My arrival at manila international airport, in the small hours of a Thursday morning, is hilarious. Carlos Romulo, a friend of mine and a legend to the Filipinos, has sent word from the UN that he wants his countrymen to treat me with “our traditional hospitality.” Traditional hospitality, to one of the Spanish patricians who rule the Philippines, stops just short of offering a guest his place in the marriage bed. One moment I am standing before an officious little airport bureaucrat, arguing with him over the validity of a health form. In the next moment this unfortunate clerk is whisked away, possibly to penal servitude, and I am being greeted by a delegation of ten high officials, headed by a cabinet minister. As I slide into an air-conditioned limousine, a siren commences to wind in a police cruiser directly in front of us, and we are off, following it to the Manila Hotel, where General Douglas MacArthur lived before Pearl Harbor. My schedule, I am told, has been prepared. President Marcos will receive me. His First Lady, the beautiful Imelda Romualdez Marcos — a.k.a. “the Iron Butterfly” — will also grant me an audience, and on the last evening of my visit the Romulo family will hold a reception in my honor.
This sort of thing hasn't happened to me since the Turkish general staff mistook me for an envoy from President Eisenhower. My feelings are mixed. Official sanction opens many doors, but it closes others. The Philippines have been under martial law for seven years; Marcos is a dictator; anxiety over his image abroad has, I'm sure, been one of his motives in staging this fantastic welcome for me. Luckily I haven't arrived unprepared; I have the names of the underground leaders who oppose him, and I know how to reach them. My mission, however, is neither to flatter nor to expose the present regime. I am digging into the past, and the past, in the Philippines, is littered with booby traps. Many members of Manila's present Establishment bear names of men who collaborated with the Japanese during the war; one must be careful with them. In addition, as Teddy White has observed, the journalist who becomes a celebrity has special problems. Those whom he interviews know that their replies to him may be quoted by historians. So they become bland at best, or, at worst, self-serving.
In Manila a prosperous American may quickly acquire the feeling of having become an honorary member of a very small upper class, all of whom recognize one another anywhere. I am unastonished to encounter Imelda Marcos in a public building. We chatter idly about her coronation as Miss Manila '53 — there had been no Miss Manila until then, but her family's powerful friends created the title when she wasn't chosen Miss Philippines — and we hardly notice her guard of honor, twenty-two uniformed Filipinos with fixed bayonets, standing at present arms. In czarist Russia noblemen called the masses “the dark people.” Here they are more like an endless bolt of gray cloth, every thread exactly like the others. It would be so easy to retreat into one of the patricians' mansions, but the rules of the writer's trade forbid that. So I cancel appointments and, instead, ride on “jeepneys” and explore the city. Jeepneys are minibuses, jeeps roofed with gaudy awnings and decorated, on their bonnets, with silvery Catholic icons. Recognizing my nationality, passengers call me “Joe,” and some ask for money, the shiny barrier between all Americans and the world's have-nots. Its presence is felt most keenly when one wanders into the Tondo, Manila's equivalent of San Juan's Perla, a vast slum of huts and cardboard cartons, where, one is told, strangers may be slain by poison dart guns. I emerge unharmed but glad to be out of it. I wouldn't venture into the Tondo after dark.
Next morning I rise before dawn. My room overlooks Manila Bay, and in the first olive moments of day I sense a hulk of land to my right. Then the land becomes visible, a peninsula floating in a smoke-colored vapor, and the jungly land rises harshly to two five-thousand-foot mountains whose torn, ragged edges, even in that opaque haze, betray their volcanic origin. I am looking at Bataan.
Beginning at 2:00 A.M. on Monday, December 22, 1941, three shopping days before Christmas, some forty-three thousand troops of Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma's Fourteenth Army began wading ashore at Lingayen Gulf, 120 miles north of Manila. They had been expected for two weeks. Guam had fallen to the Japs in a few hours, and although the U.S. Marine garrison still held Wake Island, after a forty-five-minute battle in which a handful of Marines had routed a Nipponese invasion fleet, Wake was also doomed. But everyone knew that the real struggle would come in the Philippines. Allied troops were commanded by a sixty-year-old general who had retired from the U.S. Army in 1937 and had been recalled to active service by President Roosevelt the same day Roosevelt shut off Tokyo's oil spigots. Douglas MacArthur's great years lay ahead, but no one could have known that in the tumultuous days which followed Pearl Harbor. Despite nine hours' warning from Pearl, the general's air force was destroyed on the ground at Clark Field. Moreover, he had failed to move his rice stocks to defensible positions. And now, with Homma ashore, most of Mac-Arthur's green, undisciplined Filipino troops broke and ran for the hills. Over ten thousand Jap assault troops, spreading like a vast stain over northern Luzon, merged into three columns and came thundering down Route 3, the old cobblestoned military highway that led to Manila.
Then MacArthur recovered. The Japanese expected him to defend the capital. Instead, he abandoned it and executed a series of dazzling moves which stunned and bewildered Homma. Soliders call a retreat a “retrograde maneuver.” MacArthur was carrying out a double retrograde maneuver, extricating both the surviving troops which were still fighting Homma and the smaller force defending southern Luzon, uniting them and thereby foiling the enemy's attempt to split his command. Leapfrogging his divisions backward, holding positions until the last possible moment and then twitching down barriers for their pursuers to stumble over, he withdrew his forces across the twin-spanned Calumpit Bridge, twenty miles northwest of Manila, just south of the San Fernando rail junction. Then, with his forces intact, he ordered the bridge blown. Looking like “a tired hawk” — the phrase is Romulo's — MacArthur had succeeded in forming an army of sixty-five thousand Filipinos and fifteen thousand Americans within the sheer green ridges and deep valleys of Bataan Peninsula. On January 6, 1942, they sowed mines, dug trenches, and wired themselves in, awaiting the enemy's assault on their line.
It came and they held. And held. And held. To the amazement of the world, which had seen resistance to Dai Nippon crumble everywhere else — the siege of Singapore had lasted just seven days when the British general surrendered eighty-five thousand Empire troops to thirty thousand Japanese — MacArthur's men, ridden by malaria, beriberi, smallpox, dysentery, hookworm, dengue fever, and pellagra, repulsed Homma's January offensive and, when he attempted two amphibious landings behind their lines, flung the invaders into the sea. Again and again the American regulars and their Filipino allies barred the enemy from penetrating deeper than the midriff of the peninsula. They thought they could retake Manila, which, at the time, seemed a distinct possibility. Homma was a bumbling commander, and his troops, also afflicted by diseases, were second-rate; Japan's elite divisions were attacking the Malay Barrier, south of Singapore. All MacArthur's men needed was help from the United States. And therein lies a tragic tale.
They had every reason to believe that convoys were on the way. Roosevelt cabled Manuel Quezon, president of the Philippine Commonwealth, then on Corregidor: “I can assure you that every vessel available is bearing … the strength that will eventually crush the enemy. … I give to the people of the Philippines my solemn pledge that their freedom will be retained. … The entire resources in men and materials of the United States stand behind that pledge.” General George C. Marshall, FDR's army chief of staff, radioed MacArthur: “A stream of four-engine bombers, previously delayed by foul weather, is enroute. … Another stream of similar bombers started today from Hawaii staging at new island fields. Two groups of powerful medium bombers of long range and heavy bomb-load capacity leave this week. Pursuit planes are coming on every ship we can use. … Our strength is to be concentrated and it should exert a decisive effect on Japanese shipping and force a withdrawal northward.”
All this was untrue. Not a plane, not a warship, not a single U.S. reinforcement reached Bataan or Corregidor. The only possible explanation for arousing false expectations on the peninsula was that Washington was trying to buy time for other, more defensible outposts. As the truth sank in, the men facing Homma became embittered. Unaware that MacArthur had to remain on the island of Corregidor — “the Rock” — because its communications center provided his only contact with Washington, they scornfully called the general “Dugout Doug.” That was cruel, and unjust. But if ever men were entitled to a scapegoat, they were. Quite apart from the Japanese, they faced Bataan's almost unbelievable jungle. Cliffs are unscalable. Rivers are treacherous. Behind huge nara (mahogany) trees, eucalyptus trees, ipils, and tortured banyans, almost impenetrable screens are formed by tropical vines, creepers, and bamboo. Beneath these lie sharp coral outcroppings, fibrous undergrowth, and alang grass inhabited by pythons. In the early months of the year, when the battle was fought, rain poured down almost steadily. The water was contaminated. MacArthur's men ate roots, leaves, papayas, monkey meat, wild chickens, and wild pigs. They sang, to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:
Dugout Doug MacArthur lies ashakin' on the Rock
Safe from all the bombers and from any sudden shock …
And one soldier wrote:
We're the battling bastards of Bataan:
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam,
No aunts, no uncles, no nephews, no nieces,
No rifles, no planes, or artillery pieces,
And nobody gives a damn.
Yet they fought on, with a devotion which would puzzle the generation of the 1980s. More surprising, in many instances it would have baffled the men they themselves were before Pearl Harbor. Among MacArthur's ardent infantrymen were cooks, mechanics, pilots whose planes had been shot down, seamen whose ships had been sunk, and some civilian volunteers. One civilian was a saddle-shoed American youth, a typical Joe College of that era who had been in the Philippines researching an anthropology paper. A few months earlier he had been an isolationist whose only musical interest was Swing. He had used an accordion to render tunes like “Deep Purple” and “Moonlight Cocktail.” Captured and sentenced to be shot, he made a last request. He wanted to die holding his accordion. This was granted, and he went to the wall playing “God Bless America.” It was that kind of time.
Only in early spring, when Homma was strengthened by twenty-two thousand fresh troops, howitzers, and fleets of Mitsubishis and Zeroes, did the Filipinos and Americans on Bataan Peninsula surrender. Then Corregidor, the bone in the throat of Manila Bay, held out for another exhausting month. Even so, Marines and bluejackets entrenched on the island's beaches killed half the Nipponese attack force. And it wasn't until June 6 that formal resistance ended, when a Jap hauled down the last American flag and ground it under his heel as a band played “Kimigayo,” his national anthem.
Nevertheless, the capitulation was the largest in U.S. history. For those who had survived to surrender on Bataan, the worst lay ahead: the ten-day, seventy-five-mile, notorious Death March to POW cages in northern Luzon. Jap guards began shooting prisoners who collapsed in the sun and suffocating dust beneath the pitiless sky. Next they withheld water from men dying of thirst. Beatings followed, and beheadings and torture. No one knows how many Allied soldiers perished during this Gethsemane, but most estimates run between seven and ten thousand. After the war the Filipinos decided to pay tribute to these martyrs with signposts marking each kilometer on Route 3, which was paved and rechristened MacArthur Highway. Each sign bore a silhouette of three stumbling Allied infantrymen trying to help one another, and travelers were told how far the Death Marchers had struggled at that point. It is sad to note that over half the signs have vanished, lost through neglect or taken by sightseers. This is that kind of time.
But other memorials are intact, though not always where one might expect to find them. The airstrip where MacArthur lost most of his B-17 air force is merely another B-52 runway. The vital Calumpit Bridge is identifiable only by an odd reference point: a soft-drink bottling factory surrounded by weeds. There are no plaques or shafts in the rainforests where the beleaguered Filipinos and Americans counterattacked Homma's troops, driving them back and back. However, in the village, or barrio, of Lamao, which lies on the bay side of the peninsula, a stone identifies the spot where Major General Edward P. King, Jr., the Bataan commander, capitulated on April 9, 1942, and in Mariveles, on the southern tip, an American rifle is cemented into a block, with a GI helmet welded to the butt of the gun. If you charter a helicopter, monuments may be found on the slopes of the peninsula's towering heights, Mount Mariveles and Mount Natib. One inscription reads, “Our mission is to remember”; another, in Tagalog, the native tongue, marks the “Damabana Nang Kagitingan” — the “Altar of Valor.” A relief map with colored red and blue lights shows successive Japanese and Allied positions on the peninsula. It is interesting to note that the altar is the work of Ferdinand E. Marcos, who, as a junior officer here (he was a third lieutenant), was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars, and two Purple Hearts, making him the war's most decorated Filipino. If Mussolini made trains run on time, it can at least be said that Marcos lets the dead lie in style. There is just one happily discordant note. Chiseled letters bear the democratic message “To Live in Freedom's Light Is the Right of Mankind.” Above it stands a crucifix formed of two parallel uprights and two horizontal bars. It can only be described as a double cross.
The easiest way to see Bataan, if you can afford it, is by helicopter; next easiest is by rented launch, which can take you from Manila to Mariveles — where tadpole-shaped Corregidor is visible, three miles from the peninsula — in less than two hours. But if you really want to steep yourself in Bataan's synoptic past, you must go by land. Since there is no rail service and buses are unreliable, this means in a car, preferably with four-wheel drive, because ruts and potholes pit MacArthur Highway. Lack of maintenance characterizes the Pacific's adoption of occidental modes almost everywhere. It may even be found in the tiny central Pacific Republic of Nauru, whose precious phosphate deposits are said to give its six thousand people a per capita income of over forty thousand dollars a year. If a car breaks down on Nauru, it is ditched and replaced with another.
There are no limousines on Bataan, and very few cars. The typical vehicle is a wagon drawn by a horse or a bullock. To park and enter a barrio is to move back to the Stone Age. Until MacArthur retreated into the peninsula, the inhabitants lived as their ancestors had, content in their insularity. After the war most of them returned to it. There are a few signs of the twentieth century there — an Exxon refinery at Lamao and a few tiny huts with rusting tin roofs where Hollywood films are shown. Even so, none of the natives seems to grasp what a refinery is, and the favorite recreation is watching cockfights. The government in Manila has outlawed them, but the peasants here don't know it; inland, they haven't even heard of Manila. Or, for that matter, of Bataan. It is their universe; they need no name for it. Except for the inhabitants of New Guinea and the northern Solomons, I know of no people more isolated from the outside world than the Bataanese. Here, on mountainous slopes within sight of the Philippines' capital, warriors hunt game with bows and arrows. Lithe Filipinas, striding past rice paddies with hand-carved wooden pitchforks balanced on their lovely heads, pass backdrops which might be taken from a Tarzan movie — waterfalls cascading in misty rainbows, orchids growing from canyon walls, and, from time to time, typhoons lashing the palm-fringed beaches.
Driving from the site of the Calumpit Bridge to Mariveles, you leave your car from time to time for excursions beyond the bayside barrios. The villages are all pretty much alike. There is no electricity — generators must be brought in for the rare movies — and virtually no line of communications to the world outside. Fishermen live in little straw shacks atop stilts. Their boats are outriggers. Inland, bullocks tug hand-hewn implements through rice paddies; the green sprouts are reaped by stooping women wading in the ankle-deep water. Their husbands climb palm trees to toss down coconuts, whose dried meat, copra, is their one export — the largest export, indeed, of the entire Philippines. An acrid scent bites the air; following it, you come upon a sugarcane field being burned off. Somehow the jungle seems friendlier to those who inhabit it. Men sing as they hammer away with rough mauls; women gossip while sitting in a circle, peeling leaves from cabbage plants; children hoot cheerfully as they play tag between lumbering water buffalo in shallow, muddy streams crowded on their banks with huge green shrubs whose wide leaves dip gracefully in all directions.
Twice, in the memory of their patriarchs, outsiders have arrived uninvited to use this as a killing ground: in the 1942 struggle and again when the victorious Americans returned three years later. No one knows how many peasants were slain by random shots and artillery bursts, but certainly more of them died than American civilians at home, who had a stake in the war yet were out of danger. And what, the Sergeant in me asks, did we give them in return? Well, there was venereal disease, hitherto unknown here. And insensate hatred between aliens, and efficient ways to destroy those you hated. Most cruelly, they were left with an uneasy feeling that these monstrous strangers had, for all their brutality, found clever ways of making life more tolerable and interesting. It was cruel because that way of life can never coexist with theirs. One recalls a prescient passage in the journal of Captain James Cook, the first European to discover the South Seas, in 1769: “I cannot avoid expressing it as my real opinion that it would have been far better for these poor people never to have known our superiority in the accommodations and arts that make life comfortable, than after once knowing it, to be again left and abandoned in their original incapacity of improvement. Indeed they cannot be restored to that happy mediocrity in which they lived before we discovered them if the intercourse between us should be discontinued.”
I am aboard a helicopter, descending through a blue mist between Corregidor's sheer cliffs toward the old Fort Drum parade ground. From this height the island seems larger than expected — about the size of Manhattan — and attractive. Of course, that was not always true. “Why, George,” Jean MacArthur said to George Kenney, her husband's air commander, when she returned to Manila Bay at the end of the war, “what have you done to Corregidor? I could hardly recognize it, when we passed it. It looks as though you had lowered it at least forty feet.” Certainly it had been lowered some. Between Japanese artillery in the first months of the war and Kenney's B-24s dumping four thousand tons of bombs on it later, the Rock had been changed beyond belief, denuded, among other things, of all vegetation. Today neither Jean nor Kenney would recognize the Rock. Two years after the war American troops reforested it, populated it with monkeys and small deer, and presented it to the Philippines as a national park. Only park police and caretakers live there now, though there is a small guesthouse on a bluff overlooking the North Dock for tourists who want to remain overnight. Like the picnics at Verdun in the 1920s, turning the Rock into a recreational spot may be an attempt to exorcise the desperate past.
If so, it fails, for despite the view from the helicopter, once you step upon the parade ground you feel yourself caught by a slipped cog of time, transported back in a thirty-seven-year time warp. Especially is this true in Malinta Tunnel. The tunnel is a short ride from the parade ground in a park bus, or, if you have taken the two-hour ferry from Manila, a short winding walk from the North Dock. Twin sets of rails lead into Malinta, but they are useless now; a recent typhoon loosened an avalanche on the craggy hill overhead, which slid down the seventy-foot beetling outcropping over the east entrance, partly blocking it and reducing the carved legend there to nnel. Inside the 826-foot shaft are twenty-four 30-foot laterals, short passages branching off the main corridor. There is no electricity, and you have to step carefully to avoid stumbling over old crates of eight-inch-gun ammunition, but with a flashlight you can read signs identifying which laterals were used for casualties, for religious services, for messing, for nurses' quarters (a wooden barrier across the maw here; the memory of their virginity is honored by Filipinos, who still think maidenhood important), and — Lateral Number Three — for MacArthur's headquarters.
In the dim light and dank, musty air, one feels like an intruder. You are surrounded by some eleven thousand ghosts, the number of men Jonathan Wainwright surrendered to the Japanese on May 8, 1942. A sense of individual loneliness survives them. Here they had wept, moaned, sworn, slept fitfully, dreamed, quivered with fear, bled, and died. In these laterals each had endured his or her special kind of illness — the women terrified of rape, Filipino Catholics (four of every five) of dying without last rites; Romulo in anguish for his family, now in Jap hands; Quezon coughing away his tubercular life; MacArthur pacing in his cramped quarters and threatening to disobey Washington's repeated order that he abandon his command and try to break out to Australia, saying, as he paced, that he would rather resign his commission, cross to Bataan, and enlist there as a private. The general's prose was dramatic, as always, but Corregidor's last stand was nothing if not melodramatic. After Corregidor had fallen he said of it: “Intrinsically it is but a barren, war-worn rock, hallowed as so many places [are], by death and disaster. Yet it symbolizes within itself that priceless, deathless thing, the honor of a nation. Until we claim again the ghastly remnants of its last gaunt garrison, we can but stand humble supplicants before Almighty God. There lies our Holy Grail.”
The remains of Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor
American sophisticates mocked such empurpled rhetoric, but there was no laughter in the Philippines. To Filipinos the Rock is still sacred ground. Leaving Malinta one discovers, around a corner to the left, a thirty-foot stone shaft with a simple plaque identifying this as the spot where Wainwright displayed the white flag. A mounted diagram shows who was where during the siege. On Top-side, Corregidor's highest point, a marble dome is suspended above a white memorial; once a year the sun shines through the hole in the dome, turning white to gold. Nearby an eternal flame flickers, and torn pieces of shells and strips from wrecked aircraft have been welded into a cathedral spire. Walls alongside bear the names of the great Pacific battles. The Japanese remember Corregidor, too. Nipponese Christians have erected a cross, with the inscription, in Japanese and English: “May the bodies of the dead soldiers of the Philippines, the U.S., and Japan rest in peace.”
War monuments have never stirred me. They are like the reconstructed buildings at Colonial Williamsburg, or elaborate reproductions of great paintings; no matter how deft the execution, they are essentially counterfeit. In addition, they are usually beautiful and in good taste, whereas combat is neither. Before the war I thought that Hemingway, by stripping battle narratives of their ripe prose, was describing the real thing. Afterward I realized that he had simply replaced traditional overstatement with romantic understatement. War is never understated. Combat as I saw it was exorbitant, outrageous, excruciating, and above all tasteless, perhaps because the number of fighting men who had read Hemingway or Remarque was a fraction of those who had seen B movies about bloodshed. If a platoon leader had watched Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Errol Flynn, Victor McLaglen, John Wayne, or Gary Cooper leap recklessly about, he was likely to follow his role model. In crises most people are imitative. Soldiers received “Dear John” letters copied from those quoted in the press. The minority who avoided Hollywood paradigms were, like me, people who had watched fewer B movies than we had read books. That does not mean that we were better soldiers and citizens. We certainly weren't braver. I do think that our optics were clearer, however — that what we saw was closer to the truth because we weren't looking through MGM or RKO prisms.
Thus my most moving moments on Corregidor are neither in the tunnel nor before the shrines. They are more mundane, coming amid the island's surface relics, where men like me fought against impossible odds to defend the yawning AA batteries and the huge, 360-degree, 12-inch coastal batteries, with their 17-mile range, which still leer across Manila Bay. Particularly evocative are the gaunt stone dun-colored skeletons of the ruined Fort Mills barracks, now overgrown with lichen and dalakorak vines. Here, rusted but still recognizable, is the homely debris of military housekeeping, the canteens and mess gear, the hastily discarded .30- and .50-caliber shells, the old-fashioned straight razors and steel combs and mops used in preparing for formal inspections in the last days of peace. And as I poke and prod among these souvenirs of anguish, my mind drifts back to the tunnel's rail track. It troubles me, something there. I once saw rails like that before.
Of course! It had been that single, narrow-gauge set of tracks at the Asa Kawa. I had skulked along its embankment on my way to …
Abruptly the poker of memory stirs the ashes of recollection and uncovers a forgotten ember, still smoldering down there, still hot, still glowing, still red as red.
The name of the little rise was Amike Ridge. The Japs held it; we needed it. But enemy guns on adjacent hills kept driving us off. The last time there had been any large-scale action here, an attacking company had been reduced to one officer and nineteen men. Now Bob Fowler, Fox Company's CO, was being told to take the crest late that afternoon. I carried the message to him in the shadow of that railroad embankment. His SCR-536, his hand-talkie, wasn't working — they never did when you needed them — and his SCR-300, his backpack radio, had also broken down, cutting his only wireless tie with battalion. So I had been sent. Had I known I was carrying a sheaf of death warrants, I would have ducked into the company command post (CP), left Fowler's order with any one of his several lieutenants or senior noncoms, and made myself scarce. Runners like me were transients, subject to hijacking by any commander who needed an extra hand. Sure enough; moments after I rambled in, smeared with mire from the embankment, the corporal who was supposed to lead the right-hand squad took a bullet in the shoulder. Fowler, recognizing me, told me to replace the corporal. I was, I realized, in deep peril. One squad, twelve men, would be looking out for each other. And who was going to look out for their strange new three-striped leader? Since Fowler himself was later killed, I can't be bitter. But God knows I felt ill-used before that night was over.
As it happened we weren't part of the assault. There was a little draw just west of the ridge, pitted with shell holes. Fowler wanted it cleared out; Japs hidden there could turn his flank. It was uninhabited, but lethal all the same, for the enemy was encircling the entire ridge with a tremendous concentration of artillery. As my father had found, the worst shells are those that burst overhead. That was what the Nips were sending over. I remember hearing the chargers braying on the left as the men went up the slope, the Southerners among them yip-yipping their rebel yells, while I carefully probed the length of the draw, my .45's safety off, my finger ready to squeeze at the slightest sound or movement. My exaggerated, combat-wise, high-knee gait was like the strides of a man wearing new bifocals and unsure of how far away the ground might be. I was seasoned now, scared but in control provided I wasn't pushed too hard. I didn't anticipate trouble once I saw the draw was empty. No shells were arriving there just then.
Actually I was about to be shoved and decked. I was returning to the squad on the double when I tripped on a strand of communications wire and fell headlong into a large muddy crater left by an earlier bombardment. At that instant a Jap shell shimmied in and exploded about fifteen feet above the draw. My fall saved me. The others were all killed instantly, though I had no way of knowing that at the time. Fowler's attack was clearly failing; the shouts were fading, dying down. I had no intention of moving till night fell. When it did, I crawled around to find whether there were any of my people still alive. There weren't; no one moaned; everywhere I groped I felt only gobs of blood, shards of shattered bones, ropy intestines, and slimy brains. A flare burst overhead. I saw none of the squad had made it. There wasn't even the form of a human body. I slid back into the crater and lay there for a while in a numb stupor, trying to wipe the offal from my hands. Suddenly I half turned into the muck, a victim of survivor's guilt, pounding and pounding and pounding my fist, sobbing, It isn't fair, it isn't fair, they're dead, why can't I be dead, it isn't fair. Twelve men had been entrusted to me and I had lost them. Still weeping, I passed out.
There are no clocks on battlefields. Time is seamless there. I haven't the faintest idea how long I was out. As I regained consciousness in the darkness a fly was drawing Zs around my head. There was no other sound, only an enormous stillness without echo. Apparently rain had fallen; I was drenched, and there were new puddles around me. I felt paralyzed. It was so bleak in that hole, so lonely and so forever. I wondered vaguely if this was when it would end, whether I would pull up tonight's darkness like a quilt and be dead and at peace ever more. Again I passed out, and as I came to, I felt the skin prickling on the backs of my hands and the nape of my neck. A fresh fear was creeping across my mind, quietly, stealthily, imperceptibly. I sat up, my muscles rippling with suppressed panic, stared across the shell hole, now dimly lit by moonlight and a descending flare, and saw that I had company, a creature somehow familiar, who flickered in and out of sight, an adumbration on the fringes of my awareness.
Hallucinations, as Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon recalled in their memoirs of World War I trench warfare, are common in war. If you lie in a dark hole, listening to the sound of your own breathing, dead objects may rise and live, bald rocks may be transformed into men's pates, pinnacled stones may become witch's fingers. One of the commonest delusions is to see in the distance a buddy you know is dead, one you actually saw die, now very much alive. He is smiling at you. You run over and, of course, he isn't there. Then there are appearances of phantom Nips. I knew a major who dropped his pants in the bush on Guadalcanal and squatted to defecate. A shot rang out. Another Marine had spotted a Nip sniper in a coconut tree overhead. The dead sniper dropped thirty feet and plopped right in front of the major. Starting right then he developed an extraordinary case of constipation. Every time he tried to empty his bowels he saw Japs above him. Three weeks later he was flown to Nouméa for surgery, but meanwhile his value in combat had been wiped. Similarly, a man in our 81-millimeter mortar platoon awoke in his foxhole one night and saw himself ringed by Japs with fixed bayonets. He grabbed his carbine, tried to turn off the safety, and hit the magazine release instead. The magazine fell out. He had a weapon but no ammunition in it. He grabbed the barrel by the stacking swivel, turning the butt into a club, and swatted away in all directions, crying for help. He was lucky he wasn't killed by the Marines around him. They wrestled him to the ground and convinced him he was out of danger, but to the end of his life, three weeks later, he stubbornly insisted that those Japs had been real. And, of course, to him they were.
So it was with me that terrible night. Another flare revealed that my visitor was feminine. That was startling: what was a woman doing up here? My heart welling with pity, I thought she must be a native, one of the innocent civilian bystanders who were dying in the struggle for the island. Then the shock of recognition hit me. She wasn't harmless. She was evil. I was in the presence of the Whore of Death. Since killing my first Japanese soldier I had been one of her many pimps, leading Jap after Jap into her brothel. Now she wanted me as her next trick.
Her identity might have puzzled others. She lacked the grace and movements of a geisha; she wasn't even oriental. Nor was she the stereotypical slut of the Occident. She wore no black-net stockings, no flimsy negligee. She knew her mark too well for that. Corrupted innocence, not candid wickedness, was the right bait for an inhibited New Englander. She was, instead, dressed like the girls I remembered at Smith and Mount Holyoke: a cashmere twin-sweater set, a Peter Pan collar, a string of pearls, a plaid skirt, bobby socks, and loafers. Her dirty-blond hair fell in a shoulder-length pageboy coiffure, and when she turned her head abruptly to glance at her watch, she tossed her tresses like a young goddess. Her legs were crossed, her skirt demurely below her knees. Judging by her silhouette in the dim moonlight, her figure was superb, her breasts high and firm beneath the cashmere, her legs magnificent. Glowing phosphorescence, a kind of inner light, revealed the lure of her sexuality, and flashes of translucence allowed me to see through her clothes intermittently.
But she wasn't from the Seven Sisters. The moonlight and a closer flare betrayed her. Indeed, to a healthy imagination she was the most improbable of sex objects. Her flesh was anything but appealing. It was deathly white, like a frog's belly, and covered with running sores. Twin lines of vile maggots appeared on her upper lip, entering her nostrils in endless, weaving columns. Gray fungus grew up her arms. Gaunt, prehensile hands restlessly clutched at each other, like fingers stitching a shroud. When she grinned lewdly, as she presently did, she revealed vicious jagged teeth sharp enough to rip out your throat, as those of Java rats are said to lunge through your cheeks to reach the morsel of your tongue. She exhaled a foul stench. But it was her eyes, eyes as old as tombs, which were most phenomenal. A direct stare is the boldest way to invade the sheath of privacy which envelops each of us, and she was using it devastatingly, diminishing the distance between us to the intimacy of a membrane. Her wide pupils were in turn stony, reptilian, shameless. She trembled suggestively. She was soliciting me, beckoning me toward cathexis.
None of this sounds inviting, let alone seductive. But the shell which had wiped out my squad had barely missed me. So close a call with death is often followed by eroticism. It is characteristic of some creatures that they are often very productive before their death and, in some cases, appear to die in a frenzy of reproductive activity. Desire is the sequel to danger. That is the reason for the recruitment, in most of history's great armies, of camp followers. At a wink from the soiled Whore of Death I became semihard; she knew that and stretched herself, accentuating her bust and her slender waist and increasing my tumescence. I simultaneously loathed and craved her. She was an enchantress in an old tale whom men have loved to their destruction. She wouldn't sigh or swoon or feign affection. Love was the last thing she had to offer. Her coarse, blurred, sepulchral voice, just audible, rasped obscenities and spoke of the bargain she proposed to strike in the language she had used for a thousand years of warfare. The key words were lust and blood and death. She had been in business a long time. Her face was eroded by a millennium of whoring. The traffic around her lunging crotch had always been heavy, but the number of customers in this century had dwarfed all those before.
Abruptly she hoisted her skirt to her hips and spread her legs. My pulse was hammering, my sexual craving almost overwhelming. That was my moment of maximum temptation. For the first and only time in my life I understood rape. I have never been more ready. Then, from her sultry muttering, I learned her fee. I couldn't mount her here. She gestured toward the Japanese lines. I shrank back, shaking my head and whispering, No, no I won't, no, no, NO. Just then a random shell rustled over and landed a few yards away. In the flash she disappeared. But my yearning for sexual release remained. I unfastened my dungarees and touched myself. I came in less than five seconds. I was that close.
After crawling out of the hole I was, for the only time in combat, quite lost. It wasn't until the sky was lightening that I saw the hunchback of the ridge against the eastern sky and, taking bearings from it, crept slowly toward Fox Company's wire. My situation was still extremely perilous — Fowler had dug in for the inevitable counterattack. I was about five yards from safety when a deep voice with a Bronx accent challenged me, ordering me to halt. I gave the password. The voice said gently, “Come on in, Mac.” I reported to Fowler, omitting my vision. He grieved for his lost squad and asked anxiously, “Were you hurt?” I shook my head and said, “Not a scratch.” I believed it.
I leave Corregidor for Manila aboard a steamship, a rusting, lumbering vessel. As we pull away from the Rock's North Dock the captain tugs the whistle cord, and I am distracted by its lonely shriek, sadder than the wails of steam locomotives I remember from my boyhood. Seen from the second deck, where I perch in a plastic chair outside a plastic lounge, the water is calm and blue. Throughout the two-hour voyage the air is humid, and as we approach the dock just off Roxas Highway the capital is partly obscured by smog. I observe all this, and write it down, because that is my trade. But my mind is elsewhere. I am thinking of Christmas Eve, 1941, when MacArthur and his party abandoned Manila to Homma and sailed to the Rock on the small interisland steamer Don Esteban. They were on Corregidor thirteen weeks. Once he grasped the staggering fact that he would receive no reinforcements, the general knew the Japanese would take the island. He intended to die there and expected his wife and his four-year-old son to die with him. After he had balked at Washington's order that he leave, he was vulnerable to a court-martial. Still he held back. Then his staff, reviewing the cables from the War Department, persuaded him that a great army awaited him in Australia, ready to return under his leadership and reconquer the Philippines.
His breakout through three thousand miles of enemy waters, first by PT boat and then aboard a decrepit plane, is one of the greatest escape stories in the history of war. But when he reached the little Australian town of Kooringa, he was stunned to learn that the country was virtually defenseless. He had fewer troops Down Under than the garrison he had left on Bataan and Corregidor. Australia's divisions were in Egypt, fighting Rommel. “God have mercy on us,” MacArthur said hollowly when he was told. Turning away, he clenched his teeth until his jaw was white. “It was,” he later wrote, his “greatest shock and surprise of the whole war.” But the Diggers took heart when he appeared in Melbourne. They knew how exasperating he could be; every civilian who had dealt with him was aware of his vanity, his megalomania, and his paranoia. But his military genius was already a legend. And genius was required by the Allies at this point in the Pacific war, for Australia faced imminent invasion by the triumphant armies of the Empire of Japan.