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"The idyllic life my mother knew on Corregidor before World War II, and shared with so many other Army families, was never to return — for any of them."

 

WHO WAS THERE?

A pamphlet written in July, 1935, for Coast Artillery personnel going to the Philippines for the first time2 gave the average population of the entire command area (the five fortified islands: Corregidor (Ft. Mills), Ft. Hughes, Ft. Frank, Ft. Drum and Ft. Wint in Subic Bay) as follows: Officers 125, Warrant Officers 6, Nurses 9, American enlisted 1800, Filipino enlisted 1300, and civilian population "nearly 5000." Most of these people were on Corregidor because it was the largest island and was the headquarters. The overall population on Corregidor in 1935 was estimated to be about 9000. [Ref: 2, p8]

Troops were the 59th Coast Artillery (Harbor Defense, HD), 60th Coast Artillery (AntiAircraft, AA), and the 91st and 92nd Coast Artillery (Philippine Service, PS). Detachments were the Medical Department, Quartermaster Corps, Corps of Engineers, Ordinance Department, Finance Department, Signal Corps and the USAMP Harrison. [Ref: 2, p1]  Although there was a Navy Dock (South Dock) and a Navy Tunnel, my aunt remembers only 2 naval personnel on Corregidor. The big Navy base was at Cavite across the South Channel.

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HOUSING:

calmes_6.jpg (48709 bytes)Corregidor’s housing was determined by what could survive the tropical climate and the termites. Concrete, corrugated iron or tile roofs and as little wood as possible were most common. Higher-ranking officers’ quarters were at Topside, and more junior officers were on Middleside. American officers with the Guard Battalion, such as my grandfather, were at the Stockade Level. My mother described the Stockade Level quarters where they lived in 1937:

"There were 5 sets of quarters on Stockade Level. Our quarters were spacious: a large wide porch surrounded the house. There were 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a large living room and dining room. Floors were wooden and the roof was metal, (and it was) very noisy when it rained. (The house was raised up on concrete pillars, to avoid the white ants (Anay, or termites). The windows were large sliding panels with small panes of capiz shells. The kitchen was a separate building off the porch by the dining room. Each closet had a large light bulb that was always on, to keep clothes dry and help prevent mould. One of my jobs was to wipe mould from books not in the closet. The shower was just a wall about 2 feet high, a rectangle on a cement floor, with no shower curtain. The bathroom was quite large. The water supply wasn’t safe and we had to boil water, even to brush teeth. Twenty-eight gardenia bushes were planted around the porch and (there was) a large hibiscus bush in front."

One of the most frequent pleasant memories I’ve heard from those who lived on Corregidor then is of the lush vegetation, including many flowers.

calmes_7.jpg (27358 bytes)Officers’ quarters in Topside were more spacious, having 3 or 4 bedrooms, two baths, living and dining rooms, kitchen, storeroom and two servants’ rooms and baths. All were two-story sets, except for the General and Field officer. They had bungalows3. In the two –story sets, higher ranking officers got the upper quarters.

 

Topside’s officers’ quarters had fireplaces, unusual in the tropics (picture 17). Apparently the sea breezes off Manila Bay did lead at least some people to feel cold on Corregidor. (My aunt reported needing a blanket at night every month except for May, the hottest and driest month.) Higher-ranking officers’ quarters also had sunken bathtubs, nicknamed "Caribou Wallows" according to my aunt (picture 18).

In terms of the kitchen, electric refrigerators were not provided (these were just coming into use in the US at the time). Ice boxes were used instead. Ice was made on Corregidor and was brought around daily to the quarters. There weren’t too many fresh items to keep cold except for milk. In 1923-1925, a Swiss brand of canned milk was the only milk available. In 1940, the Magnolia brand of milk came into production. Water from Manila and powdered milk from the US would be mixed and then butterfat from Australia would be injected into it, through small holes in metal rods put into the milk. This was a big step up, my aunt said. A ship came monthly with fresh vegetables such as lettuce. These choice items were distributed by rank. Vegetables weren’t bought from the Filipinos because of the way they were grown and fertilized.

 

Because of the humid climate, the glue in wooden furniture tended to soften and the furniture would come apart. Rattan and wicker furniture survived the climate better and could be purchased cheaply in Manila. Native grass and hemp mats were the choice for floor coverings, even in the church. These also came from Manila.

While discussing housing, cockroaches need to be mentioned. They loved Corregidor too and certainly thrived there. Memories of swarms of huge cockroaches are still vivid for those who lived there prewar. Books and clothing could be destroyed by cockroaches and termites. Treatment was pouring gasoline down the termite tunnels and applying sodium fluoride powder (a poison to humans as well as cockroaches)  into all cracks in the quarters, for the cockroaches. These treatments don’t sound very effective and weren’t.

 

COMMUNICATION:

Phone service was through a central switch board. The phone operators were enlisted men, and they weren’t supposed to listen to the conversations. But, my aunt found that the phone operators always seemed to know where her children or husband were when she couldn’t find them. So some listening was obviously taking place. Manila could also be reached by phone, but there was a five minute limit on conversations. Radio communication was maintained with the other Army posts, and radiograms could be sent to transports at sea and to Panama and Hawaii.

GETTING AROUND:

An electric trolley ran every 30 minutes from Headquarters at Topside to the dock area at Bottomside, through the Malinta Tunnel. My aunt wrote,

"The seats went straight across the trolley (like the ones on Corregidor today). Officers sat in the front rows, enlisted men in the next rows and Filipinos in the back rows. In the rainy season, there were curtains lowered along the outside to keep rain out. If it rained on a dance night, we just hiked up our dresses under our raincoats and carried our good shoes in a bag. Almost everyone went by streetcar."

It was free to ride the trolley, and it ran from 0600 to 2200.

Some wanted the convenience of a car, and the senior officers’ quarters on Topside had garages. A space could also be rented at the Post Exchange garage. My mother wrote, "The cars all had to have orange paint underneath to prevent the salt air rusting our fenders, etc. That happened anyway." Cars could be taken to Manila on the mineplanter. Boats ran to Manila once daily, and three times a week, boats went to Forts Drum, Hughes and Frank.

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CLOTHING:

The hot, humid climate of the Philippines before the days of air-conditioning made cool clothes an important concern. My mother wrote:

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Left: My parents, with Dad in a Woo Lee white mess jacket.

"The first thing that all newcomers to Corregidor had to do was choose a tailor (from one of the barrios). There were 3-4 Chinese ones, and we chose Woo Lee. We were all measured for white duck cloth shorts, thin white shirts with monogram and a white toweling jacket with (a) monogram on the upper pocket. This was the universal uniform on Ft. Mills. They also made watch bands, with a piece of cloth to fit under the watch to absorb perspiration. The buckle was detachable, and so it was easy to launder. Woo Lee also made golf hats. Some said they were "sexless," because the men’s and women’s were the same."

It was a place where there were few subtle contrasts. My mother recalled that they either wore the white shorts outfits or evening gowns. Manila would be visited whilst wearing one's "Manila dresses."

Women often had dresses made for them in Manila, of light-weight linen, cotton or silk. (The Post Exchange also had dress-makers.) Most Filipino dressmakers could perfectly copy dresses from just a picture clipped from a magazine or newspaper. This was also true for shoes. My mother and grandmother had several pairs of handmade, beaded shoes. The cost was very low.

Male officers wore "the cotton service uniform with shirt, breeches and boots or puttees and without coat. When outside the harbor defenses, this uniform was worn with a coat, Sam Browne belt and breeches….Campaign hats are worn habitually with the cotton service uniform. The white uniform is worn in the later afternoon and evening and on Sunday. A white mess jacket was normally worn for evening engagements." [Ref: 2, p 8] (picture 23) Evening engagements included going to the movies: Officers wore their summer whites to the evening movie, and women wore long dresses. These uniforms were generally made after soldiers got to Corregidor, using tailors from the barrio.

SERVANTS:

The easy availability and low cost of servants on Corregidor made life easy for even junior officers’ families. It wasn’t necessary to cook, shop or wash and iron; servants did all this, for very low salaries. My grandparents in 1937 had 3 servants—a cook, a houseboy, and a lavendera (laundress), for 4 people. My own parents had 3 servants also—a houseboy, a lavendera and an amah (nurse) for me (the amah was the daughter of the lavendera)--for the 3 of us.

The houseboy would come each morning to the officer’s wife with a book in which he had listed items (groceries, etc) needed from the Commissary. The officer’s wife would sign her approval on that page, and the houseboy went and got the items. Houseboys also cooked. This system worked so well that my mother never went to the Commissary her entire time on Corregidor. Servants lived in the officers’ quarters, and their families lived in one of the five barrios.

 

CLUB LIFE:

With few household chores to do, social activities and sports filled the time. The officers’ club, the Corregidor Club, located on Topside by the swimming pool, was the center of social life for officers. (For enlisted men, it was the YMCA on Middleside.) There was usually one dance each week. Those who had been on post for one year had "Over the Hump" parties, to celebrate they had only one year more to go. The Army-Navy game also called for a party at the Corregidor Club. Since the game came on radio in the early morning hours, no one slept that night. Radio reception from the States wasn’t very good, either, but the game was a good excuse for a party. During the rainy season, my grandmother played bridge, and my mother played badminton at the club. Bowling was also a rainy day sport for them. Women could use the bowling alley and golf in the mornings.

 

 

These facilities were reserved for men in the afternoons. There was a big emphasis on athletics, and the four different regiments competed athletically. There was an annual Field Day, on an athletic field laid out on the parade ground at Topside. (picture 26). When the competition was golf, the winning team was decided by how many strokes and how much time it took for each team to complete the course. Other teams stood around banging on pots and pans, screaming and heckling while each team was playing. The golf course was apparently a little short, because my father would always hit his balls too far, off the course. During my grandfather’s first tour on Corregidor, the general thought his officers were getting out of shape and ordered them to take up either golf or tennis. My grandfather chose golf, thinking it was a lot less effort than tennis—he wasn’t much of an athlete. Within a year, he won the individual competition, making me wonder how hard the course could be. Finally, there were swimming beaches for both officers and enlisted men. Both had shark nets. The officers’ beach was harder to get to, and most people drove. There was a small nipa hut (made of palms) for changing clothes.

Because of the close living quarters, there was an active social life at the quarters level. The officers only worked until noon, unless they were Officer-of-the-Day (OAD). My mother remembered, "The officers had a habit of stopping by one of the quarters as they walked home for lunch, for drinks before eating. Lunch was often late, and wives and I were invited to whichever house they stopped at." The servants from the other quarters would bring lunch over, and everyone would eat together, often on the porch. Because of the heat, porches were used much more than the interiors of quarters.

The presence of servants meant entertaining was easy. My mother remembered she would just tell the houseboy how many people were coming for dinner that night, and he would do it all: plan the menu, get the food, arrange for extra tables, silverware and dishes and do all the cooking. Linens for the extra tables were no problem. Frequent shopping trips to Manila, where very fine linens were easily available very inexpensively, and the visits to Corregidor of a Chinese linen peddler, who called on each officer’s wife with his wares, led most women on Corregidor to have huge amounts of table and other linens. My grandmother, mother and aunt all accumulated astounding quantities of very beautiful linens, items which aren’t available today at any price. My mother and her sister Annabel had also planned ahead for a life of major entertaining. When they married, each bought the same china and silver, so they could serve 24 guests with the same settings by borrowing each other’s things.

Shopping trips to Manila were frequent; people traveled on the ships the Hyde, the Miley or the San Pedro, or sometimes the mineplanter, sitting on rattan chairs on deck shaded from the sun by a tarpaulin. Manila’s Chinatown was close to the docks and was the usual first stop. The Osaka Bazaar in Manila was another popular shopping site but later was realized to be full of spies. In Manila, the Army-Navy Club was popular for lunch, and many social events were held there. The Manila Hotel was the other frequent social event site. Some shopping was done at the Chinese and Indian stores  in the barrios; there were also Indian shops in the Post Exchange and even on Topside in the Mile Long Barracks.  My aunt and mother didn't visit the barrio shops often.

To keep children busy, there was a Cub Scout troop and a Boy Scout troop (one was Filipino). Church services and church school were held on Sunday. The chaplains also had the duty of leading "sing-alongs" in the popular cine, or movie theater. Shows were daily at 6 PM and 8 PM. The sing-alongs were held before the 6 PM show. It was only 15 cents to go to the movies. Officers and their families sat in rattan chairs and wore evening clothes to the 8 PM showing. Finally, a show was put on each year at Christmas by the Bilibid prisoners. Most Army people attended.

One year, the Bilibid 'Trusties' prisoners made extraordinarily elaborate battleships from bamboo, paper and wire to be used as part of the Christmas celebrations.  In the photos is the battleship made by the prisoners of Cell 23.  The interior of the Stockade level quarters can be seen in the background, including the beautiful capiz-shell window screens. The ship was given to Bruce Carswell, aged 10.

 

 

Travel was another common activity for those living on Corregidor. Baguio in the summer was an attraction, because of its climate, an 18-hole golf coast and hiking. (Hiking was also popular on Corregidor under one particular general.) Each officer could go to Baguio’s Camp John Hays for one month per year. Officers also went to the southern Philippines and were urged to tour China.

 

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POSTSCRIPT:

"My parents loved Corregidor so much that they extended the usual two-year tour of duty to three years.  We left Corregidor in August, 1940, for my dad’s next assignment, Ft. MacArthur in Los Angeles. My aunt and her two children and my grandmother and Uncle Bruce were evacuated in May 1941, leaving their husbands behind--as my grandfather had predicted. My grandfather was assigned to High Commissioner Francis B. Sayre at that time, to report to him on a possible civilian evacuation from Manila." He was on the last boat out in November 1941, being ordered back to the States for his health problems.

The war in the Philippines began December 8, 1941. When Corregidor fell, my uncle, Major Harry Julian and my uncle-to-be, Warrant Officer Charles Audet were captured and sent to a Japanese prison camp. Only Charles Audet survived. (Harry Julian was killed when a ship, Arisan Maru, transporting POWs to Japan was bombed by US forces and sank.) Audet returned to the US after the war and married Annabel Julian. Other family friends from Manila spent the war as military or civilian POWs or with Philippine guerillas in the hills.

The week Pearl Harbor was bombed, my father was to go to the Army War College, the next step towards becoming a general. His orders were changed back to mineplanter duty, which was a war-time need. Being ambitious and realizing he wouldn’t get promoted quickly planting mines, he changed from the Coast Artillery to the new 82nd Airborne.

He parachuted into France in the early morning of D-Day as Commander of the 1st Battalion of the 508 PIR, 82nd Airborne and was killed in Germany in November, 1944. His brother Oscar was killed in Tunisia. His younger brother Wilbur survived service in the Pacific.

My mother was left a young widow with three children under age 4, the youngest only 3 months old. Other tragedies were to come for her, but this was the worst. The idyllic life she, and so many other Army families, knew on Corregidor before World War II, was never to return—for any of them. Capturing that lost time on Corregidor was the reason to write this piece, so more people will know about it. I hope others will add their memories of this place and this time in the future.

 

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Selma Harrison Calmes, MD.

Selma was the Chief Physician, Department of Anesthesiology, Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, Sylmar, and Clinical Professor of Anesthesiology at UCLA Medical School and ViceChair Dept of Anesthesiology, UCLA. She writes on medical history, especially women in medicine, and social commentary on medical practice. She was born on Corregidor. She is now retired.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Who said "You can never go home"?

 

 

REFERENCES:

1. Appointment to the USMA at West Point is normally by Congressional appointment. However, 4 places per year (at that time) were allocated to regular Army men who were selected by rankings in the written examination.

2. MacMillan WT. Harbor Defenses of Manila and Subic Bays. 1935. 12 pages.

3. Pearce E D’A. The Coast Artillery in the Philippines. Coast Artillery Journal (no date, but around January 1930). pp 134-140.