved. It had a large picture window, two single beds, a desk, walk-in shower, and attractive black-and-white tile. On the same floor was a small library with some good books about the Pacific campaigns. All the woodwork was freshly painted. I could have stayed a week and worked on my computer, except that wifi was also taking the weekend off.

The desk clerk explained that lunch was served at the Topside Restaurant. One of the hotel buses drove me to the restaurant, where I was seated at a table with Tom Davies, a businessman from Hong Kong, who had come over on the Sun Cruises ferry tour. He said that the boat had not been full. He was frustrated that he would only have about two hours on the island, half of which would be devoted to lunch. His father had been stationed on Corregidor at the end of World War II and had been assigned to a graves registration unit that worked on Bataan, searching for victims of the Death March and the fighting that lasted from December 1941 to April 1942.

After eating, Tom encouraged me to join the trolley bus tour but I decided instead to walk around the island. In all it took me about four hours. Although the weather was hot and muggy, many of the island trails and roads were shaded, and at the end of my walk I could swim at the beach around the North Dock.

* * *

As seen from its concrete roads (similar to those found in American national parks), Corregidor is a ghost town. Throughout the island there are the hulking, skeletal remains of barracks, officer clubs, hospitals, and gun emplacements—an American army base as Pompeii. All that remains of most structures are the concrete frames, as if the American empire in the Pacific were as distant as that of Rome’s in Palmyra.

A few of the buildings date to the Spanish occupation, which named the island Isla del Corregidor, which means “island of the corrections,” as inbound ships for Manila (after 1570) would stop here and present their customs documents “for corrections.”

There’s an old Spanish lighthouse at Topside, the largest hill. Nearby, I found the famous wooden flagpole made from the spars of a Spanish warship. A plaque near the flagpole states that when MacArthur returned to the island on March 2, 1945, he presided over a remembrance ceremony for all those who were killed defending the island in winter 1942. In his speech he said: “I see that the old flagstaff still stands…hoist the colors to its peak and let no enemy ever haul them down.”

Two years later, however, Corregidor was returned to the Philippines, which allowed the island base to sink into ruin until it was preserved (monopolized?) as a national park.

On Topside, not far from the flagpole, I walked to a small military museum, with another replica of MacArthur’s hat (more scrambled eggs than the one in the Manila Hotel), and pictures of the airborne campaign that took back Corregidor from the Japanese in winter 1945. (There was also an amphibious landing at the beach where I later went swimming.) But between 1941 and 1945, Corregidor went from being the Gibraltar of the Pacific (sometimes called “the strongest single fortified point in the world”) to a wasteland. (“Gentlemen, Corregidor is living proof that the day of the fixed fortress is over,” MacArthur later reflected to his officers.) That said, during the war, it retained its symbolic value, of sacred ground lost, even though strategically it was no more useful than a British battleship lost at the battle of Jutland.

MacArthur said of the island (and keep in mind he was given to speaking in histrionics): “Intrinsically it is but a barren, war-worn rock, hallowed, as so many places [are], by death and disaster. Yet it symbolizes within itself that priceless, deathless thing, the honor of a nation. Until we lift our flag from its dust, we stand unredeemed before mankind. Until we claim again the ghastly remnants of its last gaunt garrison, we can but stand humble supplicants before Almighty God. There lies our Holy Grail.” Now it’s a monument to the pretensions of empire.

* * *

I spent a long time in the museum after the trolley bus crowd disappeared, leaving me alone with pictures of the island during the war and my own thoughts on the larger question about why the Franklin Roosevelt administration had not tried harder to reinforce either the island garrison or the American army on Bataan. In effect the “Battling Bastards” were sacrificed.

On the mini-van ride from the ferry to Mariveles, I had seen the marker, at kilometer 12, where on April 9, 1942, General Jonathan M. Wainwright surrendered the American and Filipino armies on Bataan to the advancing Japanese. The Death March began the same day, as victorious Japanese soldiers began herding their prisoners of war north to old military bases (really, just vacant fields) around Capas and Cabanatuan.

On Corregidor (which held out until May) there are a number of memorials and markers in General Wainwright’s honor, as if to compensate him for having been given the luckless job of commanding Allied forces after MacArthur decamped to Australia. (To be fair to MacArthur, President Roosevelt ordered his withdrawal. He didn’t bug out on his own.)

There is plaque in the museum quoting Brigadier General Carlos Romulo, who said of Wainwright: “This man, this American eagle taken captive, is now our emblem of increasing watch and our standard for the general battle for universal peace and security. Let us then remember him for our human history as a symbol of vigilance and victory….Bataan was his heroism, and his martyrdom was Corregidor.”

At North Dock, there is a monument with his Medal of Honor citation engraved in the granite, and it reads, in part: “The final stand on beleaguered Corregidor for which he was in an important measure personally responsible commanded the admiration of the Nation’s allies. It reflected the high morale of American arms in the face of overwhelming odds.”

Despite such high-flying rhetoric, Wainwright was given “command” over the abandoned armies on Bataan only after MacArthur had left the island. After surrendering his armies, Wainwright spent of the rest of the war in Japanese camps.

No American general in the war received shabbier treatment than Wainwright, who with just a modicum of supplies and air power could have held out in the mountains of Bataan and inflicted casualties on the invading Japanese. Instead, all Wainwright got was a one-way ticket to Capas.

His only consolation was to gain his freedom in time to be on the U.S.S. Missouri when Japan surrendered to American forces in September 1945. Perhaps by then he, like some of his fellow prisoners, was on the lookout for his former guards.

On the Missouri he might also have been looking askance at his old superior officer, General MacArthur, who criticized Wainwright for surrendering Corregidor, believing that he should have gone down with the island ship—one of those sentiments that must have come easily to the bombastic MacArthur in his Brisbane hotel suite.

* * *

It was in the museum that I came across a photograph of the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who has entered history with the nickname the Tiger of Malaya, after his invading forces captured Singapore in winter 1942, sending shockwaves through the Allies.

I had no idea that Yamashita had commanded the Japanese army on Bataan, and that his men had captured Corregidor. But I can’t say that I was surprised to see his dour expression staring out from the museum cabinets. It seems everywhere I go in Asia while tracking down the vestiges of the Pacific War, I come across the trails of General Yamashita’s military campaigns, as though I were writing his biography.

I first encountered General Yamashita in Malaysia, as I was traveling south from Penang and retracing the route that the invading Japanese forces under his command took south to capture Singapore. Apparently at the end of the campaign, he sat across from his grim-faced opposite, British General Arthur Percival, and asked bluntly if he planned to surrender, saying: “All I want to hear from you is yes or no…”

When I went to Manchuria in northeast China (during the war it was occupied by Japan and called Manchukuo), there was Yamashita again in the display cases, for having commanded troops in late 1942 in that theater of the war. He then turned up in some Manila city museums, having presided over the “rape of Manila,” which on a smaller scale was similar from that carried out in Nanking. And at the end of the war, Yamashita was the Japanese general who was charged with taking on MacArthur’s forces when they came ashore on the Philippine island of Leyte.

But it was for Yamashita’s role in the final battle of Manila, which claimed the lives of 100,000 civilians, that he was hanged as a war criminal. (Only seven Japanese commanders, including Yamashita, were executed after the war.) The charge against him was that his men, out of control at war’s end, had slaughtered thousands civilians in their retreat from Manila.

Yamashita could easily have been convicted of war crimes for they way prisoners of war from Singapore and Bataan were treated. (It was prisoners of war from Singapore, for example, who were worked to death on the bridge over the River Kwai.) Instead at this trial prosecutors focused on the last battle of Manila in 1945.

Yamashita’s conviction established the dubious legal precedent that a commanding general can be held responsible for the conduct of men down to the platoon and company level (not a legal standard, however, later enforced by American investigators at the Vietnamese village of My Lai). Yamashita’s defense counsel argued:

The Accused is not charged with having done something or having failed to do something, but solely with having been something….American jurisprudence recognizes no such principle so far as its own military personnel are concerned…. No one would even suggest that the Commanding General of an American occupational force becomes a criminal every time an American soldier violates the law…. one man is not held to answer for the crime of another.

Had they known, his lawyers might have been on safer grounds arguing that it was U.S. artillery, not gangs of Japanese soldiers, that killed many civilians in the last battle of Manila. Or maybe they could have cited President Theodore Roosevelt’s approval of the massacres that American troops committed against Philippine citizens?

* * *

It took me longer than I had anticipated to walk down the hillsides from Topside to North Dock, where I went swimming at a public beach littered with plastic garbage. (But the water was clear and refreshing in the afternoon heat.) I had a map, so I was never lost, and I kept finding the remnants of the coastal batteries—huge long guns on turrets—that had made Corregidor such a bristling fortress, until the Japanese overran Bataan and it became simply another surrounded island in the Pacific.

At South Dock, near the coast guard office where I had fallen in among the touts hyping trolley tours (it turned out there was only one), I inspected the dock and memorial devoted MacArthur’s evacuation from Corregidor, which took place on March 11, 1942. He left as the Japanese were breaking through the lines near the Bataan town of Balanga, near where my hydrofoil had docked at Orion.

The dock from which he departed Corregidor is maintained as a part of a (decaying) memorial, which includes a statue of General MacArthur with his right arm extended in the air. He appears to be hailing a taxi, not promising to return.

Only later, when I was back at the hotel, did I reread those sections in William Manchester’s biography about MacArthur (American Caesar) about the escape from Corregidor. It took place on four PT boats, which carried the general, his family, and extended entourage some 560 miles through enemy-held waters to the Philippine island of Mindanao, from which he flew to Darwin, Australia, and Alice Springs. He then took a special train to Melbourne, where he assumed command of the American and Allied military presence in the South Pacific for the duration of the war. Only after arriving in Melbourne did he promise to return to the Philippines.

The escape was a travel epic worthy of the MacArthur legend. Evading the enemy, the PT boats broke down repeatedly and were thrown violently around the rough seas. (Manchester writes: “It was, the General later wrote, like ‘a trip in a concrete mixer.’”) It also reinforced the image of MacArthur as Dugout Doug, given that Wainwright was tasked with the mission of falling on his sword while MacArthur was “in the rear with a beer.”

* * *

As told by Manchester, the question of saving General MacArthur or allowing him to fight to the bitter end on Corregidor was tied up in the larger, strategic issue of whether Europe or the Pacific was to be given precedent in the war, and whether the Supreme commander in Asia for the Allies would be British or American.

Although wary of MacArthur’s political ambitions, President Franklin Roosevelt considered MacArthur more useful as the supreme U.S. commander in Asia than as a Japanese prisoner of war (although I am sure some discussions were held in the White House about the symbolic value of such a spectacle). FDR also wanted to bolster the British, who, while the Americans were losing Bataan and Corregidor, were themselves losing Malaya and Singapore, as well as the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales.

Ever the horse trader, Roosevelt concocted a compromise in which American troops would be sent to Australia (to protect it from the Japanese) while Australian forces were left in place under British command at el-Alamein in North Africa. And to show both the Australians and the Japanese that the Americans were serious about the Pacific war (so far, all of the aid had headed toward Europe), Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave Corregidor and establish the Allied command structure in Australia.

In James Duffey’s War at the End of the World: Douglas MacArthur and the Forgotten Fight For New Guinea, 1942-1945, another book in my sea chest, he writes:

Few recognized at the time that the Australian government was about to save MacArthur’s life, for, in the words of biographer William Manchester, “it is almost certain that he would have been left to die on the Rock had Australia not interfered.”

Nor were MacArthur’s words about “returning” to the Philippines at first well received. He delivered them to buck up the Philippine opposition, not to play to the chorus in Washington, which found his phrase, according one history, “silly, pompous, and indeed stupid.” And in time, MacArthur’s promise “to return” may have forced the Pentagon’s hand to route some of the roads to Japan through the Philippines, when they had alternatives involving Formosa, China, and the Central Pacific.

* * *

The decision to evaluate MacArthur from Corregidor told a lot about his standing within the American government and military establishment.

Even though he had been a four-star general, not to mention Army Chief of Staff in the early 1930s, and had held numerous prestige postings (including command at West Point), MacArthur was never quite trusted by what we would now call the Joints Chiefs of Staff.

In turn, MacArthur did not like Chief of the Army, General George Marshall, his boss, and he looked down on Dwight Eisenhower, who had been a subordinate on MacArthur’s staff in the Philippines. Nor did he believe that the Pentagon ever “had his back.” Manchester writes:

The other half of the problem was more complicated. It was pathological. The General’s paranoia never lay more than a fraction of a millimeter below the surface of his thoughts. “They” had conspired against his father, “they” had refused to decorate him after his Vera Cruz adventure, “they” had undercut him in France in 1918, “they” had forced him into retirement in 1937, “they” had refused to reinforce his defense of Corregidor and Bataan, “they” had sent an inferior B-17 to Cagayan, and “they” were waiting even now for a chance to thwart him again.

There were many rivals in Washington who would not have minded sending MacArthur into the gated community of some Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. (I can imagine some Pentagon staff officer quipping: “Let him lay all of his bullshit on the Japanese….”) But after consideration, even his detractor George Marshall thought the general needed to be saved. Manchester writes:

But George Marshall was having second thoughts about the prospect of losing his Far East commander. MacArthur was the only Allied general who had proved that he knew how to fight the Japanese, and in whom the public therefore had confidence. He was the best-informed U.S. officer in the Far East, America’s one hero in the war thus far, an irreplaceable man who could provide leadership and example in the Pacific campaigns that lay ahead.

Hence four PT boats were dispatched to the South Dock on Corregidor and tasked with bringing the general out of harm’s way.

Manchester describes the scene: “Evening was approaching on Corregidor when PT-41 crept up and idled by the shore as quietly as its three-shaft, 4,050-horsepower Packard motors would permit. The island rises steeply from the water’s edge at this point.”

On my map of the island, the spot was labeled MacArthur Park, which is somehow fitting, as so much about Corregidor (either as a symbol of American defiance or one about the pretensions of empire) suggests that someone left the cake out in the rain.  

Next up: To Bataan and along the route of the notorious Death March.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.