SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews / 17 February) – It is 1944 aboard HMAS Shropshire, and David Mattiske, a lad of only 19 years, is stationed in one of the turret shell rooms that deliver ammunition to the artillery above. He is still a newbie in his job, mostly just taking orders from his superiors. However, that afternoon, it was much different from the menial tasks he accomplishes on their vessel. They had been told to prepare for a battle to block the Japanese forces on their way to Leyte Gulf.
Unlike the other ships that either sunk or were damaged in the encounters, their ship had remained unscathed despite previous military campaigns and kamikaze attacks, which kept its crews on their toes. David utters a prayer as the evening approaches and the clash draws near, but though he admits to himself he is not brave, he is not frightened. He was supposed to play football in his country, Australia, but gave up the chance to enlist in the navy. It is his dream to explore the seas just like Sir Francis Drake and the stories he read when he was younger.
In the hours that will follow, rain of fire, smoke, and plumes light up the sky like small suns on the horizon. Explosions deafening than thunder will boom throughout one of the longest nights in history. Despite the surrounding mayhem of man-made conflict, David only hopes everything will be alright.
Seventy-two years later, David would visit our school, Surigao del Norte National High School, for the commemoration of the battle that night in Surigao Strait in 1944. He was 92 years old already, still tall with few wispy white hair on his head, holding a cane to support his balance but nonetheless had a cheerful disposition despite the memories of the war he never forgot.
Every year, our school commemorates the Battle of Surigao Strait on the 24th of October since our school also had a historical role in being the cremation site of the Japanese in World War II. Inside the school grounds stands a stone marker in honor of the fallen who never had the chance to return to their homeland.
I never really understood the significance of the battle despite the annual commemoration our school holds. As usual, our Social Sciences teacher tasked us to create and wave flaglets during the ceremony to welcome foreign guests as part of our attendance and for extra points in class. I would pray that I would get assigned to the Japanese flag because it was simple – just a red circle on a white background. But that year, we were also told to hold another in addition to the flags of the USA, Japan, and the Philippines – the Australian flag with its several white stars and a smaller flag of the UK against a blue background.
That was because Australian delegates were also coming to take part in the remembrance of the historic event. I did not know that Australia had a significant part in assisting the Americans in turning the tide of the war. More than that, I was surprised that a veteran was visiting to pay tribute to the battle that he not only witnessed but also participated in. It was David Mattiske, accompanied by a petite old woman, Jan Warren, who was a daughter of a correspondent that covered the battle.
The Battle of Surigao Strait marked the end of the era of battleship to battleship combat in the war and perhaps in the whole history. Since then, warfare turned aerial with the development of aircraft that could also strike at battleships. It was part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf which was a series of naval battles in the Philippine waters.
I finally learned of its history when I visited the Battle of Surigao Strait Museum which I did not know existed until my teacher in Senior High School told us to pay a visit as an activity. The museum was located in Luneta Park obscured by one of the pre-war acacia trees hence it was not so obvious to the eye. During my visit, there was a curator on duty that shared with me not only what transpired in the battle but also the city’s history during WWII.
The museum was only about the size of a classroom but packed with dioramas, displays, relics, pictures, and information including the side of the Japanese who were annihilated in the battle. It is to pay respect to the valiant efforts of soldiers who fought in the war no matter what side they belonged to. David’s black and white military portrait including his cap during his service in HMAS Shropshire was also one of the displays. In the portrait, he was wearing his sailor uniform while smiling. I recognized his wide smile and a small set of eyes though I could not help but notice how young he was in the picture.
Apart from the displays, what took up most of the museum’s space was a recovered Japanese torpedo in the middle of the room. Its shell was already lost and was reconstructed with metal braces but the intricate dials are still intact, something that can be credited to the Japanese’s ingenuity. The artifact was hair-raising, to say the least. It was proof of how technology can be pushed to the extreme as a means to end lives instead of save them. According to the curator, the museum would be transferred to the much larger memorial shrine that was to be erected in Punta Bilar, the northeasternmost tip of Mindanao that was facing in the direction of Surigao Strait.
The memorial shrine was opened in 2019 during the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Surigao Strait. It also served as a tourist attraction for its historical significance and picturesque view of Surigao Strait. However, I was not able to visit it because I went to Davao City to pursue my education at that time.
Unfortunately, the site suffered from natural calamity due to super typhoon Odette last December 2021. When I finally visited it in June last year, I was met by the dilapidated roof of the museum which was locked and empty. I did not know where the relics and displays were taken or if they were spared from the typhoon because there was no caretaker around whom I could ask. The surrounding greenery had already recovered from the devastation and had become overgrown, which meant that no one had tried yet to rehabilitate the site. The glass markers on the lower level that chronicled the timeline of the war were also broken and shards were scattered everywhere. In the center, the four flagpoles that hoisted the Philippine, American, Australian, and Japanese flags stood bare.
Nevertheless, I was still able to appreciate the view it offered as I sat on the steps near the shore. In the distance, the desaturated island of Southern Leyte blends into the sky and the sea, melding the two into mirrors of each other. Below where I sat, two women were gathering shells among the rocks taking advantage of the low tide. The sea was tranquil, its surface looked almost smooth save for the gentle wrinkles of waves. Sitting there was also like glimpsing through time. More than five hundred years ago, Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet passed through these waters on his voyage – the first Europeans to do so – which kickstarted the three hundred years of Spanish colonization.
Less than a century ago, the calm passage was the site of a naval battle during a global conflict that involved us since we were under American colonization. The battle’s outcome resulted in the submersion of the Japanese battleships and destroyers including their crews. In a sense, the waters were also the graves of the soldiers who gave up their lives. Their bodies might never be recovered but it is a comfort to think they are in the embrace of the abyss, far, far away from the clutches of the cruelties of war.
David peacefully passed away last year at the age of 96. After the Japanese surrender, he denounced the atrocities he witnessed on the effects of the war in Tokyo during the time he was stationed in Japan. In his old age, he remained connected with the people he helped liberate, raising awareness so as to not repeat the mistakes of yesterday. Although he may be gone, his words are etched on the wall of the Battle of Surigao Strait memorial shrine, “Let us pray: that we never have another world war.” A prayer for peace and a reminder that no one wins in a war – lest we forget.
(MindaViews is the opinion Section of MindaNews. Batang Mindanaw is the youth section of MindaNews. Nixie E. Serna, of Surigao City, is a BA English Creative Writing student at the University of the Philippines Mindanao.)