Manila holds a deep connection to America’s role in World War II

Travel: Manila offers plenty of contrast between traditional and new neighborhoods

Sit back and enjoy a quick tour of two distinctly different neighborhoods within Manila, Phillipines, courtesy of journalist and photographer John Greenman.
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Sit back and enjoy a quick tour of two distinctly different neighborhoods within Manila, Phillipines, courtesy of journalist and photographer John Greenman.

Only a few places on Earth are often-visited sites of the American experience in World War II.

There is Pearl Harbor and its Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, marking that “day which will live in infamy,” Japan’s attack on the U.S. and the beginning of the war in the Pacific.

There is Normandy, France, site of the D-day invasion in Europe.

And, there is Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.

As the 75th anniversary of the war’s end looms, we should add to the list Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

Manila is best-known today for the country’s death-to-drug-dealers president, Rodrigo Duterte, and as a departure point for some of Asia’s finest beaches. Less well known are its rich connections to America’s role in World War II: remnants of desperate battles, a vast cemetery for American war dead, a gallery of paintings of war-time suffering and a hotel suite that housed one of America’s favorite generals.

Each is well-worth a visitor’s time and effort – despite the long flights, a sometimes-difficult city and the near-equatorial heat.

Warning about Manila too harsh

Manila is a slum with horrific traffic, a U.S. expat warned me. “This is a Third World city,” he said, “working its way down to the Fourth.” His judgment is too harsh, I concluded after a week in Manila. But, like any generalization, it signals caution.

The Philippines are poor – a bit better off than southeast Asia neighbor Laos – but far poorer than Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. One quarter of Manila’s 17 million residents are said to live in slums – many of them so-called “squatters” along rivers, former dump sites, and heavily traveled roads corners and intersections.

I saw barefoot boys selling sweet pastries to drivers in traffic.

Manila’s traffic is horrible – “worst traffic on Earth,” according to a user survey by Google-subsidiary WAZE. Too many vehicles for too few roads, inadequate public transit and few traffic rules, for example, no sense of right of way.

A clerk at my hotel said she took three Jeepneys – crude, colorful, open-air buses whose front ends resemble World War II Jeeps – and a train in her hour-long commute to work. And, she lives inside the city.

Yet, large pockets of wealth fund amenities visitors will appreciate: five-star hotels, fine food, shopping – and lots of security. Nothing inhibited my exploring everywhere in Manila, nor would warn me off recommending a visit. But, like a visit to India, Manila takes some getting used to. This isn’t Singapore, Tokyo or Seoul. More like Mumbai with better air.

A solemn reminder

The Manila American Cemetery is a solemn reminder of U.S. war deaths in the Pacific, and a reminder of how they died.

White marble headstones mark 16,631 graves of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who died fighting in the southwest Pacific, in battles remembered for their place names: Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Manila.

But the names of the missing, engraved on 48 towering, marble tablets, outnumber the graves more than two-to-one: these 36,286, too, died fighting, but their remains have not been identified, according to the government, or they were lost or buried at sea.

This is the largest cemetery for U.S. military dead outside the U.S. Only Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia, inters more. The Normandy American Cemetery in France is far better known, and more frequently visited, but far smaller.

On the morning I visited, Bobby O. Bell, the cemetery’s deputy superintendent, showed me around, as is his practice on mornings that aren’t too busy. Bell wheeled us about in a golf cart, helping me locate two graves, then walked me through the Tablets of the Missing.

He showed me the names of PT 109 crew, remembering the day President John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline visited. He recalled how Loyce Deen, whose name is among the missing, was buried at sea in his mangled plane. And, he showed me the names of the Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, who served and died together when their ship, USS Juneau, sank.

Their father, the story goes, was notified when three men in uniform approached his door. “I have some news for you about your boys,” a naval officer said. “Which one?” asked the father. “I’m sorry,” the officer replied. “All five.”

The still, manicured grounds open daily.

The battles that bookend WW II

I explored remnants of battles that bookend the American experience in World War II.

One is the Battle of Bataan, the first land battle of the war following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Though, at the time, a dispiriting American surrender that ended with the Bataan Death March, historians today see Bataan as a heroic resistance that squandered Japanese resources and disrupted its timetable in Asia.

Exploring Bataan requires an early-morning, 50-minute ferry ride across Manila Bay, itself a wet grave for dozens of warships sunk in World War II, the Spanish-American War and earlier.

I toured Bataan in the company of Bob Hudson, 68, a U.S. expat who is vice president of the Filipino American Memorial Endowment.

We spent a couple of hours searching for the ground where Georgia-born and Fort Benning trained lieutenant Alexander R. Nininger Jr. led a platoon of Philippine Scouts defending a key, east-west line. Nininger received the Medal of Honor, the first of the war.

There is no marker nor visible remnant of the 76-year-old battle, but the map coordinates were right, as was the terrain: rice paddies, rolling ground, mountains in the distance. It’s quiet now, a few workers drying rice on the roadway.

Hudson does more than anyone on Bataan to preserve the markers of its World War II history. His chief task: painting the 138 stones that mark the route of the death march, where as many as 600 U.S. prisoners of war died on their 69-mile slog. Hudson says he does this work in honor of his father, Richard, who survived the march.

The other is the Battle of Manila, near the war’s end, in 1945.

Start in Intramuros, the Walled City of old Manila, where buildings date to the early 17th century. It was flattened by bombs – as many as 300 a day, according to a placard on a church wall – as U.S. and Filipino forces liberated the city from the Japanese.

In aftermath photos, only St. Agustin Church, built in 1604, stands.

Some 100,000 civilian deaths – later adjudged Japanese war crimes – are memorialized in Plaza de Santa Isabel. A sculpture by Peter de Guzman portrays a beaten down mother and five children, one dead, the others ragged and starving, as the 30-day siege comes to an end.

Nearby is Manila Cathedral, one of five churches destroyed in World War II bombing, rebuilt in 1948. The cathedral, now a basilica, is a sign of Filipino resilience: it’s been destroyed and rebuilt seven times since 1581, after fires, earthquakes, typhoons and bombs.

All’s not old in Intramuros: there is a lively Starbucks on General Luna Avenue.

Paintings portray suffering

Paintings and sculpture in Gallery No. 8 at the National Museum of Art portray the Japanese occupation, liberation by U.S. and Filipino forces and the destruction of Manila. The 23 works are, at once, historic, disturbing, deeply felt and pessimistic.

The most-important work is a painting by Demetrio Diego, “Capas,” a wrenching depiction of Filipino and U.S. soldiers imprisoned by the Japanese at the infamous holding site for prisoners during World War II. “The prisoner in the center seems to check on his companion’s condition beside him,” wrote art student Zaira Nicole Tuazon. “The act is noble, but futile.”

Visiting MacArthur’s suite

Gen. Douglas MacArthur occupied the top floor of the Manila Hotel from 1935 to 1941, when he decamped to Australia before the U.S. surrender at Bataan. Today, the “MacArthur Suite” occupies 3,550 square feet of the top floor.

It is a replica of where MacArthur lived, as the hotel was destroyed and rebuilt after the war.

It rents for $7,550 a night, but when not rented, is open to visitors. A guest services representative named Steph showed me around.

MacArthur, she said, ordered floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room and study so he could observe naval and shipping operations in Manila Bay. There’s little naval activity today, but the container-ship docks bustle.

Photos along the opposite wall document MacArthur’s pre-war time in Manila. He was known as “the foreign generalissimo” and insisted that his suite “match the elegance of the presidential palace,” Steph said. It’s regal calm before the coming war.

Greenman is Professor and Carter Chair in Journalism Emeritus at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and former president and publisher of the Ledger-Enquirer.


Three airlines fly one-stop itineraries from Atlanta to Manila: Delta via Tokyo, Korean via Seoul, and Qatar via Doha. About 23 hours depending on the length of the stop. Qatar offers a free hotel night if you layover there in either direction. Worth it.

▪  Lodging: The city’s grand hotel is The Manila Hotel, in the old government area downtown, rebuilt after it was destroyed by U.S. bombs during the Battle of Manila in 1945. This is U.S. architect Daniel Burnham’s early 20th century Manila at its finest. Farther out, nestled in wealthier financial and residential areas, are such five-star hotels as the Peninsula, Shangri-La and Pan Pacific. All from about $200 per room per night.

▪  Shopping: Shopping is best in the malls, from the bayfront SM Mall of Asia – a good place to people-watch middle-class Filipinos – to more luxury-brand mall offerings, such as Newport City and Bonifacio High Street. Shop indigenous crafts in Silahis Arts and Artifacts in Intramuros.

▪  Eating: Food in the Philippines is “a hodgepodge of numerous foreign influences … as varied as the 7,000 islands that make up the nation,” writes Jacqueline Chio-Lauri in her 2018 cookbook, The New Filipino Kitchen. Spanish influences dominate. American influences are still notable, including places like Max’s in the Ermita neighborhood near downtown: “Since 1945, the house that fried chicken built.” Bottled water costs the equivalent of a dime.

▪  Transportation: Use the ride-hailing service, Grab. Don’t have a smartphone? Your hotel’s concierge can arrange. Otherwise, hail a white-painted taxi. But, always negotiate the fare before entering the cab. And, remember, rates offered by drivers rise and fall with traffic. A 12-minute ride early in the morning becomes 55 minutes during rush hours.

▪  Security: Don’t be alarmed by the level of security almost everywhere. It’s “just the way it is,” I was told. At my hotel, in a wealthy enclave near the airport, under-car mirrors and bomb-sniffing dogs cleared taxis. Guests are screened at airport-like security lines. Guards are armed with tactical shotguns and military-style assault weapons.