And so it came as a surprise when, in high school, I was chosen to go to Clark under the sponsorship of Wagner High, to tour the arts-and-crafts and hobby shop of the school. I was thrilled no end as I and my select group were driven past the wire fence, straight to our “little America”, to gawk at the gleaming classrooms and state-of-the-art facilities while practicing my stilted Kapampangan English with white Americans my age. I came away foolishly impressed by the American dream, and for some time, relished the thought of a Philippine statehood as espoused by Romeo Cabangbang.
In its heyday, Clark Field, once America’s largest military installation in Asia, extended from Angeles to large portions of Mabalacat. Even today, there are entry gates in Balibago, Mabalacat and Dau that serve as access points to this re-configured airbase. Clark Field’s pre-cursor—Fort Stotsenburg—was laid out as early as 1902, near a village in Kuliat. Abundant with hay, it was the perfect place for the horses of the 5th Cavalry units to rest. The Cavalry was part of a contingent that was sent to the Philippines to quell the Philippine Insurrection ( in a more politically correct term, the Philippine-American War). Before that, the units were stationed in another part of the town where their horses died after feeding on local sawgrass. Over the next 2 decades, Stotsenburg became home to over half of the U.S. Army’s cavalry (e.g. 7th of the Bighorn fame and the 9th Cavalry’s Buffalo Soldiers) and field artillery units. (Edmund L Gruber, a unit lieutenant assigned to Stotsenburg in 1908 composed a march on which the famous “Caisson Song” was based: “Over hill, over dale, as we hit the dusty trail…and those caissons go rolling along”.
The camp was named after John M. Stotsenburg, Captain, 6th U.S. Cavalry and Colonel, 1st Nebraska Volunteers, who was killed in action near Quinga, Bulacan in 1899. In 1903, Fort Stotsenburg was declared an official military reservation by then President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1908, a move was made to expand the size of the military reservation and Roosevelt signed a U.S. War Dept. Order 85 on 18 May, which proposed the extension of the camp to include the west end of Barrio Dolores in Mabalacat. This increased the size to 156,204 acres, which was subsequently and significantly reduced to 131,00 acres under the Military Bases Agreement of 1979.
The camp was oftentimes described as “a lonely, dreary waste for years”. One correspondent for the Army and Navy Journal noted that the wooden houses in the post were “unpainted and unsightly”, likening Stotsenburg to “an old lumber or mining camp”. Malaria stalked the troops in the camp and the area was jokingly referred to as “death valley”. Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, however, was the camp’s biggest supporter. He enthused about “Stotsenburg’s usefulness for training the (Philippine) garrison’s mobile army”. He added that the camp’s sandy soil would provide the army with “a very ample maneuver ground…a splendid ground for large bodies of troops”.
Life for Americans at Stotsenburg became more bearable as the years passed. Brig. Gen. Johnson Hagood, who commanded the post in the 1920s, sought to improve living conditions by embarking on a brisk construction program. By 1922, Stotsenburg acquired “33 new houses, nurses’ quarters, new post meat market and a new sewer system”. Schools, like Wood and Dean C. Worcester School, were established in the 1930s to educate children of American as well as Filipino officers. Sports facilities sprouted too: from a “brand new swimming pool supplied by clear water from the high slopes of Mt. Pinatubo” to bowling alleys, tennis and volleyball courts, polo field and golf courses. Tea dances, song fests, picnics, annual carnivals and sewing clubs were organized to fend off loneliness and boredom.
On the other hand, Clark Field was the name of a flying strip that was in existence before the end of World War II. This was soon merged with Stotsenburg, and renamed Clark Air Base, in honor of young pilot Maj. Harold M. Clark of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, a Manila-schooled Minnesotan who had died in a seaplane crash in Panama in 1919 during a flying assignment.
In the years that followed, Clark Air Base played significant roles in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, at the same time impacting profoundly the lives and fortunes of the people of Angeles and Mabalacat, building a long relationship with the communities that was periodically marked with ambivalent feelings of love and loathing. Today, anyone and everyone can enter Clark Field, to shop, to picnic or whatever. After having routinely driven countless of times through this once-forbidden land, Clark Field has lost much of its mystique to me, but never its hallowed history.
(22 February 2003)