REPUBLIC OF THE PHILPPINES -Matt Payne recently spent nearly a month in the Philippine Islands retracing the footsteps of his grandfather, Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice William A. Berry from his early days as a Naval Ensign on the shores of Manila to his capture on Corregidor Island.
His cathartic journey took him along the path of the famed Bataan Death March to the jungles of Northern Luzon where his grandfather escaped from the Japanese, sheltered by villagers and was ultimately recaptured. These are letters that Matt wrote to his deceased grandfather, sharing his experiences and insights along the way.
I make my way along a sheer Cliffside looking out at Fort Drum across the South China Sea. Jagged cliff sides like these are in abundance on Corregidor Island. Just like you always told me; were it not for the Philippine Island’s violent past, especially during World War II, one would think of this island as a tropical paradise.
The sparsely populated, tadpole-shaped island is four miles long and covered in lush green foliage. Sitting at the entrance to Manila Bay, this island has always been of military strategic importance, which of course is what brought you here nearly seventy years ago. It is divided into four parts. Topside, middle side, bottom side and tail side.
Despite the dropping bombs, you explored the entire island and I plan on doing the same.
I am here as a guest of a family contracted through tour company called Valor Tours. My host is a man named Steve Kwiecinski. Steve and his wife Marcia are two of only a handful of people, and the only Americans who make their home on the island. He knows its terrain and its history and he knows it well. He takes me on a walking tour across the island to not only its well preserved historical sights but many sights that are hidden in the undergrowth of the dense island jungle.
The batteries that once defended you from the oncoming attack of the Japanese are still there, though scrappers have collected large and significant pieces from them. Their size is remarkable. Some have been refurbished and are featured on island tours.
The vistas from where the large guns sit are remarkable. On Middle side are the barracks where soldiers stayed before having to retreat into the tunnels.
The island’s most distinguishing feature is the tunnel system. While understandably one would loath to take residency in these elaborate systems while under Japanese attack, the way they connect the long island is something to behold.
The most famous of all of them, the Malinta Tunnel, has been turned into a tourist attraction. Guests walk through its lengthy Central Tunnel. At each arm off of the main tunnel are exhibits with statues depicting the tunnel’s history leading up to the Japanese Invasion. An audio recording narrates as you walk. It is life-like and at times eerie if not emotional.
The thought of you in such darkness raises the hair on my legs. At one point, the lights in the tunnel go off. An audio recording of bombs goes off and the floor begins to shake. It is claustrophobic. Sobering.
While most hid in these tunnels, you preferred the outside. Now, as I take in this island where you so narrowly managed to survive, I still see why you wanted to stay outside.
With each step through the jungle, it is only more beautiful. You stayed outside as long as you could, until the Japanese had bombed out the majority of the island and were about to make land.
Though there were many places you told me about and many emotional experiences you shared, there were a couple that were particularly impacting. You told the story of a line of Japanese tanks rounding a corner, after the Japanese had come onto the island.
You knew the end was near. You were instructed to disarm and walk out towards the tank to surrender.
Bravely you did so, describing how you walked along a narrow road, your hands in the air. The Japanese guns aimed straight at you. You talked about death and said to me that in that moment, on that spot, death a flash away, that you never felt more alive.
Marcia walks with me towards that spot that has held such a powerful place in my upbringing. The rest of the tour follows, about one hundred yards behind. The trip has been an emotionally complex one, and having thought about being in this spot for thirty plus years of my life.
I anticipate this moment to be a powerful one. A moment of memorandum and reflection. I note the thickness of the air. An eagle circles above me. The waves continue to roll into the island.
I round a corner. This is the exact bend where you saw the tank. Marcia points to a small black hole barely visible through the brambles. That’s the tunnel you walked out of. I look closer, waiting for an insight. I want to have it before the group arrives behind me.
It is my moment. What words of wisdom will you whisper from beyond the grave? I prepared something to say to you in the spot, hoping your spirit would catch it. I take a breath….
And then in the treetops above, there is a crash. Not a crash like a bird. Far louder. And another. And another.
It is not your spirit emerging from the jungle. It is a group of monkeys.
Don’t these apes know that I am trying to have a moment? I’ve traveled thousands of miles to sit in this spot and meditate on the meaning of life and they decide that the best thing to do is to destroy the moment by playing a game of tree top tag.
Sure, I like monkeys, but who doesn’t? I just wish they’d let me have my moment.
The group behind me is quick to spot the acrobatic primates and rush towards me to get a closer look. Most have never seen a monkey and are gleeful. How can I hear a message about the meaning of life from beyond with a bunch of history buffs carrying like a bunch of children?
The moment is gone. Our conversation will have to find another moment.
That night, over a dinner of chicken adobo, cameras are passed back and forth. Much of the talk is of the monkeys.
The rest of the group is eager to set out early the next morning in hopes of catching them again. Someone passes me a camera.
On the LCD is a picture of several of the group peering into the jungle at the monkeys.
A beautiful sunset in the distance. And there I am, amid the group. Sulking.
I looked at the photo carefully. What I see is clear. Spare, Matt Payne, I see bunch of people enjoying a rare moment in time. One of those moments where time stops because you see something so rare in our chaotic world.
I think about what I would say to my grandson if he’d traveled across the globe for a visit.
Though I don’t know, I’d like to think it would go something like this: If there are monkeys around, enjoy them. I’ll always be here for a chat. I like to think that you were saying the same thing.
To read more about Matt’s experience retracing his grandfather’s footsteps, please click here.
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