Secrets and Stories of the War
The Philippine government had moved from Manila on General Douglas MacArthur’s recommendation, with President Manuel L. Quezon himself continuing to lead the government from Corregidor in cooperation with the U.S. commander of the Far East.
Quezon had originally declined MacArthur’s request to withdraw from the capital, claiming that his first duty was to take care of the civilian population and maintain public order while MacArthur was fighting the enemy.
By this time Quezon was already gravely ill with tuberculosis with several specialists attending to him but Maj. Gen. Basilio J. Valdes remained his personal physician. Valdes was tasked by General MacArthur to be in charge of the safety of the First Family, including moving them if necessary, to Corregidor, if needed.
That became a necessity on December 24, 1941. That day, Valdes left his family, and did not see them again until February 6, 1945. By December 28, the First Family was installed in Corregidor. That day, President Quezon appointed Basilio J. Valdes Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army and Secretary of National Defense.
“Mrs. Quezon said in no uncertain terms the health of the President was the most important thing and certainly trumped Dr. Valdes’ staying behind with his troops,” said Jessie Thompson Huberty in her speech at the Bataan Legacy Symposium on October 29, 2016, San Francisco Public Library recalling her uncle Basilio’s close relationship with the president.
When it became apparent that Quezon’s condition would only worsen if he stayed longer in the dank tunnels of Corregidor, MacArthur decided by the middle of February 1942 that Quezon would be better off if he was moved to the southern islands where he could rest, with clean air, away from the threat of Japanese capture but close enough to return when help from America came and the Philippines was once again in American hands. Only MacArthur knew that such help was not coming anytime soon.
MacArthur’s real intention was to make sure that Quezon was not captured, thus preventing the Japanese from using the head of the Philippine government for propaganda purposes glorifying their victory.
Finally, the President and his family with Vice President Osmeña, Chief Justice Abad Santos, Valdes, Col. Nieto, who was the aide-de-camp to the President, Quezon’s personal Secretary, and his priest, Father Ortiz, boarded the submarine Swordfish skippered by Commander Chester C. Smith of the US Navy on February 20, at 10:30 p.m.
Just before they left, President Quezon gave General MacArthur the signet ring he always wore and said, “When they find your body I want them to know you fought for my country.”
The president’s son Manuel L. Quezon, Jr., who was with the presidential party, recalls in his unpublished memoirs:
“At midnight that night we boarded the submarine Swordfish. During the night we traveled on the surface, where the sub could make better speed, above 20 knots. Underwater it could make only about 8 knots. After a good night’s sleep, there was an alarming sound of a siren, the signal that we were submerging.”
“On the surface the sub had moved with the waves like any other ship. The moment we submerged the sub became almost completely motionless, as there were no waves underwater. We spent the whole day submerged until we landed at San Jose de Antique.”
The sub’s air conditioning ceased to function just after they left shore, and Valdes commandeered the refrigerator from the galley and had the President and First Lady sponging themselves with ice water. The sea was rough until they submerged, the whole party feeling desperately sea sick; but they finally made it to Antique just after the sun rose.
From Antique, Quezon’s party travelled by land to Iloilo, where they boarded the SS Princess of Negros.
“That night we boarded the Princess of Negros, which must have been a slow ship. We went to Guimaras on the way to Negros, but spent the day there, taking a lunch, up to the river to a house where Father Ortiz baptized an infant with me as sponsor. I never saw the baby again and do not even recall his name. We disembarked from the Princess because we might be spotted by Japanese planes. We reembarked at night and went on to Bacolod where we arrived the following morning,” Quezon Jr. recalls.
From there they had a four-hour drive to Iloilo. They were the guests there of the Lopez family.
In the next days they were moved by the “Don Esteban” from Iloilo to Guimaras. From there they went on the “S.S. Princess of Negros” to Bacolod.
The presidential party tarried along the deck until the Banago wharf was cleared of passengers, the proceeded to Governor Lizares’ residence in Talisay.
They stayed first in Hacienda Rosario, the home of Letty and Manuel del Rosario, then on to the house of Enrique Montilla.
They moved the following day to the Hacienda Fortuna, home of Juan Ledesma. Valdes felt extremely fortunate that the homes of so many of the wealthy hacienderos were open to the President and his entourage.
The Negros Navigation Company’s coffee table book, “Full Speed Ahead: Negros Navigation at 75” describes the hush-hush nature of the presidential party’s movements in the Visayas:
“The trip was an extremely top-secret operation. Except for a handful of top officials of the military and the governors of Antique and Iloilo, no one knew of the presence of the highest officials of the Commonwealth government.”
“Not even the crew of the ship was told of their precious cargo nor were the officials of Negros Navigation aware of their presence. Thus, many of them later denied that Quezon had been on board the Princess of Negros bound for Bacolod.”
“When the ship was docked near Fort San Pedro, the USAFFE transferred to it all of Quezon’s provisions, clothes, books, medicine and papers. But it was ordered wired for destruction in case the enemy captured it to prevent the identification of the contents of the ship.”
“It was then ordered to meet the presidential party at San Carlos, Negros Occidental, for a trip to Cebu and other Visayan capitals before proceeding to Mindanao.”
“Quezon had decided to visit the provinces not under Japanese control to explain his departure and to give instructions to the local officials personally on how they should act in case the Philippines fell under Japanese rule.”
Members of his government scattered to the nearby islands, where they organized local resistance to the Japanese, and arranged food shipments to the beleaguered American and Filipino troops in Bataan.
“But such plans were ultimately aborted on March 14, a day before the Presidential party was to be picked up, the Princess of Negros came under fire from Japanese gunboats as it was anchored off Refugio Island.”
“However, instead of being blown up as had been planned, the ship was abandoned by the USAFFE-appointed captain. Subsequently, it was towed to Manila by one of the Japanese destroyers. From its contents, the Japanese confirmed their suspicion that Quezon had escaped from Corregidor and was somewhere in the Visayas.”
But that wasn’t the end of their travails. Huberty elaborates:
“Meanwhile, the President’s health continued to deteriorate and on March 10, the past twenty-eight days of hiding from the Japanese took its toll. There was blood in the President’s sputum. The constant travel was proving very harmful.”
“Valdes was in constant contact with MacArthur’s headquarters on Corregidor and was greatly disturbed when it became known to the Presidential party that because of the imminent fall of Corregidor, the General had moved his HQ to Australia. He wanted the Presidential party to join him. President Quezon was adamant he would not run. Nor would he leave the Philippines. He would rather be captured.”
“The President had never flown. He was loath to take any flight, let alone one all the way to Australia.” (Note: Quezon was averse to flying since it made breathing very difficult for him given his deteriorating health).
The President was in frequent communication with General MacArthur and his staff on Corregidor, but was not informed in advance of the General’s orders to go to Australia. Soriano personally delivered MacArthur’s letter to Quezon to Bacolod a day after the former left for Australia.
“On March 17, I flew from Del Monte, in the southern island of Mindanao, to Bacolod. I had seen the General board a Flying Fortress the day before, and had brought a letter from him,” wrote Andres Soriano, then Secretary of Finance, in his story relating the President’s escape.
“With this news came a message from MacArthur himself, asking the Quezon party to come to Melbourne at the earliest opportunity. Two motor torpedo boats, the note added, would be waiting at a certain fishing village in Dumaguete to transfer everyone across 100 miles of inland sea to the air fields of Mindanao on March 18,” he added.
“There was no choice, so PT boats were sent to Zamboangita, a beach near Dumaguete.”
“About midnight, we drove down to the pier for our rendezvous,” President Quezon recalled later. “The PT boats had not arrived yet. Instead, I found a telegram from General Wainwright, advising me to cancel the trip because a number of Japanese destroyers had been reported cruising in the Mindanao Sea that day. Obediently, we turned around and drove back toward the place where we were staying.
“A few minutes later we were overtaken by a car that was literally flying up the road. A tough looking sea wolf, wearing a heavy black beard and a fierce expression, jumped out and introduced himself as Lieutenant Bulkeley.”
“I most strongly urge you to reconsider,” he told me. “I’ll guarantee to get you through safely to Mindanao.”
“The young pirate was so self-confident and seemed so capable that I promptly decided to disregard General Wainwright’s warning. I was ready to let Bulkely try to take me past all the Japanese destroyers in the world . Of course, if Bulkeley had come to me in his shore uniform and without his beard, as he did in Australia the next time I saw him, I never would have put my life in his hands. Shaved, he looked like such a youngster.”
At 3:30 a.m. Captain D. Bulkeley and two of his PT boats docked. The First Family and their cabinet boarded rapidly and they were off at 30 knots to Mindanao. It was imperative that they land before sunrise. While en route one of the torpedoes started to “run hot” and had to be jettisoned. For a few exciting moments it was not known if the torpedo could be loosened. It was, it blew up at sea and they were once again on course.
“The trip was rough but we landed safely, early the following morning, at Oroquieta, on the north shore of the great island of Mindanao,” the elder Quezon recalled.
Bulkeley’s cool confidence was responsible for President Quezon’s escape from the Japanese, who almost certainly would have captured him had he remained on the island.
But it was Bulkeley’s equally cool courage that saved the group from death before morning. Nearly 100 persons owe their lives to the quick work of Bulkeley, Ensign George Cox, Jr. of Niagara Falls, New York; Chief Torpedoman James D. Light of Vallejo, California, and Torpedoman First Class John L. Houlihan Jr. of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts.
Had it not been for the skill and courage of Bulkeley and his crew, Quezon told his friends later, the President of the Philippines would probably had been a prisoner of the Japanese, or dead in the Mindanao Sea.
For safely bringing out General MacArthur and President Quezon from certain capture by the Japanese, and his other exploits as the leader of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 in defense of the Philippines, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally awarded Bulkeley the Medal of Honor in a ceremony in the Oval Office on 4 August 1942 when he was but 32 years old.
(View archival film footage of Lieutenant John D Bulkeley here.)
After landing at Oroquieta in Misamis Occidental, the presidential party motored to the home of Senator Jose Ozamiz in Jimenez, and after breakfast and a short rest, they were once again on their way to to Dansalan (present day Marawi City).
From Dansalan they traveled at an excruciating 15 kilometers an hour over horrific roads, finally arriving at Del Monte, Tankulan in Bukidnon on March 23 at 3:30 a.m.
“After only a brief pause, we continued to Jimenez, then to Dansalan, and from there proceeded to the headquarters of General Sharp, where we waited a few days for the planes that were to take us to Australia,” Soriano recalls.
The President and his family stayed at the home of Mr. James MacNeil Crawford, the president of Del Monte (then known as Philippine Packing Corporation). They had a three-day rest. On March 26, after lunch at the Crawford’s house, they boarded three B-17’s sent by General MacArthur to bring them to Australia.
“Three Flying Fortresses dropped down on our field at dusk of March 26. We boarded them about midnight, and nine hours later we were breakfasting in Northern Australia,” Soriano recalls.
In the first plane, piloted by a Lt. Faulkner of the United States Air Force, was the President, his family, Valdes, Major Nieto and Father Ortiz. Because of the worry over succession, following in the second plane was Vice President Osmeña and his party,” Huberty detailed in her speech.
“It was a cold and bumpy nine-hour flight. The President kept asking Valdes to go forward and tell the pilot to please fly lower. Valdes did as told, the pilot did not! When they landed at Bachelor Airfield 60 miles from Darwin, Valdes thought it was as if the blanket of uncertainty was lifted, and they knew that they would return in victory.”
On the terminus of Del Monte No. 1, the heavy bomber field in Tankulan (present day Bgy. Dicklum, Manolo Fortich) is a small memorial marking Quezon and MacArthur’s departure to Australia on March 26 and March 17, 1942, respectively, built by the Rotary Club of Northern Bukidnon and inaugurated on March 13, 2008 during the 66th anniversary of both events.
The site is historically significant because it was the last piece of Philippine soil that Quezon ever stepped on, since of tuberculosis at Saranac Lake, New York on August 1, 1944 during his exile in the U.S. He was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery until the end of World War II, when his remains were moved to Manila. His final resting place is the Quezon Memorial Circle.
It is likewise significant in local history since it was the last time MacArthur was ever in Mindanao.
(From an edited version of a speech given by the author at the Bataan Legacy Symposium, October 29, 2016, San Francisco Public Library with information taken from the diary her uncle Basilio J. Valdes kept during World War II and from private family memories.)
Hatol, Mag Cruz; De Guzman, Susan A., Full Speed Ahead: Negros Navigation at 75 (Coffee Table book published@2008 by Negros Navigation Company), Inc., pages
Soriano, Andres. Under the Sea, Over the Sea, and Through the Air, The Story of President Quezon’s Trip from Manila to Washington, Philippines Magazine, August 1942, Vol. 2 No. 1
Masuda, Hiroshi; Yamamoto, Reiko., MacArthur in Asia: The General and His Staff in the Philippines, Japan and Korea, Planning the Escape from Corregidor, Early February to Late February 1942
Print publication date: 2012
Print ISBN-13: 9780801449390
Published to University Press Scholarship Online: August 2016
Jose, Ricardo T., “Governments in Exile,” Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 8, nos. 1-2 (1999): 182, http://www.smc.org.ph/administrator/uploads/apmj_pdf/APMJ1999N1-2ART8.pdf.
Quezon, Manuel L. Jr., Escape from Corregidor, December 8, 2001, (From the late author’s unpublished memoirs.) The Philippine Free Press Online, accessed on October 16, 2020. https://philippinesfreepress.wordpress.com/2001/12/08/escape-from-corregidor-december-8-2001/