Monday, June 18, 2007

36. CLARK FIELD: Pampanga's Piece of America

AMERICA’S FIELD OF DREAMS. Mount Arayat’s silhouette forms an imposing backdrop for Fort Stotsenburg as it appeared around 1915- 1917, a signal to 4 generations of American military that they are nearing the camp, whether arriving by rail, road or plane.

I grew up with a view of Clark Field or Clark Air Base as some sort of a terra incognita, a forbidden territory reserved for an exclusive few, Americans and their dependents. People spoke of a commissary with endless rows of the crispiest apples and peaches, overflowing Pacex milk, Hershey’s chocolates, macadamia nuts and Frito-Lay’s potato chips—alien food that tasted so delicious in my mind, even by name alone. There was a certain scent that these goodies exuded, an aroma that I had come to associate with going “stateside”. Neighbors also told stories about fancy restaurants like Top Hat and Coconut Grove, of Olympic-size swimming pools with gleaming white tiles at the Officers’ Club, and of visits by international celebrities like Xavier Cugat and Bob Hope.

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)


Anonymous said...

I grew up as one of the "few" as you stated in your article. I spent eight years living on and off of Clark. I spent more of my life with your people than I did my own. Consequently, when I returned to the U.S. I did not fit in at all. My parents may have shopped at the commissary, but trust me there were no bags of chips and chocolate when my Mother was feeding six of us. I ate milk fish and rice every chance i had. I miss fresh coconuts and green mango with bugung(not spelled correctly I think). I wanted so badly to be Philipino, not the big, blonde American girl. The local girls were all so tiny and beautiful. I truly love your country. My time and experiences in the Phillipines have made me who I am today and I cherish my memories very deeply. I only wish the sentiment towards Americans was more positive. I would love to return someday, maybe to take my children to see where I grew up, as to me that is as close to heaven as I could hope to be on earth.

alex r. castro said...

I appreciate your comment, and touched by your Philippine memories. I do not think the ties that bind our countries will never be completely severed. Believe me, America will always have a place in a Filipino's heart--having fought and died side by side in the last war. In a cruel war that devastated my country and ravaged the world, Filipinos were there for the American cause. A relationship will always have its sweet and sour side, and I know there's a side of your country that's been unfairly portrayed. Likewise from our side of the fence too. But differences can be surmounted by tolerance, of which our race has more than enough. Our long history of colonization prove it--400 years under Spain, a century under America and a few forgettable years under Japan. So come back and revisit--you'll find our hospitality intact, our friendship, though bumpy at times, unwavering. The mangos and bagoong and a flood of memories are waiting...Thanks for dropping by.

Anonymous said...

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