Sacramento resident remembers the pre-WWII years on Corregidor

 

The project of a lifetime will come to fruition for Sacramento resident Gloria Bagby at the end of July, when her memoir of the ill-fated Philippine island of Corregidor before and after World War II is due to be released in book form by an Indiana publisher.

A labor of love. Gloria Bagby looks over the pages of the manuscript of her memoir that recounts her family’s time on the island of Corregidor before World War II. / Valley Community Newspapers photo by Art German

A labor of love. Gloria Bagby looks over the pages of the manuscript of her memoir that recounts her family’s time on the island of Corregidor before World War II. / Valley Community Newspapers photo by Art German

The book has been an intense labor of love for Bagby, who spent more than 15 years putting the book together, first in longhand with 300 pages of handwritten details, and then – with the help of a friend – putting the material into a computer. After those labors, there was a five-year search for a publisher, culminating in an agreement with the Authorhouse Co. to bring the memoirs to the public.

Bagby emphasized that she is not interested in any monetary profit. All book sale profits will be donated to charity, “and I won’t be keeping any of it,” she said.

In 1939, two years before the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan brought the U.S. into World War II, Gloria’s family was sent to Corregidor with her father, Major Ralph Rowland, a U.S Army administrator for the island’s military hospital. The Philippines were a U.S. colony at that time.

Even before World War II broke out, Corregidor, a salamander-shaped island at the entrance to Manila Bay, was considered a prime objective for Japan or any other potential U.S. enemy.

Army officers were routinely permitted before World War II to bring their families with them to overseas posts such as Corregidor. In 1939, Rowland was joined on the island by his wife, Flora, and their five children, including Gloria. A sixth child, a boy, was born on the island before war clouds began to gather early in 1941.

In May of 1941, with the war threat growing, the family was ordered to return to the U.S. mainland. Flora and the six children settled in San Francisco while Major Rowland remained on duty in Corregidor.

Bagby recalls the pre-war stay on Corregidor as a happy time, a new experience in a foreign land, with a touch of adventure thrown in. There was year-round swimming, the unfamiliar sight of profuse tropical vegetation, and the occasional warning to be on the lookout for such potential threats as cobras and pythons.

When the family bid farewell to the major at the pier in Manila harbor, it would be the last time they would see him. A few days after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7. 1941, Japanese forces landed in the Philippines. The Bataan peninsula and Corregidor held out until mid-1942.

The family, waiting in San Francisco, received a copy of a letter sent in May of 1942, just before all Americans were taken prisoner with the fall of Corregidor.

“Dearest & children,” Major Rowland wrote. “We are still hopeful and strong in our defense…I would not leave if I could…Don’t worry. I try to be careful. I have no fear…Shells are bursting now….Got to go. Xxx.”

Rowland remained as a prisoner of war in the Philippines until 1945, when the Japanese were withdrawing from the islands and settling down for a last-ditch defense of the homeland. Just before the war ended later that year, it was learned that Rowland was among 1,800 U.S. prisoners who had been evacuated from the Philippines on a ship bound for Japan. The vessel was spotted by U.S. airmen who did not know it was carrying POWs. The vessel was sunk with the loss all but 200 of the Americans aboard. Later it was confirmed that Rowland was among the dead.

Soon after VJ day, Gloria married Robert Bagby, an Air Force fighter pilot. They lived in the San Francisco area until the mid-1980s when they moved to Sacramento. Robert Bagby died soon afterward.

In the years since, the idea of publishing her Corregidor memoirs has been uppermost in Bagby’s mind.

“I saved everything,” she said. “The diaries, the letters and the memories.”

Her plans crystallized further when she and two brothers decided to go back to Corregidor for a reunion visit in the mid-1990s. They found Corregidor to be totally different from what they remembered. Much of what Bagby recalled from the war era seemed to be non-existent – including the pythons, cobras, and the military presence. In the 1990s, the island mostly seemed to be catering to old veterans and tourists seeking a Corregidor experience.

Bagby and her brothers had an emotional shock when they found the remains of their wartime home still on its site, covered by underbrush.

“It was then that I decided to put the memories into book form,” she said.

The book is dedicated to her parents and their sacrifices in the fight for our country. In the preface, Bagby writes that “this is a saga of my growing up, barely a teen-ager, when I discovered…emotions that turned into understanding, and understanding to forgiveness.”

She also hopes that the book will be helpful to an organization known as the Descendants Group of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. The group’s objective is to maintain the nation’s focus on a tragic though ultimately victorious time in our history, the battle for Bataan and Corregidor. With the number of veterans who fought in the Philippines now greatly reduced, the organization is composed mostly of their descendants.

As a part of the post-war reconciliation between the U.S. and Japan, the Descendants group has been asked to locate a group of six still-surviving U.S. POWs who will be invited to a visitation program of sites in Japan later this year, where some could have been kept as wartime prisoners.