On February 23, 1942, Seventy-five years ago as I write, Melville and Annalee Jacoby crossed the two-mile-wide channel between the fortress island of Corregidor and the besieged Bataan Peninsula for the last time. There, there would wait until sundown when a small inter-island freighter, the Princesa de Cebu, arrived in the channel, ready to sneak through the Japanese blockade surrounding the Philippines' largest island, Luzon. Their hope: escape to unoccupied portions of the Philippines and then, if they were lucky, find another ship through Japanese waters to allied territory. Here is the story of that night as told in the bestselling book, Eve of a Hundred Midnights:
“We sit by the side of a Bataan roadway waiting,” Mel wrote as he and Annalee absorbed their last moments on the peninsula amid a thick knot of banyan trees near the shore. “Our visions of past months of war are vivid, clouded only momentarily during this waiting by thick sheets of Bataan dust rolling off the road every time a car or truck races by. We wonder for a moment when we will return—and how.”
Finally, escape was in sight. At dusk, a launch would arrive to take the Jacobys to the Princesa de Cebu. That ship, they hoped, would then slip past enemy patrols at the mouth of Manila Bay and carry the reporters through the Philippines—possibly even farther across treacherous, Japanese-controlled sea-lanes and on to refuge in Australia, thousands of miles to the south.
Through a pair of binoculars borrowed from a soldier on the Bataan coast, Mel peered south toward Manila. He thought he could see the rising sun of the Japanese flag fluttering over the Manila Hotel, the same place where he’d had his last Christmas dinner, where Annalee had danced with Russell Brines and Clark Lee had urged Mel to flee the Philippines. He knew that Carl and Shelley were somewhere beneath that fluttering crimson-and-white banner. A reliable confidential source had told Mel that the Mydanses were among the thousands in captivity at Manila’s Santo Tomas University, which the Japanese had turned into an internment camp. However, it had been a month since that report.
That day Mel and Annalee felt as “impregnable as the mountain,” almost invincible “for the first time in this war.” Finally, they were leaving, Mel wrote, recalling people and moments from his six weeks on Corregidor and Bataan. Leaving everything. Leaving General Douglas MacArthur. Leaving the general’s trusted lieutenants, who had become their friends. Leaving the scores of men they’d met at the front whose stories had yet to be told. They were leaving all of them behind, “most of all the scared Pennsylvania soldier who ran the first time he heard [Japanese] fire but who braved machine gun fire the second time to carry his officer off the field.”
As the Jacobys walked along the tree trail, a Jeep carrying two officers skidded into the dirt. The noise and dust shook Annalee and Mel back into the moment. They stood up and greeted the officers. It was the first time Mel really registered the weariness on the faces of those fighting in Bataan. Despite the fatigue in their eyes, neither officer mentioned their exhaustion. Instead, they chatted casually, sharing rumors and battlefield legends until the soldiers finally drove off a few minutes later. Mel and Annalee again turned to thoughts more hopeful than the soldiers’ exhaustion. Like thoughts of ice cream sodas. Could they ever taste as good as they imagined?
Finally, the sun began to set. It was time.
The couple ran back toward the shore along the tree trails. One path led to the last American planes remaining in the Philippines, the rickety trainers, a couple of obsolete fighters, the P-40 so “full of holes.” The planes were hidden next to an airstrip that resembled a hiking trail more than a runway.
Mel and Annalee were barraged by memories at each turn. They passed anti-aircraft batteries, a motor pool, a machine shop, even a bakery (though one that had never had bread to bake) and a makeshift abattoir where first caribou, then mules, then even monkeys were slaughtered for the soldiers’ meals.
Across the narrow channel from Bataan, Clark Lee had finished wrapping up his own affairs on Corregidor, and now he was waiting for the Jacobys at the same dock on the island’s north side where the trio had come ashore on New Year’s Day. He did bring a typewriter, as well as a razor, a toothbrush, and a change of clothes.
The Princesa approached at dusk, slowly steaming westward. They boarded and were greeted by four British and two American civilians who had received field commissions after fleeing from Manila to Bataan. They had boarded the Princesa from a separate launch earlier. Among them was Lew Carson, a Shanghai-based executive for Reliance Motors hired by the army to help manage its motor pool, and Charles Van Landing-ham, a former banker who escaped to Bataan on a tiny sailboat on New Year’s Eve. Also a contributor to the Saturday Evening Post, Van Landingham was struck by how deceptively peaceful the green jungles of Bataan looked as he left.
“It was hard to realize that under that leafy canopy thousands of hollow-eyed, half-sick men stood by their guns, fighting on grimly in the hope that help would come before it was too late,” Van Landingham wrote.
Its lights dark, the Princesa slowly made its way into mine-laden Manila Bay. Huge searchlights on Fortuna Island scanned the sky above the island as its “ack-ack” guns—anti-aircraft artillery—fired at Japanese bombers. The darkness gave way momentarily to the glow of the guns’ tracers, which lit the passengers’ faces. Then night returned across the ship’s deck.
From Corregidor, a searchlight swept the coast in front of the Princesa. A small, fast torpedo boat appeared and led the ship through the mines, barely visible but for the path carved by its wake. The craft was skillfully piloted by Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley, who provided a few minutes of covering fire while guiding the Princesa toward the mouth of Manila Bay. Then, in a final farewell gesture, Bulkeley flashed the torpedo boat’s starboard light and roared back to Bataan, leaving nothing but darkness in his wake.
Night on the Pacific washed across the Princesa. Only the distant flash of Japanese artillery punctuated the dark. The ship’s two masts bobbed beneath what Mel’s eyes found to be a “too bright moon.” This was the same moon the soldiers on Bataan prayed would descend quickly, lest even a quick glint of its light across a shining service rifle’s barrel draw a sniper’s bullet. Now the moon cursed the Princesa. The nearby shore was dark, but everyone aboard the Princesa knew it crawled with enemy forces. They silently watched the passing islands. Each lurch of the ship tied the passengers’ stomachs in a “tight feeling.”
A crew member snapped a chicken’s neck. The reporters jumped at the bird’s sudden, loud squawk.
It was just dinner, but everyone crossed their fingers.
“Sure, we’ll make it,” someone said. “Easy.”
All three reporters rapped their fists on the wooden deck.
Nobody slept. Everyone kept watch, fearful of missing even the briefest moment of movement. Finally out of Manila Harbor, the ship maneuvered toward the southeast and crept through the darkness along Batangas, on the Luzon coast south of Manila.
Thousands of miles, countless inlets and islands, circling recon planes, even submarines and destroyers dispatched by the Philippines’ new conquerors lay between the reporters and safety in Australia. They spoke little. Instead, they reflected privately on the soldiers they had met on Corregidor and Bataan, the onslaught both places had endured, and their own good fortune so far.
“We talk very little sitting on deck now. We are remembering MacArthur’s men, how hard it was to finally leave, how lucky the three of us are. We’d gotten through the [Japanese] before,” Mel wrote. “Everything we’ve known the past two months is swallowed in blackness beyond.”