The last week in March brought to an end our suspicions that the Japs were committed to a starving-out policy. No doubt they would have "lost face" if they had to concede that they could only win by such waiting tactics. At any rate, a heavy and sustained offensive suddenly broke against our weary undernourished troops.
Supplies and equipment had evidently been stocked at captured air fields so that they could now be used as bases for sustained offensive operations. It was only about a fifteen minute trip by bomber from these fields to Bataan or Corregidor, which made it possible for the Japs to keep the air filled with planes throughout the day and night. For the first time during the siege, they experimented with night "nuisance raids." The planes came either singly or in pairs. Their pilots were usually blinded by our Army searchlights so that their bombing was inaccurate, and effective only in breaking up the rest of our weary defenders.
Constant day attacks, however, took a more substantial toll. Much of the Navy's oil supplies, scattered in small caches in the underbrush around Mariveles harbor, was touched off by searching bombs. Exposed water pipes, telephone, and power lines had to be repaired daily to maintain services. Few of the temporary buildings, set up to provide shelter during the approaching rainy season, were untouched. Word must have gotten to the Japs that the Canopus was still an effective unit, resulting in four more attempts to destroy her, but without success.
Corregidor, the air fields, the front lines, and supply dumps in the hills -- all came in for constant harassing attacks. Even the plainly marked and defenseless hospitals were viciously bombed. The difficulties confronting any attempt to maintain supplies to the front lines can well be imagined.
With enemy planes hovering constantly overhead, the artillery, which had been a major factor in stopping previous attacks, was unable to keep up effective fire. Showers of bombs would crash around any emplacement when its position was disclosed by the smoke and blast of discharge.
It was scarcely a surprise when we hear reports on April sixth that the front lines were in serious trouble. Under a terrific artillery barrage, the Philippine Army troops in the center of the line had given way, and exposed the crest of Mariveles mountain to capture. Now indeed our artillery was blind, having lost the elevated observation posts which were their only means of directing fire of their guns. Unless the lost positions could be recaptured, the whole peninsula would be exposed to Jap artillery fire.
All reserves were drawn in for the supreme effort. Every remaining tank was thrown into the breech. Even the beaches were left unguarded in order to provide all possible reinforcements, but the task proved too great for the weakened troops. On April eighth came the news that Army forces of the eastern flank were retreating toward Mariveles harbor, destroying stores and ammunition dumps in the path of the victorious Japanese.
All hope of holding Bataan was gone, leaving us with the grim duty of destroying everything that might be of value to the Nipponese. Early in the day, the Commandant had told us that no Navy or Army forces would be evacuated to Corregidor, since that island was already overcrowded. However, at ten thirty that night, he telephoned that General Wainwright had decided to accept on the island one Scout regiment and the Naval forces at Mariveles. These favored units were to augment the beach defenses of Corregidor, thus continuing their fight from a new set of foxholes. Unfortunately, it later developed that very few of the Scouts were able to reach an embarkation point for Corregidor before the Japs cut them off.
Evacuation of the Navy forces had to be completed before dawn brought over more swarms of bombers or an advance guard of Jap tanks. Without defense shelters which were being destroyed, the sailors would be helpless. That wild and horrible, yet weirdly beautiful night must be imprinted forever in the memories of all who lived through its spectacular fury. For miles back on the slopes of the mountain, burning Army ammunition dumps lighted the sky with showers of rocket-like streamers, while the ground shook with heavy detonations of exploding ammunition. A severe earthquake shock felt on Corregidor was not even noticed on Bataan, which was continually vibrating with man-made earthquakes.
Roads were choked with retreating troops, often stopped for hours waiting for a dangerously near ammunition dump to burn itself out. Around the shores of Mariveles Bay, Navy men blew up the Dewey floating dry-dock, which had served the Asiatic Fleet for so many years, and scuttled the ships which had no part to play in defending Corregidor. The Canopus seemed reluctant to go, but her crew could still take pride in the fact that the Japs had been unable to knock her out -- she was still able to back out under her own power to deep water. There she was laid to her final rest by the hands of the sailors she had served so faithfully.
Each man was to be limited almost to the clothes on his back while on the "Rock", but we took large supplies of equipment which would be useful in defense. Machine guns, rifles, ammunition, food, and fuel were all on the "Urgent" list. All through the night, long lines of men scurried from storage tunnels to the docks, carrying the precious supplies to evacuation boats, heedless of exploding dynamite all around them, and paying no attention to frequent reports that Jap troops were rapidly approaching. There was no way of knowing that these reports were premature, because the burning ammunition dumps gave a fine imitation of heavy firing.
As soon as the tunnels were cleared of useful supplies, their entrances were blown in by dynamite charges to prevent the Japs from using them or the equipment left behind. Just before dawn, all boats had finally been loaded, and the little fleet started off for Corregidor.
The last three boats, loaded with weary Canopus men, had just left the tortured earth struck back at them. The whole hillside seemed to erupt in a tremendous burst of orange flame, hurling huge boulders half a mile out into the bay, lashing the calm waters into stormy, frothing waves. Evidently, gasoline drums stored in one of the tunnels had been broken open when the entrance was dynamited, and fumes in the corked-up passage had build up a gigantic explosive charge. Our three boats were squarely in the path of that deluge of destruction. Two of them were struck by massive boulders, one of them sinking instantly under an impact which had sheared off the whole stern, leaving its three occupants struggling in the seething water. Fortunately, they were not hurt, and were soon rescued by shipmates in the undamaged boat. The other injured boat did not sink, but boulders crashing down through its canopy had killed an officer and three men. Nine other men had been wounded by the rain of heavy rocks. However, the battered boat was still able to run, so the interrupted voyage to Corregidor was resumed. Solicitous shipmates eased the suffering of the wounded as best they could, but medical aid had to wait until arrival at the "Rock" more than an hour later.
- - -Chapter X - ->