Control this island, you control Manila. It’s a maxim that explains why Corregidor Island has always been considered so important – and why it was the scene of such heavy fighting in the Second World War, as the Japanese advanced on the Philippines.
Even when the soldiers knew the end was upon them, they never gave up. This small island had held out against some of the most determined attackers, against all odds. The soldiers had every reason to be proud and so they fought on.
The date was May 6, 1942 and it was the Americans (with the help of the Filipinos) who were fighting to protect Corregidor Island this time. I say ‘this time’ because Corregidor has changed hands many times over the centuries.
Why is Corregidor Island so important?
The position of Corregidor Island in Manila Bay makes it an extremely strategic island for anyone wanting to attack or defend Manila. For this reason, it was the scene of incredibly heavy fighting during the Second World War.
What is Corregidor Island today?
These days, Corregidor Island is a war memorial to the American and Filipino soldiers who died here. Many of the original buildings and military infrastructure have been left in ruins out of respect for those who fought on the island.
Can you visit Corregidor Island?
Corregidor Island is technically open to visitors, but it’s only accessible by private ferry. Since the pandemic, those ferry trips have been very limited, meaning it can be difficult to reach Corregidor Island sometimes.
This rock rising out of the water is situated at a strategic point of Manila Bay and is one of the most important defences for the capital of the Philippines. Whoever holds the island can control the maritime access to the country’s key port.
It’s for this reason that, during the Second World War, the Japanese were so intent on claiming it. It was the key to their planned conquest of the Pacific.
Corregidor Island in World War II
For months the Japanese bombarded the island, throwing everything they had at it.
From December 1941 until May, bombs rained down and large guns shot at Corregidor. Japanese aircraft flew more than 600 missions and dropped more than 1700 bombs. Meanwhile, the artillery pieces fired consistently.
It’s estimated that on the night of heaviest fire, more than 16,000 shells hit the island.
When the Japanese finally landed on Corregidor on the night of May 5, the men waiting for them fought back as best they could. They were terribly outnumbered, though, and were running low on resources. You can only imagine how weak they would have been too.
The months of attacks had meant they could hardly get any supplies. They were eating just 800 grams of food a day and drinking water just twice.
But they knew how important Corregidor was. They weren’t just fighting for their lives but, as far as they knew, for the future of the world.
In the end, the island fell to the Japanese. The commander sent a message to President Franklin Roosevelt: “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed”. The remaining Americans and Filipinos, waving white flags, surrendered.
The story of the island doesn’t end there. The Japanese, with control of Corregidor, were able to take Manila Bay. It was the finest port in the Far East and they used it to expand their advance. The overnight battle on this small island meant the fall of Asia.
The tide turned a few years later and Corregidor was retaken from the Japanese in February 1945. This was the last major military action it would see.
Since the Spanish first established a base on the island in 1570, it had also been taken – and held – by the Dutch, the British, the Americans, and the Japanese. But finally Corregidor Island was at peace.
Now, when you visit Corregidor Island, you’ll be able to trace much of this history. But being able to land here peacefully is relatively new in the site’s long history.
Things to see on Corregidor Island
Until recently, the island knew nothing but war, so it’s fitting that’s what you see when you visit. All across Corregidor are the ruins of the military base run by the Americans and Filipinos during the Second World War.
The buildings that were destroyed by bombs have been left that way and others, destroyed by time, have been secured but not rebuilt. The large bases for the guns are still there and, in many cases, the guns are too.
The barracks are just skeletons but they are evidence of the men who once lived here and the lives they led.
One of the most impressive things to see on Corregidor Island is the enormous tunnel complex inside a mountain.
The main tunnel, with entrances at each end, is 250 metres long and about 7 metres wide. 24 smaller tunnels of about 50 metres come off it in both directions.
Originally it was designed as bomb-proof storage but, when the Japanese siege became too much, it was used as a bunker, a hospital and a command centre.
It was from here inside Malinta Tunnel that General Douglas MacArthur had his headquarters and the President of the Philippines had his seat of government at one point.
Around the island are walking trails – and even bike trails – that allow you to explore the heritage that remains. These days, there’s also a fair bit of interesting flora and animal life to look out for.
Corregidor isn’t massive and you could walk around the whole thing on your own if you wanted, but there wouldn’t be time to do that and get the detailed visit with all the historical information that’s usually offered with a tour.
Visiting Corregidor Island
To get to Corregidor Island, you need to go by boat. However, there are no public transport options, so you’ll need to use a private ferry.
Unfortunately, since the coronavirus pandemic, the usual ferry operator has shut down and access to Corregidor Island has been fairly patchy, with limited information about what’s available.
Tours (including boat transfers) restarted in the middle of 2022, just on Saturdays and Sundays, but then stopped again.
The tours and transfers began again in January 2023, but they are only happening on specific days.
UPDATE MAY 2023: There are currently some tours going to Corregidor Island on the following dates – Monday 1 May, Saturday 6 May, Saturday 13 May, Saturday 20 May.
The tours cost 4500 php (U$80) and includes roundtrip boat transfers, island entrance fee, historical tram tour with guide, Malinta Tunnel light show, and a buffet lunch by the beach.
The boat leaves Manila at 06:00 and gets back at 16:30.
It’s also possible you may be able to get a tour company in Manila that can arrange a boat to Corregidor Island, but I haven’t been able to find one. (Please drop me a note and let me know if you do know of one!)
Normally, when the boats are running regularly, most tourists book a tour package with the ferry company which includes ground transportation around the island.
If you want a bit of independence and a bit more time to explore, you also used to be able stay overnight in the hotel on the island. Many people who choose this option take the tour during the day and then have the evening and next morning to explore for themselves once the tourist groups have left.
It’s a very quiet place to spend time in. Far from hectic Manila, there’s just the wind in the trees and the lapping of the water on the shore. It’s hard to imagine how noisy and chaotic it must have been when the bombs were dropping and the guns shooting.
We should be thankful for the peace now but not forget the lives that were lost here and the heroism of those who held out for so long, determined to protect Corregidor against all odds.