I was off to the
By: George J. Stewart (Seabee, Cubi Point Construction, 1955 - 56)
was off to the Philippines after a tour
with the Peace Corps in SriLanka in 1989.
Why the Philippines? I wanted to go back to Manila, to Subic, and
a few other places I had been to in the 1950's. I remembered the
stark beauty of the islands and the friendly people. I have heard
over the years about the anti American sentiment in the
Philippines. I never did see any evidence of it though. I left
the P.I. the last time in 1955 or 56 and didn't get to see how
the Naval Air Station turned out. Back then, I was a "dirt
cowboy". I ran earth movers, bull dozers and trucks during
the beginning phases of construction. We lived in tents, worked
hard and played hard. It is a time in my life I still look back
on with pride, with good memories of the camaraderie and good
times we had, along with some pretty rough times. I was a Seabee.
We are a small, but proud bunch.
I landed in Manila in the middle of the night, as usual. I think they plan the flights that way, so the taxi drivers can get a good hit on you. Well again, the old Stewart luck was working. I found a taxi driver who took me to a small, but clean and cheap guest house named Casa Dalco. The owners were two sisters, whose last name was Peggy. One of the sisters, who's name was Estrellita, ended up being a really good friend. She took me around town in her Mercedes and showed me many of the changes and many things which hadn't changed. Then a few weeks later I had difficulty with my plane reservation and got stuck for several days and was out of money. She just loaned me the money, and let me stay on. She told me only to send it to her when I got home, which I did.
Manila hadn't changed that much in the overall layout. The Central Park, Old Fort and the Manila Hotel were still there, although they had been upgraded, they were recognizable to me. The harbor had been cleaned up. There used to be hundreds of sunken ships with their hulks sticking part way out of the water. They were a constant reminder of the Japanese attack on Manila, and the subsequent war. The ubiquitous Jeepneys were everywhere. Jeepneys are remade, remodeled, and extended WW2 jeeps which traveled around on routes all over the place. They were easily identified by the colors. A red Jeepney went to certain places, a blue one to another, and so on, you just needed a color coded map, not a problem.
I wanted to go to Subic, which was on the Bataan Peninsula, Estrellita got me to the bus depot and saw to it I got on the right bus. Shades of Tata, what?
I had a one year visa but only enough money to make it a couple three weeks. I went to Olongapo. I remembered it as a small wooden city which was full of bars and bazaars, a generally friendly and uncomplicated place. When I got off the bus I found a concrete, large, and intimidating city with all sorts of people trying to hassle me. I dis-liked it immediately. I decided to move onward to a small town up the coast we called Hollywood by the Sea. I took a blue jeepney and was looking around for something familiar, when I saw a sign for a hotel called The Miami Shoulton. The name looked familiar, so I got down and went up to the desk.
What happened next, nearly blew my mind. In my best Tagolog, which is the local language that I had mostly forgotten, I asked for a room. The lady said to me "you used to speak better Tagolog than that". How could it be, that after all these years and probably a million sailors who had gone through Subic since I had been there, she remembered me. She told me it was my voice that tripped her memory and my pronunciation, and I didn't look any different. Her name was Ati Neila, and I remember her as a pretty young girl who was the daughter of the owners. For some reason I stuck in her memory, she never did say why. She even remembered who my girl-friend was, and knew where she lived now. My girl friends name was Nelly, she is now married and has grandchildren, incredible.
I stayed four weeks at half price and she even found me a girl for the time I was there, who didn't want paid. She was a friend of Ati's, her name was Meloni. Between the time I had in Thailand, and the time I had in the P.I., I don't need to worry any more about whether or not I had "lost" it. We had a great time. We went dancing, to diner, to the beach several times and just generally enjoyed the time. Ati loaned me her car and I went to the base at Subic. At first the Marine guard was not going to let me on the base, I had only my Peace Corp I.D., but I went back to the hotel and got my discharge cards. Ati called the base for me and I talked to the Seabee detachment commander, he sent his car to the gate and picked me up. The base was hardly recognizable, except for the lay of the land. We went to the Seabee Headquarters, they had a sort of museum of the construction phase of Subic. They had some pictures of people I knew, and even one of me. The lieutenant was very interested in what I remembered, he took me to lunch and showed me the whole base. There are times when it is possible to go back in time, this was one of them.
One night Ati, Meloni and I and were talking and Ati asked me if I remembered knowing a guy named Johnny Balut. There is no way I will ever forget him. In fact it may be that my knowing Johnny Balut is why Ati remembered me. We were friends, of a sort.
He is probably one of the most dastardly and dangerous men I have ever known. Why, or how we became sort of friends, I will never know. I met him when he held me up. I was driving the lead truck of a two truck convoy headed to Clark Air Base. Hauling basically junk to be rebuilt in their shop. We were headed down a gravel road through dense jungle when a burst of machine gun fire was fired across the road, in front of me. I was told to stop. We had no guns or any other way to defend ourselves, so I stopped, and hoped for the best. Out of the jungle came about a dozen men looking like bandits, dressed in fatigues and carrying weapons. One of the men was a Malado, half Filipino half Black American. He spoke American English and told us to get out of the trucks. We of coarse did. One of the men, kind of searched us, then they went about looking in the back of the trucks for whatever they thought it was we were carrying. They were disappointed that we had only junk stuff. Then they wanted our cigarettes, money and our shoes. Well, they got what they wanted, they even gave me back a couple cigarettes to get by on and they also let us keep a little money and told us to go on. We of coarse reported the incident, but what could they do about it.
I met him again in the Miami bar, probably two months later. He was there when I got there and the minute I walked in, we recognized each other. It gave me a bit of a fright, but I went on in and sat down. My girl friend came over to my table and sat down. Johnny Balut came over, sat down and apologized all over the place, and bought us a few beers and left.
I met him once more in a place in Pompanga and he asked me to his home which was near-by. Why would I go, I have no clue, but I went. I met his wife and two daughters and stayed the night. In the morning there were perhaps a hundred men outside the house, most with weapons. They milled around a while then walked off, about an hour later Johnny left, with his machine gun. I stayed about another hour, visited with his wife, and had breakfast. Johnny Balut was the leader of the anti-government Huk movement.
Meloni and I spent a few more days together going to the beaches and taking some boat rides around the bay. The Bonka boats were nearly as colorful as the jeepney's. They were all individualized, with the operators own art work.
Basically I was getting tired of being on the go and I was also very close to running out of money. We took one last trip to Bagio. We went in Ati's car, all three of us.
I remembered Bagio as a small town in the mountains with cool weather and a fresh pine smell. General McCarther had a villa there, and a golf course that I had played on, believe it or not, in the snow. The new Bagio is much larger and a tourist trap. There were still the crafts and the art work of the Aborigines, but they were in shops and stalls and have gone commercial. The drive up the mountain was still the best part of the whole trip. Ati and Meloni saw me off on the bus, and I headed back to Manila.
I have heard from Ati in the past year. She is out of business due to the base closing, and the volcano eruption. They have moved to Manila and retired, hoping to sell the property, but realize it is not worth much at this time. They were not harmed by the volcano, and are healthy.
GOOD LUCK ALWAYS
& ALL WAYS GEORGE