Nichijo: The Testimony of John Provoo 

Chapter Six

The Rock

          With General King's surrender of American and Filipino forces on Bataan, April 9th, the Japanese were able to concentrate their efforts on the island fortress of Corregidor to complete their conquest of the Philippines and eliminate the American military from its strategic position. It would have been easy enough to accomplish that by siege and blockade. Over 14,000 people crowded onto the island, and the forces there had been on half rations for some time and now we had been cut further, down to the lower limits of human survival. Supplies could hold out for barely more than a month at the most.

        General Homma, commander of the Japanese forces, however, needed a more spectacular military victory to restore his honor following several embarrassing setbacks on Bataan. He wished to further establish the reputation of the Imperial Army in decisive combat. He had been provided a large quantity of new artillery pieces and by April 11th had 150 artillery batteries in place at the end of the Bataan peninsula and on the shores of Cavite to the south. In addition to their already sizeable Air Force, they brought in sixty new bombers. They began a bombardment that lasted 27 days that turned the island into a smoldering junk pile. Knowing how placid and green it was when we arrived, it seemed we were living in the corpse of that vision, and everything smelt of death, of sewage, of burnt explosives.

        During the months that battle raged on Bataan, on Corregidor we had been subjected to a daily routine of regular air bombardment. That was, in relative terms, livable. A photo-reconnaissance plane flew over at high altitude each day in the late morning. In the early afternoon the bombing would begin on the selected targets. It was livable in the sense that it was on schedule. Meals and activities outside the bomb shelters and tunnels could be arranged, and at the appointed hour, with the exception of the antiaircraft personnel and the Marines dug in on the beaches, the inhabitants of Corregidor could come out of our burrows in the lulls between the rain of bombs. That lasted until the Japanese had finished with Bataan.

        For a short while, I was quartered in the bombed-out shell of the old theater building. There was also a large monkey who had taken refuge, who no longer had a desire to live outside. I would go to work inside Malinta Tunnel each day to work at the Adjutant General's office and return to the theater at night. One evening when I returned, the building was completely gone, not a trace of it remained. From then on, I lived inside the tunnel, sleeping on my desk.

        Malinta Tunnel is rather a labyrinth of tunnels beneath Malinta Hill. The main tunnel is about a quarter of a mile long, like a large streetcar tunnel running completely through the hill. It was 30 feet across at the base and 20 feet high in the middle, and reinforced with concrete. Off the main tunnel there are 23 lateral tunnels, slightly smaller in height and width, each about 150 feet long. One of these lateral tunnels leads to the north into another complex of tunnels that comprised the hospital, originally designed for a maximum of 300 patients. The hospital complex had its own opening to the North. Still another lateral leads off the main tunnel to the South through the quartermasters 11 tunnels into the 4 Navy tunnels, housing the small Navy staff, headquarters for the 4th Marines, and radio broadcast facilities. The tunnel complex is deep enough underground to be truly bombproof. As more and more realized that it was the one of the few genuine havens from bombardment and certainly the largest, the numbers taking shelter inside grew and grew, until by the time that the end came, over 4000 had taken up residence inside, and 1000 more were crammed into the hospital. Beside the Malinta tunnel complex, there were innumerable smaller caves, tunnels and ammunition storage areas on the island that were far enough underground to offer shelter.

        With no other task before them, the Japanese concentrated their firepower in a total devastation of the surface of Corregidor. The shelling would begin at dawn each day and the roar of bombs and artillery shells explosions were continuous until noon, when there was a lull that became known as the "Japanese siesta". In the early afternoon, hardly an hour later, it would increase again to its morning level and continue this way until after midnight Throughout the remainder of the night shelling would be sporadic at a much reduced level, just enough to make sure no one would ever get completely asleep.

        As the shelling progressed, the wounded jammed the hospital, so that many makeshift bunks had to be constructed and piled in tiers four high. Thousands of large droning flies filled the tunnel from one end to the other. The air was thick with the smell of decay and death. The tunnel's ventilation system was designed for the small number of personnel required for handling the storage of supplies and the refurbishment of artillery pieces and never meant to accommodate any appreciable number of people at all. Light and power was provided by a diesel generator at the east end of the tunnel, the lower end, and the fumes of its exhaust added their odor to the thick air. In the dimly lit tunnels, life went on, after a fashion. There were a few weddings, an occasional jam session and, of course, many funerals.

        All the tunnel entrances were heavily sandbagged, and one could step outside for a breath of fresh air or a salt-water shower, but often at risk of one's life. Fresh water was in extremely short supply as the major reservoirs had been destroyed. There was no longer any fresh meat (some of the "fresh meat" had been stamped 1917, as old as I was) since the cold storage plant had been destroyed as well, after which we were reduced to small quantities canned fish, and toward the end, only red rice, half spoiled canned tomatoes and fruit salad. A mess was set up at the lower end of the tunnel. The cooking was done just inside, and tables had been set up, at standing level just outside the tunnel entrance. Many died from malnutrition and its complicating effect on tropical diseases; and many died in their weakness from minor wounds. Of course, many died of major wounds as well and many were completely blown to pieces.

        Outside the tunnels, the once beautiful island looked like a cratered desert. No building remained standing and all the vegetation and wildlife had been completely blasted away.

        A change was taking place in me as the fate of Corregidor became more obvious. To assimilate it all, and coming to grips with the impending doom, I had become increasingly conscious of the description of a perfect world in the Lotus Sutra. Here that thesis could be examined under the most extreme circumstances. Putting my trust in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, I found moments during the night bombardments when I felt so calmed by this, I began to leave the tunnel and walk down to a rocky promontory on the south shore and intone my chant as the bombs fell, its meaning never more vivid:

        "Beneath the dark surface of this crumbling illusion, My perfect world shimmers with light. Though this illusion seems burning, And these suffering beings lie broken and bleeding, Believing the end of the kalpa is near. My perfect peaceful world is here, And these beings are whole and filled with light."

        I did this dozens of times. And returning calmly to the safety of the tunnels after these sojourns, the M.P.'s gave me strange and ominous glares ...I must have seemed too serene and contented; and why would I leave the tunnel during air raids?

        The real heroes of the siege were the 4th Marines, who through it all, had to remain in their handmade foxholes and fortifications dug into the beaches and hillsides, with horrible instant death raining all around them, constantly, for these 27 days of incessant bombardment. I had quite a few friends among them and one day, I was able to scrape up enough ingredients to make a batch of donuts with the help of some Filipino friends. I carried a big pan of them down to where the Marines were dug in near Monkey Point. On my way down the bombardment started hitting the area I was crossing. I ducked in and out of craters and foxholes and finally reached the Marines' position just at the height of the barrage. The half starved Marines could not believe their eyes. The Marines were in the worst fix of all those on Corregidor. It was the most difficult position to get food, and by that time all communications had to be done at great risk by courier. There were no ambulances running and the wounded had to be carried by stretcher often over a mile to the hospital.

        General Wainwright was the commander of all the forces in the Philippines after General MacArthur had been withdrawn to Australia. In many ways he was the antithesis of General MacArthur. Where MacArthur was aloof and distant commander, aristocratic in his manner, larger than life; Wainwright was the skinny, down to earth cavalry officer, a "regular Joe", comfortable and friendly with the men. Where MacArthur was respected and even held in awe: Wainwright was genuinely loved by his men. Both were known to expose themselves to the dangers that their front line troops risked and each did it in his own characteristic way; MacArthur would appear while under fire and stride about majestically surveying the scene with an air of invincibility and hardly lose an ash off his cigar, while Wainwright would spend at least an hour outside the tunnels each day, moving from foxhole to foxhole stopping at each for a homey chat with the men in their positions. Each General considered this sort of thing an essential duty of the commander, and especially in this campaign since as Wainwright put it, "they have so damn little to fight with, at least we can give them some morale".

        In the final days of Corregidor's siege, there was considerable resentment, though not toward Wainwright and those who shared theri predicament. Throughout the Bataan campaign the troops listened to the radio reports of the relief convoy on its way. Gradually they had become cynical about this ever-eminent convoy. In fact, it never came. In February, when President Roosevelt addressed the nation over the radio, he spelled out the necessity, as he saw it, of concentrating on the war in Europe first. He scarcely mentioned the besieged garrison on Corregidor. From that time forward it was apparent to all that we were on our own and that no relief was coming. On March 11th, MacArthur was withdrawn by submarine to Australia. When word of this reached the ranks, we felt a pervasive sense of doom. When Bataan fell on April 9th, and pressure began to mount on the survivors on Corregidor, we felt as cornered rats, packed closer and closer together in the tunnels; sick, starving, sleepless, terrorized and worst of all abandoned and forgotten by the government we served. To me it would have been unthinkable at that time that any garrison could ever have felt a greater sense of abandonment.

        On the field of battle, one gains acute awareness as to the pulse of the war. We know when something is changing, when the tempo is increasing, building up to something. On May 5th, something had changed: The bombardment was more intense than before, and we knew a new kind of attack was forming.

        I was near the lower end of the tunnel and happened to be reading passages from the Christian Bible. A large bomb came down just outside the tunnel entrance where the mess tables were located and killed a large number of people who were standing there. The ground shook and dirt and rocks fell down through the cracks in the weakened concrete reinforcement of the tunnel. The words I was reading seemed to come alive on the page and swim and burn before my eyes.."...ten thousand shall fall at your right hand, but not a hair of your head shall be touched.."

        It was soon thereafter that we were called together in the main tunnel. It was usually bedlam in the tunnel, like a chaotic bazaar, but now it was dead silent. General Wainwright came out and addressed all assembled. He said to prepare for an all out Japanese assault on the island. He said that all ambulatory personnel would be assigned battle stations.

        The assault came that night and in the light of the full moon and the silver light of the phosphorus flares could be seen a flotilla of hundreds of barges and boats of every description approaching the island from both sides of the bay. The defenders held their fire until the Japanese drew near to more efficiently use their supply of ammunition. Then it began.

        The Japanese made their landing at a low beach between Malinta Hill and Monkey Point on the tail of the island. Many of their boats were blasted out of the water by our heavy mortars and as they hit the beaches: they were taking heavy losses. Wave after wave came in, being killed by the scores. The wave following would clamber over the piles of dead and unceasingly charge into the firing, overwhelming positions by their sheer willingness to absorb bullets with their bodies. The Japanese artillery barrage preceded them slowly up the beach destroying everything in its path and the attackers pressed inland. The defenders fell back and fell back.

        I had been given the post of guarding the hospital entrance, with orders to maintain its conceivably protected status under the Geneva Convention by disarming everyone entering. Scores of freshly wounded were rushed in and some who were merely in a state of hysteria, some of them officers. My job was to have them stack their rifles outside and let them enter. As the defenders on the beach fell back again and again, more and more wounded were jammed into the hospital, and the already packed Malinta Tunnel. There was already standing room only making it nearly impossible to pass through the throng. Senior officers who had been conferring with General Wainwright came through with difficulty and spread the word that he intended to surrender at noon. Japanese tanks had landed and had joined the action. It was not possible to go on; there were few heavy weapons left in the hands of the defenders that were functional and they were at Topside away from the invasion beaches on the tail of the island. The beach defenses had been annihilated, and there was no communication possible between the remaining fighting units and their headquarters. The fresh water supply was completely gone. It was only possible to surrender or pointlessly die.

        At 11:00 in the morning, General Wainwright radioed his intention to surrender to President Roosevelt and General MacArthur. The message was translated and repeatedly broadcast in Japanese.

        At noon, those who had received the surrender order ceased fire and began smashing their weapons. White flags were hung outside the tunnel entrances and a white flag was run up the flagpole at Topside barracks, and the American flag taken down and burned. The Japanese, however, did not slow their firing. Wainwright repeatedly radioed to the Japanese but was unable to establish communication. Finally he sent a Marine Captain out onto the battlefield with a white flag in hand. He was able to find a Japanese commander and soon there was a lull in the fighting and Generals Wainwright, Beebe and Moore were escorted through the lines.

        They were taken to Bataan to meet with General Homma, at 5:00 that evening. Wainwright attempted to conceal that he was commander of all Allied Forces in the Philippines and to surrender only the besieged garrisons on Corregidor and the fortified islands of Manila Bay. The ruse was turned against him; General Homma insisted that Wainwright was the supreme commander as had been stressed again and again on the American news broadcasts. When Wainwright realized the situation, he agreed to surrender all, but Homma would not accept, since Wainwright had previously denied his authority. Homma left the meeting, saying that battle would continue. Further discussions would have to be conducted with Colonel Nakayama, the field commander on Corregidor who had accompanied the surrender party to Bataan. After much pleading the American Generals were able to persuade Nakayama to wind down the hostilities, though all those captured would remain battle captives rather than prisoners of war until all remaining forces in the Philippines actually did lay down their arms. All were to remain hostages, and therefore subject to summary execution, until this did, in fact, occur. Then and only then would we be treated as prisoners of war.

        That evening, back on Corregidor, General Wainwright made formal arrangements to send his emissaries to General Sharp on Mindinao, and to Colonel Horan operating guerrilla units in the North to persuade them to surrender.

        When General Wainwright and his aides had left for Bataan to negotiate with General Homma the night before, battle was still in progress in many places and everything was in an uncertain status. There were 4000 of us inside Malinta Tunnel. We had disarmed ourselves, but outside, the fighting had not stopped and we were helpless. Our officers organized a party to proceed outside the tunnel under white flag and surrender the tunnel to the nearest Japanese officer. This was arranged and the first contingent of Japanese appeared inside the tunnel entrance. They were extremely cautious, expecting a trap.

        The Japanese ordered everyone to kneel, but this was not possible since there was barely room to stand. We crushed ourselves against the walls to make a corridor so the Japanese could enter. The officers proceeded through, followed by a number of soldiers. Their sabers and bayonets dripped with the blood of our own people. They seethed with battle-crazed hatred and many of them bled from their own wounds. They had suffered enormous casualties in taking Corregidor, and we would soon learn, we were considered "battlefield captives", still in a fight that was not finished. We could be beheaded or bayoneted for the slightest misstep.

        Word had reached Corregidor in the months before of the Japanese atrocities at the fall of Hong Kong and Singapore, and many feared for the nurses who might be raped and the patients that might be bayoneted in their hospital beds. In the weeks that followed, our status remained uncertain and it was clear that any organized resistance could precipitate a massacre. This did not happen, though many individuals, for little reason, were butchered in front of us, among us. There was nothing to be done about it. This was being totally at the mercy of the totally merciless.

        Officers of senior rank were separated from the rest of us and led off to a lateral (a smaller side tunnel) under guard. By that time, I was Sergeant John Provoo and I was one of the 3000 plus that were herded just outside the lower entrance of the tunnel and packed into an excavated amphitheater-like area. The Japanese set up machine gun positions around us, and left a small number of nervous guards with guns trained on a helpless crowd.

        Many American units on Topside continued to fight, being out of touch with their commanders. The Japanese sent their troops to meet them. The shelling from Bataan increased again and many rounds landed near where we were being held, punctuating General Homma's threats to Wainwright taking place at that moment. Fighting continued sporadically through the night and in the morning, planes bombed and strafed near the captives' area and still another artillery barrage opened up from Bataan. The shelling became so intense around us that the Japanese guarding us had to take cover and some of us huddled along the road there were wounded by shrapnel.

        Finally the last holdouts realized it was over, and came down the hill from Topside holding a white flag as we cheered them. Then the first silence in over a month came to Corregidor; a stinking, ghastly silence.



Copyright © 2015, 2022 John Oliver