Soft strands of pink cadena de amor flowers cling to artillery shells, rusting in the tropical sun. A covey of doves, spooked, flaps away from an intruder who stumbles upon huge corroding guns cloaked by thick blades of cogon grass and flowering bushes.
Young ipilipil trees grow in the ravines and along ridges that 40 years ago were torn and gouged by bursting shells and whizzing bullets. The hoarse cries of wounded and dying soldiers have been replaced by the cries of seagulls playing overhead.
In 1942, Americans bravely defended this World War II island fortress of Corregidor in the Philippines before surrendering to the invading Japanese on May 6; three years later, U.S. troops returned to take it back in an invasion whose simultaneous airborne and seaborne techniques made it one of the most unique operations of the war.
Today, its decisive moment in history long past, Corregidor is peacefully fading away like the old soldier of Douglas MacArthur's dreams.
Yet even now the name of this small chunk of rock at the mouth of Manila Bay leaves a sentimental lump in the throat of many Americans. Gen. MacArthur called the 3 3/4-square-mile rock his "isle of Eternal Memory." It has become a place for quiet reflection, for savoring history and the remembrances of war.
Every day visitors come by the boatload: American and Japanese veterans of the war, relatives of men who died on the island or on some other battlefield, or maybe the curious who were only children when Corregidor was etched into history. They come especially during this time of year, hoping to recapture what it must have been like on the island during the spring of 1942 or the winter of 1945. The island is tranquil now, but the battered and crumbling ruins offer reminders of the hell this island endured during two World War II battles.
Strands of tropical sunlight filter through barracks roofs pierced by the hail of Japanese shells in 1942. Goats munch grass in the field where American soldiers once played softball and football. Beyond, the YMCA and Officers Club crumble with the passage of time.
Cabanyon trees, vines and wildflowers sprout from the mile-long barracks on the island's upper plateau, once home for soldiers, a hospital, service club and two schools. The three-story concrete building, stretching for nearly a mile, was badly damaged during the 1942 bombardment. When the Americans returned to Corregidor in 1945, the bloodiest battle of the island raged around the barracks for five February days.
Corregidor earned its niche in history because of World War II, but the island's storied past dates back to Spanish times. Fierce Moro pirates had once used the island as a sanctuary. In the 17th century the Spaniards built a customs station that was used to check incoming shipping, and the island was also the site of a Spanish penal colony. (The island's name is derived from the Spanish "corregir" -- to correct.)
When control of the Philippines was ceded to the United States in 1898, the Americans set about turning the island into a fortress. By 1941, Corregidor bristled with 23 large gun batteries.
After the Japanese struck in the Pacific in December 1941, MacArthur declared Manila an open city and moved his headquarters to Corregidor's Malinta Tunnel. The tunnel -- 836 feet long and 24 feet wide, with 24 main side chambers -- had been built from 1922 to 1932 under the guise of a trolley path.
From Corregidor, MacArthur continued to promise the soldiers fighting on nearby Bataan Peninsula that supplies and reinforcements would come. But the troops never arrived because Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had already decided to concentrate on defeating Germany.
On Bataan, the frustration and bitterness grew among the suffering troops, who from the start were on half rations. The men crafted a bitter verse about their plight: "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 bullets, no artillery pieces; and nobody gives a damn."
On the night of March 12, 1942, MacArthur, his family and some staff officers made their way to Corregidor's dock and boarded four PT boats. MacArthur, under direct orders from President Roosevelt, made his way to Darwin, Australia, where he issued his famous pledge, "I shall return."
MacArthur had designated Gen. Jonathan Wainwright as commander of Corregidor and left him with two jars of shaving cream, a box of cigars and the words, "If I get to Australia you know I'll come back as soon as I can with as much as I can. In the meantime, you've got to hold."
But Corregidor and the peninsula were taking a pounding from Japanese bombers and shore guns. When the defenders on Bataan surrendered on April 9, 1942, the Japanese expected Corregidor to follow because the island relied on daily provision barges from the peninsula.
For 27 days, a devastating rain of shells pounded much of the island into rubble. Most of the 10,000 defenders crammed into the overcrowded, fetid Malinta Tunnel. One by one, the American guns were put out of action. A quarter of the 4,000 troops assigned to defend the beaches were killed or wounded by the shelling.
Finally, Wainwright cabled Roosevelt: "With broken heart and head bowed in sadness but not in shame . . . I must arrange terms for the surrender . . . There is a limit of human endurance and that limit has long been passed." On May 6, 1942, Corregidor surrendered.
The Americans did not return to Corregidor until Feb. 16, 1945, when American airborne and infantry soldiers began an assault that raged for 11 days.
More than 5,000 Japanese soldiers had stockpiled food and ammunition in storage tunnels for a fight to the death. On the island's northwest coast, scores of Japanese jumped off a cliff into the South China Sea rather than surrender. (Japanese tourists and relatives have erected an informal Buddhist memorial at "Suicide Cliff," in front of a 155-mm gun pointing out to sea.)
MacArthur returned to Corregidor on March 2, and spoke from the parade ground where a few days earlier the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team had led the attack on Corregidor. "I see the old flagpole still stands. Have your troops hoist the colors to its peak and let no enemy ever haul them down," MacArthur commanded.
Out of the 5,200 Japanese defenders of Corregidor, six surrendered in May 1945. Another 20 emerged from an island cave to surrender on Jan. 1, 1946. The others were either killed in combat, committed suicide or died when explosives stored in the tunnels blew up.
Today, away from the relics of war, Corregidor is returning to its pre-Spanish past as a picturesque little island. The shoreline is broken by coves, with beaches of sand or volcanic pumice worn smooth by time. Colorful tropical fish flit along the crumbling pier where MacArthur boarded the PT boat to make his escape in 1942.
Tour buses taking visitors on two-hour swings around the island break the silence. Overnight stays at the Corregidor Inn can be arranged for those desiring a more leisurely look. Patricia Altomante, a 32-year-old Filipino, is the friendly innkeeper along with her husband and two daughters. She feels a bond with the island because her father served here during the war.
The best-maintained part of Corregidor is the Pacific War Memorial, sitting atop the island's highest plateau, looking out across Manila Bay and the Bataan Peninsula.
The museum-library-memorial complex showcases war relics and mementos of the battles. A domed marble monument offers cool respite from the tropical sun, and a chance for reflection upon the bloody struggles by the American and Japanese forces on Corregidor. From the dome, long marble slabs commemorate the battles of the Pacific, culminating at a steel sculpture -- the "Eternal Flame" -- that pays tribute to the defenders of Corregidor.
Today, historians debate whether the American sacrifices on Corregidor in 1942 accomplished much. But there are others who prefer to remember Corregidor through the eyes of MacArthur, as he stood on the island in 1945:
"Its long protracted struggle enabled the Allies to gather strength. Had it not held out, Australia would have fallen, with incalculable disastrous results. Our triumphs today belong equally to that dead army."