THE flight from San Francisco to Manila seemed endless, even though my mother had treated us to business class and its bedlike chairs, parade of meals and free-flowing champagne.
More than 60 years ago, my mother, Leanne Blinzler Noe, had traveled the same route by ship — taking 18 days instead of 13 hours. That realization was the first of many on a two-week tour last spring to my mother’s childhood home in the Philippines, a place where she had run free across the Baguio Hills, learned to speak Tagalog, eaten the world’s best mangos — and where she was a prisoner during World War II.
Her best friends in the prison camp, Dorothy Mullaney Brooks of Las Vegas and Connie Ford of Grass Valley, Calif., and a group of about 50 former soldiers and other Americans who had some connection to the Philippines during the war — had joined us on this trip. Because of them, this tour of battlefields and memorials on the 60th anniversary of their liberation became indelibly intertwined with their memories, creating for me a personal sketch of the war in the Philippines.
Before we left the U.S., Mom had said she was reluctant to return. “How was my childhood so different from others?” she had asked self-effacingly.
Manila before the warFORESTS of high-rises and smog-clouded, car-clogged streets dominate Manila, a sprawling metropolis with a population of 10.9 million. Group members said the capital looked nothing like the one they had known before the war. Then, Manila was called the Pearl of the Orient, an elegant city with broad, tree-shaded boulevards. That city was largely destroyed in World War II, changing the lives of my grandfather, mother and aunt.
On Jan. 2, 1942, the first Japanese soldiers arrived here. Thousands of civilians — executives of U.S. companies, ship passengers, diplomats, journalists and my grandfather, a mining engineer — were rounded up, told to pack food and clothes for three days, then taken to the University of Santo Tomas in the heart of Manila, where they were imprisoned for the rest of the war. My grandmother had died several years earlier, and my mother, who was then 9, and her younger sister, Ginny, lived safely for a time in a Manila boarding school run by German nuns. But in March 1944, they too were taken to Santo Tomas, each carrying a suitcase containing their sparse belongings.
For the modern-day tourist, Santo Tomas yields little about its days as a prison, aside from a brass plaque at the front entrance and a temporary exhibit. Many buildings have been added to the original layout, but the main edifice, a three-story Gothic structure where my mother, her family and friends were interned, was as Mom remembered it. She and Ginny lived in a classroom with women and other children; my grandfather was in another room with men. During the day, they could visit one another and eat meals together.
We climbed creaky mahogany stairs to the third floor, strolled down a window-lined hallway and found 55-A, their turquoise prison room, now re-numbered and again a classroom. I tried to imagine 50-odd cots, draped with mosquito nets, crammed wall to wall.
As my mother and her friends surveyed the desk-filled room, they struggled to hold back tears just as they had learned to do as girls all those years ago.
Dorothy, Connie and Mom reminisced about the 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. roll calls; of having to bow to Japanese sentries; of the unsatisfactory meals of watery lugao, or rice porridge; and the rare joy of finding a piece of water buffalo hide hidden inside the gruel.
Comforts were few, but one day my mother found a little rubber doll in the trash. “It was a little softened, sticky,” she said, “but I don’t know why someone threw it away. I took it and nurtured it, sewed clothes for it out of scraps.”
Where it all startedTHE war in the Philippines began Dec. 8, 1941, at Clark Air Base, about 40 miles northwest of Manila, the main base of the Army Air Forces in the Pacific. Japanese pilots, approaching the archipelago only eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, found B-17 bombers parked wingtip to wingtip on the airfield.
Within minutes after Japan’s attacks, the U.S. East Asian air forces were reduced by half, such an enormous blow that Gen. Douglas MacArthur was forced into defensive positions on Bataan and Corregidor just to the west.
Nothing at Clark today resembles its wartime appearance. Since its reversion to the Philippines in 1991, the base has been transformed into a civil aviation complex with industrial properties, a trade center and luxury hotels. But the Clark Museum provides a good historical retrospective with photos, dioramas and exhibits.
Perhaps its most telling artifact is out front, a burned, melted airplane part left from the Dec. 8 assault. Inside the museum, my mother pointed out Japanese wartime currency — they called it Mickey Mouse money — 75 Mickey Mouse pesos, or $35, could buy one duck egg, she said.
Tucked in one display was a black-and-white photograph of a Japanese kamikaze pilot. He looked like a kid, with an innocent smile. On a trip devoted to uncovering my mother’s past, the photo also offered a window into the enemy side.
The world’s first kamikaze pilot took off from nearby Mabalacat East Air Field in October 1944. Oddly, on this soil that suffered so much destruction at Japanese hands is a statue of a pilot standing tall and proud, paying tribute to the soldiers of the kamikaze, or “divine wind.”
My mother said little about the statue, but I heard plenty of grumbling from former soldiers on our tour.
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.
Like many historic battlefields, Corregidor is exceedingly peaceful, its bombed-out, vine-tangled barracks, huge cannon and mortar batteries silent now. But you can’t help but believe that ghosts swirl through the trees.
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 rescuesIN 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.
As our plane took off from Manila at the end of our tour, my mother gazed out the window into the night sky, lost in thought. For a few minutes the city’s bright lights sparkled below, and then the blackness of the ocean fell. She absentmindedly reached out to touch my arm.
When I think of her as a little child, surrounded by the horrors of war, of all the suffering that she and her fellow prisoners endured, I am awed — at their tenacity, at their will to survive.
Somehow, the flight back to the U.S. did not seem interminable.
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Seeing Manila and more
From LAX, Philippine Airlines offers direct service (one stop, no change of planes) to Manila. JAL, Northwest, Korean, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, EVA and Singapore have connecting flights (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $728.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 63 (country code for the Philippines) and the local number.
Because the State Department has a travel warning on the Philippines, it may be best to take an organized or tailored tour to World War II sites outside Manila through a hotel or a travel agency in Manila. Good companies include:
Baron Travel Corp., Cityland 10, Tower 2, 6817 Ayala Ave. N., Salcedo Village, Makati City, Metro Manila; (2) 817-4926, https://www.barontravel.com.ph . Day tours to Corregidor from $36 per person, including meals, entrance fees, transportation and English-speaking guide.
Rajah Tours Philippines, Suite 801, Manila Natividad Building, 470 T.M. Kalaw, Ermita, Metro Manila; (2) 522-0541. Day tours to Corregidor about $30, including ferry transportation, bus service on the island, a meal, sound and light show, and English-speaking guide.
To get to Corregidor, many tourists buy a package, which includes boat transfer from Manila, the tour and several meals. Board boats from the jetty in the Cultural Center of the Philippines (or CCP complex) on Roxas Boulevard. You can book tickets at the jetty through a tour operator or at any of the travel agents in town.
Sun Cruises, CP Terminal A, Cultural Center Complex; (2) 831-8140, https://www.corregidorphilippines.com . Day tours about $26.50 per person.
To get to Bataan, Mt. Samat Ferry Express runs boats from the Cultural Center of the Philippines to the Bataan village of Orion; (2) 551-5290. Fares from $5.30 one way.
El Greco Jet Ferries,, https://www.elgrecomanila.com . Offers high-speed ferries from the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila, to Mariveles, Bataan. Fares from $3.50 one way.
WHERE TO STAY:
Manila Hotel, One Rizal Park, Manila 1099; (2) 527-0011, https://www.manila-hotel.com.ph . Before the war, the 570-room Manila Hotel was the grande dame of city hotels. Gen. Douglas MacArthur lived in a penthouse here in the 1930s. Rooms in the 18-story wing are less expensive (and less charming) than those in the old building. Ask for a bay-side room; the park side can be noisy. Facilities include three restaurants, three bars, outdoor pool, tennis and squash courts, fitness center, whirlpool, sauna, shopping and business center. Doubles from $89, including breakfast; MacArthur’s suite is $2,000 a night.
Subic International Hotel, Labitan and St. Rita roads, Subic Bay, Freeport Zone, Olongapo City; (2) 243-2222. Barracks-like but adequate rooms in this sprawling hotel, which offers 330 rooms in three buildings. Six food and beverage outlets, mini-gym, sauna and massage booths, swimming pool. Doubles from $50.
Holiday Inn Resort Clark Field, Mimosa Drive, Mimosa Leisure Estate, Pampanga, Clark Field; (2) 845-1888, https://www.holiday-inn.com . A gorgeous luxury hotel with 337 well-appointed rooms, including holiday villas and junior suites. Five food and beverage outlets, swimming pool, health club. Adjacent to a 27-hole championship golf course. Doubles from $125.
TO LEARN MORE:
Department of Tourism, National Capital Region, Department of Tourism Building, Room 207, T.M. Kalaw St., Ermita, Manila; (2) 523-8411, https://www.tourism.gov.ph . The tourist assistance hotline is (2) 524-1660.
Philippine Consulate General, 3660 Wilshire Blvd. 900, Suite 216, Los Angeles, CA 90010; (213) 487-4525, https://www.philcongenla.org .
— Barbara Noe