By David Haldane
Oct. 17, 2019
The dust was so thick that you couldn’t see the air. When it finally cleared, though, there was a sight to behold; some thirty-five volunteers virtually sweeping away the grime of history.
The location was the newly constructed Battle of Surigao Strait Memorial in Surigao City. The brooms? Well, they were there to prepare the place for its upcoming dedication at the Oct. 21-26 commemoration of the great World War II battle that secured this nation’s future.
It’s an idyllic site, surrounded by lush green jungle overlooking the ocean at Mindanao’s northernmost tip. It also happens to be directly across the street from my house. And in the interest of full disclosure, let me just say that I was recently named the new facility’s volunteer Public Information Officer, so don’t look to this column for critical coverage.
When we bought our lot back in 2013, we were woefully ignorant of the location’s grand history. All we knew then was that it had the most incredible view we’d ever seen, and a voice inside us kept insisting that we “build it here.”
It wasn’t long, of course, before we began hearing stories regarding the historic significance of the spot, considered the gateway to Mindanao. It was here in 1944, we learned, that the battleships of America and Japan played an elaborate game of tag using live ammunition.
In the end, Japan limped away badly injured, turning the tide of the war in the Pacific and setting the stage for the liberation of the Philippines. Thousands lost their lives, including Americans, Japanese, Australians and Filipinos. And today the Battle of Surigao Strait is considered the final great naval battle, not only of World War II, but of history itself.
At last year’s commemoration, held at the nearby Lipata Ferry Terminal, I was deeply stirred by the raising of those four nations’ flags. The keynote speaker was a man named David Mattiske, a then 93-year-old Australian veteran and one of the last surviving participants of the Battle of Surigao Strait. “Let us pray,” he said, “that we never have another world war.”
And that’s when I realized the importance of memory. I’m of a generation that grew up in the shadow of World War II; my dad served as a merchant seaman aboard an American ship bound for Manila and Mom was a German refugee who spent the war years in China. For many younger than myself, however, the war must be ancient history; a distant Game of Thrones played with complicated rules and objectives that now seem fuzzy.
I thought of that the other day as I watched a bevy of determined-looking people pushing brooms and planting caribou grass. They included officials of Barangay Punta Bilar, where the monument is located, as well as volunteers from the local Philippine National Police, Coast Guard and Navy, Surigao City Dept. of Tourism and local chapter of the Girl Scouts. The scouts, in particular, grabbed my attention; for most of them, I’d wager, the only connection to World War II is that their great grandparents may have been alive when it happened.
Ahh, but this year – the great battle’s 75th anniversary – there’s something new to report besides the impressive-looking concrete structure overlooking the sea in Punta Bilar. For the first time ever, the Japanese Embassy will be sending an official representative to participate in the dedication ceremony and help bring its message home. Somehow, I think, that would be welcome news to the brave men of all nations who fought and died here in that long-ago October.
David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.