We then moved from Manila to the fortress island of Corregidor, an hour by ferry across Manila Bay. Open-air jeepneys loop around the 2-square-mile tropical island, taking visitors to World War II sites. The island remains almost as it was in early 1942, when for 27 days the Japanese starved, shelled and bombed the Allied defenders into surrendering on May 6, 1942.
At the summit, where paratroopers retook the island in 1945, a sobering museum showcases Japanese bayonets, uniforms and photos of the American surrender. Nearby, a pavilion shades an eternal flame.
But Corregidor's pièce de résistance is a sound-and-light show in Malinta Tunnel, where MacArthur directed the war before being ordered to Australia, and military nurses, soldiers and Filipino scouts holed up, caring for the wounded. Flashes of light, recorded explosions and gunfire recount the story — sometimes too realistically.
From Corregidor, our group traveled north to the mosquito-infested Bataan Peninsula, site of one of the Pacific war's worst atrocities.
After the Americans surrendered, the Japanese rounded up the defeated soldiers. They were weak and starving, but their captors gave them no food or water. Instead they force-marched 70,000 Americans and Filipinos 55 miles up the peninsula in the tropical heat. Thousands died on the way.
One in our group, Bob Wolfersberger, a spunky 86-year-old, survived. "It was a cattle drive out there," he said. "We were going up one side of the road, the Japanese coming down the other, lots of times swinging their clubs, hitting as many Americans as they could."
At the town of San Fernando at the head of the peninsula, the soldiers were packed into stifling, steamy train cars and shuttled to Capas, where they were forced to march seven more miles to Camp O'Donnell.
We walked only the last hot, dusty half a mile, arriving at the former prison's gates sheepishly thankful for the water fountain there.
At the camp, now a memorial, monuments list the names of the Filipinos and Americans who died there. In a corner, a replica of the prisoners' barracks provides a hint of their misery.
"There was no food, no medicine," Wolfersberger said. "The prisoners were left to die in this concentration camp."
About 1,600 Americans died in the first 40 days at Camp O'Donnell. Survivors were transferred several months later to Cabanatuan, a former Army supply base about 25 miles east.
The camp at Cabanatuan is another memorial, with an altar-like monument flanked by Filipino and American flags. A wall has the names of dead soldiers.
A former Marine on our tour, Warren Elder, had been captured on Corregidor and imprisoned at Cabanatuan. At one point, he had been dragged out of the camp with four other soldiers expecting to be executed because "someone had done something," he said. But when the gun was fired, it just clicked; there was no ammunition. "They were just trying to scare us," Elder said in a shaky voice.
Prison camp rescues
IN 1942, the Americans began taking back the Pacific, winning such monumental battles as Coral Sea and Midway before finally coming ashore in the Philippines in October 1944. MacArthur began staging daring rescues at the prison camps. First at Cabanatuan on Jan. 31, 1945, then at Manila's Santo Tomas.
At 9 p.m. Feb. 3, 1945, an American tank — the Georgia Peach — crashed into the front gate. "Are you Americans?" a soldier shouted to the skinny prisoners who swarmed around the infantrymen. "Yes!" they yelled back.
After liberating the camp, the Army used Santo Tomas as its headquarters. One day, as Mom was in the courtyard about to accept some chocolate from a soldier, a mortar shell exploded. Shrapnel hit her in the jaw; she still can open her mouth only partway. The soldier was killed.
My mother, aunt and grandfather — who weighed about 100 pounds at liberation — left the islands soon after, zigzagging across the Pacific to avoid detection of Japanese ships.