Fort Callahan and the last cable

Published 7:13 pm Friday, May 28, 2010

It was perhaps one of the darkest days in the history of our nation.

The time was May 6, 1942.

The place was Corregidor Island in Manila Bay in the Philippine Islands. The American flag had flown over these islands for more than 40 years. The American government had a covenant with the Philippines to grant their complete independence in 1945.

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However, this timetable was interrupted when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in December 1941. The Japanese landed on the Island of Luzon in December and were successful in pushing the American and Philippine forces southward on Luzon until the only foothold left were the Bataan Peninsular west of Manila Bay and the Island of Corregidor, which dominated the bay.

Douglas McArthur was in command of the American and Philippine forces. The war in the Philippines was going badly and the American high command had written off the Philippines. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered McArthur to evacuate to Australia, which he did via PT boats in March 1942.

Bataan surrendered in April of 1942, which led to the infamous Bataan Death March. However, the Stars and Stripes defiantly flew on Corregidor. It would be the last remaining stronghold. It had been known as the Gibraltar of the Pacific, and Corregidor had been laced with tunnels and gun emplacements.

The Japanese bombarded the island incessantly day and night with the hope of forcing an American surrender. Finally, they resorted to invasion of the island and the final end came on May 6, 1942.

Although Corregidor was under Army control, the Navy, which had evacuated their base at Cavite, had a more powerful transmitter and maintained contact with Washington. So it was the Navy that sent the last message to Washington. The message read as follows: “Corregidor has surrendered, the flag has been lowered. The Japs are in the tunnel and are at the door. We are signing off-Callahan and McCoy.”

The Callahan named in that cable was Lt. Cmdr. Fort H. Callahan from Bainbridge, Ga.

Fort Callahan was a son of Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Callahan and graduated from Bainbridge High School in 1917. He went on to the U.S. Naval Academy when he received his commission as an ensign in 1921. His qualifications in submarines would send him as commanding officer to the Key West Naval Station in 1938.

President Roosevelt visited in 1939 and commented that Key West was the best Naval Station he had visited.

In April 1941, Callahan was transferred to the Cavite Naval Station in the Philippines where he became communications officer of Asiatic stations.

The Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. History has never recorded the exact events that occurred in the Philippines on Dec. 8, but on that date, the Japanese bombed Manila and destroyed the military and naval installations around Manila. The American Air Force was either destroyed in the air or on the ground, or left for Australia. The Japanese enjoyed complete air superiority. McArthur declared Manila an open city and moved his headquarters to Corregidor.

The heroic American defense of the Bataan Peninsular has often been overlooked for the tenacity and bravery of the American and Filipino troops. They were fighting in a morass of jungles and hills, and wracked with disease and hunger. Their rations had been cut to one-fourth of the necessary daily calories. Medical supplies were pathetically low. They were short of ammunition and much of what they had was old, rusty and would not fire.

These men of Bataan included cooks, clerks, mechanics and others who rallied in the defense of Bataan. The inevitable end came on the 9th of April and it became the duty of the Georgian Major General Edward King to come forward with the white flag of surrender.

His men wept when they saw him with the white flag. He told them that they were not surrendering, but that their general was surrendering. King thought he was committing his men to an honorable surrender subject to the Geneva Code. Instead they were subject to one of the most brutal and horrible episodes in the treatment of prisoners of war—the infamous Bataan Death March.

For the month of April, the Japanese pounded the rock of Corregidor with heavy artillery and air attacks. Invasion from the sea with hundreds of landing craft and finally on May 8, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright raised the white flag of surrender. It would be Lt. Cmdr. Fort Callahan who sent the last message from Corregidor.

Fort Callahan would spend three years in Japanese prison camps. He spent the next several years in naval service, retiring in 1952 with the rank of rear admiral. He died in 1990 and is buried in Tampa.

The town of Bainbridge is studded with the name of Callahan. It is appropriate that we remember a member of that family who served his country in those perilous days lest we forget—lest we forget.