War and Romance on Manila Bay

Published February 22, 2021, 12:33 AM

by Jaime Laya


Seniors old enough remember cannon booms, smoke, and flashes of light reaching Dewey Boulevard from across the bay, from Bataan and Corregidor where Filipino and American soldiers were making a stand against Japanese invaders. That was exactly 79 years ago in February 1942.

Manila and Clark Field were bombed by the Japanese on the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 8, 1941. War had begun and President Manuel L. Quezon and Gen. Douglas MacArthur evacuated government and the military high command to Corregidor on Dec. 26, just before the Japanese entered Manila the following week on Jan. 2.

The entrance to Malintâ Tunnel, Corregidor Island (photograph from Google Images)

Malintâ Tunnel, bored into the island’s rock, became government and military nerve center. Packed in its main and lateral tunnels were offices, hospital, sleeping quarters, ammo, and food storage, everything.

A 1983 photo of the ship-shaped concrete Fort in the foreground and the real ship USS New Jersey in the background (photo by PH2 Paul Soutar)

Corregidor was the largest of the islands at Manila Bay’s entrance. Strengthened starting in 1909 to prevent invasion by sea (no planes or missiles yet), Corregidor became Fort Mills; El Fraile near Ternate, Cavite was leveled and the concrete Fort Drum was built, shaped like a battleship 110 meters long; Caballo became Fort Hughes; and Carabao, Fort Frank. La Monja and Los Cochinos, small islands near the Bataán shore, were likewise secured. Grande Island at the entrance to Subic Bay was fortified into Fort Wint.

Fort Drum (El Fraile Island) before 1909 pre-construction.

Now a peaceful tree-covered tourist destination, the Corregidor of February 1942 was all fully armed soldiers, their commanders strategizing amid whistling bombs and cannon fire as the enemy approached.

The Treasury — gold bars, silver peso coins, paper money, negotiable securities — had also been evacuated to Corregidor. The gold became submarine ballast, paper money and securities were incinerated after listing down serial numbers. One of the defenders’ final tasks was to dump 425 tons of silver coins into the sea at a marked spot between Corregidor and Caballo Islands to prevent their falling into Japanese hands.

Outnumbered and underequipped, the leadership retreated to regroup and fight another day. Quezon and his family left by submarine on Feb. 20, headed for Australia and the US, followed by MacArthur three weeks later, promising, “I shall return.” Bataán fell on April 9 and the Death March began. Corregidor and the other island forts held off but finally the highest-ranking military man remaining, Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright, raised the white flag on May 6.

The American Regime Forts had been named after Civil War and Spanish-American War generals replacing the centuries-old Spanish names. Therein lie romance and tragedy.

Writing in 1939, American journalist Walter Robb relates that some 200 years earlier, the lovely daughter of an aristocratic Spanish-Mexican family, Maria Velez, was promised in marriage by her parents to the eldest son of another Hidalgo family.  In fact, Maria was in love with a younger brother but her parents were adamant, saying that as younger son, her choice would inherit neither title nor wealth. Maria tried but failed to persuade her parents to change their minds. Indeed, all contact between the two was blocked.

Distraught, the young man decided to be a priest. He joined the Franciscan Order and asked to do missionary work in Las Islas Filipinas, as far away from his disappointment as he could go. For her part, the young lady insisted on entering the Reál Monasterio de Santa Clara in Manila, also as far away from her lost love as she could go.

In Manila, the Franciscan Prior decided that the young man was too callow for a lonely provincial assignment and accordingly appointed him to a less demanding post, Vicar of Santa Clara monastery.

As Vicar, the young man lived in simple quarters adjoining the monastery chapel. His duties were mainly to say Mass, celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours, hear confessions and otherwise attend to the nuns’ religious needs. The nuns heard Mass behind a lattice draped with black curtains, their only contact with the outside world being through a nun stationed unseen behind a turnstile in the vestibule where visitors could leave offerings.

The nun Maria immediately recognized her beloved’s voice on his very first Mass and it was no surprise that she promptly felt a need for frequent confession. Both nun and priest were trapped in their vows but they finally decided they could not bear eternal separation and began plotting.

The plan was for her to be disguised as a Franciscan friar joining the Vicar on his usual sunset constitutional on the Pasig River quay just outside the Monastery. There a sampan would be waiting to bring them to the headland at the entrance of Manila Bay where galleons bound for Acapulco filled up with fresh water and where they would board.

All doors to the Monastery were locked and the first problem was how to open the door between cloister and chapel. The Vicar had a key made saying that his dog had been bitten and might go mad. Robb clarifies, “It is well known that if the key of such a holy place as a nunnery is tied round a dog’s neck and let dangle there, he will not go mad …” The two therefore sailed off into the sunset thinking, “… their humble sampan was as grand as the golden barge that carried Sheba to Solomon, and the guileful Chinese rowers were a retinue of Ethiopians.”

They reached their destination and proceeded by horse and carabao to the prearranged rendezvous. Unfortunately, tulisán were waiting in ambush, intent on the gold they learned the two had brought for their future life together. Maria Velez was killed and her gallant defender left for dead. Search parties arrived, headed by the Franciscan Order’s disciplinarian, the Corregidor. The friar was brought back to Manila, thrown into an isolation cell where he spent the rest of his days.

The beautiful Maria Velez gave her name to Bataán’s Mount Mariveles and Mariveles town. The view from the mountain and from passing ships encompasses memorials to the dramatis personae—the pursuing Corregidor, the hopeful La Monja and El Fraile, the beasts Caballo and Carabao that the tragic lovers had happily mounted on their final journey, and, in the distance, Los Cochinos (pigs), the partners-in-crime rowers and tulisán counting their take from the ill-fated pair.

Notes:  (a) The tale of the nun and her confessor (slightly embroidered by your column writer) is in Walter Robb, Filipinos (Manila: The author, 1939); and (b) The Reál Monasterio de Santa Clara was located next to Fort Santiago from its founding in 1621 until its destruction in February 1945 during the Battle of Manila. The Monastery is now by C-5 in Quezon City still with a nun behind a turnstile often with eggs from a garden-party-hosting matrona petitioning for a rainless evening.

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