Cruising the Philippines Part 2: Lost B25 bomber wreck discovered

LOST SOULS OF SIBUYAN ISLAND

Excerpt from the book Bound for Distant Seas by James Baldwin

Braulio Rollon searched the misty heights of the mountain rain forest for rattan vines. As usual, he wandered alone within the clouds of Sibuyan Island’s Mt. Guiting-Guiting, carrying little more than the essentials: a short bolo (machete), a flint to spark a cooking fire, and a small-caliber rifle that he used for hunting the increasingly elusive monkeys and wild boars. He foraged and lived off the land for days at a time, but because his island’s forest was shrinking, he frequently found no more to eat than a few handfuls of wild edible plants. After he had collected all the vines he could lift onto his back, he would carry the bundle on an arduous two-day trek down the 6,000-foot-high mountain to sell them to a furniture maker in the coastal village of Taclobo. Only Braulio and a few other rugged men of the Mangyan Tagabukid tribe, who inhabited the interior of the island, continued to harvest the vines from these highest and least accessible areas of the mountain. Because the lower slopes of the mountain were rapidly being stripped bare by illegal logging and the lowlanders’ encroaching mining operations, the search for rattan took Braulio higher and further into the jungle’s hidden recesses each year.

As Braulio slashed through the bush on the steeply inclined slope, his bolo unexpectedly bounced off a metal object buried in the undergrowth. He bent down and uncovered a rusty iron cylinder about three feet long. When he tried to lift it he found it was too heavy. The strange metal object was a mystery but of no use to him, so he stepped over it and continued on his way along the mountain’s flank. Soon his bolo hit another massive piece of metal. He reached down and uncovered a three-bladed object that he recognized as an aircraft propeller. Nearby, he found an engine, an aluminum airplane wing, and then the twisted fuselage. Strewn among the wreckage were machine guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and more of those rusty cylinders that he now realized were unexploded bombs. He was lucky his machete had not struck the bomb’s triggering device. He looked around and found leather boots, jackets, goggles, and satchels of papers that had remarkably survived nearly a half century amid the perpetual wind and rain and riotous growth of the high jungle. He peeked inside the remains of the tangled fuselage. Braulio’s excitement fell suddenly to deep sadness as he saw a complete skeleton leaning against the inside of the fuselage in a sitting position with arms cradling the bones of his comrade in arms. Both mortally wounded crewmen had died in each others’ arms. Draped around their weathered bones were the stamped metal dog tags that identified them as American military. He knelt beside the skeletons, lit a candle he had made from tree resin, and said a prayer he had learned at the Catholic Mission to bless the lost men’s souls. Braulio left the scene to report the find to the island’s authorities.

 

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Sibuyan Island map

 

Christ in the Mountain

After an overnight passage from Banton Island, I anchored off the small town of San Fernando on the south coast of Sibuyan Island. Surrounded on all sides by scattered islands, Sibuyan stands out boldly among its neighbors. Its craggy mountains tower nearly 7,000 feet above the 12-mile-wide, roughly circular island. Gazing up at the lushly forested slopes and jagged peaks disappearing under a stationary cap of clouds, I sensed that here lay an island of mysteries beckoning to be explored.

Sibuyan was the prominent, but still largely undiscovered, jewel in the necklace of seven islands that comprise Romblon Province. It was a bigger and wilder version of Banton Island. Strolling along San Fernando’s placid main street of weathered wooden buildings, I passed a few dozen residences and followed my nose to a bakery where a slightly sweet pan de sal bread roll found its way into my hand for one peso. Next I stopped in front of a wooden shack that had “We Guard the Coast” painted in bold letters on its front wall. I thought the local Coast Guard officer might be interested in my arrival since visiting yachts are such a rarity here. I poked my head inside the open doorway to see the officer on duty stretched out flat on his back on a table. He snored blissfully, confident that the coast could look after itself during his siesta. Seeing that the sole coast guardsman here had neither weapons nor a patrol boat, I took it as a sign of an island at peace, far from the reach of the NPA (New People’s Army) “infestation” or Moro pirates.

Moving on to the next building, I stepped into an office where I met Mr. Renion, the mayor of San Fernando. When I inquired about traveling into the island’s roadless interior he suggested I first visit the Christ in the Mountain Mission to ask for a guide. Although I was prepared to walk the four miles to the mission, the mayor led me to the corner and directed me to step into the back seat of a pedal-powered tricycle. After watching the boy sweat and strain at the pedals under the hot sun for a few minutes, I asked him to stop and switch places with me. Making the circuit to towns and villages linked by this single road that encircled the island, a jeepney rolled by us with its passengers twisting their necks to gape at the unexpected sight of a pale Kano operating a pedicab.

Near the village of Taclobo, I stopped the pedicab next to a hand-painted signboard that read “Christ in the Mountain.” As I walked up the neatly manicured grounds past flowering hedges to the church-shaped, oversized nipa house, a young Filipino man came out and introduced himself as Brother Frederico Molo. The mayor had told me that Brother Frederico’s outspoken efforts to protect Sibuyan’s magnificent remaining forests from illegal logging as well as his assisting the few remaining nomadic Mangyans to stand up for their land rights against the logging and mining companies had earned him a few enemies. I got the impression that the mayor agreed with Brother Frederico’s work but not enough to stand against those powerful and dangerous forces himself. I came to learn that the Mangyans of Sibuyan were every bit as shy and non-confrontational as their counterparts on Mindoro Island. Because their numbers and territory were so much smaller on Sibuyan, they were disappearing from their ancestral lands as fast as the old-growth forests.

Frederico brought me inside the mission house to meet a group of children sitting around a table scribbling lessons into their notebooks. “Welcome to our humble Catholic Mission for the orphan children,” Frederico said. He then led me to see the smaller mission guesthouse set next to a gentle waterfall that emptied into a natural pool. He had constructed the house for occasional tourists to stay at when they visited the island, with the proceeds helping to fund the orphanage. “Shall you stay for viands?” Frederico asked. Although he spoke with a Filipino accent, I soon discovered that his English vocabulary was vast. It was as if he had memorized whole volumes of classic English literature, including a Victorian era dictionary, but had not heard the language spoken enough to know which words were too formal or archaic. His use of hypercorrect words not normally used in conversation gave his speech a charmingly formal and antiquated air. When I told Frederico I was looking for a guide to lead me to the top of Mt. Guiting-Guiting (Sawtooth Mountain), he replied, “I know a man who can guide us. In my own . . . uhm . . . perambulations in the forest, I have not yet endeavored to ascend that mountain. May I accompany you as interpreter?”

After setting a second and a third anchor to keep Atom securely moored in my absence, I returned to the mission the following day with my backpack filled with minimal provisions and camping equipment for a multi-day trek into the mountains. During the next few days I couldn’t resist taking it upon myself to help Frederico unlearn some of his non-standard English. He, in turn, remained enthusiastic during the arduous journey ahead and was indispensable as an interpreter. Frederico instructed the older children at the orphanage to look after the younger ones for a few days during his absence. The two of us then set out for the village of Layag, which we reached after a few hours’ slogging uphill along a trail partly overgrown with tangled bush.

The village turned out to be a single wooden house perched on a clearing on a saddle between the mountains. Noelyn and Lanie Ruga invited us into their combined home, schoolhouse, and medical aid station. These married lowlanders lived seasonally here in their government-sponsored schoolhouse where they taught the Mangyan children and provided basic healthcare for the people living in the mountains. The children who came here were from families of the semi-nomadic people scattered across several miles of mountains and valleys. The Mangyans mostly lived in rudimentary, temporary shelters, well camouflaged within the forest. By comparison the average lowlander’s nipa huts built on cleared land were luxurious. The teachers explained that only one other family actually lived in the immediate area because each family preferred to keep to its own section of the forest where they could forage in a sustainable way without crowding their neighbors.

In Filipino, the word layag means “sail,” which seemed an unlikely name for a mountain settlement. Standing on the front porch of the schoolhouse, I asked Lanie about the name. He pointed to the triangular, sail-shaped patch of azure sea visible below the horizon and a deep cleft between two mountains and said, “There is our layag.”

Angeles, Man of the Jungle

When we told Noelyn and Lanie we were heading for Guiting-Guiting, they introduced us to a Mangyan man who lived nearby named Angeles Rollon. Angeles admitted that he had never actually been to the summit but claimed that he knew the way to get there. He pointed his bolo towards a mountain rising in the distance beyond the next valley, and then to another mountain behind it, and finally to a third distant peak that was Guiting-Guiting. With a silent nod of his head he agreed to act as our guide. His features reminded me of a tropical version of a Mongolian herdsman, with black hair hanging over his shoulders, narrow slits of eyes, and a long thin mustache that drooped over an unsmiling face. At his side hung his bolo in a wooden scabbard. The only other thing the barefoot man carried was an antique, small caliber rifle.

From Layag, Angeles led us on a steep descent along a muddy, eroded footpath to the Catingas River. We headed upstream, wading across the shallower sections and hopping between boulders in the more turbulent, narrow stretches. In one place, the river widened, and we saw that a couple of Mangyan families had planted gardens and built their huts on the low sandy riverbanks. During the typhoon rains that frequently affect the island, the people retreat up the mountain as the river floods and carries all before it―gardens, huts, and boulders―in a wild torrent down the canyon towards the sea. Later, the hardy mountain folk return to rebuild their grass and bamboo houses and plant new gardens.

As we made our way upstream, the canyon walls pressed in above us and slender waterfalls from smaller streams dropped like fluttering ribbons into the swift, clear waters of the main river. In places where the river had entirely cut away the riverbank, we inched our way along footholds in the cliff face with our bodies pressed against the dark, cracked volcanic rock wall. Somewhere near the headwaters of the Catingas River, we detoured up a rocky gulch. The sure-footed Angeles went ahead, scrambling over the boulders and unrolling a long rattan vine that he held for us so that we could pull ourselves up after him.

It was only after we were well up into the mountain hinterland that we left behind the background noise of chainsaws, wielded by men who were illegally cutting their way up the Catingas River Valley. Logging provided much-needed jobs for the island’s growing coastal population, but the long-term effects of such rapid deforestation could mean the end of Mangyan culture. These forest dwellers were culturally ill-equipped to join the clamoring, impersonal masses in the competitive city. Many of the lowland settlers at the time considered the Mangyan barely human, and treated them like animals to be eradicated, pushed aside, or at best ignored. They could not see that these dignified and gentle people required and deserved their wilderness homeland as much as a bird needs the sky.

Angeles could not bear to linger in the patches of red eroded earth among the clear-cut logging zones that we passed through. He had been offered work cutting and dragging timber back to the town lumber merchant, but he refused to participate in the slaughter of the wilderness, and ultimately, in his own destruction. It was sad to think that within his lifetime much of the virgin forest might be reduced to eroded sun-baked clay and patches of kunai grass as has happened on so many of the once-forested islands of the Philippines. Modern island nations too often ignore such examples as the warning lying among the barren hills and silent Moai statues of Easter Island where overpopulation caused the land to be stripped of its resources. When the resources are gone, the culture withers as the people die off, move away, or become slaves of a tourist economy—if anything of novelty remains to attract the fussy tourists. 

As we made our way down into the next valley, we surprised four young Mangyan children walking towards us along the forest trail. They froze in place, staring as we suddenly appeared in front of them. I aimed my camera, and they bolted into the bush as though I had pulled out a net to capture them.

 

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Children of the forest on Sibuyan Island

Somewhere beyond the next mountain ridge we stopped to camp for the night. As a navigator, I couldn’t help studying the contoured topographic map I carried and attempt to keep track of our position with my handheld compass. Much of it was guesswork in those interior valleys because we seldom had views through the forest canopy beyond the next fifty steps. As long as we had Angeles and his memory of every crag and fold in the land, there was no chance of becoming lost.

I unfolded my one-man tent, while Angeles and Frederico constructed for themselves a lean-to of branches and fronds to provide a rain shelter. A floor of bamboo kept them above the crawling insects and damp ground. Leeches were ever close. We had already pulled off several of those blood-suckers whose heads had fastened onto us as we passed through low-hanging vegetation. In the chill morning, we shared a pot of Frederico’s finest “burnt rice coffee” from the remains of blackened rice stuck to the bottom of the pot of the previous night’s rice and vegetable dinner. We shared my bread rolls, dunking them in Frederico’s charred brew, which tasted better to me than drinking it straight from the cup.

Swift Jungle March

We got underway, following Angeles up, down, and up the mountains at a fast pace in hopes of reaching the final summit before nightfall. Angeles moved as silently as a shadow, was aware of everything, and spoke sparingly in soft tones. He seemed incapable of forming a smile, and shrank away from strangers, much like the makahiya (to be shy) plant, which magically curled its leaves shut as our legs brushed against it on the trail. As Frederico pointed to each new plant, Angeles told him its name and its use in a whisper, as if afraid the spirits of the forest would hear him reveal their secrets. One plant’s leaves, he told us, were used as an antibiotic salve; another mint-flavored, crushed stem was good to clean your teeth; a certain chopped and crushed nut produced a paste to poison fish in the river, causing them to float to the surface where they could be caught by hand. My respect for his stamina and intelligence grew as we ascended the mountain. His lean physique was all sinew and muscle, his mind alert and perceptive. He roamed the forest like a cat with knowing eyes constantly scanning his environment. The jungle had taught him to move without announcement. His innate bush sense marked Angeles as purely aboriginal.

We hiked and climbed upward over rocks through tangled jungle on a fast pace with little rest. We finally stopped in a driving rain at the base of a crumbling vertical stone cliff that had us boxed in between two impassable ravines. The summit stood close now, just 200 feet of unassailable cliff face above us. Although the peak of Guiting-Guiting is a moderate 6,750 feet in elevation, when you begin your ascent at sea level and have to pass over several only slightly lesser peaks to reach it, your body then realizes you are climbing one enormous mountain. I hadn’t known when we began our trek that the mountaintop was unreachable from this side of the island. I doubt Angeles had expected me to free climb that sheer rock wall. Instead, he probably led us to the dead-end because he attached no importance to standing exactly on top of the peak itself and didn’t realize why a goal-driven foreigner needed to reach such a meaningless objective.

Later, I was told of a shorter and safer route beginning at the town of Magdiwang on the opposite side of the island. But even from there, the final ascent is filled with sections of treacherous rock climbing. The elusive summit of Guiting-Guiting had remained unclimbed until a group of mountaineers finally reached the peak just a few years before my own attempt.

The Lost Bomber

Several days after descending the mountain, I sailed away from Sibuyan. Two years later, I was drawn to sail back to the island after receiving a letter from Frederico that the wreckage of a long-lost WWII bomber had been discovered on the mountain. A report from the scene of the discovery would be a compelling addition to my series of magazine articles on the Philippines. Even without a journalistic excuse, I would have sailed back there to satisfy my own curiosity. To be paid even a small amount to indulge my wandering whims and to share the story was the ultimate joy of travel.

On my second visit to Sibuyan, I learned from the mayor that a couple of months previously, sleepy San Fernando had awakened with a flurry of activity when four officers visited them from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. Their mission had been to recover and identify the remains of the crew of an American B-25 bomber lost during WWII. The mayor had notified them of it immediately after Braulio Rollon had discovered the wreckage. He had found the wreck high up the flanks of Mt. Guiting-Guiting, not far from where his cousin Angeles had led us on my previous visit to the island.

The mayor showed me a signed receipt from the American team for items he had turned over to them, including “one boot, assorted bones, four pistols, one elbow joint, one radio transmitter,” and other items that had been brought down from the site before the officials arrived. Although the army team members were thwarted from completing their search of the area by heavy monsoon rains, they did recover more bones and a couple of dog tags that identified the plane’s crew. The plane and its skeleton crew had lain undisturbed for 47 years. But once news of the wreck had spread around the island, a few treasure hunters willing to tackle the treacherous mountain took other items from the site. Despite pleas from the mayor, anything portable and of use was taken for local recycling. For example, bullet tips containing hardened steel were reshaped to equip the island’s fighting cocks with spurs, and aircraft aluminum had found its way into the construction of the local fishing boats.

When I expressed an interest in seeing the wreck site for myself, the mayor said that it was too difficult a journey for him to repeat but that if I went back to Taclobo Village, Brother Frederico would again find me a guide. At the mission, Frederico told me he had also been awaiting an opportunity to visit the bomber wreck. Without hesitation, he packed his bag, and we set off on foot together up the mountain in search of our guide.

We climbed back up to the village of Layag where we chanced to meet 30-year-old Braulio Rollon, who had discovered the plane wreck. He greeted us silently, looking us over carefully, judging if we were tough enough to keep up with him on the mountain trek or were just soft tourists who would be too weak to make the round trip. He warned us that it would require three days of difficult walking and climbing, often without trails to follow. At last he agreed to guide us to the wreck site.

On our first day we followed the same route up the Catingas River that we had taken two years previously. Carrying his hunting rifle in one hand, cooking pot in the other hand, and our heaviest pack on his back, the sure-footed Braulio led us away from the river up a steep path of loose rocks bound in place by vines and tree roots. Despite his cumbersome load, this 30-year-old expert woodsman moved swiftly and silently, stopping only to let us catch up. We passed men coming down the trail dragging bundles of hardwood planks from trees they had felled higher up. Frederico pointed out new areas of illegally cleared land that had been virgin forest during my previous visit. “I have been warned and threatened not to speak of this destruction of the habitat,” he said solemnly. “But how can I ignore it? What will happen to us when this beautiful forest is gone and the erosion has turned our rivers to mud?”

 

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Children along the Catingas River

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Giude Braulio Rollon and Frederico

At our campsite, Braulio lit a fire to cook a pot of rice soup and dried dog meat. I took a bowl full and picked out the bits of stringy dog flesh to give to my friends to eat. I was, after all, still vegetarian. Frederico smiled a sly grin, eyebrows bobbing twice, as he pulled a bottle of “Herbal Wine” from his pack. The label said: Gives pep and life to the body. It is also good for anemics and nursing mothers. It will also help convalescents. Ingredients: 51 proof alcohol and Chinese herbs. Frederico believed it also to be a suitable tonic for a mountaineering Catholic brother. The two men passed the bottle between them until it was empty. The wine put my friends into a quick and sound sleep. I followed them after listening for a few hours to the unidentified croaks, grunts, and songs of the jungle creatures and the wind rustling the forest canopy overhead.

The next morning we discovered that bush rats had torn through our bags during the night, ripping apart and ruining the rice and all the other foods we had brought. Braulio acted unconcerned, telling us not to worry because the forest would provide the food we needed. Like his cousin Angeles, he knew this forest intimately and intuitively. For his entire life he had foraged in the mountains and was able to survive extended periods in the bush with only his bolo and rifle, consuming only the food that capricious nature provided. Obviously, he was more used to the hardships of living in the forest with a nearly empty belly than we well-fed lowlanders were, but we pressed on regardless.

Several times Braulio stopped to check or set traps made of logs and vines ingeniously lashed together to trap wild monkeys when they reached for the fruit bait. When the traps failed and he lacked bullets for his gun, Braulio assured us his stealthy approach occasionally allowed him to catch a monkey barehanded. In a clearing on a mountain pass we found long bamboo poles with thorny branches lashed to their ends. At night, the Mangyan hunters used these giant fly swatters to knock bats out of the air as they swooped low over the hill’s saddle. “Monkeys and bats roasted over a fire taste very good with rice,” Frederico assured me. Two days later I became hungry enough to have happily devoured a roasted bat or monkey. Fortunately for the wildlife, Frederico and I were making far too much noise bashing through the undergrowth for our guide to shoot anything.

On our third day out, not far below the summit of Guiting-Guiting, Braulio casually warned us not to trip over an unexploded bomb that was partially hidden in the brush directly in front of us. A few steps ahead lay another unexploded bomb some salvagers had trussed up in bamboo and vines to haul down the mountain. Perhaps it proved too heavy for them, or they had thought twice about bouncing a 200-pound bomb down the rocky trail. A few cautious steps later we entered an eerie-looking scene of contorted aluminum wreckage, scattered machine guns and engine parts, all partially wrapped in the rain-soaked vegetation. Lifting up a piece of loose fuselage we found a leather bag that held a pistol, some old coins, and disintegrating leaflets that read, “MacArthur keeps his Pledge” and “MacArthur has Returned.” During the war, thousands of these leaflets had been dropped over cities in the path of advancing U.S. forces in order to bolster the Filipino resistance against the Japanese invaders. I imagined a bombardier shouting, “You’ve got mail!” as he pushed the bags out the bomb bay doors.

Some in the American press at the time claimed MacArthur’s arrogant statement, “I shall return,” should have been “We shall return.” But back then, for many Filipinos, MacArthur was a loved and respected father figure. It was more important to them to know that he, rather than the American forces in general, had kept his pledge to return and liberate them from the Japanese menace. The Filipino people rallied to support him to a degree no other commander or Washington politician has ever experienced.

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The Blonde Bomber, a B25 similar to one found in Sibuyan
(courtesy www.aerothentic.com)

On the predawn morning of January 9, 1945, 22-year-old Lieutenant Wallace Chalifoux of the U.S. Fifth Air Force piloted his Mitchell B-25 bomber off an airstrip on Leyte Island. He and the other five young men in his crew were bound towards Luzon’s Lingayan Gulf to support the U.S. troop landings there. The B-25 was a devastating weapon for strafing and bombing. She was powered by twin 1,850-hp engines on her 67-foot wingspan, was armed with twelve .50-cal. machine guns, and carried up to 6,000 lbs. of bombs.

In correspondence that I later had with Wally’s relatives, I learned that the boy had recently graduated from high school in Chicago when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. As soon as he could, he volunteered for flight training school and was then sent to the war in the Pacific. I can imagine the excitement the young men experienced as they lifted off for their bombing mission: the thrilling roar and vibration from the massive engines, the watchful gunner manning his machine-gun turret, and the final moment of terror when the cloud-shrouded Mt. Guiting-Guiting suddenly appeared through the mist in front of them. The official record of the crash states that another pilot in this 17-plane bomber group reported seeing two bright flashes appear near the peak of Mt. Guiting‑Guiting. If so, I wondered why a search had not been made here after the war ended. It was incredible bad luck that the plane hit just a couple of hundred feet below the top of the highest peak in the region. If it had flown a slightly higher or slightly different course, the men would have slipped harmlessly past the peak to face the other hazards of war, perhaps even surviving these final months of war to return home to their families. Now that their remains had finally been brought home for the long-delayed burial, the airmen’s fate was no longer a mystery.

   

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The author and B25 machine gun

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Braulio finds an unexploded bomb

That evening we prepared to bivouac in a windy driving rain. Our camp perched on a 45-degree slope under the minimal shelter of a twisted airplane wing. Frederico asked if I thought it was dangerous to be surrounded by all these unexploded bombs. “If they haven’t blown up from the impact of hitting the mountain, I don’t suppose they’re likely to go off now,” I said. “But I wouldn’t build a fire too close to one.” I knew the wind and rain made that impossible anyway.

Braulio seemed to be searching for something in particular when Brother Frederico asked what he was looking for. Hearing his reply, he turned to me shaking his head and said, “Susmariyosup! (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!) He’s looking for the leg bone he used as a pillow the last time he had slept here.” Apparently sleeping that close with the dead was not one of the many superstitions held by our mountain man.

We spent a miserable night shivering together under a crumpled airplane wing on that pitched, rocky slope. With sleep all but impossible, we talked through most of the night. Now that we had gained his trust, the reticent Braulio began to share with us some of the legends and beliefs of the mountain people. He believed that the mountain spirits maliciously draw climbers to the summit where they become lost in the cold mists and eventually die of hunger. (I thought “So now he tells us.”) He went on to relate how, in 1985, four climbers had died when the ravine they camped in turned into a thundering waterfall on a stormy night. (Another disturbing thought as the rain poured down on us.) The spirits were not all malevolent and sometimes fell in love with and protected those people who respected her rules. Even before the discovery of the bomber, the locals believed the mountain contained a kind of giant magnet that affects electronic instruments, causing aircraft to crash. Several years before my visit here, for example, a Philippines Air Force plane had been wrecked on the mountain. Another B-25 bomber, the Lazy Daisy Mae, was supposedly lost somewhere near the island and has yet to be found.

Witches, Boars, and Pythons

Apart from wild boars, Braulio claimed the only dangerous creatures on the island were the pythons that he believed were responsible for the occasional disappearance of children in the forest. He went on to explain that when the mountain people come down with a serious illness, it is frequently ascribed to kilkig (poisoning by someone practicing witchcraft). The only antidote is to drink an infusion of a certain type of boiled root of a plant that grows on the highest peaks. Throughout these islands, traditional healers were still sought out in preference to modern medicine, even by many of the devout Catholics in the cities. On Sibuyan, brass shell casings salvaged from the bomber’s machine gun bullets had been fashioned into rings, which locals wore on their fingers to protect them against the “witches and black fairies” that inhabit the island.

The constant rain and cold wind and our growing hunger forced us to leave the wreck site the next morning. Frederico kept asking Braulio why he hadn’t caught or shot anything for food yet. Obviously frustrated from listening to the same complaint over and over again, Braulio told him with uncharacteristic bluntness, “I can’t hunt with you two chattering like a pair of excited monkeys and scaring the game away. Even when you stop talking you crash through the bush as noisily as two carabaos [water buffalo].”

In our haste to find food we gave up all pretense of being hunter-gatherers. We practically ran down the mountain. We stopped only to sip the rainwater, complete with drowned insects that had collected in the cup-shaped vessels of the carnivorous pitcher plants. If Braulio had shot a monkey at this point I’d have eaten it raw on the spot. If you want to go adventuring, extremes and discomfort are your common company. By now we’d experienced everything you might expect on a mountain trek―biting ants and blood-sucking leeches, the cold rain and wind, rocky terrain, jungle overgrowth―plus the added torment of hunger and thirst.

Señior Recto’s Stew; Sleep Beneath the Monkey Skulls

In the evening twilight that comes early in the mountain-shaded river canyon, we stumbled up to a nipa hut beside the Catingas River. There we met Señior Salvador Recto who, seeing our wretched condition, kindly invited us into the hut to rest. Exhausted and starved from our trek, we were unable to carry on the usual small talk. Like pushy Hong Kong diners, we practically brushed him aside and sat in a semi-circle on the bamboo slat floor and focused on the pot next to the cooking fire. The middle-aged Señior Recto handed Frederico the pot. We each dove hands into the pot together and pulled out a handful of sticky rice, stuffing it into our mouths. Our host then passed around another blackened iron pot, and we each in turn slurped up an unidentifiable stew from a wooden laddle. A long row of monkey skulls stared down at us from a shelf on the wall. The stew tasted so wonderful after a nearly three-day fast that I never thought to ask what had gone into it. When I offered payment, Señior Recto just smiled and shook his head from side to side. Too exhausted to move and unable to continue anyway in the approaching darkness, we dropped into sleep where we sat. Señior Recto’s wife and two children had run off as soon as we had arrived, and they stayed away the entire night at a relative’s hut somewhere further down the river. This is the humanity of the jungle people; if strangers appear at your doorless house, feed them, let them rest, and make room for them by sending the children away.

The next afternoon, the children at Frederico’s orphan mission prepared a meal for us as we soaked sore muscles in the pool under the waterfall. Frederico and I pondered the plight of the Mangyan we had met. Logging and mining companies posed an imminent threat to their way of life. Like the American airmen who had crashed here, the Mangyans seemed poised to perish within those mountains of lost souls. Perhaps more people like Frederico would awaken the local population to the need for conservation of these last remaining wild places before it’s too late. An island is a fragile microcosm, and what was happening on Sibuyan represented what is happening to Earth, an island in space. We are a global society comprised of two cultures: those like the Mangyans who take only what they really need to survive and the rest of us “lowlander” types, who take all we can get, leaving nothing to sustain island Earth.

Though I soon sailed on to discover other alluring islands, I have ever since felt the pull of Sibuyan’s magnet. In quiet moments my memories of Sibuyan’s generous people in their sanctuary of wildness still call to me. I hope my friends there and their children had the chance to go on with their lives undisturbed.

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Parts of a leaflet (back and front) stating "MacArthur Has Returned"
and "MacArthur Keeps His Pledge" we found in the wreckage.