Remembering The Pacific War

PrintPrintEmailEmail

My wife and I visited Corregidor last December. Some fifty other tourists boarded the big, enclosed hydrofoil with us for the trip across Manila Bay. Perhaps half our fellow passengers were Filipinos, a quarter Americans and Europeans, the rest Japanese. We all shared our box lunches amicably enough—the chicken-salad sandwiches entombed in Styrofoam, washed down with a warm orange soda called Zesto—and we all listened together in the same pained silence as loudspeakers blared “A Holly, Jolly Christmas” and “Feliz Navidad” over and over again. (The Christmas season begins in late October in the Philippines and may be celebrated there more relentlessly than anywhere else on earth.)

And everyone was elaborately polite to everyone else, the Japanese bowing and smiling as they maneuvered to get better snapshots of the little island, which grew larger as we hummed toward it, and of the jagged profile of the Bataan Peninsula, just off to its right. Clearly we all were determined that there be no hard feelings on this excursion into our common history.

After about an hour and a half, the hydrofoil finally coasted to a stop at the wharf, and we all trooped onto the low-lying part of the island. Small boys hurried out to greet us, waving antiaircraft shell casings and shouting, “Fifty pesos! Fifty pesos!” So furious was the fighting here that despite almost half a century of scouring by souvenir hunters, the boys still manage to find fistfuls of casings in the dense jungle that blankets much of the island. Several of us bought shells to take home.

But when it was time to board our tour buses, Japanese visitors were firmly told to get onto one; the rest of us were herded onto the other.

 

As our bus ground its way up the hillside toward Topside, the island’s spine along which the blasted, overgrown skeletons of the old American barracks still stand, I asked the Filipino guide why the island’s visitors were divided from one another this way. At first he said it was just “a language problem,” but when I persisted, he finally admitted that mixed tours simply didn’t work on Corregidor. “Too many memories,” he said. “The Japanese occupied the Philippines for more than three years. A million of us died. We still resent them. It’s better like this, more peaceful.”

Some Americans still felt the same way, he added, and the decision to segregate the visitors had, in fact, been made not long ago, after an American veteran of the Pacific fighting had shouted, “Shut up! Shut up!” at a Japanese tour guide with a bullhorn. The old man had been a Japanese prisoner of war, could not abide being shouted at again in the language of his long-ago captors, and had had to be restrained.

At first it all seemed a sad overreaction to one bitter man’s anger, but as we wended our way on foot through the Malinta tunnel, peering into the dark chambers in which so many men died waiting for the rescuers who never came, trying to imagine what it must have been like to hold out here for three months while Japanese bombs and shells rained down, day and night, we began to understand why our parties were carefully kept apart. And by the time our guide described the surrender ceremonies and reminded us of what later happened to the American and Filipino prisoners on Bataan, we were just as glad the Japanese were bunched still farther away.

On the trip back to Manila, we and the Japanese sat apart. I occupied myself with a promotional booklet published by the Philippine Department of Tourism outlining big plans for Corregidor: a tourist hotel, cottages, curio shops, a golf course, windsurfing, a memorial “Garden of Peace” built by Japanese veterans, and “The Malinta Experience,” a sound-and-light show in which “dynamic lighting and special effects will conjure airplane bombings, the batteries firing, the walls crumbling and people screaming.” The object of all this, according to the handout, is to promote Corregidor as an “Island of Valor, Peace and International Understanding.”

The evidence of valor is everywhere on Corregidor, but international understanding still comes hard.

It comes hard at Pearl Harbor too. No December would be complete without a new book or two on the Japanese attack, and, because this is its fiftieth anniversary, there are at least five to choose from.

Stanley Weintraub’s Long Day’s Journey Into War: December 7, 1941 (Button, $26.95) provides an engrossing account of that day, hour by hour, all across the world. In just under two hours 2,403 unsuspecting Americans were killed at Pearl Harbor—more than died in the Mexican and Spanish-American wars combined. But subsequent, still bloodier actions—and the fact that the first published photographs of the bombing showed blazing warships, not burned bodies—have somehow blurred the horrors of that Sunday morning, making the fury the Japanese attack engendered in the United States difficult now for young people to fathom.