, January 12, 2005 (STAR) THE X-PAT FILES By Scott R. Garceau  -  When visiting Corregidor Island, it helps to be in a historical frame of mind. With a war raging in Iraq and Southeast Asia recovering from the worst natural disaster in modern history, last weekend definitely qualified.

Fresh in our minds as we boarded the Sun Cruises hydrofoil was the devastation wrought by tsunamis that had overcome Southeast Asia. The Philippines was miraculously spared; maybe, some suggested, God figured the country had already endured its quota of disasters for 2004.

Not that we were concerned about our own safety as we headed out from Manila Bay; we just couldn’t erase from our minds the horror of what had struck, and continued to mount, each passing day. We felt caught up in it, as we headed out 26 miles to revisit The Rock, another place marked by siege and endurance.

Corregidor is a four-mile-long, tadpole-shaped island situated between Cavite and Bataan provinces. It’s not called the fortress for nothing: For hundreds of years, it was the checkpoint for Spanish and then American forces occupying the Philippines. But its big historical moment came between 1941 and 1942, when Filipino troops, side by side with American forces, held the island against Japanese invaders. This delay in Japan’s advance was crucial. Much of Southeast Asia had already fallen to the Imperial Army.

You touch down on Corregidor at Bottomside, and immediately board numbered trams that circle the island on a staggered basis, so that no tour groups overlap. It’s an impressive, well-orchestrated tourism package that really resonates, not only with history buffs, but with anyone old enough to appreciate the importance of struggle and sacrifice.

Not to say that Corregidor Island doesn’t welcome families with children, too. There’s a hotel and beachfront, hiking trips and treasure hunts for kids, an aviary, and an evening light show at Malinta Tunnel that makes your historical immersion almost complete. Plus, it’s simply a beautiful island, teeming with wildlife and lush, serene hills. And for those contemplating their place on this rock called earth, Corregidor can offer deeper, more meditative rewards.

A trip to Malinta Tunnel is a must, including the audio-visual show that, for P180, puts you inside the experience, so to speak. The tunnel was constructed by US troops between 1922 and 1932 for use as an arsenal and underground hospital. It played a pivotal role when the Pacific War erupted and President Manuel L. Quezon was forced to set up government headquarters there beneath the earth.

The lights go out, the sound comes up, and you are encircled by aerial bombardment. Smoke billows at one end of the 835-foot tunnel. This is pretty close to what it might have been like for Filipino and American forces buried in the tunnel for close to two years.

Overlook the so-so vocal reenactments; don’t get the creeps with the brass figures set back amid the tunnel’s lateral branches like wartime dioramas. Just remember that these soldiers – and many women nurses as well – did their best, did their duty, at a time when such sacrifice was most needed.

The Japanese eventually took Corregidor and Malinta Tunnel and used it for their own headquarters. The fate of those captured US and Filipino prisoners (some 20,000 and 50,000, respectively) is well documented. When the tables finally turned, the Japanese greeted American forces who had retaken the island with an awful surprise, dynamiting the tunnel as US soldiers prepared to enter.

There are other poignant highlights at Corregidor, particularly for Americans. A visit to the Pacific War Memorial is a sobering reminder of how many men died here, and in other battles throughout the Pacific. Beautifully landscaped with fountains and acacia trees, the memorial is located at the highest point of Corregidor and lined with marble walls detailing the dates and locations of each battle. The walk leads you to an abstract sculpture of the Eternal Flame, and a spectacular view of the China Sea.

Built by the US government at a cost of $1.23 million (that’s in 1968 dollars), it’s one of the Philippines’ best-kept tourist sites, and definitely a touching experience. At the center of the exhibit is a massive dome, beneath which a circular marble altar sits, inscribed with these words: "Sleep, my sons, your duty done, for freedom’s light has come. Sleep in the silent depths of the sea or in your hallowed bed of sod until you hear at dawn the low clear reveille of God." It’s said the sun shines directly on the circular altar only one day out of the year – May 6, the day Corregidor fell.

On the way out, visit the Pacific War Memorial Museum to your right. Unlike other collections haphazardly pieced together, this one actually holds your interest. Letters document the struggle to hold Corregidor, and General Wainwright’s letter to FDR acknowledging its surrender; dog tags of both American and Filipino soldiers are displayed side-by-side; actual uniforms of US and Japanese soldiers are worn by mannequins, highlighting their height difference; recovered weapons are encased, along with other random items carried by soldiers into battle (chocolate bars, food tins, morphine ampoules). A few moments spent pondering these artifacts really draws one into the experience, making it a shared experience – the best that a museum can hope to offer.

After this day-long trip, it was hard to think about the millions of pesos spent on fireworks displays last Dec. 31– the money would have been better spent on tsunami victims, or on some other sacrifice.

On the boat ride back from Corregidor, you learn more from a video documentary about General Douglas MacArthur. Here was a man who, whatever his flaws, really loved the Philippines. He settled down here with wife and family and befriended Manuel Quezon, the man who eventually became president. The story is told that, as Quezon was being transported off the island (via submarine), he gave MacArthur his signet ring, saying, "If you should fall here with your troops, let the world know that you died in defense of this country."

MacArthur, of course, also left Corregidor, heading to Australia with the famous phrase, "I shall return," echoing through history. But it was no empty promise. Even as President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to exit the Philippines in order to pursue Japanese throughout the Pacific, the defiant MacArthur refused. The Philippines – and the men still pinned down at Corregidor – were to be saved. A risky paratroop mission eventually retook the island from the Japanese in 1945.

The Sun Cruise ferry, by the way, was sprinkled with that odd mixture of young and old, Filipino and American, Vietnam vets and WWII survivors, even some Japanese families. Everyone had their own reasons for visiting The Rock, but some of it must have had to do with the heightened sense one feels when the world is taking a beating. At a time when we are all contemplating sacrifice – with wars raging in the Middle East, and countries swamped by suffering here in the Far East – it’s valuable to revisit a place like Corregidor. History, for a moment, takes on a vivid life, and that life, for a moment, echoes within us.

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Call Sun Cruises Inc. at 831-8140 or 834-6858 for reservations.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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