The Secret of Morolonago
Part I: Have Plane Will Travel
GrummanAir Flight 83 Manila-Morolonago
This all started out innocently enough. I plied clear blue skies with unlimited visibility, my PBY-5A Catalina's twin engines were droning without a hiccup and most importantly, I had a load of paying customers onboard. What more could a bush pilot ask for?
I was chartered to fly a few clients to Morolonago Island, a speck of land south of Luzon, the main island of the Philippine Archipelago, and home to an old Spanish walled city. My clients, men who said little but paid much, had me circle the three-hundred year old ruins at just above stall speeds and so low I nearly clipped red tiles from rooftops as one of their number scratched out a map. A new one hadn’t been made in near 50 years so one was due, not that cartography was their purpose. They’d chartered me to take them here so they could “evaluate its historic value.” I’m pretty sure that’s what every jackass looking for El Dorado says.
They called it Fuerta de Legaspi, or Fort Legaspi for the Spanish-impaired, but it could have easily been Intramuros, the walled city of Manila. Well, except this Intramuros looked like it was being slowly choked to death by the surrounding jungle and Intramuros was surrounded by the bombed out remains of what was once the most beautiful city in Asia.
My Catalina is a boat-hulled transport plane sporting a high-mounted wing with two fat engines hanging from it and two clear blisters windows in the waist. Though in my private hands I'd left her government service blue as I couldn't afford new paint. The Cat is an older aircraft but if anything, older translates to proven and reliable.
During her service life this particular Cat was used as a test bed for various improvements and modifications. On a good day she could still pull a double-sunrise flight with a full load of passengers or cargo, giving rise to my Subic Bay bar boast that the only legs longer than mine were hers- at 5'10" that's no idle boast.
Another modification allowed me to operate the aircraft without assistance as the engineer's station controls had been duplicated in the cockpit. Normally a crew of three was needed to fly one of these, a pilot, navigator and engineer in the pylon station, but I don’t like company in the cockpit so I do my own navigating thank you, and though not completely necessary any more, I still preferred to fly with an engineer in case the old girl started getting temperamental. Unfortunately Bong, my closest friend and flight engineer, had come down with malaria while visiting his Lola in Zambales Province so today I flew my clients solo.
I had the Cat in an angled turn, my right wing dipped low to give the cartographer a better view, so as you can imagine walking around the aircraft is not advisable. The hatch leading from the cabin to the cockpit banged open behind me. Jerking around I saw the passenger Max, struggling into the cockpit. Max reminded me of a cowboy; all broad-chested, square-jawed, with his dirty blonde hair beneath an Aussie slouch-hat and the most piercing steel blue eyes I’ve ever seen on a person. From the two times I’ve met him I got the impression he thought he could charm the money out of any wallet, a drink from any bartender or the skirt off any lady including me, but like most people who invite themselves into my cockpit I’d have shot him as soon as look at him. He was also the exception to the ‘pays much but says little’ rule.
A twitch of the wrist on my part threw him against one bulkhead and returing to course against the other. It was a bad idea really, the bastard liked to dip and the fat wad in his mouth now adorned my cockpit. He said somethting I couldn’t hear over the roar of engines and I mumbled something about turbulence he couldn’t hear either.
Not taking the hint he plopped himself into the navigator’s seat beside me and put on the headset.
“Smooth flying.” He said with a voice straight out the backwoods. He put a boot up on my console. He and his partners that now infested my aircaft all dressed in similar attire: big boots, jungle hacker khakis and I’d like to say I teased them over it, but they were also armed with M1 carbines and .45 automatic Colts so I let them be.
I took a hand from the control yoke and forcibly removed the boot from my console. “Thank you kindly, boss.”
“Does everyone say that in this country?”
“My father used to say it. We’re Okies.”
“And here I was thinking you slow.” Texans. Why does it have to be Texans? “But “Boss”, that’s the tenth time today someone’s called me boss.”
“Folks here are nice like that.”
“Don’t say. Y’know, at first I thought you didn’t speak none much English.”
“Not if I don’t have to.” I shrugged.
The next laugh was a
short snort. “A lady bush pilot who don’t speak her native tongue, that’s a tale
“Our work on that island,” thankfully he refused to butcher the place’s name, “doesn’t require a massive pig sticker, unlike yours does.” He referred to the bolo at my side. A machete as long as my arm I’ve carried it daily since hiding in the mountainous jungle province of Bataan during the War. “Now what pray tell do you need such a big cleaver for? They make steaks that big here?”
“I use it to keep passengers in line; say don’t you have an assigned seat in back?”
Max replied, “That’ll do it.” Ignore the crazy bolo lady’s suggestion why don’t you? “And I like the stars. Cute.”
Cute? The pair of stars dangingling from my bolo hilt came from a Japanese soldier I killed in the War! For these stars ten people died. What the hell is wrong with this guy?!
“Lady?” He asked. I’d zoned out.
“Yeah. Cute’s the word. And it’s not lady, its Matilda Jane Grumman- Captain Matilda Jane Grumman, but as long as you’re a paying customer Mattie is acceptable.”
He nodded. “The name suits you.”
“That’s why I was named it.”
“I prefer Lady.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed, “Hay naku ay buhay.”
He clucked like a chicken in response.
A gruff voice came in over my headset. It was Norton. “We have what we need Chief.”
Max slapped my knee, “It’s been fun but it looks like it’s time for you to take us down.” He went back into the cabin. I didn’t reintroduce him to the bulkhead as I did so. I’m a lady after all.
Norton, his associate, sat back in the Cat’s small passenger lounge, formerly where the radio man worked. I’d stripped out the compartment and replaced everything with a few comfy seats. A large, boorish man whose head seemed to grow straight out of his over-sized shoulders he didn’t strike me as the professor of history he claimed to be.
Jeb sat beside him in the passenger cabin, the only one of the lot I couldn’t make heads or tails of. He was taller than Norton but lacked his mass, Norton could yank your head off with one hand but I swear Jeb could do it with a look. I also believe he was touched in the head.
Further back in the waist compartment was Smith, who used the perfect view from its bulging clear blisters to make his map notes. He sketched over a yellowed Spanish map while we circled, a glasses wearing kid with short red hair he really didn’t strike me as a jungle explorer type or a legbreaker pretending to be a jungle explorer type like his friends. Of course a lanky female bush pilot and sometimes Shootist (as Pa called it) with the looks of a bookish librarian has little right to call anyone else out of place. In my own defense, my pilot’s uniform at least looked like it’d been worn before. Far too much actually.
After describing this lot if you’re wondering why I’d be crazy enough to take them alone to an isolated island far from civilization the reason was simple, I needed the money and they had it. GrummanAir, a company my Pa built from nothing, restarted the moment Mac kicked Japan out of Luzon. There weren’t enough hours in the day to fly everything the Army neeed and even after war’s end the jobs kept rolling in for a spell. Then after Independence my work load dropped to almost nil, except for the occasional VIP run to some getaway and more mundane jobs from the Navy base at Subic.
A jolt ran through the Cat as we touched down on the clear blue sea. I eased back on the throttle and put the engines in reverse, slowing us to a crawl. Inching the throttle forward again I began a slow turn towards Legaspi and motored carefully to a boat landing along the south-western wall. It’d be a little dicey but I’d done worse with less. I set the engines almost to idle, letting the Cat drift toward our target. Being a crew of one I had to leave the cockpit, pop into my passenger cabin then disappear into the bombardier (nose) compartment to put out the bumpers and drop anchor.
“Who’s driving?” Norton asked as I moved past him and into the nose.
“It’s on autopilot.”
“We’re not flying.”
I tossed open the nose hatch and popped out. Instantly the sun’s relentless heat hit me and soft sea spray welcomed me back out into the outside world. I’ll never tire of scenes like this, floating in transculencent water comprised of more shade of blue than ought a right to exist under a pale sky filled with painted on white clouds with only the rythmic sounds of my engines and sea birds for company. I tossed the old car tire bumpers strung up on rope over the nose and readied the anchor. We inched forward to the old dock, a big slab of concrete mounted on cement poles that plunged so deep down the darkest shades of blue hid the bottom.
With a hollow thunk fender met concrete and I dropped anchor. Moored safely I produced a bosun’s whistle from my skirt pocket and let out a loud, long, ear-piercing three note blast.
“GrummanAir flight 83 non-stop from Manila to Morolonago- arriving!”
Quickly I popped back down and squeezed past my anxious passengers in the cabin and back into the cockpit to shut down the engines. My ears took a moment to adjust to a world without their steady drone.
Sitting back in my seat I watched the passengers carefully hop from nose to pier and do a quick bag check. Everyone was kitted out except Smith. He gave Max his map and the two exchanged loud, angry words. When he dismissed him Max looked up at me and made a gesture to open the window. I slid the side window open and popped my head out.
“We’ll check in at six.”
“Aye-aye, boss.” I called back; it was barely noon so after a small lunch I’d siesta for a few before getting ready for take off, maybe even listen to some radio if I could pick up KYRC or KZRH.
My heart pounded louder and louder. The more I wanted it to stop the harder it beat. The clump of bushes I hid in made me itch so bad I just wanted to scratch, disease carrying mosquitoes had their way with me and yet I did not move to swat them. I crouched in ankle deep muddy water on the creek bed, caking my bare lower legs, feet, hand-made sandals and skirt in mud. Seas of sweat dripped from my every pore and I did nothing to wipe it away. After all, any movement, any sound, would be death.
But a few feet away stood a young Japanese soldier, a boy really with a fresh uniform barely stained with sweat, the buttons all nicely polished and the stars on his shoulder flashes gleamed. He slung a factory new rifle neatly on his shoulder.
All around us was sporadic jungle but here in this clearing there was nothing between me and him but some growth along the river. I pray it would be enough. That he would see only the natural beauty of the land he defiled with his presence and hear the soft gurgle of the creek.
Fear gripped my core at first, discovery meant death for me and the guerillas that had sheltered me. If a Japanese soldier was killed it was made clear they would take it out on the nearst barangay. Kill the mayor, ten others in their lost man’s place. If they thought it was guerillas they’d come for the suspect men, if they didn’t find them they’d kill their families to tide over their blood lust.
They see nothing wrong with it. We lost, they won. We lost and didn’t die and therefore have no honor. To them a man without honor is literally nothing, not a man or person. Just things they can abuse and enjoy themselves with.
His steps moved lacsidasically closer.
The soldier’s staff car was on the side of a nearby road and as far I could tell he was alone. He paid little heed to his surroundings, mostly playing with a cigarette lighter and a cheap ration pack cigarette. He sang off-tune in Nipponese. He hadn’t a care in the world; after all, who would dare touch the Emperor’s chosen?
My fingers silently closed on the grip of my bolo, they found warm reassurance in its worn wood. It had belonged to my father, Theodore Grumman, and it felt like his strong, gentle hand was on mine. He was the reason I was here, why I came back to this country in the midst of the great Pacific War.
He was why a WASP flew a seaplane through thousands of miles of enemy territory with no plan but to return to Bataan and find her father. He probably died during the battle, defending Mount Samat as any able-bodied man would. He saw his seventy years as experience, not a physical detriment. Four of those decades were spent hunting men across Indian Territory wearing the badge of a U.S. Marshal.
He was a legend of his time, one of the last gunfighter marshals. When the West became too tame for his tastes he moved us so far west he found himself in the Far East, the territory of the Philippines. He’d recently discovered the thrill of flight so he started an air service. Of course he still found time to ply his first calling and teach it to whomever would learn. That of course included me. His only child would not grow up unable to defend herself or track down a bastard who’d wronged her.
Coming back here during the War, secreting my Cat into an inlet by night and heading for home in Mariveles old friends told me about the Death March, the Camps, the Hell Ships, why I’d never see so many of my friends again, the atrocities and crimes of the new overlords and their ability to kill on a whim. I’d been urged to hook up with one of MacArthur’s agents and get out but there wasn’t a chance of that happening until my father was found.
That’s how I ended up her, hiding beside a river. Though something had changed now, the fear subsided and something else took its place. I was ready for what would happen next.
More foliage cracked and crinkled under his step. He was nearly before me. The humming stopped. For all I knew he forgot the rest of his tune. His lighter clanked shut and he said something as he dropped it. It splashed down near my toes. He’d doomed himself over a cheap lighter.
I saw a flash of horror in his eyes as this lank girl with a machete as long as her arm rose from the brush. He hadn’t even time to reach his rifle. I reaped him like sugar cane.
He went down with but a scream cut short. Now upright and exposed I checked my surroundings. Jungle birds made strange calls and the river still gurgled on. I was alone. The soldier lay in a mess of red-stained grass with a deep slash across mid-section, my first rising cut and his head was nearly severed from his corpse, my downward stroke. For good measure, and my father and all his victims, I chopped it off clean. Grabbing the head by the hair I flung it into the deepest part of the river.
I stripped off anything of use from his body and on a whim grabbed the two stars before continuing my trek.
(Click the Bolo for the next page)