It will be 50 years old this December 8, 2010. The 152-acre American Military Cemetery and Memorial in Makati, increasingly surrounded at a distance by hovering high-rises in Fort Bonifacio, still manages though to impart a sense of space, tranquility and honor to the soldiers who served and died in the Pacific Theater in World War II.
Among the 14 permanent military cemeteries that the American Battle Monuments Commission administers throughout the world, the Manila cemetery contains the largest number of remains (17,207) and is the only cemetery in the Pacific. It also has the singular distinction of containing the remains not just of Americans but also of Filipinos who fought as Philippine Scouts and other nationalities in the Allied Forces including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, China and Panama.
Cemeteries have an air of melancholy if not sadness exacerbated perhaps by sculptures of mourning angels and the physical decay on mossy headstones and rusty mausoleum gates. Not in this cemetery.
Every one of the 17,000 white marble headstones, quarried from Carrara and Lassa, Italy,
are regularly scrubbed and glow, the names chiseled half-a-century ago still reading clearly. 3,644 of the remains are unidentified and their headstones are inscribed as comrades whose identities are “…known only to God.”
There is a stately feel, driving slowly on its boulevard flanked by Mahogany trees passing perfectly aligned headstones laid in eleven concentric circles around the Memorial court. Mounting gentle steps to the court there is a 60-foot high chapel, ramrod to the sky, gracing over two wide hemicycles of Travertine limestone surrounding the court. 24 pairs of fin walls
support the hemicycles bearing the chiseled names of 36,285 men and women from the Navy, Army and Air Force, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard and the Philippine Scouts. Except for a very few found in the ensuing years, the names on the walls meant their bodies were never found.
The Cemetery was designed by a Bay Area architect named Gardner Dailey (1895 – 1967). Dailey designed the homes of many wealthy San Francisco families and his buildings included museums, hotels and several campus buildings at the University of California Berkeley.
Dailey won the commission to design the Cemetery on land donated in 1948 by the Philippine Government to the United States. Prior to the commission he had designed buildings and tropical landscapes in Central America. In the Philippines, he applied his interest in landscaping by creating a Cemetery amidst a botanical garden with tropical flowering trees, shrubs and plants. A half-century later the Acacia trees he designated throughout the site have a solid majesty to them, shading headstones, its jagged limbs upward, seemingly in supplication to the heavens.
The end rooms of each hemicycle contain 27 imposing wall maps in tinted concrete, mosaic and ceramic of the Philippines, Asia, and the Pacific. With markers, colored arrows and text, each map give brief histories of key historical junctures beginning with the Japanese occupation of the Asian mainland, the attack on Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the swift takeover of Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and the Malayan Peninsula. One map entitled Defense of Luzon illustrates the gallant and heroic stand of American and Filipino soldiers repulsing Japanese invaders and stalling their advance for five long months until Bataan and Corregidor finally surrendered in May 1942.
Significant battles now dimly remembered are permanently enshrined on the walls extolling the Battle of the Coral Sea and later the Midway Atolls where sizeable Japanese naval forces headed to invade New Guinea, Australia, Hawaii and Alaska were destroyed and driven back.
Other important battles such as Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands and Iwo Jima (the latter taking almost a month to recapture by Allied Forces) gives a sober pictorial rendering of how the Allied forces regained Japanese occupied islands at the cost of tens of thousands of lives and over two years of continuous fighting. The map of interest to many is that entitled Return to The Philippines, October 1944,
detailing the combined American and Allied Forces, 200,000 men strong, destroying most of Japan’s remaining naval ships in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and returning, as promised, by General Douglas MacArthur.
In the blur of tens of thousands of names inscribed on the walls and those carved on the headstones that encircle the Memorial, there are poignant stories. Twenty pairs of brothers are buried side by side. On the wall of the missing are noted five Sullivan brothers, Frank, Joe, Matt, Al and George. When their light cruiser USS Juneau was torpedoed off the Solomon Islands, three would die instantly. A fourth would later drown and survivors recounted that the remaining brother George, in grief and despair, went over the side of the raft and disappeared in the water.
On the wall of the missing, soldiers who received the Congressional Medal of Honor while alive or posthumously like Private George Watson has his name engraved in gold. In March, 1943 Watson rescued fellow soldiers in the water after their ship was bombed, off New Guinea. He drowned, dragged down by the suction of the sinking ship. For his selfless act he would be one of seven African Americans who received the Medal of Honor and the only one to receive it for action in the Pacific Theater.
On any given day, surviving American and Filipino relatives can still be seen visiting headstones bearing flowers. At the Memorial, relatives would pose for photos beside the inscribed names of loved ones. With the passage of time, the emotional pain and tears are less evident than what one would witness at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Here, the gathered relatives and friends softly talk about “dad” or “lolo” (grandfather) or “uncle” recounting snatches of character and bravery to the younger members present.
Most of the soldiers were young, many under 20 years old. By war’s end, 100,000 American men and women from the various services died in the Pacific Theater (60,000 Filipino soldiers, guerrilla fighters and an estimated one million civilian deaths died in the same period). Many of the American soldiers died during the early part of 1942 and the latter part of 1944 coinciding with the defense of the Philippines, the Bataan Death March, the return of American forces, the Battle of Leyte and the eventual liberation of the country.
A half-century later, gazing at the perfectly lined crosses on the grass, one wonders if these soldiers were alive today, would they think their sacrifices worth it? Current world events with power shifts, long standing tensions and expansionist desires continued soon after war’s end and not abated.
On December 8, 1941, 30 year-old Infantryman and poet Henry G. Lee was stationed in the Philippines and realized that the attack on Pearl Harbor would soon change his world completely. He wrote this poem, later found while imprisoned at a POW camp north of Manila. He died in January 1945 in a bombed Japanese cargo ship along with other POW’s off Formosa.
Entitled “Prayer to Battle (To Mars)” he wrote:
“Before thine ancient altar, God of War, Forlorn, afraid, alone, I kneel to pray.
The gentle shepherd whom I would adore. Faced by thy blazing plaything, slips away. And I am drained of faith – alone – alone.
Who now needs faith to face thy outthrust sword, Bereft of hope, turned to pagan to the bone. I kneel to thee and hail thee as my Lord.
From such a God as thee, I ask not life, My life is forfeited, the hour is late. Thou need not swerve the bullet, dull the knife. I ask but strength to ride the wave of fate. And one thing more – to validate this strife, And to my own sacrifice – teach me to hate.”
Henry Lee’s name is carved on the wall of the missing at the American Military Cemetery.