The men of Brooke’s Point

Posted by Rebekah
Aug 29 2010

To play catch up as the main part of our story draws to a close:

There were several souls trapped at Brooke’s Point.  In addition to Mr. Edwards, who had married an Filippino woman and therefore, had some family connections. there were other people there too.

Mr. Harry Garretson was convelesing at the Edward’s home.  A salvage diver before the war, he used his skills behind enemy lines during WWII to salavage equipment from sunken boats before the Japanese could get to them.  In one case, while he was on Negros Island, he helped salvage the SS Panay, a ship heading to the guerillas full of ammunition, rifles, gas masks and other equipment for the Allied war effort.  The Japanese caught on and torpedoed the ship before it could reach them.  The Panay tried to beach herself, but it was too late: she sank innearly 100 feet of water and Garretson and his soon-to-be business partner salvaged as much as they could.  They got most of it, and today, the wreck is a popular tourist dive, and you can see the gas masks and ammo boxes scattered around where Garretson left them.

After the Panay, they kept traveling, helping the guerilla movement whenever they could, though always behind the scenes since their pale skin would give them away as foreigners to the Japanese.  They eventually came to the sparsely populated Palawan Island, where Garretson fell ill with malaria, and now, over a year later, he was suffering some severe complications, and was mostly bedridden.  With the addition of the Fliers, he and the Edwards were hoping Garretson at least could go with them on the rescue boat if it came, because he soon would either die, or have to be left behind if the Japanese invaded.

There were also three military men at Brooke’s Point, hunting, fishing, helping all the while waiting fo ra chance to get back to Allie dTerritpory where they could formally fight.  Two of them, George Marquez and William “Red” Wigfield, were Army men stationed at Nichols Air Base near Cavite Navy Base in Manila.  While stationed together, they did not know each other at the time.

On the morning of December 8 (December 7 in Hawaii, across the International Date Line) both men were on duty at the Air Field when the Japanese attacked.  An attack from the Japanese was suspected, but the military was convinced if they did something so foolish, it would happen at Manila, or Hong Kong, not Pearl Harbor.  No one suspected the Japanese would strike all three and more over 48 hours.

They spent the day running around, trying to protect the airplanes at the field, and after the initial fight was over, helped with the cleanup and salvage.

But the Japanese were still coming, and coming hard.  The Air Base was evacuated further south, but when the Japanese conquered Corregidor on May 6. 1942, the surrender tacitly included the surrender of all American Military men in the Philippines.

Red and George decided surrender wasn’t for them, and with many other American military stationed at that base, took to the hills and the seas, trying to get south, or hide behind enemy lines as a part of the new guerilla forces hassling the Japanese forces bit by bit.

At first, they took off for Panay Island, but since it was large, heavily populated and obviously going to be in the path of the Japanese advance, they built rafts and took off for tiny Cuyo Islands.  That worked for about 18 months, though early in the war, the Japanese military sent an officer and enlisted man to the Islands looking to “recruit” the locals.  George claimed to have killed and buried them, but apparently, no one ever showed up to figure out what happened to these guys.

Eventually, however, the time was up.  One morning while George and Red were hunting in the hills, they saw an invasion force land on the beaches and round up the Americans and a number of natives.  These two hid for most of the day and were missed in the round up.  That night, they grabbed one of the rafts and headed further west for the island of Palawan.

They made their way down the spine of mountains that makes up that island until crashing until Charlie Watkins and the guerillas one night in the vicinity of Puerto Princesa.

Charlie was a navy boy who had been on Corregidor Island and was forced to live through the horror that was the Battle of Corregidor.  After the surrender (the one that sent George and Red scurrying for the hills,) he was rounded up and marched to Camp Cabanantuan, and subsequently shipped to Puerto Princesa  to the POW camp there.  During the day, the prisoners were forced to build an airstrip out of the jungle using only crude hand tools.  When the call of nature could no longer be ignored, the guards would permit the men in small groups to go into the jungle to relieve themselves then return.  One day in late 1942, Charlie and a buddy were granted permission to go.

And they took it literally.

They were quickly found by the local Filipinos, who, though formally forbidden from assisting the Americans (death to all who tried) still hung around the camp adn work areas, leaving food, encouraging notes, whispering messages back and forth, to keep the men’s spirits up.  Charlie and his friend, Joel Little, were smuggled beyond the reach of the Japanese.

Whether a direct result of this, or other escapes, soon afterwards, the Japanese counted their work gangs into groups of ten.  The rules were simple:  Ten men go out, ten men come back.  If less than ten men come back, the rest are summarily executed.  It put an end to more escapes.

George and Red's journey and Charlie's journey from the morning of December 8, 1941 to the Flier's arrival. Each man covered well over 500 miles between land and sea travel. To put things in perspective, despite what the Flier's have undergone, they've traveled a realtively short distance. The white-rimmed dot near the Balabac Area is the approx. location of the sinking. You can see the great scale of each man's journey to Brooke's Point, on the off chance they may (someday) be picked up.

The three men stuck around in the area until December 1943.  Unknown to a lot of the locals, the war had started to turn badly against the Japanese, and the rules they were being handed from the Imperial Headquarters were getting more and more strict and severe.  The guerillas near Puerto Princesa decided for everyone’s safety, the group of three Americans should move to Brooke’s Point and wait for evacuation, if it ever came.

Then of course, there were the Sutherlands.   Sandy Sutherland and his wife Maise were Scottish missionaries living in the Palawan area.  They returned to Palawan right before the attack on Manila and suddenly found themselves stranded in Palawan with no way out, a two year old girl and five year old boy, and death warrants on all their heads.  Despite their trust in the local people, the Sutherlands took to the mountains, living a subsistence lifestyle, never sleeping or living in the same place for more than a few days, in case their location was tortured out of someone.  With no airstrips, no harbors and no allied ports nearby, their son Alastair began praying for a submarine to come and take them away, because only a submarine would be able to get in and be able to sneak through the enemy lines to take them to safety.  Sandy Sutherland heard his son praying to God for a submarine to rescue them all, and started to pray too.  It was a two years long prayer.

In the meantime, despite the danger, the Sutherlands helped out wherever they could, with medical expertise, religious services, or anything else needed.

All these people needed a way out.

And Perth decided that the eight Fliers were important enough to retrieve, but they would need time to think about the civilians and the Army boys.

Before the Fliers arrived, a local village was going to throw a party for the Coastwatchers and the refugees to keep up their spirits and the Fliers were quickly included.  The Mayors were coming up the mountain with their children which Mrs. Edwards was going to watch for the evening, and so the Fliers and most of the Coastwatchers were sent ahead while a few waited for the Mayors.

They had just left the clearing when they heard a gunshot.  Dashing back, they discovered that while Palacido was greeting the Mayors, Corpus, unable to deal with his depression any longer, had shot himself in the chest with his .45.  It was a hot evening, and no time could be spared.  The men, all of them, quickly went to various groups, some prepared Corpus in his best coveralls for his burial, some dug a simple grave in the woods, and others built a quick coffin.  Due to the more detailed description of the coffin detail that Jacobson gives in his memoirs, I think that he must have been on this duty.  He said after all the years being cut off from the world, there was hardly any cut wood left,a dn they had to creatively join many pieces, and in the end, Corpus fit, though barely.

It was a hard blow to them all, and as anyone who has lived through the suicide of a friend or family or coworker can attest, each man probably went back over the last several days wondering, ‘What could I have done better?   Could I have said something or done something differently?’

But life had to continue.  Perth called back saying that they had sent a submarine to pick up the survivors.  That night, by arrangement, Crowley radioed the rescuing submarine (he had been told one was being sent, but not who it was) and was shocked to hear his friend Cy Austin, commander of Redfin, who had been parked next to Flier most of the time in Fremantle.  After arranging signals (three lanterns hung in a row from the abandoned light on the point) for safety and a rendexvous point, Austin started to sing “Sweet Adeline” into the radio.  This confused Crowley a bit, but since both had been in the same barbershop quartet, he quickly joined in, singing his part.  Austin was satisfied that Crowley was the real deal and that he wasn’t being set up again.

Crowley told him about the civilians needing a space on the boat, and the desperate straits they were in.  Austin said he would contact HQ but for now, his orders were to pick up the submariners and keep on patrol.

So where was the Redfin all this time?  Off the western coast of Borneo, merrily hunting anything that crossed her path. She was actually sitting at the western entrance to Balabac Straits on August 24 when she was told to head fro Tuabbatha Reefs to wait for a Special Mission.  The quickest way there was through the Balabac Straits, which they were told was strictly closed.  Redfin would have to go all the way around Palawan Island.  And now Austin knew what he was supposed to do.  The rescue was set for August 30.  If something happened that night, like rough weather, that prevented rescue, they were to try again on August 31.  If they STILL could not meet, Redfin was to call HQ for further orders.

A kumpit with and outboard motor and a second one to drag behind were standing by.  All they had to do was motor out and be picked up by a friend.

But things were never that easy.

A video taken of the wreck of the SS Panay in 2006.  Personally, I think whoever did it was more interested in playing with their video editor than showing the wreck, but there you go if you’re interested in seeing the wreck of the Panay as Garretson and his partner left it.

For more information of the Puerto Princesa Prison Camp and the men who lived through it, read “Last Man Out” by Glenn McDole, Survivor of Puerto Princesa.

As an aside, the landing strip the American POWs were forced to build is still in use: it is the international airport of Puerto Princesa.

Trackback URL for this entry