By David Haldane
Nov. 8, 2018
I haven’t always been a sucker for national anthems. Time was, in fact, when I was a long-haired radical who thought that feelings surrounding nations and their flags were sentimental, childish and naïve. Boy, have those times changed. Yesterday I was overcome by emotion at the renditions of, not one, but four national anthems all in a row; those of Japan, the United States, Australia, and the Philippines.
The occasion was the 74th annual commemoration of the Battle of Surigao Strait at the Lipata ferry terminal in Surigao. The grandstand of honor was filled with important dignitaries including the city’s mayor, several council members, a spokesman for the provincial governor, various esteemed veterans and representatives of the U.S. and Australian embassies, as well as the nation of Japan. And seated right there among them was none other than yours truly, this humble correspondent.
How on earth, you might wonder, did that happen? It’s an excellent question, and exactly what I’d be wondering myself if I were you. In fact, it happened for one reason and one reason only; because my house directly overlooks the waters in which the historic battle was fought.
That was in 1944 when the battleships of America and Japan played an elaborate game of tag using live ammunition. In the end, Japan limped away badly injured, helping turn the tide of the war in the Pacific and setting the stage for the liberation of the Philippines the following year. Thousands lost their lives, including Americans, Japanese, Australians, and Filipinos. And it was the last great naval battle, not only of World War II but of history itself.
We knew none of this when we purchased our lot in 2013. All we knew was that the place had the most incredible view we’d ever seen. And that a voice inside of us kept shouting “build it here,” and so we did.
It wasn’t long, of course, before we began hearing stories about the spot’s historic significance. The following year, the Philippine government purchased the lot right next to ours to construct a Naval coastal watch station, now manned by four Philippine Coast Guard officers 24/7. It’s also guarded by several Army guys charged with providing security for what’s considered the gateway to Mindanao. In fact, our house sits on the northernmost point of Mindanao from which Leyte is clearly visible in the distance.
And now, directly below and across the road from us, the city is building the Battle of Surigao Strait Memorial Shrine, a magnificent structure overlooking the water that will eventually include a museum, memorial wall, and flag poles displaying the colors of all four nations involved.
It was the solemn raising of those colors that most stirred me during yesterday’s ceremony at the terminal. It wasn’t patriotism that resonated so deeply, but rather a new appreciation for the sacrifices of the past, an almost mournful recognition regarding the significance of those long-ago events and of the place I have chosen to live.
The keynote speaker was a man named David Mattiske, a 93-year-old Australian World War II 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.”
Next year’s commemoration, I’m told, will be held at the shrine itself. But tonight, as I peer through my window into the dark waters beyond, I can’t help but feel a kinship with the men who fought here and died. They, truly, are the ghostly guardians of the gate that hugs my house.
A former Los Angeles Times staff writer and winner of a 2018 Golden Mike award in radio broadcast journalism, David Haldane fell in love with the Philippines on his first visit there in 2003. A few visits later, he also fell in love with the beautiful young Filipina to whom he is now married and, with whom, he has returned many times. David has written extensively about his experiences in the Philippines for several publications including Orange Coast and Islands Magazine. Today he and Ivy, along with their eight-year-old son, Isaac, divide their time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines. His award-winning memoir, Nazis & Nudists, recounts, among other things, the courtship of Ivy and finding a place to call home. For David that turned out to be at the tip of a peninsula marking the gateway to Mindanao where he and Ivy are building their dream home next to a lighthouse overlooking the sea. This blog is the chronicle of that adventure.
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Nice post, David, thanks. I’m a World War II history buff, and am aware of the significance of the Battle of Leyte Gulf between combined U.S. – Australian naval forces against Imperial Japanese Navy in 1944. The separate, but smaller, naval engagement in Surigao Strait was, of course, a part of the larger Battle of Leyte, which is considered to be the mother of all naval batlles of WWII.
I am surprised, though, that despite the battle’s significance as the beginning of the end of Japanese Navy’s domination in the Far East that eventually led to Japan’s defeat and liberation of the Philippines, it is only now (2018) that, in your own words, “the city is building the Battle of Surigao Strait Memorial Shrine, a magnificent structure overlooking the water that will eventually include a museum, memorial wall, and flag poles displaying the colors of all four nations involved”, 74 long years after the fact?
My goodness, I’m shell-shocked by this revelation, David, given that the memorials in Corregidor had been in existence since 1945, and the bells of Balangiga continue to be debated in the Halls of Congress for their return for as long as I remember. Just thinking out loud! LOL
Good point, John, and one that I am unfortunately not qualified to address. Glad it’s finally happening, though, due primarily to the efforts of a local group of activist/enthusiasts. Thanks so much for your comments!
The city didn’t have any commemoration until 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Surigao Strait. The 1994 event was organized by the private sector. Today, the ceremonies are still organized by the private sector but now it is with the support of the city hall.
It took a while before some parties put up a museum (2015) and a plan for a permanent shrine (2017). It is hoped that by the 75th anniversary of the 1944 Battle of Surigao Strait, the shrine will be complete. The success over the years have helped convince city hall to fund the construction of the shrine worth around $200,000.00.
What is more surprising is no one in the world has put up a Battle of Leyte Gulf museum and commemoration. Since this was essentially fought in waters off Philippine islands, there was no city or locality concentrating on any of the four naval engagements. It was (and still is) only Surigao that started doing the commemoration. Now we are planning to put up a Battle of Leyte Gulf museum here in Surigao, where we can also do the remembrance events for the three other battles.
We are starting to get international attention. Last year, Paul Allen sent his research ship RV Petrel to help us find the IJN wrecks in Surigao City.
Hi Jake. Thanks for your clarifications and putting this all in historical context. I would just add that the community and, indeed, anyone anywhere interested in honoring the memory of World War II owes you a debt of gratitude for your personal efforts, which were instrumental in making all this happen. Somewhere in that museum or near the memorial there should be a plaque with your name on it. Thank you!
God bless David Mattiske and all the veterans who have fought so that we can be free! Enjoyed reading your article and looking at the pictures. This memorial is long overdue. I echo David Mattiske and hope one day war will be only a memory of history.
Let’s all say a Hail Mary for that, Jay. Thank you for commenting….
I’m happy that the Japanese were represented during the ceremony. Mr. Mattiske’s words are echoed by the ones inscribed on the Japanese monument at Balite (Dalton) Pass. “Peace Forever”.
Sentiments shared, I think, by most people in every country of the world. Thanks!