Lean Years - 2
Paschal N. Strong




So the commander, if I read his mind correctly, consulted with his conscience, weighed his responsibilities and the lives of his garrison against promises which were now unilateral, and told the engineers to build tunnels in the 'Rock" in spite of no money or equipment.

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He didn't really expect us to claw out the tunnels with our fingernails, so we set out to rustle up what ever the Islands could furnish. We found, as he hoped to find, that the gold mine owners of Baguio were peculiarly sensitive to the matter of a possible Jap attack. And while their sensitiveness didn't drive them to such drastic extremes as offering us funds or usable mining equipment, still there were some abandoned compressors, *** drills and mining ***oars in their junk piles that we were welcome to - for a nominal rental. The items were rusty museum pieces, but we took them all and made them work.

The next necessary thing was explosives, lots of explosives. We found a bonanza in the Ordinance Department, which had thousands of tons of condemned TNT in the States that was about to be destroyed as unfit for human destruction. We gratefully accepted the lot, and an Army transport brought it over. We were dismayed to find it in powdered form instead of the usual blocks, which fit so nicely into holes in the rock, but the ladies of the post came to our rescue. They saved all their old magazines, and with the pages we wrapped the condemned TNT into useable cartridges which could be inserted into the long holes drilled into the volcanic rock.

Labor was the next item. The Philippine Government, after some persuasion, offered us a thousand Bilibids, so name after Bilibid Prison from whence they came. Most, if not all, of these convicts were serving life sentences. There was no capital punishment in the Islands and they were a mixture of Tagalogs, Igorots, Moros and for all I know, many other peoples of the Islands. The Moros represented a special problem, of which more anon, but all the convicts had one thing in common. They had to eat to work. The fish and rice provided by the Philippine Government's daily ration of six cents kept them alive in prison, but it was soon evident that we must dig into our pin money if they were to shovel rock.

A company of engineers from the Philippine Scouts provided an excellent gang of foremen, clerks, et cetera and an Irish sergeant whom I shall call McCarthy was general foreman when sober, which he frequently was. He drove the workmen hard, for which he received a shattered skull in due time, and was precious to me beyond rubies.

Thus the work began. The idea was to punch a large tunnel through Malinta Hill, in the center of the island, and to excavate a total of twenty four tunnels on either side, at such an angle that the project resembled the backbone of a fish with twelve smaller bones slanting from each side. The large tunnel was nearly 1,000 feet long, 15 feet high and 24 feet wide. The smaller tunnels were 10 by 12 by 100 or so feet long. We worked on the main tunnel from both sides of Malinta Hill, and my favorite nightmare was that the two headings, instead of meeting head-on in the center of the hill, would pass each other quietly like ships in the night.

The midnight that we set off our first blast was a memorable one. We had a pattern of seventeen loaded holes in the heading each to be detonated by a short length of time fuse. Electrical caps were a luxury beyond our dreams. My mind was on engineering rather than on military matters, and I overlooked certain trivia, such as that I was working within a fortress whose guns and search lights were perpetually manned by a skeleton alert, and whose garrison was never allowed to forget that any Jap attack would be unheralded. So I failed to notify the defenders what to expect.

At precisely twelve, the soft tropical night was rent by a series of explosions which sounded like the uneven salvo of attacking battleships. The echoes had hardly bounced back from Bataan when a dozen alarms sounded, searchlights stabbed frantically into the China Sea and soldiers rushed to their stations in all clothing and no clothing. I was gratified to note this stirring example of a garrison that would not be caught napping but the commanding general summoned me and concealed his pleasure admirably. If I was mentioned in dispatches, it was not the kind of mention to dwell upon.


The main headings pushed slowly into the volcanic rock, much too slowly and the reason was obvious. The Bilibids were loading into the ***ears an average of 1 yard of rock a day per man. They were no fools. They could be worked only eight hours a day, and if they worked slowly, we could do nothing. So they chattered like happy children as they leaned on their shovels and greatly enjoyed our exasperation.

Clearly some understanding with them was in order. We constructed shower baths in the cool of the mango trees outside the tunnel, and furnished cigarettes for them to smoke as they lolled about after a shower. All they had to do was to complete a certain task each day and out they could go to the showers and smokes. After some experimentation, we reached a mutual agreement that 4 yards of rock a day per man was just about right. They could complete that in six hours, and have two hours to bathe, smoke and loaf before returning to the stockade. Five yards a day required seven hours to complete and the Bilibids figured it wasn't worth it.



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The negative of this famous photograph, taken by Major Paul Wing of the US Signal Corps on April 24, 1942  (just twelve days before the fall of Corregidor), was lost en route to the US. The last submarine to contact the garrison on May 3 picked up a print from Colonel J. R. Vance (standing with hands on hips) which was later copied by Signal Corps. The photograph shows the Finance Office which shared Lateral No. 12 with the Signal Corps whose code machines are situated behind the screens.


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USAFFE headquarters in Malinta tunnel. General MacArthur with Chief of Staff Major General Richard Sutherland on March 1, 1942. MacArthur did his duty hours in Malinta, where his presence at the heart of the communications and command networks was required.  However he was by no means seeking shelter there - he would leave his office to observe the bombing and shelling, usually traveling up to Topside to do so.  Often he would mingle with the men during action on the island, because "it was simply my duty."  Almost everyone who dealt with Sutherland found him to have a nasty temper, a ruthless bruskness and an autocratic manner.  He was widely regarded as the S.O.B. that his boss was not going to be, and even described himself as such.   (US Army photo)