Gus Breymann's Home Page: A Sabah Journey - Part III

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Malaysia: Peace Corps Malaysia : The Peace Corps in Malaysia: Gus Breymann's Home Page: A Sabah Journey - Part III

By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, December 31, 2002 - 11:12 pm: Edit Post

A Sabah Journey - Part III

A Sabah Journey - Part III

Watching an erupting volcano is another of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that becomes etched indelibly in one's memory. Taal Volcano, due south of Manila, exploded into action several times in 1969 and 1970. I remember flying into Manila from the south at night and seeing the volcano's lava fountain shooting straight up more than a thousand feet as we flew past at a safe distance. It was an unbelievably powerful sight.

On another occasion, my friend Charlie Marcantonio and I decided to get a closer view of volcanic activity. With some Filipino friends, we rented a banca on the shores of Lake Taal and took the small boat to the volcanic island in the middle of the lake. I will never forget that the Filipino banca owner thought we were foolish for wanting to walk up to the fire pit. He remained behind with his boat---ready for a quick escape---while Charlie and I and our two friends walked up the cinder slopes to the cauldron. We were the only four humans on the volcano cone. It certainly was not a tourist destination.

Although Taal was not erupting in a high fountain like the one I had seen from the PAL airliner months earlier, it was still erupting violently. As we walked upslope to the fire pit, black showers of cinders rained down on us. The entire small volcanic cone was quaking constantly beneath our feet; it was like walking on Jello.

We stayed at the very edge of the cauldron as long as the noxious gases would permit. In small explosions, large clots of lava were ejected upward above our heads and then fell back into the fire pit. We looked down into the pit and witnessed one of those red hot magma flows that one would normally expect to see in a "National Geographic" television special. Eventually, the sulfurous odor became unbearable, and the four of us made our way back to the boat.

Visiting Taal's glowing hot cauldron was a wonderfully risky experience that became one of the highlights of my time in the Philippines---and of a lifetime.

I was born two months before the United States entered World War Two. It is not remarkable, therefore, that I should have had a particular fascination for the war in the Pacific. In Pasay City, I lived within walking distance of Rizal Stadium, where there was horrific combat between Japanese and American troops in 1945. I visited Clark AFB twice to pick up Peace Corps medical supplies. Clark Field, where our Army Air Forces had been caught on the ground and virtually obliterated on December 8, 1941. From our offices in the Ramon Magsaysay Building, I could see Bataan and Corregidor, where American forces had fought valiantly until May, 1942. Almost daily, I drove past the Manila Hotel where MacArthur had had his penthouse, and past the Army-Navy Club, where American airmen had honored General Lewis Brereton, the head of air forces in the Far East, the night before the Japanese bombed Clark Field. I frequented the same jai alai fronton that American soldiers and airmen had visited while everyone waited for the inevitable war to break out. In Cagayan de Oro, a rebuilt P-51 stood as a sentinel near the end of the municipal airport runway. In suburban Manila, I visited the beautiful Pacific War Cemetery where one of the memorial tablets contained an inscription in memory of my uncle, Captain Gustave M. Heiss, Jr., a hero in the early days of the war.

In the 1960s, one could not live in Asia without being reminded of the War.

Author Eric Morris calls Corregidor Island in Manila Bay the "American Alamo of World War Two." Having visited the Alamo many times as a youth, perhaps it was the analogy between two military defeats that drew me to the tadpole- shaped island.

It was not easy to get to Corregidor in 1969 or 1970. There were occasional hydrofoil trips out to the island from a small dock along Roxas Boulevard, but the schedule was undependable. Still, I made three trips to the former island fortress while I lived in Manila. I wanted to see the last bastion of America's defense against the Japanese in 1942. I wanted to see Malinta Tunnel, where MacArthur had his headquarters until President Roosevelt ordered him to move to Australia. I wanted to see the huge gun emplacements that had been built in the early 1900s, only to be found completely useless against the Japanese onslaught from Bataan in 1942. I wanted to see Kindley Field, the small airport along the north shore of Corregidor from which numerous Americans escaped in small aircraft while Corregidor was under siege. I wanted to see the South Dock, where General MacArthur had launched his PT-boat escape to Mindanao and then to Australia.

I accomplished all these goals and more. I saw the devastation that had been inflicted on Topside, Middleside, and Bottomside, still evident twenty-five years after the end of the war. I walked the dusty roads and trails of much of the island, wondering what it must have been like for all the troops---and airmen like those of the 27th Bombardment Group---who were captured there after the outbreak of the war and who were eventually shipped back to Bataan by their captors, a prelude the long Death March. I stood on the steps of the former USAFFE headquarters near the battered flagpole (still standing) from which the Japanese had removed the American flag in 1942, and upon which the Americans had hoisted their flag again in 1945. I stared northward across the channel to the southern tip of Bataan. Each visit to the island was an emotional experience, and each fueled my continuing interest in World War Two in the Pacific.

I also had another, much smaller, motive for tromping around the island. I had heard much earlier that President Marcos was training special troops on Corregidor for an eventual invasion of Sabah, upon which the Philippines had a longstanding claim. Since I had lived in Sabah for four years, I had a special, albeit naive, interest in tracing down the truth of that rumor. Of course, I could find no evidence of the training of Special Forces anywhere on the island, but the rumor did motivate me.

Footnote: Considering all my off-road hiking on Corregidor, there was at least one place I did not visit. Officially and unofficially, this place did not even exist. But its remains were there, and we just did not know it in the late 1960s. It became generally known only in the 1990s that one of the key wartime intelligence gathering and decryption centers in the Pacific was located on Corregidor. Known as "Station CAST", this underground facility at Monkey Point is said to have played a huge role in decrypting the Japanese "Purple" diplomatic code and the "5-Num" Japanese naval code well before December 7, 1941. Much of the information about the success of the wartime codebreakers at Station CAST is still classified despite repeated FOIA requests by serious researchers.

Recent revelations about the speed with which the U. S.could read both these crypto systems on Corregidor in 1940 and 1941 raise intriguing new questions about how much forewarning President Roosevelt had about the exact date and location of the Pearl Harbor attack. Robert B. Stinnett explains the importance of Station CAST in his very controversial 1999 book, Day of Deceit . The author concludes that FDR had plenty of forewarning, and he alleges that the President actually instigated the Pearl Harbor attack beginning with a series of White House decisions in 1940. Stinnett also raises the equally intriguing question how much forewarning General MacArthur had before the surprise Japanese attacks on the Philippines beginning December 8. He does not attempt to answer that question directly, however.

If I ever return to Corregidor, I hope to see whatever remains of Station CAST.

In the early years of the Peace Corps, its relationship with other agencies and departments of the U. S. Government inside a host country were often formal and distant. This was due in part to fiat (Secretary of State Dean Rusk's directive to embassies about the Peace Corps), but in larger part to the natural inclination of Peace Corps volunteers and staff members to conscientiously carry out a very different, personal mission in a host country. While Peace Corps maintained an arms-length relationship with the embassy in many cases, it was nonetheless dependent on the embassy for fiscal services and cable communications around the world. Officially, Peace Corps was part of what was known as the embassy's "country team." The Peace Corps country director was designated as the agency's representative whenever the country team gathered for periodic meetings with the ambassador.

It was a reciprocal situation: State Department officials in embassies maintained a generally distant relationship with the Peace Corps as well. Sometimes it was disdain among older career Foreign Service Officers for the intrusion of the upstart agency into a host country, and sometimes it was because of a genuine desire to let volunteers do their jobs in kampongs and barrios as President Kennedy and Sargent Shriver had intended.

The Peace Corps country director asked me to attend country team meetings twice in his absence. Before one meeting, small talk revolved around Ambassador Henry Byroade's hobby of restoring antique automobiles and his need for a particular implement for his work. Everyone was anxious to assist him locate the tool.

The ambassador never entered until everyone else was properly seated. When he did walk in, the room snapped to attention. Byroade was a career diplomat and was one of few with the title A.E.P.: Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, meaning that he had the power of independent action as ambassador. He was the longest-serving American ambassador to the Philippines to date, and he had a very close relationship with Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, by all accounts. The ambassador, an Army war hero, was a highly respected, gruff, no-nonsense person, acting as the president's personal representative in a country that, at that time, was strategically important to the United States. (If memory serves correctly, Byroade had been ambassador in Egypt at the time of the Suez Crisis. He had also been instrumental in the rise to power of the Shah of Iran.)

Assigned seating was the order of the day at country team meetings. Peculiarly, the Peace Corps' assigned seat was immediately to the left of the CIA station chief's seat. I swear that on both occasions I attended a country team meeting, the station chief kept peering over my shoulder to observe my doodling. It was not just my imagination.

One of the shadowy characters who sat along the wall in the small box of a room was said to have had primary responsibility for satisfying all of Imelda Marcos's whims---and she had many. I cannot verify that assistant's role personally, but his unique relationship with the Marcoses and his murky role within the embassy is detailed in several pages of Raymond Bonner's excellent 1987 book, Waltzing with a Dictator: The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy.

Those were times when there was a great deal of anti-American sentiment in the Philippines, especially among young Filipinos. Large, noisy protests outside the embassy gates on Roxas Boulevard were frequent. More than once, I was responsible for rounding up all the Peace Corps staff vehicles in Manila and herding them into a safe, locked compound where they would be out of harm's way during violent protests.

At one country team meeting, the ambassador chuckled and asked the head of the administrative section to describe how it had been discovered that some of the wall-mounted fire hoses in the chancellery had be found slit with a sharp knife. The implication was, of course, that anti-American sentiment had found its way inside the guarded grounds. Not good news for the Marine Guards or for the embassy's security apparatus.

At the other meeting, the embassy's chief political officer, another distinguished career diplomat, questioned me unmercifully about whether I had read an unflattering article about Peace Corps/Philippines that had appeared in a local scandal magazine. I replied meekly that I had not read the article, which fueled his anger.

In hindsight, I might have replied tactfully that reviewing what the rags were saying about one aspect of the American presence in the country was a much more appropriate task for embassy staff than for Peace Corps staff. WE had a different mission, and political analysis was in his territory, not mine. Clearly, he was antagonistic and I was not welcome at the meeting, probably because of my relative youth and professional immaturity. The political officer later advanced to an ambassadorship in Malaysia and ended a successful career in the Foreign Service.

Sometime in early 1970, I flew down to Cagayan de Oro to visit Bob Smith, the Peace Corps regional director on northern Mindanao. In the middle of the night at Bob's home, everyone was awakened by a sudden cacophony of animal sounds. All the dogs began barking. All the roosters began crowing. We were witnessing a phenomenon that has been experienced and reported in other locations at other times. Somehow, all these animals sensed---before we lesser humans did--- that an earthquake was underway. Shortly after the animals woke us up, we felt the tremors. It was not a major disaster, but it had enough force to frighten the animals.

In Manila at work one day, we did experience a major earthquake. Many of the ceiling tiles in our large administrative office were jarred from their grids and fell on staff members' desks. The Filipino staff knew what to do and dived under their desks. The tremor lasted a long time. After it ended, I peered out my eighth floor window, only to see people pouring out of buildings beneath us. I noticed that many of them were looking up at our building as they fled theirs. The Ramon Magsaysay Building, where we were located, had been built on a "floating foundation" and was supposed to have been the first earthquake-proof building in Manila ( built in the mid 1960s). It was living up to its architectural design reputation. We were still swaying back and forth, causing all those below up to look up in wonder. We barred the elevators, cleared the debris from our desks, and led all the staff down the stairways so that they could go home to assure that their families were safe.

In Pasay City, I lived in Apartment 5-A at 275 Menlo Road in a building known extravagantly as "Gomez Mansions." My landlady was Pacita de Gomez, an elderly, kind, and aristocratic woman. The pre-war building was four stories tall, and my modest apartment was very comfortable, roomy and airy. I really loved that place!

A narrow balcony afforded a view to the south and east of metropolitan Manila. Within walking distance a few blocks to the west was Imelda Marcos's brand new cultural center, built on reclaimed land in Manila Bay. (I attended the grand opening ceremony of the Cultural Center, which featured the London Philharmonic Symphony.) Also near the apartment was Rizal Stadium, the site of horrific atrocities and battles between Japanese and American forces at the end of World War II.

A driveway separated my apartment building from another structure that was the identical twin of mine. Together, our two buildings were surrounded by a high wall and a guarded gate on Menlo Road. One of the occupants of the twin building was Benjamin "Kokoy" Romualdez, the brother of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines. We never saw much of Kokoy because he was serving as the Philippines ambassador to the United States at the time. On at least one occasion, however, his children and their cousins, the Marcos children, gathered in the compound to play.

It was during one such get-together that the children were allowed to enter my apartment while I was at work. I had a part-time maid, Demi, who was the social butterfly of Gomez Mansions. She befriended many of the servants and tenants and became particularly friendly with the young children in the compound. She had no compunction about allowing her friends to enter my apartment as long as she was present. It didn't bother me, either.

As it happened, President Marcos was running for re-election in 1969. He had adopted the American practice of distributing campaign bumper stickers. The red, white, and blue banner chosen by his aides that year was very much in evidence on Jeepneys in the crowded streets of Manila.

Unfortunately for me, the children who played in the compound had appropriated a large number of the President's campaign materials. When I came home from work one evening, the walls, curtains, furniture, and art work in my apartment had been plastered with Marcos bumper stickers. Demi thought it was very funny, but it was she who wound up removing all those very sticky items from the walls. She laughed her way through the chore she had created for herself. I must confess that I thought the sight of so many Marcos campaign stickers inside this American's apartment was amusing, too.

One of the campaign stickers could not be removed from a very nice framed painting in the living room, and it remains firmly affixed to that frame in a Michigan basement storage room more than thirty years later.

Ferdinand Marcos was re-elected, setting the stage for an even stronger dictatorship and his proclamation of martial law throughout the Philippines in 1972.

Kokoy Romualdez was implicated by Raymond Bonner and others as a top conspirator in the very public murder of presidential aspirant Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino at Manila International Airport in 1983. Romualdez was not indicted or tried, however, and others have also been identified as the putative brains behind Aquino's terrible murder. It was Ninoy's assassination that ultimately brought down the Marcos dictatorship in 1986.

By Jhez ( on Thursday, March 11, 2004 - 11:59 pm: Edit Post

wla bang conspirator ni Marcos dito sa site na 'to??pls. klangan lang nmin 4 our termpaper

By Mac McGuinness ( - on Thursday, March 18, 2004 - 6:32 am: Edit Post

I served in the British Army in Sabah from 1962 - 1965. During that time I met a number of Peace Corps Volunteers based in Jessleton. One in particular I'm trying to locate is Tom Belina. There were others, Lenny Kampf and Sam Adams to name but two. Any ideas how I can locate them. We all pre-date the personal computer age and e-mailwas just a distant dream.

By Anonymous ( on Monday, April 14, 2008 - 1:25 pm: Edit Post

I am a current resident of Gomez Mansions and am residing in 5A. Just wanted to say how nice it is that I was able to learn a few things from this. Thank You.

By Eric Tabb ( on Thursday, April 07, 2011 - 11:01 pm: Edit Post

I am trying to contact Charlie Marcantonio, whom I knew at the Merrill-Palmer Institute in Detroit, Michigan. I understand that Charlie made a career with the Peace Corps.

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