Corregidor, at the Mouth of Manila Bay

Corregidor in Peace and War

Recently I talked with Collis H. Davis, Jr., the photographer and independent documentary filmmaker who collaborated with historian Charles Hubbard on a book called Corregidor in Peace and War, published by the University of Missouri Press in 2007. We met at Café Adriatico in Malate to talk about it. I learned again one of the few things I know about war, that new technology in warfare can cause the tide to change very rapidly. Many thanks to Collis for all the photos from his book. (Please click on any image to enlarge.)

Collis’s story

Collis Davis

In 2000, both Charles Hubbard and I were Senior Fulbright Scholars in the Philippines. He approached me about collaborating with him on a book on Corregidor Island, a scenic island at the mouth of Manila Bay with an interesting history. As the historian he would write the text, and I as the photographer would do the visual side. The University of Missouri Press took on the project and sent the manuscript out to two expert reviewers who ripped the hell out of it and sent it back with suggestions. Charles made the changes. The press was satisfied and went ahead with the press run. In the meantime I went out to the island and shot color photographs for the present-day depiction of the island. I did all the historical pictorial research as well, with maps, old and new, involving the island’s history. We tapped every conceivable source here in the Philippines, including the Spanish cultural center, the Instituto Cervantes of Manila. I designed and laid out the book and did the first index. The press eventually did their own index. Violeta P. Hughes was the editor.

So what can you tell us about the historical importance of Corregidor Island?

1727 Dutch map of Manila Bay showing the island

The island lies at the mouth of Manila Bay. In the early seventeenth century [after aggressive action by Chinese and Dutch pirates, the British military and threats from the Muslims in Mindanao], the Spanish colonizers set up Corregidor Island to protect the city of Manila and the harbor.

The Spanish cruiser of the 1st class, Reina Cristina

I’m sure the strategic value of the island was obvious to the Spaniards because you see it all over Europe, the use of fortresses on islands or hills to control a waterway.

Right. They set up front-loading cannons which they were still using when the Americans arrived during the Spanish-American War. The US had the modern breech-loading cannons, which were loaded from the back. With all due respect the Spaniards did have a couple of breech-loading cannons in Manila, in Fort Santiago and other places, right on the water. But they were too far away from Admiral Dewey’s fleet, which entered Manila Bay in May of 1898. [The Americans sneaked past with no lights on, changed course and then charged toward Manila.] Because the Spanish had not gotten word that the Americans were coming, they were caught completely unawares and incapable of mounting a serious defense. When the Reina Christina sank, the command ship of the Spanish military here, the Spanish knew that their mission in the Philippines was over. It spelled the end of Spanish rule. It was kind of an easy victory for Dewey.

Battery Hearn, 12″ fixed gun
Battery Way, 12″ breech-loading mortar

Was it kind of agreed that this was going to happen or was it an actual military defeat? Because afterwards in the Treaty of Paris the US bought the Philippines, Guam and a few other places for two million dollars.

No, it was an actual military defeat. I think the sale was a face-saving arrangement for the Spaniards. Two million dollars was a lot of money at that time. Spain must have been happy to extricate itself.

When the Americans took over they proceeded to build up the island, to transform it into formidable military weapon which could sink any ship approaching the harbor when it was still 27,6oo yards (25.2 km. or 15.7 miles)  out at sea. During the years 1911-1912 and so on, they put in some awesome weapons, breech-loading cannons and a new innovation, disappearing cannons that would rise up out of a protected bunker, fire, and then recoil back down to the wall where they were protected from any oncoming fire. As World War II approached the Americans laid mine fields on both channels linked to Corregidor Island.

Layout of Malina Tunnel
Malinta Tunnel entrance

They had huge mortars sites on the island also. Battery Way was one site which lasted throughout World War II and was still firing mortars against the Japanese. The advantage of the mortars was that they could pivot 360 degrees, so they could fire in any direction to target any enemy ship they liked and ground targets in Bataan and Cavite, whereas the long guns and the big cannons were very limited.

Ft. Drum

But then in WWII the airplane became viable as a weapon platform. After the Japanese destroyed all the aircraft at Clark Air Force Base, they could bomb Corregidor at will because Corregidor didn’t have any significant anti-aircraft capability. So the Japanese had a very easy time targeting everything on the island because it was antiquated, both in weapons and in concept, since it was set up long before air power became an issue. Still, the mortars carried the day for a long time before the Americans finally had to surrender, and that was significant.

The fortified islands

Of course Corregidor wasn’t the only island. There was also El Frail, a big rock which the Americans covered with concrete and formed into a battleship-looking edifice they named Fort Drum. It was very seriously armed with 12-inch cannons and so on. Then at the end of the war, the Japanese had taken cover the concrete battleship and were holding out to the very end. They refused to surrender, so the Americans came in and poured gasoline into the innards of the island and blew it up, incinerating all the Japanese inside.

Summary of combat

The Japanese also held out in the Malinta Tunnel which the US had dug under a mountain. When they refused to surrender they were burned out or blown out—killed by detonations. There are pictures of the tunnel in the book, as well as the cliff where Japanese soldiers jumped to their death rather than surrender.

After the war the island was in shambles. A commission was formed, and it decided to reconstruct the island, rehabilitate it as much as possible. A few of the guns had been dismantled by salvagers who had come to the island surreptitiously with their acetylene torches and cut the gun barrels into pieces in order to take them down the side of the island to waiting barges and then to foundries. They were partially successful, but then the authorities caught on and stopped it. There is evidence of the kind of pilferage that went on everywhere right after the end of the war.

The restored island

But now the island’s been transformed by the Corregidor Foundation, headed up by Leslie Murray, who was arrested as a child POW during the war and held at the University of Santo Tomas. Day-to-day operations were run by Art Matibag, a retired military colonel. They’ve done a fantastic job of restoring the island, giving day tours and overnight tours and all kinds of activities. But now their role is being phased out because the Department of Tourism is taking over the management of the island.

So there’s overnight accommodation?

View of the South China Sea

Yes. Right off Roxas Boulevard, which runs along Manila Bay in Malate, is Harbor Square and Manila Sun Cruises. From there you can take a 45-minute ride to Corregidor Island at the mouth of Manila Bay. There’s a hotel with a veranda overlooking the South China Sea where you can sit and relax, drink a beer and enjoy the food service. You can stay overnight if you like or return to Manila on the same day. There are several different programs.

A friend of mine, Steve A.Kwiecinski, wrote a book about his father’s experience as a gunner at Battery Way who held out until he was captured by the Japanese and taken to a POW camp in Japan. He survived and lived a long time afterwards. Steve collected his father’s stories and spent six years on Corregidor. Then he wrote a book, Honor, Courage, Faith: A Corregidor Story, which was published in 2012 by National Bookstore’s Anvil Press. He and his wife, Marcia, attended all the historical observances having to do with the island, veterans’ burials, Memorial Day, all kinds of milestones having to do with the island. My connection was not that personal.

The book is Corregidor in Peace and War by Charles M. Hubbard and Collis H. Davis, Jr., University of Missouri Press, 2007. Its 216 pages contain 53 color and 115 black and white illustrations. New and used copies are available via In Metro Manila the book is also sold at La Solidaridad Bookstore in Ermita and on the mezzanine level of Silahis Arts and Artifacts in Intramuros, Manila.

Collis H. Davis, Jr. is the photographer and independent documentary filmmaker who worked with Richie Quirino on the documentary Pinoy Jazz: The Story of Jazz in the Philippines. The post on Pinoy Jazz appears in the previous post. (Link)