There are many monuments throughout the world to the bravery and sacrifice of "The Greatest Generation," the men and women of America's Armed Forces who served heroically during World War II. None are more moving than the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay, the Philippines, where outnumbered American and Filipino defenders fought off the might of the Japanese Empire in the early days of the war.
Corregidor is a tadpole-shaped rock formation about four miles long and a half-mile wide at its widest point. The fortified island guarded the entrance to Manila Bay, just off the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula. Shortly after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces landed in the Philippines. General Douglas MacArthur, commander of American military forces in the Philippines, then a U.S. Commonwealth, concentrated the outmanned and ill-equipped U.S. and Filipino defenders in Bataan, and convinced Philippine President Manuel Quezon to move his headquarters to the island. Corregidor underwent its first bombardment on December 29, 1941, and for more than four months its defenders fought a delaying action that bogged down the Japanese war machine in Southeast Asia. On March 11, MacArthur left Corregidor, on President Roosevelt's orders, traveling via a PT Boat to Mindanao in the south, eventually flying to Australia, where he uttered the prophetic words, "I shall return." With the fall of Bataan (and the subsequent atrocity of the Bataan Death March) on April 9, 1942, its embattled defenders knew Corregidor was doomed, but the island's
batteries continued to pound Japanese forces on the peninsula, keeping them at bay for almost a month. On May 6, Japanese forces finally overwhelmed the island and made prisoners of the embattled defenders. Three years later, American forces retook the island in a daring attack by parachute, and soon thereafter, MacArthur made good on his pledge to return.
Today, visitors come to Corregidor on a comfortable excursion boat from Manila, and they find an island that in itself is a memorial. While the Philippine government has cut back the jungle and paved roads for tourist trams in recent years, the bombed out buildings and bunkers have been left as they were after the battle, a mute tribute to the gallantry of their defenders. Among the sites of interest are:
Topside - the highest point of the island, location of Fort Mills, the Topside (also known as "Mile Long") Barracks, the Parade Ground, Officers' Quarters, and Old Spanish Lighthouse.
Battery Way - whose four 12-inch mortars were capable of firing one round a minute in any direction. It was the last of the island's artillery to cease firing.
Malinta Tunnel - made famous in the movie MacArthur, this arsenal and hospital was the general's headquarters during the siege. It now houses a sound and light show depicting the history of the battle.
Pacific War Memorial - built by the U.S government, this rotunda and circular altar stand as a moving tribute to the Americans and Filipinos who fought and died side by side in World War II.
Filipino Heroes Memorial - erected by the Philippine Government, these tableaux depict the struggles of Filipinos for freedom over the centuries, from Spanish colonization to the "People Power" Revolution in 1986.
Besides Corregidor, several sites in Manila itself pay tribute to the sacrifices made by Americans and Filipinos in the struggle against the Japanese Empire. The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, adjacent to the city's bustling business district of Makati, contains the graves, their headstones arranged with military precision in circular rows, of 17,206 Americans who gave their lives in the Southwest Pacific. This is the largest number of graves of American military dead of World War II. In addition, the names of 36,282 of the Missing whose remains were never recovered are recorded in two hemicycles, which also contain map rooms depicting the battles of the war. They surround a memorial chapel and tower containing the inscription, "Take unto Thyself O Lord the Souls of the Valiant."
At the end of Manila's main thoroughfare, Rojas Boulevard, is another site sacred to the memory of World War II heroes. In historic Fort Santiago, a bastion that remained from Spanish rule, is the common grave of 600 prisoners - Philippine guerillas and civilians - massacred by the Japanese as American and Filipino troops closed in on their position during the Battle of Manila in 1945.
In a way, Manila itself stands as a tribute to the solidarity of American and Filipino forces in ultimately achieving victory. And today's city is emerging from the last two decades of political turmoil to welcome American tourists again with open arms. A no-nonsense, Guiliani-like mayor, Lito Atienza, has cleaned up many of the eyesores of the recent past, including the establishment of "Baywalk," a network of trendy cafes and entertainment along the formerly uninviting waterfront of Manila Bay. The city offers elegant hotels, such as the luxurious Shangri-la Edsa, delicious cuisine, exciting nightlife and some of the best shopping in Asia, due to a favorable exchange rate against the dollar.
With the recent peaceful presidential election and a cease-fire by Southern rebels, the Philippines is returning as a viable tourist destination. And given the history of Americans and Filipinos heroic struggles together for freedom, more of us should certainly go.