Chasing Rainbows…Tales of a Well-Traveled Fly Fisherman – Corregidor

Before the outbreak of World War II, Corregidor, a tadpole-shaped island fortress at the mouth of sprawling Manila Bay, was unknown to nearly everyone except Filipinos and American military personnel. It is, and shall remain forever, hallowed ground in the annals of American military history. That history, our curiosity, and rumors of fabulous fishing opportunities led me and two fellow dental officers who worked alongside me at the hospital and casualty staging facility at Clark Air Base to plan a sightseeing and fishing trip to this remote and unpopulated site.

The aura of the war surrounded us at Clark. At times, we were excited beyond belief. Other times, we felt depressed and overwhelmed. Corregidor was about three hours south and west of the sprawling air logistics center of the Vietnam War that sat sixty miles north of Manila on the west edge of the Central Luzon plain.

Clark started out as a cavalry post, Fort Stotsenburg, during the Spanish-American War. In 1900, the commandant was General Arthur MacArthur, father of General Douglas MacArthur, who was commander of Clark in December 1941, when the Japanese attacked the Philippines at the beginning of World War II. The cavalry post became an army base, and then an air strip, first known as Kelly Field, was added as air power became a factor in warfare.

Kelly Field, Fort Stotensburg, Bataan, and Corregidor were overrun by invading Japanese forces shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Simultaneously, Cavite, our naval base south of Manila, was bombed and then overrun. Our men retreated to the tip of Bataan and to the island fortress Corregidor. After weeks under siege, ravaged by dysentery, facing impending starvation, and with no hope for reinforcement, the joint Philippine and American forces, under the leadership of General Jonathan Mayhew “Skinny” Wainwright, surrendered to the Japanese in April and May 1942. Historians would later use the phrase “They were expendable,” in reference to those men left behind. The US Pacific Fleet, with the exception of four aircraft carriers, was destroyed at Pearl Harbor. There was nothing our country or our allies could do. Our men would be herded like cattle north to Camp O’Donnell, a fetid Japanese war prison, and on to brutal internment at Cabanatuan, descriptions of which are found in Hampton Sides’award winning “Ghost Soldiers.” Nearly seventy thousand men died along the way, a third of them Americans, on the same route that our fishing party would be taking to Corregidor. That trek would be forever known as the Bataan Death March.

In the twenty-one years since the end of World War II, Clark had undergone dozens of changes, many of them to service the Vietnam War. A verdant polo field from an earlier, not-quite-finished colonial period had become a huge parade ground surrounded by tin-roofed, colonial-era officers’ housing. A fourteen-thousand-foot runway, flight line and repair shops, a jungle survival school, warehouses, a nuclear weapons depot, and an air force hospital that received 65 percent of all Vietnam War casualties had been constructed. The forty-thousand-acre base, with its distinctive perimeter road edged on both sides with flame trees, was surrounded by rice paddies, sugarcane fields, and barrios and was connected to the rest of the world by its airstrip and by a rough two-lane highway that was more asphalt patch than original roadway.

The highway ran north toward Baguio in the northern Luzon Mountains and south to Manila, with a branch heading west toward the US naval base at Subic Bay. There, a rural road branched off to the south and headed down the east side of the jungle-shrouded Bataan Peninsula that led to Corregidor, deteriorating along the way.

* * *

One Friday, during a lull in war casualties, I and my two fellow officers skipped lunch and mail call and doubled up on our afternoon patient schedule, which allowed us to leave the base by one in the afternoon. You didn’t want to drive on Philippine roads after darkness fell. My five-year-old Chevy sedan, an officer perk shipped from Oakland, was loaded with a case of frozen New York steaks from the base exchange, and a month’s worth of cigarette rations. We scrounged and traded to get cartons of mentholated Salems, as they brought the highest exchange rate in bartering. Also onboard were two heavy-duty spinning rods and the nine-foot-long Sealey Sea Trout fly rod and Pfleuger reel that I had used to capture The Monster.  I hoped to catch tuna on a fly rod.

We left directly from the hospital, first shedding our tan tropical uniforms, black shoes spit-polished by Filipino houseboys, and white lab coats for sandals, shorts, and T-shirts. The route down Highway One was known locally as the Road of Tears because of frequent lethal ambushes by members of the Hukbalahap, the revolutionary Communist guerrilla movement, and because parts of the road followed the route of the Bataan Death March.

Driving in the Philippines in 1967 was both an adventure and a kaleidoscope of Third World scenes and sensory input. Cars of the era didn’t have air-conditioning, so we kept the windows rolled down, allowing the odors of towns, roadside barrios, field animals, and humid fields to tell their story in an earthy way.

We took a shortcut, turning west off the highway south of Angeles City and detouring for miles on an unpaved, sandy sugar cane plantation road. At one point, we skirted a mud-hole trap laid for Americans by peasant cane field workers who would magically appear and offer to pull a stuck car out with their water buffalos for ten pesos. The shortcut allowed us to miss the traffic in San Fernando, the provincial capital of Pampanga Province, and to avoid several of the armed checkpoints that were common everywhere. They usually weren’t a threat, but the Philippine constabulary officers manning them often helped themselves to “gratuities,” such as foodstuffs and liquor. It was all grins on both sides as you passed the mordida (bite) to them. One never argued when machine guns or M14 assault rifles were held at ready. Besides, it was the custom in a country where graft and corruption were endemic. The road led west toward the jungle-covered Bataan spine that had to be climbed if you wanted to reach the naval base at Subic Bay.

We eventually left the cane fields behind and traversed thousands of hectares of flooded verdant rice paddies interspersed with steep-rising jungle hillocks and occasional clusters of swaying palms. We turned south onto a road that ran through sandy soils and through puddles regularly replenished by torrential afternoon downpours. The road skirted the Pampanga River delta, then continued along the northwest edge of Manila Bay.

Along the way, we slowed and stopped to photograph small fishing villages with net-drying racks, small nipa huts that held large extended families, squealing pigs, and rows of colorful panga fishing boats, laboriously hewn from huge jungle hardwood trees. Grinning, barefoot, children usually dressed only in ragged T-shirts ran alongside the car, and adults, showing the ravages of years spent under a relentless tropical sun, gave us the universal thumbs-up sign.

Americans were rarely seen in this area, and we were heroes in their eyes. MacArthur’s famous declaration of “I shall return” was realized at the end of the war, when American forces retook the Philippines, first with southern landings in Leyte Gulf, on the beaches of Mindoro Island, and then on to Gold Beach at Lingayen Gulf in northwestern Luzon.  Americans had died alongside their Philippine comrades on the Bataan Death March, in Japanese concentration camps, and in the invasions and subsequent campaigns. The term died is too kind. Stragglers were bayoneted and the lucky were beaten with rifle butts. Men who fell to drink from stagnant, mosquito-laden puddles were gutted with battle swords. Others were shot at close range. A memorial to those lost in the Pacific War and an American cemetery are located at the former Fort McKinley, south of Manila.  I have visited several times, never leaving with a dry eye.

We passed through more villages, each nestled above a small crescent beach at the base of a valley that flowed from the mountains to the east. Every village of them had its own fleet of panga fishing boats and contingent of screaming, children. I shot an entire roll of precious slide film trying to capture the landscape and culture. The winding road took the path of least resistance over undulating terrain. Sand and gravel filled the swales, turning to slippery clay on the high points.  Typhoons ravaged this part of the world annually, so repairing the roads didn’t do much good. Besides, there was no money.

Not long after, we arrived at our escape destination, Villa Carmen, a small resort compound on the tip of the peninsula owned by a family who could arrange for panga drivers from the village to take us to Corregidor. The enterprising owners had built several shade palapas (open-sided, thatched-roofed structures) under palm trees on the edge of a stunning white sand beach.  If we turned and looked south, we could see the imposing profile of Corregidor just three miles away. The palapas had hammocks slung from palm trees for sleeping and a small freshwater outdoor shower. The price tag was twenty pesos a day, actually less if you got a good exchange rate on the black market. Breakfasts of rice, fish, and bananas; fresh lobster and fish dinners; picnic lunches; and companionship were available for an additional price.  A steady supply of chilled San Miguel beer, and the obligatory young boys, always wanting to watch our car, were a few pesos more. The whole setup was like a page out of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. We felt like we had left our generation’s ugly war behind.

A winter sun settled low in the sky, leaving us enough time for a swim in the tepid aquamarine sea and a walk on the beach. Our hosts offered to grill the steaks we had brought, using the local wormy wood resembling mesquite for fuel. We had brought extra steaks as gifts, as we knew American beef was a rare luxury. Sergio, our host, would add skewered shrimp caught less than a mile offshore, and his wife, Carmelita, would supply freshly made lumpia (springs rolls), a national dish, and dipping sauces. Since winter was coming and the air felt cold to them, they built a fire in a lava rock ring on the edge of our shade palapa. In my time in the Philippines, a winter low was seventy-two degrees on a February morning at 5:00 a.m. on the flight line. I remember feeling chilly in my flight suit.

The three of us drank moderately that evening and were strangely quiet in front of the fire. We had seen a lot that day. You go to bed early in the tropics, which means you also stir at first light. Breakfast and American coffee were brought to us. We heard engines, and pangas soon appeared from the north. Slim, young drivers stood on the aft gunnels. They lifted single propeller shafts at the last minute and two colorful boats slid up the sand beach. Drinking water was loaded into the slender watercraft, followed by our fishing rods, and then Carmelita showed up with lunches packed in woven baskets.

In broken English, she admonished us to wear long-sleeved shirts, full-length pants, and wide-brimmed hats that she provided. Morning coolness was deceiving, she explained, and the sun off Corregidor later in the day would be brutal on our Caucasian skin.

Our pangas were powered by one-cylinder Clinton gas engines that thumped with every stroke. A single steel shaft ran through the dugout hull and extended three feet, ending in a two-bladed steel propeller held on by a nut and a single rusted cotter key. A small rudder was controlled by a long ironwood shaft that gave the driver balance. The drivers worked barefoot, with bird-like toes grasping the gunnels. These pangas mirrored others in the seven-thousand-island Philippine archipelago. Outriggers that stabilized the canoe-like boats were uneven in elevation, with the port-side one touching the water while the starboard one rose twelve inches above it. Having only one outrigger come into contact with the water at a time stabilized the panga and lowered the drag coefficient. The boat would skim the surface, knifing through the waves, with first one outrigger meeting the water and rising and then the other doing the same,  as the talented drivers performed a tropical aquatic ballet.

Our three Salem-fueled crafts reached the north side of Corregidor as the first rays of sunlight hit the water from the east. We skirted bombed-out concrete docks and coastal gun emplacements and passed destroyed warehouses entwined with jungle overgrowth. Our drivers kept heading east, beyond Corregidor and then westward out into the open South China Sea. We knew that the Vietnam coast lay not much more than several flight hours west.

The drivers looked for bright flashes, reflections from glistening patches of broken sea brought on by the bait fish known as sardinas being driven to the surface by voracious tuna. We learned to call these flashes bait boils, and once they began to appear, my fellow anglers were ready to throw glass-eyed chrome jig heads adorned with red and white feathers into them, while I would try for my first saltwater game fish on a fly rod, using an improvised freshwater rod and the same homemade streamer flies I had used to catch The Monster in the base pond.

My first tuna, actually an oceanic bonita on steroids that weighed about twenty pounds, inhaled the four-inch-long fly that I cast to the edge of a bait boil and then immediately headed for Vietnam. I had the good sense to keep my reel thumb out of the way and had no idea of how to stop or turn it when an eight-foot shark separated the body of the bonita from its head that still held my fly. Somewhat unnerved but undaunted, I tied on another precious fly and we headed to intercept another moving bait boil. I rose to cast and immediately had another grab. The new fish screamed west and then finally began to slow seventy five yards out. A telltale dorsal fin turned and accelerated to cut off my tuna. A larger shark broached, throwing spray ten feet into the air as it missed, and my fish, now on maximum adrenaline, went into overdrive. My fly reel, which was not designed for this type of fish, started smoking and then froze up. An even bigger shark cut my second fish in half, though not before I lost my expensive and only fly line and most of the Dacron backing on my reel. A shiver of realization told me that I was in the middle of a melee and might lie somewhere in that food chain. My driver, cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, opened his hands in a nonverbal show of, “what did you expect?”

We turned and headed for my partners, who were chasing another school of tuna a quarter of a mile south. They had similar experiences using spinning rods rigged with twenty-pound line, the heaviest that we had found at the base exchange. As we motored up and into a blood-tinted sea, I thought about what would happen if someone fell out of the narrow boat.

Such was our introduction to saltwater angling. It turned out that our panga boys knew what would happen. In Asia, it is impolite to suggest that something won’t work. Besides, each would get a precious carton of Salems for the day’s work, whether anyone caught a tuna or not. That night, I mused over the realization that the pangas had one gallon of reserve gas in a plastic bleach bottle and what I could see of the emergency kit consisted of a pair of rusted pliers, a spare spark plug, and an extra condenser. Nor were there life preservers, though the sharks took care of that problem if you fell overboard. An equatorial sun rose higher as we headed back toward Corregidor and the next part of our adventure.

Our drivers beached the pangas close to a decrepit concrete pier near where the tadpole tail of Corregidor joined its body. We slipped overboard into refreshing knee-deep water, knowing we would be dry in a few minutes. Ahead, a winding dirt road led up a short valley.  We noticed a small, weathered church of wood planks, with a lone wooden cross in place of a steeple, sitting on a flat, wide spot to the left of the road. A withered man, no more than five feet tall, rose from a sun shelter and walked toward us. He greeted us in broken English, his p’s and t’s replaced with f’s, a characteristic of Filipino speech. Soon we were talking. He told us his name was Aldrin and that no guides were available, but “I’ll take you around for two pesos each.” That fifty cents proved to be a valuable investment. We learned more in the next few hours than I had gathered in reading several books in the base library. Aldrin  had worked for the Americans on Corregidor before World War II and managed to escape the Japanese when they overtook the island. His story is a book in itself.

Corregidor was considered an impregnable American fortress before World War II. It had a hospital, a theater, warehouses, an officers’ club, barracks, massive gun emplacements, and a colonial social calendar. In three service branches, it was considered “good duty.” Daily boats ran to Manila and to the US naval base at Cavite. As we walked along a dirt road, Aldrin explained that a streetcar line had once run on it, shuttling personnel from the docks to Topside, the large, flat area of the island that harbored many of the major military structures.  In those days, men dressed for dinner in military whites and ladies wore cocktail dresses to dances where a twelve-piece band played into the night and strings of lights and lanterns illuminated the dance floor. Filipino houseboys and maids took care of much of the daily-living needs of American personnel. Military pay scales went a long way.

Aldrin continued to lead us up the road and into Malinta Tunnel, which bunkered munitions and was Douglas MacArthur’s residence in May 1942, when the Japanese bombarded the island from the southern tip of an overrun Bataan. We saw his small room and were told that it was where he got the nickname Dugout Doug. Aldrin offered no other comment, not knowing our thoughts on the matter. Another branch of the tunnel became a hospital after Topside was destroyed by Japanese artillery. I was surprised by how small the tunnel was.

We left Malinta and climbed toward Topside, walking past more ruins. Massive sixteen-inch coastal guns had toppled onto their sides. Jungle vines had taken over much of the landscape, and trees that had been incinerated by merciless bombing once again formed a canopy. Our guide told us where to step, as unexploded munitions were a danger. He cautioned us to watch for snakes, as well. We walked through a minefield of war debris. I knew that I was on a battlefield when I brushed against first a crate filled with unopened Japanese field rations and then against a second one holding plates, knives, and forks and tin cups stamped with Japanese characters. A few steps farther in, I spotted a sun-bleached piece of paper on the jungle floor. It was a menu from the officers’ club dining room. We wandered for a long time, stopping to sift through layers of organic matter and more archaeological debris. I saw a small trail opening into the vines and moved toward where it led. Aldrin took my shoulder and said, “You don’t want to go that way.” I knew enough to heed his warning. Perhaps we started out hunting for souvenirs, but we only looked that day. I realized we were treading on a sacred battlefield and to remove anything would desecrate the memory of the thousands of Americans, Filipinos, and Japanese soldiers who had died where we stood.

We returned to our pangas as the sun crested and then dipped to a point where men and dogs should be under a palm tree. Aldrin was animated now. When we neared the boats he said, “I have more surprises for tomorrow.” Our drivers pushed the boats out into Manila Bay, and as we turned and headed for Villa Carmen, a huge hammerhead shark, noticeably larger than the earlier ones, glided slowly underneath our pangas. We understood, better than distant war reporters did, why few swimmers escaped from Corregidor.

* * *

A tide that ran fast in the pass between Bataan and Corregidor had turned and was streaming out of Manila Bay. It took a bit longer to round the gentle point and return to Villa Carmen. The Friday drive and a before-dawn wake-up call had taken its toll. Besides, we were physically and emotionally shot after hours of prowling Corregidor. Another dip near the shoreline momentarily refreshed us, and a long nap in the hammocks took us deep into the afternoon. We sent a servant to ask Sergio and Carmelita to join us for dinner. They knew we needed to shower and change and arrived at an appropriate time with their eligible-age daughters. In the Philippines, a treasured green card was always a possibility.

We shared hard-to-get wine that we had brought and a light meal of grilled fish, rice, garlic-scented stir-fried camotes (sweet potatoes), and green papaya with soy sauce that lifted our spirits. After dinner and a desert of flan, a house servant appeared with a guitar for Carmelita. The same servant lit another fire in the lava ring. Carmelita played Philippine folk songs and sang, and Sergio told of bravery seen on the Death March and of things that had been left out of history books. He finished telling us of the next day’s plan. A panga would take us to Buckley’s Cove, the place near Mariveles where the PT boats were berthed that carried away MacArthur and his family and staff. The evening finished with Carmelita’s rendition of a popular song of the Philippines, the hauntingly beautiful “Dahil Sa lyo,” which brought tears to everyone’s eyes. Sergio said that some survivors of the Death March lived here.

Darkness closed in on a moonless night. We found cold beers in an ice chest, sat around the fading coals, and stared out at the dancing lights of a pirate Chinese shrimping junk not far offshore. If we cupped our ears we could hear the voices of the Cantonese crewmen. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it was like during the bombardment.

Again we rose early, and after coffee and fruit, a larger panga appeared. The three of us waded out to the boat and were greeted by Aldrin, who was seated amidships. We headed south and rounded several small points before dipping into a little cove. Why was Aldrin aboard? I sensed that something special lay ahead. As we glided into a jungle-shrouded watery crescent, two rickety docks appeared. Weathered planks sawn from jungle hardwood sagged between bamboo pilings, and rotting ropes hung from the pilings. To one side lay the crest of an oyster reef that was exposed by an outgoing tide. Herons poised on single legs among the mangroves waited for small fish. The only sound that was heard was of roosters crowing in the distance. It was Sunday morning.

Aldrin motioned for us to come close together and then began speaking. “This is where the PT boats were based. Buckley was their commander. He and a second boat evacuated Douglas MacArthur; his wife, Jean; his young son; their Philippine maid; and a few important members of his entourage from Corregidor, before it was overrun by the Japanese.” Aldrin paused and started again. “I was at the dock when they left. They took a perilous route south for four hundred miles, risking uncharted reefs and encounters with Japanese patrol planes and boats, destroyers and cruisers. They ran during the day and at night on a full moon through unmapped seas and rendezvoused with an American PBY seaplane that eventually took them to Australia.”

We knew that from there, MacArthur lobbied for and led the gathering of forces, equipment stockpiling, and preparations that would move inexorably north to New Guinea and the South Pacific islands of Michener’s Adventures in Paradise, in an island-hopping campaign that would eventually liberate the Philippines.

After duty on rainy nights, I had read in Clark’s screened, tin-roofed stilted library of Buckley and of this place. I had poured through books and binders full of MacArthur’s letters. One account told of a sortie on a moonless night. Two boats left the cove slowly with engines at idle, rounded into the South China Sea, and then accelerated on patrol toward Subic Bay, which lay miles north. Nearing Subic, they surprised a Japanese cruiser that was steaming out of the protected harbor at flank speed. Brave men in 60-foot-long plywood hulled boats dared to attack a 470-foot-long imperial war machine. One boat returned.

We glided in and tied to the near dock. I closed my eyes and heard the throaty roar of the Alison aircraft engines that powered the boats, then the rattling of the aft .50-caliber machine gun. I wondered what thoughts were running through the minds of the young crew. A rusted, anemone-covered engine block lay underwater to one side. As we stood silently, Aldrin told us about the young American soldiers who had lived here and said that there was something else to see. We would have to walk a mile or so.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps I thought we would see war relics from Wainwright’s forces, or maybe foxholes, bunkers, and even rusted abandoned weapons. Instead, we walked slowly up a dirt road that led past more bombed-out warehouses. It was ten in the morning and we were already sweating. Around a bend, the small valley opened up and before us was a three-sided structure that backed up against a jungle-covered hillside. The roof was missing and the remaining walls showed the ravages of artillery shelling. The open wall consisted of a fourteen-foot cyclone fence topped with concertina wire, the kind we used in Vietnam to slow down the progress of Viet Cong sappers and now use atop prison walls. As we got closer, we heard a rising human din. Soiled people dressed in rags ran toward the fence. They grabbed pots and pans from caches in the walls and banged on and rattled the wire, screaming for help in a myriad of dialects that we didn’t understand. We were witnessing a Third World country’s worst nightmare. It was an insane asylum.

Aldrin motioned for us to move closer. Immediately my mind raced toward the horrors of James Michener’s description of the leper colony on Moloka‘i in Hawaii. He pulled us close together and uttered a quiet sentence, “This is my country’s dark secret. I wanted someone to know that for many, the war is not over.”

On the way back to Clark, we stopped ten miles or so down the sandy road at a small, shaded sari-sari store. We were lucky, as it had both ice and beer. My friends practiced their Tagalog a bit by chatting with the withered, grinning Filipina clerk, who gratefully took their pesos and a generous tip. I told them to take their time, as I wanted to walk a little to get the kinks out and to get a photo from the crest of a hill around a bend in the road.

I wanted to be alone. Just ahead, steam rose from puddles filled by an afternoon thunder shower and jungle crept to the edge of the road. I was walking the route of the Death March.