Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Friday, November 14, 2008


I have gone through my email address book and pulled out every person that I thought had a connection to the Philippines. Since retiring from the Navy I have returned three times including this past January, and next January 2009 I will return again. The last time I had over two dozen historians, veterans, writers, families, etc. accompany me to the country's remarkable historical sites, including an overnight at a beautiful lodge on Corregidor. Want to go with me next January? Let me know. Or send this email to your friends who also care about the Philippines. Below is an article I wrote that will appear in a newsletter for military historians. Enjoy. Dan McKinnon


By RADM Dan McKinnon, SC, USN (ret)

It was May 20 1968 that I sailed into historic Subic Bay in the Philippines on board USS PRINCETON (LPH-5). With us were Marine Corps CH-46 helicopters of HMM-161 that we had ferried across the Pacific and would soon take on to Vietnam . Like hundreds of U.S. Navy ships before and after, our brief stop was for re-supply and R&R. The beautiful harbor surrounded by mountains had in 1886 become a Spanish arsenal and ship repair station and in 1905 an American naval station following annexation of the Philippines from Spain . Between the two world wars its fame would center on the Dewey Dry Dock, a sea going monster that took over six months in 1906 to tow from Virginia to repair ships of the Asiatic fleet. During the Japanese occupation Subic became an Imperial Navy wooden shipyard.

By 1968 and for several years afterward, Subic was the Navy’s largest overseas base. Naval Air Station Cubi Point opened in 1956 and became home to several squadrons and the jumping off place to Vietnam and all of Asia . To construct it Seabees literally moved mountains and more dirt than building the Panama Canal . The Ship Repair Facility (SRF) was famous for its high quality industrial work. Established in 1955 the Naval Supply Depot (NSD) was second in size only to the center in Norfolk, held Pacific Fleet war reserves including battleship cannon barrels, and was the Navy’s largest petroleum “filling station”. The Public Works Center (PWC) was the Navy’s largest. The Naval Station had recreation facilities second to none, and along with the city of Olongapo, offered Sailors and Marines an unequaled place to unwind. A twenty dollar liberty could get a sailor cold beer, great music, and a dancing partner. Nearby mountains and beaches provided both Marine ground troops and Navy aviators perfect places to train. Numerous commands and hundreds of families called Subic home. And aboriginal Aetas, or Negritos as the Spanish named them, trained Americans in jungle survival techniques that proved invaluable in Vietnam . I had arrived to a bay full of ships. There was a war on.

Forty years later in January of this year (2008) I came back to Subic , this time by bus. The Navy had left in 1992 following a Philippine decision to not renew the bases agreement. The gate we came upon on a paved highway with packed trucks on all sides was not the one we once used crossing a bridge over a river made famous by its smell. This gate welcomed us to the Subic Bay Freeport Zone. As we came down into the former naval base around us were industrial parks and office buildings. We passed the previous Navy Exchange and Commissary which is now a duty free shopping mall. Ahead was Cubi Point and instead of Navy aircraft the field was full of Federal Express planes departing for points in Asia . Containers were being off-loaded at a marine terminal. A restaurant was near the old fuel office and nearby sea planes were taking tourists aloft. We passed a yacht club and hotel with elegant boats nearby. George Dewey High School and the Cubi Point O-Club had become convention centers. Change was everywhere. Barracks had been turned into hotels, and where the famous Chuck Wagon once served beer and sandwiches, the Legenda Resort now welcomes world visitors to its casino. Across the street on the waterfront beach the old Officers Club is also a casino. Former Chief and enlisted clubs are restaurants and night clubs. Beach areas have become mini-resorts and part of the Ship Repair Facility is used for schools. A new Korean shipyard has opened across the bay to build tankers and the old ship repair area has condos in its future plans. The waterfront NSD headquarters building where as Commanding Officer in 1980 I could observe the world pass my window had burned and in its place is the new three story office of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority. The jungle has been preserved and former government housing are now civilian homes. My old quarters is owned by a Philippine movie star. Who says you can’t go back?

Perhaps the biggest change for anyone returning to Subic is the transformation of the City of Olongapo . Streets are paved and the town has long shed its “sin city” image. An award winning city in government and community service, it shares with Subic the improvements to the entire area economy. There are more Filipinos working in the Freeport Zone than on the former naval base. Subic and Clark are now connected by a superhighway. With Subic an international sea port and Clark an international air hub, the two former bases are fast becoming the economic backbone of a country that too long relied on the congested city of Manila .

Returning to Subic was an emotional moment in an even bigger adventure.

My January visit was really all about leading two dozen veterans, historians, and writers back to the Philippines to study military history. Coming home to Subic was just the icing on the cake. The island of Luzon is a show case of U.S. military history and our early colonial experiment. My group began in Manila studying the events of the Spanish Intramuros and Fort Santiago of the Galleon era; the Manila Hotel McArthur suite; and Bilibid prison, a former Japanese concentration camp. Then to Corregidor and two days at the sites of its five month defense that many believe upset the Japanese time table of conquest and changed the course of the war. Studying the ordeal of living and fighting from the Malinta Tunnel, the famous PT boat departure by reluctant General McArthur; to the Americans return by parachute became emotional moments. After Corregidor we followed the track of the infamous Bataan Death March from Mariveles to San Fernando and to Camp O’Donnell , marching the last kilometer in reverence to the thousands of Americans and Filipinos who had been tortured and died. Then to the Cabanatuan concentration camp. With me was retired Chief Warrant Officer Ray Harper, a yeoman on Cavite at the outbreak of the war, who moved to Corregidor where he helped in the defense, and was captured and interned in both the camps at Bilibid and Cabanatuan before being transported by an infamous “Hell Ship” to Japan. A sharp 90 year old, Ray helped us understand the POW experience. Cabanatuan is maintained by the U.S. Battle Monument Commission. Other study stops included Mount Samat, a center of fighting on Bataan; Lingayen Gulf where American forces returned; the battle for Zigzag pass; Japanese Kamikaze air fields; historic Fort Stotsenburg; jungle training by aboriginal Aetas or Negritos from Jungle Environmental Survival Training (JEST)); and the old bases, Subic and Clark. The Angeles City VFW hosted a luncheon and Olongapo threw an evening party; lots of good food, great music, and San Miguel beer.

Our remarkable and emotional odyssey reached a climax on the final day. Like its sister cemetery in the Punch Bowl of Hawaii, the beautiful Manila American Cemetery and Memorial is a place for every American. The battles of the Pacific are displayed in colorful mosaics. With ages from 40 to 90, we stood at attention and laid a wreath to honor 17,206 U. S. military, including 570 Filipinos, interred there. With our heads bowed, we understood the words inscribed on The Philippine Pacific War Memorial atop Corregidor , “Sleep my son, your duty done. Sleep in the silent depths of the sea or in your bed of hollowed sod until you hear at dawn the clear low reveille of God.”

If you would like to know more, e-mail themckinnons@aol.com

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