WORLD WAR II
THE SECOND BATTLE OF CORREGIDOR
FEBRUARY 20, 1945
The tunnel exploded.
Sergeant Daniel Kekoa dropped to the ground and covered his head as the M4 Sherman tank that had fired on the ragged entrance was thrown backward a dozen yards by the gigantic secondary blast from inside the tunnel. The thirty-ton tank flipped over and landed on its turret before a loose shell inside tore it apart in a fireball.
When debris stopped raining down around him, Kekoa staggered to his feet, his ears ringing from the deafening explosion. Dozens of American soldiers lay dead or writhing in pain. He turned over the nearest man down. The vacant eyes and chunk of shrapnel protruding from the soldier’s chest showed that he was beyond help.
Kekoa shook his head in disgust at the deadly foul-up. The briefing from Army Intelligence indicated that this particular tunnel sheltered enemy soldiers defending the island fortress strategically located at the mouth of Manila Bay. Kekoa had called in the tank to prevent a suicidal banzai attack, which had become commonplace with the fanatical Japanese. But there had been no indication that the tunnel might also contain large quantities of explosives close to the entrance.
Captain John Hayward crouched nearby in one of the many craters created by the American pre-invasion bombardment, his hands still over his ears. Kekoa reached down to haul him to his feet. The slight man, with brown hair and circular-framed glasses, was shaking.
“All clear now, Captain,” Kekoa said. “I told you I’d get you through this battle in one piece.” Of course, Kekoa could make no such promise, but what else was he going to tell this officer whose safety the Army had entrusted to him?
“Thanks, Sergeant. I appreciate that.” Hayward took in the carnage with wide eyes. “What happened?”
“Must have been an ammo dump inside the cave. Your boys in the OSS told us the ammunition would be stored farther down the tunnels.”
“They’re not my boys. That intel came from a different part of the Office of Strategic Services. I’m not a spy, Sergeant Kekoa. I’m a scientist in the Research and Analysis Branch.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised, given the way you carry that carbine.”
The mission briefing had been just that: brief. The battalion commander had specifically asked for Kekoa to babysit Captain Hayward and follow his orders while keeping him alive. Everything else was on a need-to-know basis only, and as a grunt in the 24th Infantry “Hawaiian” Division, Kekoa apparently didn’t need to know anything. All Hayward had told his unit was that he needed to get inside the underground fortress before the Japanese could destroy it.
The tadpole-shaped island of Corregidor and its howitzers guarded the entrance to Manila Bay, one of the largest harbors in the Pacific. The strategic outpost, also known as The Rock, was four miles long and little more than a mile across at its widest. As a U.S. commonwealth, the Philippines had been the last bastion to fall during the initial Japanese onslaught at the outbreak of the war, holding on until the island’s forces surrendered in May of 1942, two months after Douglas MacArthur had been evacuated.
Kekoa was leading his unit as part of the operation to retake Malinta Hill on the island’s tail. Its vast grid of tunnels was bisected by a twenty-four-foot-wide main passageway that had served as a hospital and MacArthur’s headquarters. Dozens of smaller tunnels branched out from the main one, a bomb-proof network so large that it not only housed munitions, food, and water for a huge garrison that could withstand a siege for months but also had room for the thousand-bed hospital. In the three years since the Japanese conquered Corregidor, they had fortified their positions, digging out additional tunnels to augment the extensive system built by the Americans, some of which had been collapsed intentionally before the 1942 surrender.
Hayward’s target was inside one of those tunnels.
Kekoa took stock of the dozens of casualties and found out that two of the men who had died were in his platoon. Kekoa had served with both of them in the National Guard in Honolulu before joining the Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He then fought side by side with them during the invasions of New Guinea and the Filipino island of Leyte. They weren’t the first men he’d lost, and judging by the insanity of this mission, they wouldn’t be the last, either.
The explosion had closed off the entrance. They had to find another way in. Under Hayward’s direction, Kekoa gathered his platoon and headed toward the south side of Malinta Hill. The sound of rifle fire and artillery blasts continued nonstop from around the island, and Kekoa was bathed in the stench of gunpowder and burnt flesh.
When they reached their new position, Kekoa and Hayward crouched in a foxhole to plan the assault. When he asked Hayward for orders, the captain hesitated and then asked, “What do you suggest?”
“Have you ever been in battle before, sir?”
“I think you know the answer to that. My office is in the new Pentagon building. This is the first time I’ve been outside the United States, let alone under fire.”
“What do you do in Washington?”
“I’m a biochemist.”
“I don’t even know what that is. What I do know is that it’s suicide to go into those tunnels before we’ve cleared them out.”
Hayward gave him a halfhearted grin. “I thought you promised to get me through in one piece.”
“I’ll do my best, sir. But these defenders are fanatical. I’ve heard from soldiers in some of the other battalions that they’re strapping bomb vests to their chests and running at us kamikaze-style. The battle plan is for our troops to get close enough to the tunnels to dump gasoline down the openings, light it on fire, and then seal the entrances up to burn through all the oxygen.”
“That’s exactly why we need this mission to succeed,” said Hayward. “We need to get inside before that’s done.” He looked around, then lowered his voice so the other men couldn’t hear. “Do you think I want to be here, Sergeant? I have a wife and two children in a nice house in the Virginia suburbs. I was a college professor at Georgetown before this all started. I am not a warrior.”
“Then why are you here, sir?”
Hayward sighed with resignation. “I can’t tell you much, but you deserve to know the stakes if you might die for my sake. You can see where this war is going, right? The way we’re hopscotching islands northward?”
“The war is nearly over in Europe. It’s just a matter of time until Germany gives up, which means the U.S. will turn all its resources to this side of the world. Our government has said we’ll accept nothing less than unconditional surrender, so what do you think the ultimate goal in the Pacific is?”
“The invasion of Japan.”
“Right. Look around you. We’re fighting like mad for every yard on this tiny rock. Now imagine what it will take to conquer the home islands with every citizen willing to fight to the death for their beloved Emperor.”
Kekoa frowned. “I don’t want to land on the beaches of Japan any more than the next guy, but if that’s what it takes to end the war, I’m willing to do it.”
“My research group believes there is something in these tunnels that could make the cost of taking the home islands too terrible to conceive.”
Kekoa stared in disbelief at Hayward and waved his arms at the destruction around him. “Worse than this?”
Hayward nodded solemnly. “You’ve heard the rumors that the Army is manufacturing half a million Purple Hearts in anticipation of the invasion of Japan?”
“That’s the scuttlebutt.”
“It’s true.” The captain scientist pointed toward the tunnel complex. “But if we’re right about what’s in there, it won’t be nearly enough.”
Kekoa grimly nodded at Hayward. “We’ll get you in there. Where do you need to go once we’re inside?”
“Thanks, Sergeant,” Hayward said. “I’m looking for a lab in one of the Navy Tunnels. It may have collapsed in the original Japanese invasion, but the enemy could have dug it out since then. There should be a small entrance on the south side of the hill.” He pulled out a map and showed Kekoa the spot he was talking about. Kekoa frowned and checked his own map.
“Trust me,” Hayward said. “It’s there. That is, if the Japs didn’t seal it.”
Kekoa assumed the captain had read his file and knew his mother was Japanese, like the parents of many of the men in his division. But Hayward didn’t seem at all concerned that Kekoa was a potential traitor, which boosted the captain a few notches in his eyes.
Kekoa cautiously guided his men to the place Hayward had pointed to on the map, and, sure enough, there was a tunnel opening concealed by the remaining shrubbery that hadn’t been destroyed by the bombardment. If the captain hadn’t led them here, they never would have seen it.
Kekoa called for more tank support and was surprised when he got an instant response in the affirmative. Obviously, Hayward must have had more pull than he realized.
Another Sherman trundled its way to the tunnel entrance. This time, Kekoa ordered everyone to cover before it fired. The tank blasted the tunnel with a high-explosive round. There was no secondary explosion. Anyone inside had to be dead, but Kekoa ordered the tank to fire three more shells as insurance.
He called his flamethrower team forward and ordered the platoon to follow them in. Every twenty feet, a jet of fire would shoot forward to clear the path of hiding Japanese Marines, illuminating the otherwise darkened tunnel.
Kekoa didn’t like having daylight framing him in silhouette as he moved into the tunnel. He glanced behind him to see Hayward clinging to his carbine as if it were a talisman.
“Should be two intersections down,” Hayward whispered. “On the right.”
Kekoa motioned for his team to keep going until they reached the intersection and turned. They got another twenty feet when banshee-like screams wailed from down the pitch-black tunnel, followed by pounding footsteps.
“Light ’em up!” Kekoa yelled and dropped to the ground, pulling Hayward with him.
The flamethrower gushed to life, shooting thick sheets of blazing liquid down the tunnel. That should have stopped the Japanese in their tracks, but they kept coming despite the inferno. Four men rushed through the wall of fire as if it were nothing more than a light breeze and launched themselves at the soldier handling the flamethrower and his partner. Before his partner could get a shot off, they viciously stabbed both Americans with bayonets even as they burned.
Seeing that there was no way to save his flamethrower team, Kekoa shouted, “Open fire!”
Bullets poured down the tunnel from every available man. Even Hayward was firing.
Yet the Japanese still kept coming. Kekoa could see the rounds hitting them, but incredibly they wouldn’t go down, like they were straight out of a Superman comic.
Kekoa got onto his knees and fired at the head of the closest one coming at them. His body went down in a heap, still on fire. At least they weren’t indestructible.
He turned to the next one, who pounced on Kekoa before he could bring his weapon to bear. Kekoa blocked the bayonet with his rifle and kneed him with a savage hit to the midsection. It didn’t seem to do a thing.
In the dim light, Kekoa could make out a few details. These Marines weren’t like the nearly starving soldiers who were charging at his fellow troops on the rest of the island. This man was muscled like a bodybuilder, and the single glimpse of his eyes that Kekoa saw flashed a feral lust for blood.
Kekoa could feel the bayonet getting closer to his throat. He was unable to push the enemy back, despite the terrible wounds the man had already suffered.
Then the Japanese soldier’s head flew sideways as a shot rang out from Kekoa’s right. Hayward still had his carbine at the ready as the enemy fell.
Before Kekoa could say his thanks, the last Japanese soldier rushed at Hayward, slashing at him with a machete. Hayward screamed and dropped to the ground. Kekoa unloaded the rest of his Thompson submachine gun’s magazine at the attacker, who finally lay silent. They prepared for more attackers but none came.
The remnants of the flamethrower’s output provided enough light to see. Kekoa knelt down beside Hayward, who was holding his side. Blood oozed from between his fingers.
Kekoa lifted him up. “We need to get you to a medic.” He started walking to the exit, but Hayward stopped him.
He grimaced in pain as he spoke. “Not before… I see what’s in this tunnel.” When Kekoa hesitated, he added, “That’s an order, Sergeant.”
Grudgingly, Kekoa supported Hayward as they walked farther down the tunnel. Two of his soldiers led the way, one of them now holding his dead squadmate’s flamethrower.
A hundred feet in, they reached a laboratory, with equipment that must have made sense to Hayward. There were also several file cabinets and a desk littered with papers. A faint hiss came from the tunnel.
“My camera,” Hayward said. “It’s in my pack.”
Kekoa reached in and found the camera, with a flashbulb attached. He handed Hayward off to another soldier while he snapped a photo of the equipment. When the flash went off, Kekoa noticed something on the ceiling down the tunnel.
“What is that?” he said to one of the men, who took a flashlight to investigate. When he lit up the spot, Kekoa realized in horror what he’d been hearing. On a set of dull gray bars strapped to the ceiling he could make out the Kanji characters for Explosive. The hiss was burning detonation cord.
“It’s rigged to blow!” he yelled. “Everyone out of here!”
“No!” Hayward protested. “We need the intel!” He lunged for a file on top of the desk and grabbed it before Kekoa could yank him away.
With the help of another soldier, Kekoa carried Hayward by the shoulders as they sprinted for daylight. Kekoa’s lungs burned from the exertion, but the thought of being trapped under thousands of tons of rubble kept him going. They were the last ones through the tunnel entrance when the underground fortress erupted like a volcano. The concussive force flung them to the ground.
The explosives must have been linked to bundles in other tunnels because the entire hill shook from multiple aftershocks. Trees were uprooted and rocks tumbled down the slopes, raising a cloak of dust so thick that Kekoa couldn’t see more than fifty feet in any direction.
He found Hayward lying prone next to him, not moving. Kekoa flipped him over and saw that he was still breathing. His hand continued to clutch the file from the tunnel.
“Medic!” cried Kekoa. “I need a medic!” He looked down at Hayward, who opened his eyes. “Stay with me, Captain.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“That file almost got us killed.”
“Had to take it,” Hayward said. His finger tapped a picture on the front next to Japanese characters. It looked like the leaf of some kind of plant. “Tell me what the cover says.”
“That can wait until…”
“No, it can’t,” he said between ragged breaths. “That’s why I asked for you. You know Japanese. Tell me. Please.”
Kekoa saw a medic running toward them, so he indulged the captain.
“It says Project Typhoon. Morale Division, Unit 731.” At the mention of Unit 731, Hayward’s face went even whiter than it already was. Kekoa didn’t know what that meant, but it obviously terrified the military scientist.
The medic began tending to his wound and injected Hayward with morphine. As the drug began to take effect, Hayward mumbled, “Where… is it located?”
“You mean this Morale Division?”
Hayward nodded, his eyes barely open.
“It doesn’t list the name of a base, if that’s what you’re hoping for,” Kekoa said, “but it does mention a city.”
Kekoa shook his head. “Hiroshima.”