At SFO last Wednesday, the ticketing line for Philippine Airlines stretched away from the counter, around the corner, and past the entrance doors. I rolled my luggage to the end of the queue, and silently thanked my wife for buying me a new suitcase for my birthday. The line was not moving fast, but at least it was moving, and my flight to Manila wasn’t supposed to leave for another three hours. I stood and started to wait.
A white man in front of me with even more luggage turned around. “So, I’m assuming that you’re going to go see your girlfriend?” He saw the ring on my left hand. “Your wife?” “Neither,” I replied. “My wife drove me down here.” “Oh,” he sighed. I never realized how many American men traveled to the Philippines to see wives and girlfriends until he asked. Then I realized something else: not a lot of white Americans traveled there at all, let alone to simply satisfy their curiosity. Give our nation’s shared if complicated history, this struck me as interesting, and perhaps a little odd. Anyway, we struck up a conversation about the nation to which we were both traveling. He had been several times over the past several years, and on his last trip he and his wife had purchased a house in Cebu City.
I guess you could say I was going to the Philippines for family-related reasons as well. Manila was the end of the road for my grandpa’s World War II career, and before that he had spent several months in his ship either anchored or steaming off the coasts of Leyte, Samar, and northern Luzon. His oiler, the Mink, was only two days behind MacArthur when he waded back into history after fleeing the Philippines a few years before. Later, the Mink was a part of the initial convoy charged with supporting the landings at Linguyen Gulf. Grandpa’s Liberty ship earned more battle stars during this period than the Chew (his destroyer at Pearl Harbor) did during its entire career. At one point off the coast of Luzon, only fifty miles or so west of Manila, a kamikaze pilot destroyed the ship next to his in the convoy line. For Grandpa, Manila represented the end of the longest, hardest, and arguably most harrowing period of his war service. As devastating as Pearl Harbor was to grandpa and to everyone else on Oahu, at least it ended. In the Philippines, however, the dive bombers kept coming for weeks and months on end.
Manila was remarkable for other reasons as well. Grandpa writes a lot about it in his letters, commenting on how so much of the city was in ruins and yet its nightlife seemed more boisterous than ever after three years of Japanese occupation. He also met my great-great-uncle Danny in Manila. A nineteen-year old soldier from St. Louis, and his girlfriend Rose’s baby brother, Danny was not old enough to have seen much fighting but he was smart enough to be posted in Army headquarters. Elmer and Danny met several times in the devastated city, believing each time to be their last encounter for a while. Elmer knew he was heading home, while Danny was told he was going to Japan.
I do not have the time or the money to check out all the places my Grandpa visited. Wars have a nasty habit of shaking up the globe and scattering people like snow into seemingly random places. Elmer’s ship made stops in New Orleans, Houston, Panama, Papua New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands, Indonesia, and several spots throughout the Philippine archipelago. It would be cost and time-prohibitive for me to visit them all, so I decided to choose one and get to know it a little.
Manila seemed like a good choice for a variety of reasons. As noted above, Manila is an important setting in grandpa’s narrative, and I wanted to connect his experience with that of my Uncle Danny’s. It was also host to one of the most savage and devastating battles in World War II, so much so that by the time my grandpa arrived most of the city was in rubble. Flying to Manila is also lot less involved than getting to the northern coast of New Guinea, or Manus Island, or Morotai in Indonesia. It would take twice as much money and thrice the time to visit any of these places, and if the lengthy flight to Manila was any indication then I am glad I didn’t put together a more frenetic island-hopping travel plan.
The man in front of me in line had a lot of good advice for traveling in the Philippines, and he suggested that I ride a Jeepney at some point. He also spent about five minutes talking about his new home’s air conditioning. Having recently installed a mini-split in our attic office space, I asked him about his new system. He did not know the details, he responded, but air conditioning is vitally important in the Philippines. He described the heat there, which is a hard thing to imagine while standing indoors on a cool, windy morning near San Francisco Bay.
This is another reason for me wanting to travel to Manila, or to any of grandpa’s ports of call in the Southern Pacific, and it ties in to one of my goals in writing this book. One of my general complaints about academic history, and a lot of decidedly non-academic history, is that it is too often non-descriptive. Places are “hot,” not “sweltering.” Mountains are “tall,” not “towering.” Fact-finding and narrative-establishing overshadow the need to set the scene in writing about the past. To be fair, there is often not a lot of grist to that mill. The past is a foreign country, after all, and we cannot Google Street View a scene in Renaissance Italy or the San Agustin church in Manila after the Japanese set fire to everything else around it. But my grandpa’s letters take me halfway there, as he was no idle observer himself. One of the strengths of my first book, I believe, was my success in describing western Nebraska for readers who have either never visited it or have only seen it in passing while driving Interstate 80 or flying on a plane. When I traveled to Lincoln to accept my Nebraska Book Award last year a couple of people asked me where in Nebraska I was from. Considering that I live in California and was raised in Missouri, I could not help but be flattered.
The main point here is that description matters. Being able to help one’s readers see, smell, hear, taste, and feel a place they’ve likely never visited matters. And if my years of teaching early American history to Californians has taught me anything, it is that the east coast might as well be Europe if you cannot make that place real for them.
But the best way to get a sense of that place is to actually be there. So, for me, that place is going to be Manila.
After an interminably long flight bookended by an hour at the gate on each end of the journey, we finally emerged from the plane and into Ninoy Aquino’s cool and pleasantly air-conditioned arrivals hall. My friend from San Francisco was just a few travelers behind me, and we passed each other in the immigration line. “We made it!” he sighed. The man sounded weary, but his traveling was not over. He had another flight to catch. I, on the other hand, took the easy way out of the airport: my hotel sent a driver to pick me up outside the terminal. “Yup,” I replied. “Here we are.”
We each looked ahead in opposite directions as yet another line snaked its way through the gauntlet of international travel. But we were almost through it. And at the end, travelers were rewarded with a blast of humid heat immediately upon exiting customs. Manila and San Francisco are both known for their large bays, but they could not feel any more different outside their respective airport terminal doors.