They say a cat has nine lives.
And we humans?
How many reprieves are we granted before mortality’s inexorable triumph?
This is the story of one of mine.
* * *
The sun was blindingly bright that Saturday in 1978, its heat only partially offset by the light breeze across the bow of the Philippine Government Customs launch as we sped across Manila Bay.
I was the State Department’s man on a U.S. delegation that had just finished negotiating a trade agreement with the Philippines the day before. Now, with twenty-four hours to kill before catching a plane to our next destination, we were being treated by the host government to a tour of Corregidor – that infamous isle where, thirty-six years earlier, an overwhelmingly outnumbered garrison of Americans and Filipinos held out heroically under months of bombardment before their inevitable surrender to the Japanese. The visit would give us an opportunity to see at first hand the conditions under which that beleaguered force had lived – especially the claustrophobic complex of caves and tunnels that provided the garrison’s only shelter, living space, infirmary, storerooms and operations center, as well as General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters and that of the elected Philippine Government.
During the two-hour trip, we felt the rigors of the past week’s negotiations melt away. Yesterday we were government officials with a job to do; today – tourists, intent only on relaxing and immersing ourselves in the history and locale of some of WWII’s most significant events.
Well past the mid-point of the trip, a strange sight seized our delegation’s attention – a small island totally surmounted by what appeared to be a concrete battleship. And that, in fact, is exactly what it was. Larger than a football field, its walls 25 to 36 feet thick, its deck more than 40 feet above the water, its armament four 14-inch naval guns in two heavily-armored turrets, Ft. Drum was an immobile concrete battleship that had dominated the entry to Manila Bay ever since its construction in the early 1900’s. Although all but obsolete by 1942, it was nevertheless one of Manila’s last harbor defenses to fall to the Japanese forces.
Seeing our obvious interest, our hosts moved the launch closer to the fort, where we could fully appreciate its size and see the hundreds of shell-holes that pocked its sides. On the spur of the moment someone in charge seemingly read my mind and suggested we pull alongside and go aboard.
Climbing to the main deck, we found ourselves facing a broad ramp, perhaps 20 feet wide, which led slightly downward toward an equally broad open doorway into the interior. I barely noticed the two striped sawhorses lying on their sides near the entryway, and the word “CAUTION” flashed ever so briefly into my mind and out again as I led both delegations forward.
Just inside the doorway, the ambient light changed instantly from blinding day to blackest night. After a few steps, I stopped to give my eyes time to adjust. Still sightless after a minute or two, I placed my hands behind my eyes, like a horse’s blinders, to block more of the glare from outside. This helped, if only incrementally. I could sense, not really see, a very large room, and – perhaps 5 or 6 feet in front of me – the short and frayed remnant of a rope hanging from a hook in the ceiling. But nothing more.
Realizing that the visibility was not going to get any better, I started forward.
It was nearly the last step I ever took.
One of the most remarkable of human phenomena is the way our sense of time slows down – or maybe it’s that our thought processes speed up – when we are in extremis. My thoughts, still vivid in memory, went like this:
First: “I’m falling”.
Next: “Uh-oh, I’m still falling”.
Third: “This is taking one helluva long time; I could get hurt”.
Fourth: “Is this how it all ends?”
Fifth: “Nobody up there in the dark even knows this drop-off is here; I’d better warn them.”
So I did -- I said “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!”
And finally – SPLASH!!
Surprisingly, my thoughts were calm and fairly well organized when I regained my feet. My relief at being alive, essentially unhurt and in no more than a foot or two of water, was leavened by the realization – which grew quickly to fear – that I might not be alone down there in the dark. Snakes? Sharks? Morays? Are there ‘gators in the Philippines? I quickly established communication with the folks up top. Told them I was OK but that I needed light and a long rope, in that order. And FAST!
The light came quickly; large balls of crumpled newspaper set aflame with a cigarette lighter. This brought a new fear – might there not be some flammable petroleum product floating on the surface? I triaged my fears, and decided to put that one aside. While waiting for the rope, I looked for the first time at my surroundings and saw that I was indeed in a large room of approximately the length and breadth I had sensed just before the fall. But how far had I fallen? I guessed the height of the deck to be about 30 to 35 feet. However, others present at the time – as well as historical records concerning the Fort’s dimensions – indicate that 40 feet may be more nearly accurate.
How in the world did I avoid breaking my legs, or even my back, in hitting such shallow water? The answer can only be that, although I had begun my fall in an upright posture, I must have gradually rotated forward by 90 degrees, thus spreading the impact of my contact with the water over my entire body. But as I continued looking around in the light of more flaming spheres of newsprint, I saw something even more sobering. Protruding above the surface of the water all around me were large rocks and concrete blocks. I had fallen in the only open space in which I could possibly have survived a 40-foot fall!
Soon the rope arrived, which cheered me immeasurably, as I was continuing to imagine all manner of marine predators circling and sizing up my meaty white legs. Judging that my freedom of action at the top would be greater if I ascended in a standing, rather than in a seated position, I stepped onto the rope’s loop, not into it, and the crew began slowly hauling me up. But then the rope began spinning – and I spun along with it – the centrifugal force inducing both vertigo and a growing fear that I would lose my grip on the rope, resulting in an “instant replay” of my swan dive. Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but I definitely did not want to leave my bod’ at the bottom of Ft. Drum!
After what seemed a much longer time than it actually was, I arrived just below the deck and had to shout for the crew to stop hauling. From where I hung, I could see that the edge of the deck was bright, sharp metal, and I did not want my body dragged across that blade by over-enthusiastic rescuers, especially while spinning. With the help of strong arms on deck, I was able to gain control, stop the spin, and clamber over the edge with only a minor two-inch slice along the fatty part of my waistline.
Luck was with me that day. The worst injury was to my watch, which was a total loss. My body got away with scrapes and scratches.
The motor launch dropped me off on the Bataan peninsula (site of the bloody “death march” of WWII) where I was checked out and treated at the infirmary of a blue-jeans factory located there. After a shower, they outfitted me in some of their products, since the clothes in which I had begun the day were no longer usable, and zipped me across the Bay in a motorboat of their own just in time to join my colleagues for lunch and the afternoon tour of the wartime tunnels.
All in all, it was an eventful and memorable day. When it began, I had never heard of Ft. Drum. By the time it ended, the “Concrete Battleship” had become a place I will not forget.
And even if, by the end of the day, I had scratched off one of my “nine lives”, well, that’s just fine by me, considering the alternative.