Sunday, August 3, 2008

Day 2: The Rock (Sun, 7/27)

My main purpose in choosing to go to the Philippines was to see the places described in the many books I have read about the American nurses who were captured from Bataan and Corregidor in WWII. Number one among the places I wanted to see was the tiny island of Corregidor, known during the was as "the Rock."

Corregidor is shaped exactly like a little tadpole, and is a rocky, mountainous island that is also heavily covered in trees. Several years prior to the Second World War, the US Army dug a well-constructed main tunnel, named Malinta Tunnel, as well as numerous lateral tunnels. The island was heavily fortified against invasion from the enemy. Since it is in Manila Bay, just across from the Bataan Peninsula, it was in a strategic location when the Japanese attacked the Philippines.

The nurses, whom I have studied so intently that I feel as though I know them personally, started out working at Sternberg Hospital in Manila, but with the Japanese onslaught coming, they were evacuated to Bataan. When it became clear that the starving American soldiers in the Bataan Peninsula could no longer hold up against the intense, well-supplied attacking force of the Japanese, the decision was made to evacuate the nurses to Corregidor, largely out of fear that the Japanese soldiers would brutally rape the nurses the way they had all of the women in Nanking, China.

The nurses were literally ordered to abandon their patients, which went against everything they had been taught and believed in. None of them wanted to leave, but they had to obey orders. Despite an intense Japanese bombing raid, all eighty-eight American nurses, as well as a few civilian women and twenty Filipino nurses, were successfully evacuated by boat to Corregidor. There, having already endured near-starvation in the jungles of Bataan, the nurses went through even greater hell.

Every day the Japanese planes dropped bombs on Corregidor, shaking but not crumbling the well-constructed tunnels. The nurses did the best they could, maintaining a 1,000 bed hospital in the tunnels, knowing that no relief convoy could come to their aid. One plane and one submarine managed to evacuate a few of the nurses to Australia, but in the end, most of them were captured by the Japanese when General Wainwright made the agonizing decision to surrender Corregidor on the morning of May 6, 1942 (Bataan fell on April 9). The nurses spent the next three years in a concentration camp (more on that in a later post).

I consider the experience of the nurses to be one of the most fascinating aspects of WWII (terrible, but fascinating). So, on Sunday morning, despite having only gotten to bed at two that same morning, I arose at 6:00 in order to be at the port to check-in at 7:00 for my tour of Corregidor. I cannot stress enough how long I have had the dream of getting to see Corregidor for myself and actually getting to walk through Malinta Tunnel. I even brought along my favorite book on the nurses and their experiences, Elizabeth M. Norman's We Band of Angels, just to keep the facts fresher in my mind.

The weather was bad on Sunday, and Manila Bay had large waves and looked treacherous. As soon as I saw the water, my heart sank. Sure enough, an announcement was soon made that the original boat would be unable to cross the bay under the present conditions. A smaller craft would be able to make the crossing, but it could only carry 60 people, and it was strongly encouraged that people reschedule (the next available date was not until after I left Manila for Boracay). By the time I got to the window, the woman informed me that I wouldn't be able to go.

I was stunned. Here I had come so close to a dream, only to be denied. I couldn't help myself; I started crying. It meant so much to me to get to go. A couple saw me and asked why I was so upset. I explained as best as I could my passion for the history involved, and turned to beg again, even offering to stand for the entire hour-plus crossing. The next thing I knew, someone traded in their tickets, and there was a seat available for me. I teared up again out of sheer joy.

The crossing was ominous. The waves kicked our small ferry around, making it feel like we were trapped in a bewitched pinball machine. Over half the people on the boat got sick (we had to endure this for almost an hour and a half). They played hymns over the loudspeaker, which several of us joked were meant to be our last rites. At last, we landed at Corregidor.

I had my choice of which tour group to join. Upon learning that a Cardinal had come on the tour, and knowing how strong the Catholic faith is in the Philippines, I figured that the Cardinal would be assigned to the group with the best guide, so I picked his group. I was right! Following a fantastic guided tour of part of the island and a wonderful walk through Malinta Tunnel, we had a delicious lunch at the Corregidor Inn. Then, it started to rain. As in, pouring rain. We filed back into the tour buses, which previously had had open sides. Now the sides were covered in plastic, in a futile attempt to keep us dry. The tour of the remainder of the island was hurried, and we didn't get to walk around any more owing to the downpour, but I didn't mind. I got to see what I came for, and I was more than satisfied.

Crossing Manila Bay for the second time, we were lucky to have an easier crossing. When we got back to the port, we were almost an hour ahead of schedule, so the taxi I had arranged to have pick me up was not due for awhile yet. I settled myself in a corner with my book, and was soon captivated reading again about the American nurses. The guide from my tour group saw me and came over to chat. He was an adorable, lovable old man, who soon revealed something fantastic: he had met over twenty of the nurses I've been studying! A group of them came back to take a tour of Corregidor in the eighties, and he was their guide! So, I got to spend to spend the next half hour being treated to first-hand stories about several of the most amazing, inspiring women I have ever had the privilege to study. I was very sorry to leave when my taxi showed up.

In short, visiting Corregidor was one of the most powerful, meaningful experiences of my life. I plan to come back some day and spend a night on the island so that I can take the night tour of the tunnels. Seeing Corregidor and actually getting to walk through and view the very places that I have dedicated so much time to studying was a magical experience for me, unlike any I have ever had. I had to keep reminding myself to take pictures, as I was so thoroughly engrossed in the experience. This is the way history was meant to be studied.

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"