Travel

On a holiday to the Philippines, the author finds herself drawn to visit a memorial to wartime dead – here, the Manila American Cemetery – for reasons personal and universal. By Cindy MacDonald.

Manila American Cemetery

The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, in Fort Bonifacio.
Credit: Cindy MacDonald

Milan J. Blasko. His name means nothing to me and yet here I am blinking back tears as I study the stark white marble cross that bears his name.

Blasko was from Pennsylvania and died on October 20, 1944. He was a member of the United States Army’s 788th Amphibious Tractor Battalion. Later research reveals Blasko was a driver who, along with three other men of the 788th, died, of shrapnel wounds, landing on Leyte, an island in the Visayas group of the Philippines. The landing launched General Douglas MacArthur’s campaign for the Allied Forces to recapture and liberate the Philippine archipelago, which had been under Japanese occupation for almost three years.

I do not know how old Blasko was when he died, if he was married or had children. I do know his bones lie some 13,500 kilometres from his home and those who loved him. He was awarded a Purple Heart for giving his life “so that others may live”, though he would never know that his countrymen went on to claim a decisive victory in the operation he died launching, the largest naval battle in modern history. He would not know – and perhaps would not care – that many thousands of Japanese naval men were also killed in the Battle of Leyte. In war the losses can never be one-sided.

As the sun becomes less forgiving with each minute that passes on this mottled-blue-sky Manila morning, I feel my bare shoulders start to succumb to the sting of its rays. But Blasko’s cross looks as though it has been chiselled from ice, pristine white against the perfectly manicured verdant lawns. This cross is one of more than 17,000 at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in Fort Bonifacio near Taguig, Metro Manila. The identical grave markers stretch in almost hypnotically symmetrical rows over 11 plots, forming a circular pattern that from above would look like a green and white dartboard on the 62-hectare grounds.

The cemetery holds tight the largest number of American military graves from World War II, with most of these soldiers having lost their lives in battle in the Philippines or New Guinea. Buried here also are the 570 Filipino scouts who died while serving with their Allied comrades in the Pacific. Also within the grounds are the remains of 3744 unidentified soldiers. Twenty pairs of American brothers lie side by side, their mothers’ hearts doubly broken.

“Take unto thyself o Lord the souls of the valiant,” reads the carved inscription on the rear facade of a memorial chapel. Inside, a mosaic Madonna set against a bold blue background offers flowers as gratitude for their sacrifice. From here I seek respite from the sun in the cooler walkways of two giant stone hemicycles, ringing what could be the cemetery’s bull’s-eye. Twenty-five large mosaic maps chart the US’s World War II battles of the Pacific, such as Coral Sea and Midway, and conflicts in China, India and Myanmar. Set like towering vertical dominoes within the structure are limestone piers bearing more than 36,000 names. These are the Tablets of the Missing, a closely spaced alphabetical list of the men whose remains will never be reunited with their names and ranks. Carved in the marble floors are the seals of the 50 American states.

Anyone with even the smallest knowledge of history knows the death tolls of major wars are colossal. But somehow walking above the corpses of the fallen can bring an elucidating and humanising reality to the loss. Not for the first time I imagine the sadness of families in distant lands as a dreaded telegram arrives at their door.

Just a few months before my Manila stay I visited the Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery in southern Myanmar. During World War II, Thanbyuzayat, tucked under the hills denoting the Thai border to the east, was the western terminus of the Burma–Siam Railway, better known as the “Death Railway”.

Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery is home to the more than 3700 graves of the Allied prisoners of war from Australia, Britain, the United States, Holland, India, Nepal, New Zealand and Canada who died during the railway’s construction.

On a hot January morning, a wreath is laid during a short ceremony for the visiting Australians, and we are given flowers to share among the graves. The group scatters and is eerily silent as tears are shed and dozens of brass plaques made dull by the harsh sun are brightened by colourful roses. Leaving the cemetery we speak of our surprise at being so deeply moved by this floral tribute to these strangers who died serving their countries.

Afterwards in the comfort of almost embarrassing luxury I ponder the torment my own father suffered in the name of fighting for peace. In 1939 he left Scotland an innocent teenager, soon to be captured by German forces and incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp in Poland. Four years, 11 months and one day later, emaciated and frail, he was liberated by American troops. On his return to his homeland and family he could not settle, and consequently he decided to take his skills as a carpenter and build a new life in the hydroelectric villages of central Tasmania. Like many men of his generation, my father barely spoke of his wartime experiences.

Maybe this is why I’m drawn to visit these reminders of man’s unspeakable inhumanity to his fellow man. Over the years, I’ve stood sickened before displays of shoes and spectacles at Auschwitz–Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Oświęcim, Poland, unable to forget the sight of the smaller sizes that so obviously belonged to young children destined for the gas chambers. I’ve gazed at the enormity of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, like the Manila American Cemetery another site of unfathomable US war losses. At the Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Cambodia, I chose not to enter the commemorative Buddhist stupa that housed a glass enclosure filled with the skulls of more than 8000 victims of that country’s genocide. Walking the fields among shallow graves and human bones, seeing bordering trees holding nooses for hangings, was enough.

Each time I travel down this path of so-called “dark tourism” I vow not to go there again. I understand the devastation of war, so why mar my holiday with such sadness? And yet I return to these shrines to wartime death and tragedy, lest I forget.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 11, 2017 as "Among the fallen". Subscribe here.

Cindy MacDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s deputy editor.

Continue reading your one free article for the week