I just finished watching a series on Freevee called Almost Paradise, a joint Filipino-American production about a medically retired DEA agent who retreats to an island in the Philippines where he had once spent time, thinking it is still the idyllic paradise it was then only to find that it’s been developed and the formerly pristine beaches are now occupied by high rise resorts and hotels. The series interested me because it is set and was filmed on Mactan, an island in the Visayans where I spent a pleasant three or four months way back in 1965, or I should say where I had a bed since I spent much of my time flying around the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia. I had never heard of Mactan when my C-130 squadron at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina got word we were going there. I was familiar with and had been to Clark Field on Luzon, the main Philippines island I would learn was some 400 miles north of Mactan. During the classified pre-departure briefing (which I wasn’t allowed to attend because I was DNIF and wasn’t going to depart with the squadron but would go over later), attendees were told that Mactan is a tiny island just off of the island of Cebu and across the harbor from Cebu City, the Philippines’ largest city. The island was historically significant because the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, lost his life there during his ill-fated voyage around the world. (His men, some of them, completed the voyage but Magellan died there.) They were also told that Mactan was the site of one of a number of secret airfields the United States had built at isolated locations around the world to serve as recovery bases for Strategic Air Command’s fleet of bombers during a nuclear war. Like the other bases in the Congo, Pakistan and elsewhere, the airfield on Mactan consisted of a long, concrete runway and large parking ramp, also made of concrete. The Philippines Air Force had a facility there with a fighter squadron flying F-86s but we were going into a “bare base,” meaning hastily constructed base of tents over wooden frames and jungle hooches constructed by SAC’s Red Horse civil engineering units. There was a town on the island called Lapulapu after the Filipino chieftain who killed Magellan and a few barrios. The only Americans on the island other than us were a few Peace Corps workers and missionaries.
I arrived at Mactan a week or so after the rest of the squadron to find a primitive base on an island that hadn’t changed much since the Spanish left the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. We were living in “jungle hooches,” which were wooden frames with wood floors and screen sides with tents for roofs. The Filipinos lived in structures not much better. To be honest, their houses looked like shacks. We had hot and cold running water in the shower house and there was a full field kitchen that served hot meals we ate out of our mess kits, which we then washed in hot water in heated trashcans out behind the building after we ate. The food was flown down from Clark on the daily ration run we flew. There was an all-ranks club in a wood frame, screened building. I believe it, the shower house and the chow hall had tin roofs. A small wooden building served as a base exchange. It wasn’t much. They mainly had candy bars, cigarettes, soft drinks and prophylactics. There was plenty of beer and soft drinks. Filipina women, dependents of the Philippines Air Force men, ran sari-sari stores that were well-stocked with Cokes and San Miguel beer.
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When we weren’t flying, we often went to the beach. It was a couple of miles from the base but a shuttle bus ran back and forth at regular intervals. The road to the beach passed through small barrios and individual houses, often with a carabao or two grazing in the adjacent water-filled field with a child, usually a girl, keeping watch to make sure they didn’t stray. Often there would be a child or two astride the animal with an older girl holding it’s lead. The Filipinos, usually women and children since the men were somewhere fishing or working, would smile and wave and call out “Hey Joe” at us as we passed. It made us feel good. There is only one word to describe the beach – pristine. The grayish sand – the Philippines are volcanic and coral – was clean except for fronds from the coconut palms proliferating all over the island. The only structure on the beach was a sari-sari store. The women who ran it were usually the only women on the beach.
The water was clear and teeming with sea life. It was also I wouldn’t say deadly but somewhat dangerous due to the sea urchins nestled among the shells. There was also the possibility of cuts from coral. Consequently, we wore sneakers at the beach. Nevertheless, everyone got stung by the urchins, everyone that is but me! I was never stung, not once. As Tactical Air Command aircrew members, we all had a worldwide mobility kit and along with our mess kits, canteens, pistol belts and Arctic gear, we had an air mattress. We didn’t need the air mattress to sleep on because we had beds with mosquito netting so we took them to the beach. We’d lay on them but we mostly used them to float around and look in the water. Most of us picked up a mask, snorkel, and swim fans at the BX at Clark when we were there either on a ration run or a trip. (I also bought a 30/06 rifle at the Clark BX. A trip to Clark was like going to civilization compared to Mactan.) Looking into the water was like gazing into an aquarium. There were fish all over the place, tropical fish. There were also shellfish and shells in general.
Just down the beach and around a corner was a deep lagoon where Filipino fishermen kept their outrigger canoes. They told us that a huge barracuda lived in the lagoon. I saw that sucker one day. A group of us were snorkeling in the lagoon. We were swimming along on the surface or just deep enough for our snorkel to remain exposed and looking at the seafloor. Whenever someone spotted something interesting, usually a shell, they’d dive down and check it out. We had swam out as far as we felt comfortable and had turned and were making our way back to shore. I was lagging behind. Suddenly, I felt I was being watched. I looked back and all I saw were teeth and a big, black eye! I increased my kicking. I looked back and saw the big head drop back into the depths.
In the evenings we often went downtown, if you can call Lapulapu town. There were about half a dozen clubs on the island and most of them were off-limits. They were the ones on the water where the sailors from the ships that came into Cebu harbor hung out. Sailors like to blow off steam when they’re in port so the air police and base commander declared the waterfront bars off-limits. I was in one of them a time or two. The patrons were mostly Europeans. I never saw any fights. I did get picked up in an off-limits bar but it was the one time I made the trip across the harbor in a water taxi. I was with my pilot and flight engineer. We were in a club not bothering anybody when the Apes, as we called the air police, came in. They spotted us and came over and asked for our ID. They put us in their truck and took us back to the port and put us on a water taxi. An AP truck was waiting to take us back to tent city. They wrote us up and turned the reports over to our commander. I never heard anymore about it but I understand he had a talk with the pilot and engineer.
Our favorite place was a nondescript place in the middle of Lapulapu. My recollection is that the floor was dirt although it may have been concrete. What I most remember are the girls. There was one in particular who became special to me. Her name was Anselma Canales. She went by Selma. Selma was eighteen years old and half-American, or Amerasian although since her father was from South Texas, she was no different than the many Mestizo girls in the islands – girls with Spanish ancestry. Unlike most Amerasian girls, her father acknowledged her and kept in touch with her, sending her pictures of her half-brothers and sisters in Texas. Selma said she was a virgin and I don’t doubt that she was. She took a job in a bar as a hostess so she could meet and get to know Americans. I’ve often wondered what happened to her. As we were leaving Mactan, troops were coming in to be there for a year. I hope she met someone and went back to the States, perhaps to Texas. There was another girl whose father was a Japanese soldier. She was very pretty but I suspect she’d had a hard life as the daughter of a Filipina who had slept with a Japanese.
Just before my crew returned to the States, a new bar opened right outside the main gate. Our flight engineer and I were there one time that I remember. An older Filipino came in with several young Filipins. They were dressed stylishly and were obviously a cut or two above the girls we had met in the bars. My engineer started talking to them and we learned that the man was the uncle of one of the girls and that they were students at the University of Cebu. They wanted to marry Americans. A few years later when I was stationed at Clark I knew a couple of people who had married Filipinas at Mactan. One couple got a wedding present of one million dollars from the girl’s father, who was a wealthy planter.
One Saturday some of us hired motorcycle taxis for a tour of the island. The Honda motorcycle taxis were the primary means of transportation on the islands. Jitneys, converted Jeeps left by the Americans at the end of WW II, were the primary means of transportation elsewhere but Mactan was a small island and there were no bridges to Cebu at the time. The only way to get back and forth was by water taxi and canoe. There may have been a ferry but if so I don’t recall it. The motorcycle taxis were like sampans, except they were motorized. We visited the Magellan monument. It was on the other side of the airfield just off of the bay that bears his name. We rode and walked through what I suppose were rice paddies with dykes in between. We passed by fishing boats, including one large boat with outriggers. We stopped by the guitar factory where I ordered a custom-made guitar with my name on it. I later learned that the USDA wouldn’t allow them to be brought into the United States because Filipinos didn’t finish the inside of the guitars and there was a possibility of wood-boring insects. I never went back to pick it up.
A word about Magellan. The “official” version of his death is that he was going around converting Filipinos to Christianity – meaning he was telling the head men to either convert or lose their heads – but the people on Mactan refused. He landed on the island in an attempt to overcome the locals but in the ensuing battle he was killed. That’s what the history books say. Filipinos, however, tell a different story. They say that Magellan had a fling with Lapulapu’s sister. At least, to him it was a fling but it was evidently more to the young Filipina. When they realized that Magellan was about to sail off and leave the girl in the lurch, as so many sailors of differing nationalities have done since, Lapulapu went after the Portuguese and cut off his head.
In 1965 Mactan was a primitive, idyllic island populated by friendly people who loved Americans. Today it is one massive tourist trap, as illustrated in the TV series. Three bridges now connect the island with Cebu, thus allowing vehicles easy access to the island. Looking at Mactan on Google Earth reveals one resort after another, not only along the beautiful beaches but inland as well. There are museums, spas, golf courses, shopping centers and housing developments. I’m not sure who is responsible for the changes but I believe they were Japanese. The TV series cast occasionally allude to how the island was before the developers came in. The star says he saw it then. I’m just glad I did too.
(To view with pictures go to my Wordpress site - Mactan – tennesseeflyboy (wordpress.com)
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