Posted by: Anna | May 5, 2011

Corregidor Island: WWII in the Philippines

While I was in Dallas, I called my Grandfather Harold (my mother’s father). He asked about our next stops, and I mentioned that we were going to be in the Philippines. I never knew – but he spent a great deal of time in the Philippines during World War II while he was in the Navy. He has never talked much about his time in the service, and I didn’t know much about it. I don’t think I’m alone. When I went to talk to my mom (his daughter) after I got off the phone, she was surprised – she didn’t know he had been in the Philippines either. To be honest, I know a lot more about World War II in Europe than I do in the Pacific. But after talking to him, I definitely wanted to see a piece of Filipino World War II history.

My grandfather has probably had the most interesting life of anyone I know – he built a car from parts, then drove it cross country. He hunted his own food during college and slept in a tent on the Oklahoma State campus (there were not enough dorm rooms to accommodate all the GIs coming back from the war and going to college on the GI bill). These just aren’t things anyone else I know has done. Perhaps my desire for adventure (although, I don’t think our un-AC bus rides and strange foods quite meet the same level of adventure) comes from him. His time in the war is the biggest gap in my knowledge of him ever since he recorded stories from his life on cds a couple of years ago – there were not really any war stories included. So I am curious about that part of his life. In some way, I feel like going to the Philippines, where he was, brings me a little closer to him – as if I will find a little part of him here.

When we talked, he had high praise for the friendliness and intelligence of the Filipinos he met while he was in the war. He said that, although he didn’t get to set foot on land, he admired the natural beauty of the islands. I was excited to have a connection to the Philippines, and I’m so glad we decided to come. It was a last minute addition to our trip – not on the original itinerary at all.

We landed in Manila Wednesday night. Early Thursday morning, we got up (from a grungy hostel and bad night of sleep) and headed to the ferry to Corregidor island. Corregidor Island is about an hour from Manila by fast ferry. It sits at the mouth of Manila Bay, making it a strategic location for military operations securing Manila. The Americans had a base on Corregidor Island prior to World War II.

We arrived about 9 AM on the ferry and boarded an open air bus with a tour guide. The bus drove us around the island to various historical sights on the island. During the bus ride, the guide explained some of the highlights and included some more general Filipino history as well. The Philippines were under Spanish rule for 328 years, leaving behind a lasting legacy of Catholicism (83% of Filipinos identify themselves as Catholic). The Americans helped the Filipinos fight the Spanish, and then after the war surprised the Filipinos with the news that they were now an American territory. The Filipinos thought they were fighting for independence, but it was not to be yet.

The Philippines became an American military base in 1902 after the Spanish American War, and the Americans invested heavily in Corregidor Island’s military fortifications (to the tune of about $150 million USD). During the tour, you see what was the American military infrastructure, including the enlisted men’s barracks, the officer’s barracks, the remants of a baseball field and tennis courts, and even a theatre. During the war, it was all bombed and ruined. The American government also invested heavily in a system of tunnels called the Malinta Tunnel.

This is what is left of the enlisted men's barracks on Corregidor.

The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and then the Philippines (still an American territory) hours later. I knew about Pearl Harbor but didn’t realize the attack on the Philippines was essentially simultaneous. The Filipino government moved into the Malinta Tunnel. The Americans and Filipinos defended the Philippines until they were forced to surrender, bit by bit. During this period, the Filipino President left on a ship headed to America to plead with President Roosevelt for reinforcements. Since the war priority was on the war in Europe, reinforcements did not arrive. The Filipino president died en route. The Filipinos questioned why America would place priority on Europe when the Philippines was American soil. The American military on the ground in the Philippines seems to have been well-regarded and even loved, however, and it would seem that the military here loved the Philippines too. Prior to surrender, General MacArthur was repeatedly ordered to leave the Philippines and head to Australia. He continued to ignore his orders from the President, and he famously promised the Filipinos, “I Shall Return”. You see this sentence everywhere in the Philippines.

Sign at our favorite bar in a beach town - I Shall Return....

MacArthur left under threat of court martial, and Corregidor, the last bastion of American presence, finally fell May 6, 1942. The Japanese took over, and the stories of cruelty during this time are shocking. The Filipinos continued to listen to the Voice of Freedom (radio station broadcast by the Allies in the Pacific) and use guerrilla tactics against the Japanese. There is a memorial to their heroism on Corregidor Island.

Filipino Heroes Memorial

The American troops returned, as General MacAruthur promised, in 1945, and retook Corregidor. With that basic history, let me share my grandfather’s route with you. I hope it’s not confusing, but his story starts a little before the Americans returned to Corregidor.

From my grandfather Harold:

I got to the Philippine island area in early 1944 aboard the Battleship Mississippi,BB41. We  were in a Battle Group consisting of seven battleships commanded by Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf. He was aboard our ship during a portion of the tour and during that time we were the Flagship.The Pacific Fleet Commander was Admiral Art (Chips ) Carpender who reported to General Douglas McArthur.

My first action was the invasion of Peleliu Island and the bombardment of other Palau islands.  Next we went to the Sulu Sea to support invasions in the southern Philippines and then
moved to an area just north of Samar to furnish antiaircraft gun support for a Group of Aircraft Carriers. We then had a long stay in Leyte Gulf which included the Battle of Leyte Gulf and continuous air attack. This is where the Japs began to use Kamikaze pilots and they were deadly and destructive. We were such a problem in Leyte Gulf that the Japs gathered their most powerful naval forces to end our existance.We forced them to try to enter the Gulf from the south through the narrows of Surigoa Strait where we had the last battleship engagement in history and the only real “Crossing of the Tee” in naval history.This was the
end for the Jap fleet.

Our tour guide described the battle Leyte Gulf as the greatest battle in Naval history. I will not get to Leyte (it’s an island in the Philippines, in the Visayas) on this trip, but I would like to – it is known for excellent wreck diving (great naval battles will yield great wreck diving 66 years later). While we were on Corregidor, our guide pointed out some caves used by Japanese kamikaze land-based motorboats. Inside each cave would be railings on each side, and enough space for a small motorboat. The Japanese kamikaze would use the railings to push his boat (with him in it) out of the cave, then he would drive his boat until it collided with an American (or Allied) boat and exploded, killing him in the explosion. I never knew that there were any other types of kamikaze besides air, but indeed, we could see the caves at Corregidor.

We left Leyte Gulf and paused at the enterance to Manila Bay just long enough to be sure it was secure and then went up the west coast of Luzon.

This pause was at Corregidor Island, where we went. Corregidor was the last line of defense when the Japanese took the Philippines, and an important strategic location. Retaking Corregidor was essentially a given by the time the bulk of the troops arrived there because paratroopers had entered the island first. However, in order to get the last Japanese under control, the American troops had to essentially explode the inside of the Malinta Tunnel.

Today, the Malinta Tunnel serves as walking multimedia history lesson about the military history of Corregidor Island, created by a national artist of the Philippines.

We bombarded Jap shore stations and dodged Kamikazees until we joined the huge force sent to liberate the Philippines.The invasion was from Lingayen Gulf and it was an easy landing for us. The Philippines were freed and we went north to a bloody battle for Okinawa. I developed elephantiasis with one leg swollen so it was bigger than all of the rest of me. I was transferred to a hospital ship and sent to Pearl Harbor. By the time I got to Pearl Harbor my swelling was gone and I was reassigned to the USS Maryland, another battleship.

Sometimes history seems so far away – no more real than a novel. Having a personal connection helps to make history real, to make it something that really happened. I’m glad my grandfather was willing to share some of his story with me. Going to Corrieidor and learning more about the history in the Philippines has been one of my favorite experiences on this trip, and I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity. My grandfather reminded me that there were over 14,000 other men serving on ships in the Pacific, so I want to thank them too for the sacrifices they made for us.

Statue at the Pacific War Memorial on Corregidor Island. This is an American soldier helping a wounded Filipino soldier. There is a mirror image statue of a Filipino soldier helping a wounded American soldier in Atlanta.


  1. Loved reading

    • Thank you!

  2. Hello Anna
    I am not sure how many USA sailors were in the Pacific during WWII, probably well over a million. There were over 14,000 men aboard the 7 battleships in our Group. We had 2200 men on the “Mighty Miss”. Sailors get to know each other very well.
    Love , Granddad

  3. Anna, I am so grateful you recreated this important part of my father’s history for me. I felt like I too walked in those steps with you. The Pacific was a brutal place to serve in WWII with a tough enemy. Dad, I hope you know the mark in history you helped leave when you were such a very young man. (Enlisted at 16) Anna, if you hadn’t come home for that visit this wonderful history might have been lost to us. Thank you.

  4. Grandpa Harold always has the best stories!

  5. I absolutely loved reading this! My dad (now deceased) was also in the Pacific for most of the war. He was on the Utah at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked and sunk by the Japanese. He swam to shore, then was assigned to body recovery detail. He requested to get on another ship, and was assigned to the USS New Orleans for the remainder of the war. I believe that the New Orleans was part of most of the battles in the Pacific, and had their entire hull blown off at one point, and had to back all the way to port. My dad never spoke of the war. What I know I have found out from his other family members and shipmates. We attend the USS New Orleans reunions in honor of him, and have gotten to know the great men who served on that ship that attend the reunions. They truly are “The Greatest Generation”. No finer men anywhere. I thank God that we had men like these to protect and defend us during this historic time in history.
    Thank You Harold!!

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree – the greatest generation is an apt description.

  6. My dad, a WWII vet, a tail gunner on a B-24, has always spoken of Corregidor. He has enjoyed your writing. Thank you for sharing this.

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