Nearly five centuries after the Philippines was first colonized and more than 70 years since it was ravaged by World War II, Corregidor Island off Manila Bay continues to offer stark memories of its past.

Amid the country’s evolution to a more modern society and economy, ruins, a prominent lighthouse, tunnels and gun emplacements remain preserved on the 9-sq.-km island. They offer glimpses from the period between the 15th and 19th centuries, when the Philippines was a Spanish colony, to the early 20th century, when the United States took over, as well as the 1940s when Japan invaded and World War II broke out.

“In our history, Corregidor showed us the valor of the Filipinos, the Americans and the Japanese,” tour guide Edo Fernandez said of the tadpole-shaped island around 48 km west of Manila.

While Corregidor served an important function during the Spanish occupation, its significance rose when the U.S. was ruling the Philippines as a colony for nearly 50 years. At that time, it was used to host military forces because of its strategic location.

Streets were paved, barracks and quarters were erected, the famous Malinta tunnel was constructed, batteries were set up, and a hospital and cinema were built, among other structures.

When the Pacific War broke out in 1941, the Japanese sought to take over Corregidor, which was the last bastion of the allied Filipino and U.S. forces. According to the official Philippine government website, “It was important for the Japanese to capture Corregidor so that their navy could utilize Manila Bay for their campaign.”

It took more than 300 full-scale air raids and hundreds of thousands of heavy artillery rounds, or up to 16,000 on a single day, for the Imperial Japanese Army to finally take control of Corregidor Island on May 6, 1942.

On that day, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, commander of all troops on the island, surrendered to the Japanese, led by Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma.

The Corregidor Foundation, a nonprofit organization tasked with maintaining the island’s war relics, noted that Corregidor, known also as “the Rock,” was the stumbling block that kept the Japanese from annihilating the Allied Forces in 1942 in the Pacific.

“Had it not been for Corregidor Island’s tenacious defense, Australia would have been overrun by the Japanese that would deprive Gen. (Douglas) MacArthur’s regrouping of forces to mount counterattacks two years later,” the foundation said. MacArthur was the commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific during the war.

When the Americans returned in 1944 to take the Philippines back, the fight for Corregidor posed another struggle. This time it took until March 1945 to retake it.

During the 10th anniversary of the “Liberation of Corregidor,” Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay said, “Corregidor was democracy’s great bastion during the last war, and I hope, with its proclamation as a national shrine, together with Bataan, it will forever remain the symbolic sanctuary of freedom in Asia.”

When the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Corregidor was commemorated last May, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana pointed out how the island also highlights the “strong relationship” between the Philippines and the United States. “This is very important because the Filipinos and Americans fought side by side here,” he said.

Aside from the actual war relics, other structures that serve to remind the public of Corregidor’s value were put up on the island years later, including the Pacific War Memorial, made up of a rotunda under a dome, and a museum.

Artemio Matibag, executive director of the foundation, laments the decline in the number of Japanese visiting the island in the last few years.

“Japanese World War II veterans cannot travel abroad anymore, and the young generation or relatives of World War II veterans are less interested in history,” he noted.

Fernandez, a licensed tour guide, recalled that from 2001 to 2005, “there were … still a lot coming in groups,” made up of those interested in WWII, as well as relatives of those who fought and died in the war. But because of the passing of many veterans or their immediate descendants, as well as the weakening of the Japanese economy, the trend slowly reversed.

“The younger generation is not interested anymore, unlike the older generation,” Fernandez, 69, said during a recent tour on the island.

In a separate email interview, Matibag said, “(Corregidor) is less significant now for the young Japanese generation” since “the world today has so many issues and concerns politically, socially and economically.”

Acknowledging that many facts and aspects of the war were purposely kept from the Japanese by their government, Fernandez appealed to the younger generation, especially those from Japan, to visit Corregidor since “this is a good opportunity to learn about the war.”

Matibag said the foundation is trying to slow the deterioration of World War II ruins by installing steel supports and cleaning up the island on a daily basis.

The preservation efforts, Lorenzana said, are intended “for the future generations … who come here to see what their forefathers did in Corregidor.”

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