Memorial Day in Manila

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Manila American Cemetery

Memorial Day is almost here. I initially wanted to write something about the Arlington National Cemetery given that this is probably number one association most people make with commemorating this day. But there is another special place I want to talk about – a place I didn’t know existed until recently – the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines. The Cemetery is located in Taguig, Metro Manila, and occupies 152 meticulously landscaped acres on a high plateau overlooking the city. It contains the graves of over 17,200 soldiers who died in WWII fighting in the Philippines and New Guinea, which makes it the largest U.S. military burial site of that war. The horrors of the bloody 1941-42 Battle of the Philippines and the triumph of the eventual Allied recapture of the islands from the Japanese come together in this place like nowhere else. General MacArthur said “I shall return” when, defeated, he was fleeing Bataan. He kept his word but it took enormous sacrifice of American and Filipino troops to fulfill that promise.

For anyone who has been to the Arlington Cemetery this place looks oddly familiar. Same gleaming white headstones stretching in long, even rows. Same manicured, lush lawns. Same serenity and silence. But tropical trees and flowers break the spell, with sweet plumeria scent in the air.

It was somewhat strange to see plumeria in this setting. I’m used to seeing plumerias in Hawaiian leis where the flowers symbolize perfection and springtime’s new beginnings but in many Pacific countries they also mean mourning. That is why plumeria is commonly planted at cemeteries and its flowers placed on grave sites, including here.

The Cemetery’s focal point is the chapel, a white masonry building with two large hemicycles radiating from each side of it. The chapel features an impressive mosaic-adorned altar with a tall female figure scattering white flowers against blue background, beautifully illuminated by natural light seeping through the openings above. The inscription reads, “To their memory their country brings its gratitude as flowers forever living.”

The hemicycles are the Wall of Missing that consists of engraved stone tablets honoring 36,286 soldiers missing in action. For me it was a true Arizona Memorial déjà vu, except for more servicemen from the Philippines than from Pennsylvania.

Then there are the maps: ten-foot-high mosaic maps inside four rooms integrated into the hemicycle walls. They picture key American WWII campaigns in the Pacific, China, Burma, and India.

The floors feature carved seals of the U.S. states and territories – and, I was happy to see, District of Columbia.

RIP warriors

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