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The fall of Corregidor

by Lisa Alley

The Army's last radio station in the Philippines in spring 1942, as the Japanese were rapidly taking over the area, was on the island of Corregidor — in Malinta Tunnel under 200 feet of rock.

The Signal Corps station's task was to keep Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Army's Far Eastern forces, in touch with the outside world and his own units — most of which were on the Bataan peninsula.

The station's improvised transmitting and receiving antennas on top of Malinta Hill were constantly blasted by Japanese fire during the siege's final weeks. Only the transmitters previously collected from amateurs and commercial firms, and other equipment brought from abandoned sites, kept the Corregidor station on the air.

Setting up on Corregidor

Needless to say, the equipment was a chaotic mess of types, manufacturers, sizes, ages, conditions and designs, and encrusted with salt and grime. Radio electrician William Gibson, an RCA civilian employee, offered to take charge of the equipment and managed to make the array work.

The signalmen overhauled a transmitter used to "work" Honolulu and linked up to other Pacific stations. The Philippine Telephone Company's plant had provided two good and relatively new low-power transmitters, along with a mostly young, active installation and maintenance crew who found themselves on Corregidor. The Filipinos overhauled one of their transmitters to broadcast southward to MacArthur's Visayan-Mindanao forces.

Within five days of arriving on Corregidor, the innovative signalmen used the Filipinos' other transmitter to set up a "Voice of Freedom" broadcasting station. But the Signal Corps' attempt to establish a radio channel to Darwin, Australia, showed the most ingenuity.

Attempting Australia

They set up a large rhombic antenna — a directional antenna which provides the strongest signal with the least power output — to cross the thousands of miles to northern Australia.

Setting up the rhombic required a herculean effort. Engineers hauled a large gas engine/electric generator bolted onto skids up to one of Corregidor's rocky cliffs as a power source, covered the machine with tarps, directed the generator's exhaust horizontally and sandbagged the shelter's partial walls. Signalmen climbed trees and twisted wire through branches.

But Darwin could only hear the station faintly, for all their work. Also, the Australian operators were inexperienced, unaware of the little tricks that boost and worry a signal along.

Staying on the airwaves

But beleaguered Corregidor still maintained a broadcasting station and didn't miss schedules, in spite of Japanese bombing and artillery fire, and Signal Corps personnel shortages. The Signal Corps had radio and telegraph going out from the station.

After being isolated on Corregidor for months, supplies began to run very low. Gasoline for the transmitter's generators was critically short. The enemy ruined wire and cable constantly; the wire maintenance officer and his crew of three cable splicers made repairs by a lantern's masked light at night — 29 enemy hits, 57 splices.

But the radio channel and wire circuit between Corregidor and the Bataan operated interrupted until Bataan fell. The Corregidor operators transmitted a million words a month, most in code, much sent manually, all handled under "what military understatement calls adverse conditions," noted historian Dulany Terrett.

Duty shifts increased for already-exhausted men as personnel shortages grew more acute. Operators ate hurried meals, unable to leave their equipment.

The men on Bataan, however, weak and starving, surrendered April 9, 1942, and the peninsula fell, closing the circuits to Corregidor. Signalmen destroyed communications cable so the enemy couldn't use it or learn anything from it, then hid it.

The men on Corregidor could also be certain of capture as they struggled to stay operational. The message center started burning its files. Japanese bombers and shore artillery constantly blew up Corregidor's aerials, the big rhombic an early casualty. Some of the older radio sets failed, and no amount of Signal Corps improvising could repair them, although the channels were still open. Transmitting tubes "gassed."

Corregidor's fall

A week before Corregidor fell, those remaining on the island came up with a destruction plan; the signal officer guessed three hours would be enough to destroy the rest of the communication equipment. The station continued to transmit insurance and allotment authorizations, taxing available channels and the operators who had to send them. And yet, the traffic moved, and none of it was garbled.

Corregidor gave up May 6, 1942. The signal officer got only one hour and 23 minutes instead of the three hours he'd hoped for to destroy the C-E equipment, but it was enough. The signalmen began to send MacArthur's final messages at 11 a.m., just as MSG Richard Sakakida began broadcasting in English and Japanese the first of three hourly announcements of the American-Filipino capitulation.

The Japanese terms of surrender allowed no equipment destruction after noon, so the men began throwing equipment — cryptographic machine, typewriter and adding machine — into large containers and smashing them with axes, mixing the pieces. As the final messages were repeated a second time, the radio sets' fragile interiors were destroyed but the panels left intact so the Japanese couldn't accuse the Americans of violating the surrender. The broadcasting transmitter was the only piece of equipment not destroyed.

When the Japanese arrived, they found the garrison's communications office neat, swept and bare, the floors washed and blank dials concealing ruined equipment.

The Corregidor surrender cost the Signal Corps 712 men — 50 officers and 662 enlisted men. Their fate was pain, starvation and torture.

Ms. Alley, who holds a degree in communications, is editor of Army Communicator.

Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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