Philippines travel: Courage and legacy

BALANGA, Philippines — The school day at Balanga Elementary on the Bataan Peninsula was winding down, and children poured from the classrooms into the stifling afternoon heat.

Behind their classrooms, they played around the statutes of grim-faced U.S. and Japanese officers. This improbably placed monument memorializes the surrender of thousands of U.S. and Filipino troops in the spring of 1942. By giving up, Gen. Edward King, commander of the forces on Bataan and one of the men depicted here, hoped his starving, sick troops would be spared further agony. "You have nothing to be ashamed of," he told them.

The happy cries of kids freed from the classroom told me they didn't yet understand what had happened here. When they learned the history, I hoped they wouldn't be as dismayed by their ignorance as I had been by mine.

As we returned to the highway along which Filipino and American soldiers marched, without food, without water, without medical help, I also hoped the kids would remember this tragedy with more pride than sorrow.

That wouldn't be easy, but, then, little about the Philippines is.

When you think of the 7,000-island nation in Southeast Asia — and, really, as a traveler, do you? — what comes to mind? Such unsettling terrorism that the State Department continues to renew a travel warning? Such grinding poverty that the country's annual per capita income of $4,100 is almost four times less than neighboring Malaysia's? Such profoundly dishonest shenanigans, political and otherwise, that the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy ranked it in 2011 as among the most corrupt countries in Asia?

This is a hard place to love, and this is a hard place to visit (think heat, traffic, smog). But its people are such effective ambassadors for this underdog country that I could not help but overlook its other shortcomings and fall into its arms for the second time in my life. This time, I was here to revisit World War II history on an important 70th anniversary.

In September, I returned to Manila, my onetime home, determined to understand as an adult what had eluded me as a child. The city, which also is the capital, wasn't my primary destination, but it became a good launching point for trips to Corregidor and the Bataan Peninsula.

Manila has always played a strategic role in the life of this much-buffeted country. It sits on a large, natural deep-water harbor guarded by tadpole-shaped Corregidor, its strategic location prized by its enemies. The Bataan Peninsula sits across the bay.

Ferries to Corregidor leave early, taking tourists to this onetime penal colony. This was my second trip to the island, but, in retrospect, I am certain that my first visit was under protest. What 10-year-old wants to visit ruins of a war about which her father had said so little? I knew he had been in Manila, courtesy of the U.S. Navy, soon after its liberation, and I wasn't sure why he chose to come back a second time for a two-year stint, this time working for the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs). I thought then and for many years after that his decision was a longing for adventure of which I was an unwilling part.

On Corregidor this time, the history and the hardships began to sink in. The ferry whisks visitors 35 miles from Manila to a dock and a tour bus that took us to the high points: the batteries, where the big guns are mounted; the crumbling ruins, some of which housed soldiers, others of which contained such amenities as a swimming pool and a movie theater; the memorials to American and Filipino soldiers who fought here side by side until Gen. Jonathan Wainwright was forced to surrender a little more than 70 years ago.

The presentations by tour guide Rowena Alvarez were evenhanded, never blaming the missteps America's leaders made, never condemning the U.S. for its "Europe first" policy. I could do that for myself. At water's edge, the statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, pipe in one hand, the other raised in a farewell salute, made me blanch.

MacArthur had retired from the U.S. Army in 1937 but was recalled in July 1941 as commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East. In their meticulously reported book "Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath," authors Michael and Elizabeth Norman write that MacArthur had given Washington a more optimistic picture of the Philippines' readiness for war than was warranted. Except for the Philippine Scouts, a group of elite, well-trained soldiers, most of the Filipino troops were poorly trained — told to dig foxholes, some had to ask what those were — and so ill-equipped that some were forced to don coconut husks for helmets they didn't have.

Together with U.S. troops that shared MacArthur's misplaced optimism, they were thrown into a war that began just eight hours after the attack on Hawaii. Like U.S. aircraft at Pearl Harbor, aircraft here, left out in the open, were nearly all destroyed by the Japanese air attack.

Soon after, Manila was declared an "open city," meaning it was given up without a fight. U.S. troops concentrated on defending Bataan and Corregidor.

The Japanese thought they could take the Philippines in three weeks, maybe less. U.S. and Filipino forces held them off for five months. It was an amazing show of strength by soldiers weakened by disease and malnutrition, stemming from poor provisioning by military leaders.

MacArthur, meanwhile, was hunkered down in Corregidor's Malinta Tunnel, the 831-foot-long passage that is now the site of a gripping sound-and-light show. From here, MacArthur wrote this to his sick and starving soldiers: "Help is on the way from the United States. … Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes are being dispatched. The exact time of arrival of reinforcements is unknown as they will have to fight their way through Japanese attempts against them," the Normans reported in "Tears."

It was, the authors say, a "Judas kiss." Help was not on the way — at least, not then, and MacArthur knew it.

By orders of President Roosevelt, MacArthur and his family were evacuated from Corregidor to Australia in March 1942. The statue on Corregidor is inscribed with the general's famous quote, "I shall return." He kept his word, but it took him and his troops more than two years to fight their way back. By then, thousands of soldiers had died at the hands of their captors.

About 6,000 Japanese soldiers were killed when Corregidor was retaken in 1945. In the 1980s, the remains of the enemy fallen were cremated and returned home. Today, their onetime burial place is Corregidor's Japanese Garden of Peace, our last stop. A 10-foot-tall Buddhist statute presides over this place of contemplation. Some say the statue is a goddess of love, but, perhaps more accurately, she is meant to suggest mercy and compassion — love's heart.