TRAVEL: War tourism.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents|The Week - Cindy Mac­Don­ald

Mi­lan J. Blasko. His name means noth­ing to me and yet here I am blink­ing back tears as I study the stark white mar­ble cross that bears his name.

Blasko was from Penn­syl­va­nia and died on Oc­to­ber 20, 1944. He was a mem­ber of the United States Army’s 788th Am­phibi­ous Trac­tor Bat­tal­ion. Later re­search re­veals Blasko was a driver who, along with three other men of the 788th, died, of shrap­nel wounds, land­ing on Leyte, an is­land in the Visayas group of the Philip­pines. The land­ing launched Gen­eral Dou­glas MacArthur’s cam­paign for the Al­lied Forces to re­cap­ture and lib­er­ate the Philippine archipelago, which had been un­der Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion for al­most three years.

I do not know how old Blasko was when he died, if he was mar­ried or had chil­dren. I do know his bones lie some 13,500 kilo­me­tres from his home and those who loved him. He was awarded a Pur­ple Heart for giv­ing his life “so that oth­ers may live”, though he would never know that his coun­try­men went on to claim a de­ci­sive vic­tory in the op­er­a­tion he died launch­ing, the largest naval bat­tle in mod­ern his­tory. He would not know – and per­haps would not care – that many thou­sands of Ja­panese naval men were also killed in the Bat­tle of Leyte. In war the losses can never be one-sided.

As the sun be­comes less for­giv­ing with each minute that passes on this mot­tled-blue-sky Manila morn­ing, I feel my bare shoul­ders start to suc­cumb to the sting of its rays. But Blasko’s cross looks as though it has been chis­elled from ice, pris­tine white against the per­fectly man­i­cured ver­dant lawns. This cross is one of more than 17,000 at the Manila Amer­i­can Ceme­tery and Me­mo­rial in Fort Boni­fa­cio near Taguig, Metro Manila. The iden­ti­cal grave mark­ers stretch in al­most hyp­not­i­cally sym­met­ri­cal rows over 11 plots, form­ing a cir­cu­lar pat­tern that from above would look like a green and white dart­board on the 62-hectare grounds.

The ceme­tery holds tight the largest num­ber of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary graves from World War II, with most of these sol­diers hav­ing lost their lives in bat­tle in the Philip­pines or New Guinea. Buried here also are the 570 Filipino scouts who died while serv­ing with their Al­lied com­rades in the Pa­cific. Also within the grounds are the re­mains of 3744 uniden­ti­fied sol­diers. Twenty pairs of Amer­i­can brothers lie side by side, their moth­ers’ hearts dou­bly bro­ken.

“Take unto thy­self o Lord the souls of the valiant,” reads the carved in­scrip­tion on the rear fa­cade of a me­mo­rial chapel. In­side, a mo­saic Madonna set against a bold blue back­ground of­fers flow­ers as grat­i­tude for their sac­ri­fice. From here I seek respite from the sun in the cooler walk­ways of two gi­ant stone hemi­cy­cles, ring­ing what could be the ceme­tery’s bull’s-eye. Twenty-five large mo­saic maps chart the US’s World War II bat­tles of the Pa­cific, such as Coral Sea and Mid­way, and con­flicts in China, In­dia and Myan­mar. Set like tow­er­ing ver­ti­cal domi­noes within the struc­ture are lime­stone piers bear­ing more than 36,000 names. These are the Tablets of the Miss­ing, a closely spaced al­pha­bet­i­cal list of the men whose re­mains will never be re­united with their names and ranks. Carved in the mar­ble floors are the seals of the 50 Amer­i­can states.

Any­one with even the small­est knowl­edge of his­tory knows the death tolls of ma­jor wars are colos­sal. But some­how walk­ing above the corpses of the fallen can bring an elu­ci­dat­ing and hu­man­is­ing re­al­ity to the loss. Not for the first time I imag­ine the sad­ness of fam­i­lies in dis­tant lands as a dreaded tele­gram ar­rives at their door.

Just a few months be­fore my Manila stay I vis­ited the Than­byuza­yat War Ceme­tery in south­ern Myan­mar. Dur­ing World War II, Than­byuza­yat, tucked un­der the hills de­not­ing the Thai bor­der to the east, was the western ter­mi­nus of the Burma–Siam Rail­way, bet­ter known as the “Death Rail­way”.

Than­byuza­yat War Ceme­tery is home to the more than 3700 graves of the Al­lied pris­on­ers of war from Aus­tralia, Bri­tain, the United States, Hol­land, In­dia, Nepal, New Zealand and Canada who died dur­ing the rail­way’s con­struc­tion.

On a hot Jan­uary morn­ing, a wreath is laid dur­ing a short cer­e­mony for the vis­it­ing Aus­tralians, and we are given flow­ers to share among the graves. The group scat­ters and is eerily silent as tears are shed and dozens of brass plaques made dull by the harsh sun are bright­ened by colour­ful roses. Leav­ing the ceme­tery we speak of our sur­prise at be­ing so deeply moved by this flo­ral trib­ute to these strangers who died serv­ing their coun­tries.

Af­ter­wards in the com­fort of al­most em­bar­rass­ing lux­ury I pon­der the tor­ment my own fa­ther suf­fered in the name of fight­ing for peace. In 1939 he left Scot­land an in­no­cent teenager, soon to be cap­tured by Ger­man forces and in­car­cer­ated in a pris­oner of war camp in Poland. Four years, 11 months and one day later, emaciated and frail, he was lib­er­ated by Amer­i­can troops. On his re­turn to his home­land and fam­ily he could not set­tle, and con­se­quently he de­cided to take his skills as a car­pen­ter and build a new life in the hy­dro­elec­tric vil­lages of cen­tral Tas­ma­nia. Like many men of his gen­er­a­tion, my fa­ther barely spoke of his wartime ex­pe­ri­ences.

Maybe this is why I’m drawn to visit these re­minders of man’s un­speak­able in­hu­man­ity to his fel­low man. Over the years, I’ve stood sick­ened be­fore dis­plays of shoes and spec­ta­cles at Auschwitz– Birke­nau Me­mo­rial and Mu­seum in Oświęcim, Poland, un­able to for­get the sight of the smaller sizes that so ob­vi­ously be­longed to young chil­dren des­tined for the gas cham­bers. I’ve gazed at the enor­mity of Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery in Vir­ginia, like the Manila

Amer­i­can Ceme­tery an­other site of un­fath­omable US war losses. At the Choe­ung Ek Killing Fields in Cam­bo­dia, I chose not to en­ter the com­mem­o­ra­tive Bud­dhist stupa that housed a glass en­clo­sure filled with the skulls of more than 8000 vic­tims of that coun­try’s geno­cide. Walk­ing the fields among shal­low graves and hu­man bones, see­ing bor­der­ing trees hold­ing nooses for hang­ings, was enough.

Each time I travel down this path of so-called “dark tourism” I vow not to go there again. I un­der­stand the dev­as­ta­tion of war, so why mar my hol­i­day with such sad­ness? And yet I re­turn to these shrines to wartime

• death and tragedy, lest I for­get.

On a hol­i­day to the Philip­pines, Cindy Mac­Don­ald finds her­self again drawn to visit a me­mo­rial to wartime dead – here, the Manila Amer­i­can Ceme­tery – for rea­sons per­sonal and univer­sal.

The Manila Amer­i­can Ceme­tery and Me­mo­rial, in Fort Boni­fa­cio.

CINDY Mac­DON­ALD is The Satur­day Paper’s deputy ed­i­tor.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.