Stroll through history: Corregidor Island in the Philippines

Stroll through history: Corregidor Island in the Philippines
A tour guide shows visitors around the old barracks that remain on hills on Corregidor Island.

Corregidor Island lies at the mouth of the bay surrounding the Philippine capital of Manila. Amid the dense forest of tropical trees on the enclave - the scene of a fierce battle between Japan and the United States during World War II - are the sites of ruins and discarded cannons.

Today, the rich natural environment is under government protection, as the island has been designated a national park.

Japan went to war against the United States on Dec. 8, 1941, and its troops raided the Philippines, a strategic territory. Its military planes bombed the US air base there, destroying most of the bombers while the bulk of Japan's forces landed on Luzon.

The move left Gen. Douglas MacArthur (See below), commander of the US Army Forces in the Far East, faced with a predicament. He evacuated all his troops onto the Bataan Peninsula, west of Manila, and shifted his headquarters to Corregidor Island.

Stationing himself inside an underground tunnel of only 7.8 square kilometers that functioned as the headquarters, MacArthur braced for a fight to the death. But without reinforcements, food or medical aid, the US forces were quickly losing ground.

In his memoir "Reminiscences," MacArthur recalled that even as he had just been awarded a cross, his men's "clothes hung on them like tattered rags. Their long bedraggled hair framed gaunt bloodless faces ... they saw my battered ... cap. They would grin."

The Imperial Japanese Army urged him to surrender, and US President Franklin Roosevelt ordered him to leave. But MacArthur refused to listen, saying he and his men would fight to the end.

On March 11, 1942, MacArthur escaped on a torpedo boat. The 2½-month-long battle on the besieged island was reported in all US newspapers, and MacArthur became a hero. His pledge to come back to the island - "I shall return" - also became famous.

The remaining US troops surrendered in May. Among them was the late Walter Kwiecinski.

According to his family, Kwiecinski described MacArthur as a "coward." Though he did not tell them exactly why, only 17 people besides MacArthur's family were able to escape along with the commander. As the Japanese continued their ferocious assault, those who were left behind on the island must have experienced mixed feelings.

MacArthur relocated to Australia, where he awaited an opportunity to launch a counterattack. On the supplies and leaflets that were secretly transported to the Philippines, he wrote, "I shall return."

The message was clear: The US forces would return to the Philippines and liberate the people. It served as the perfect propaganda. The US military went on the offensive and MacArthur landed on Leyte Island on Oct. 20, 1944.

Determined to recapture Corregidor Island, MacArthur announced, "I have returned." On March 2, 1945, after capturing Corregidor Island, he took his subordinates to a square on the island. There he hoisted the US flag and made a speech, declaring, "We must never let our enemies haul down our flag."

"MacArthur defeated the Japanese troops and returned - just as he'd promised," explained military historian Jose Antonio A. Custodio. "He was enormously popular among the Filipinos back then, attaining a godlike stature."

After taking control of the Philippines again, MacArthur approached the politicians who had co-operated with Japan with an attitude of forgiveness and asked them to work together with the United States.

The rights of large landowners were preserved, and the gap between the rich and poor remained after the country's independence on July 4, 1946.

Some have pointed out that MacArthur tried to maintain vested interests dating back to the colonial era.

"Though 70 years have already passed since the war's end, he's still famous in the Philippines for the quote, 'I shall return,'" Custodio added. "But nowadays, more and more people don't know his achievements, and memories of him are fading."

Mukai is a correspondent in Taipei.

US Army HQ in tunnel

Corregidor Island is a strategic point at the entrance of Manila Bay. During the Spanish colonial period that began in the 16th century, the island was used as a site for inspecting foreign ships. The name "Corregidor" in Spanish means "a ruler who severely punishes."

After its victory in the late 19th-century Spanish-American War that resulted in its acquisition of the Philippines, the United States started to fortify Corregidor. Defence of the Philippines became more important as Japan-US relations worsened in the 1930s, and the United States quickly built up arms by placing cannons on high ground on the island.

The Malinta Tunnel, located in the central part of the island, was used as a bomb shelter and armory. Today it is a tourist site that is open to the public. MacArthur's headquarters have also been restored.

After MacArthur's escape, the Japanese army occupied the territory, but US forces retook it in March 1945. Out of the nearly 6,000 Japanese soldiers who fought against the US troops there, only about 20 survived. Some hid in caves and were unaware that the war had ended.

They were captured after the war, and their photos are displayed at the Pacific War Museum.

Tour guide Edward Fernandez said one such former soldier continued to visit Corregidor until the latter half of the 2000s to console the souls of the war dead, saying, "I wish I could have died here with my brothers in arms."

The grave posts of Japanese soldiers and a monument to the battleship Musashi, which sank in Philippine waters in October 1944, still stand on the island.

Douglas MacArthur

MacArthur was the commander of the US Army Forces in the Far East when the Pacific War began. After the war, he was in charge of the occupation of Japan as the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers.

In 1947, he became Commander in Chief of the US Army Forces in the Far East, and then served as the Commander in Chief of the UN Command following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. After a conflict with US President Harry Truman, he was relieved of his duties in 1951.

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