Though Memorial Day is over, the speeches fading, the ceremonies concluded and the living still living free, the purpose of the day lingers in my mind. Like a lot of us, I didn’t always contemplate the sacrifices so many have made for our freedom. It was something I took for granted.
But back in the early ’60s when the Vietnam War was just beginning to ramp up for what was to come, I was a young Marine stationed in Marine Barracks, Sangley Point, a guard company on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. The off-duty section sometimes went off together for a day or two of R&R.
One day, we boarded the admiral's boat and headed out across Manila Bay for Corregidor, another of the 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines. They had also been bombed by the Japanese right after Pearl Harbor and were controlled by them until the end of the war.
Some of the officers and senior NCOs in the guard company had fought all through the Pacific. It wasn't something they talked about, but we knew they'd been there. For most of us, though, who were 18, 19 or 20 years old, World War II was “ancient history.” We didn't think much about it any more than they talked about it.
On the boat ride over to Corregidor, we drank San Miguel beer and were happy to have a day free of duty—much like people do on holidays today. Once we disembarked, we walked around looking at the rusting, pit-marked anti-aircraft guns, a lighthouse, an old chapel, a small brig and other facilities you’d find on any American military outpost.
Later, we walked into a large opening in the side of a hill with “Malinta Tunnel” in large block letters above the entrance. The top sergeant said it'd been Gen. Jonathan Wainwright's headquarters and a hospital when he was trying to hold the Philippines after Gen. Douglas MacArthur was ordered to Australia in early 1942 and gave his famous “I shall return” promise to his men and the press.
|Faded message written on the wall inside Malinta Tunnel|
It was eerie to walk through the tunnel that had been an army general's headquarters and a hospital before it was taken over by the Japanese in a fierce battle. But the cool damp breeze was a welcome relief from the hot tropical sun and heat outside. We casually walked along talking, laughing and thinking about home and little about the war.
On a wall of the tunnel, though, I saw some faded writing that looked as if it had been written in charcoal. I stopped and read: “In this tunnel lingers the memory of the Marines whom fate denied them the chance of meeting you. Leave one smile & your name shall be praise. Pepe.”
I was moved by the solemnity of the words and asked Top about them. He was a crusty old Marine who'd spent nearly 30 years in the Marine Corps. Guadalcanal had been his first campaign of World War II. He looked at me, then stared off toward the end of the tunnel before answering.
“The Japanese overran Corregidor in May of ’42,” he said and explained that after Bataan fell, Corregidor was all that was left to protect Manila. The Fourth Marine garrison of 1,500 men that was to defend Corregidor received reinforcements of about 3,500 men. All of them fought under the command of a Marine colonel. Some 800 of the defenders were killed in action and another 1,000 were wounded.
I was struck by what the top told me and went back to the base library and found an account of the siege and fall of Corregidor. Wainwright’s radio message to President Roosevelt regarding the surrender said simply, “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.”
About 4,000 of the U.S. and Filipino troops were taken to Manila and marched through the streets to prisons at Fort Santiago and Bilibid. Most of the rest who were able to work were sent to various Japanese prison camps or to Japan for slave labor.
Wainwright himself was held in prison camps in northern Luzon and Formosa before being taken to Manchuria, where he was kept until the Russians liberated him in August 1945. He was the highest-ranking American POW in the war, and despite his rank, his treatment by the Japanese was harsh.
I’ve never found the numbers for how many of those taken prisoners on Corregidor died in captivity or how many lived through the war. Many of them certainly died. But I’ve never forgotten those words on the wall of Malinta Tunnel. And I've never looked at Memorial Day or the sacrifices of those who gave their lives for our freedom the same way since.