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The Sunshiners

Nov 15, 2021 | Tales from the Philippines

Missed too many boats: Americans in the Philippines

Long Read

They Were Expendable Book CoverIn December 1945 MGM released the war film ‘They Were Expendable’ starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne and Donna Reed based on the best-selling book by William Lindsay White. Directed by John Ford then a Captain in the United States Naval Reserve it told the story of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 defending the Philippine Islands from Japanese invasion in 1941. By April 1942 five of the six PT boats were burned, scuttled or destroyed by enemy air attack and the surviving crew members re-deployed to fight alongside the army. In addition to attacks on enemy shipping they transported General Douglas MacArthur and several senior officers from Corregidor to Mindanao for flight to Australia.

During the war Hollywood turned out hundreds of forgettable low budget films to support the war effort that were heavy on propaganda but lacking in realism. They Were Expendable thanks to John Ford and assistance from the navy is a standout exception. The film was shot in black and white in Florida with the navy supplying actual PT boats and naval aircraft temporarily re-marked with the rising sun. Those who had served in the Philippines would recognise the cultural references; the Filipina singer in terno dress serenading the officers at the Army & Navy Club, the enlisted men farewelling a lifer at the Silver Dollar bar, swaying palm trees, ceiling fans, San Miguel beer, nipa huts, banca boats on the shore and carabao wallowing in the mud. Ford highlighted the theme of men sacrificing themselves for a lost cause over action resulting in a running time of 135 minutes, much longer than the standard war flick of the time. The dinner for John Wayne’s love interest Donna Reed, with the sailors serenading her beneath the bamboo officer’s hut and John Wayne reciting Robert Louis Stevenson’s Requiem (The final lines: ‘Home is the sailor, home from sea, And the hunter home from the hill.’) over the bodies of his crew members is pure John Ford, scenes that would be reworked in his later Western movies.


Several scenes include the minor character ‘Dad’ Knowland played by Russell Simpson one of John Ford’s stock company of actors who specialised in grizzled old man roles. Dad was based on the real life ‘Dad’ Cleland who ran a machine shop and boat repair facility at Mactan Island, Cebu City and had been in the islands since the turn of the century. In March 1942 the squadron commander Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley led his remaining three PT boats to Cebu for several weeks of repair and refitting. To the Executive Officer Lt. Robert Kelly, Dad was:

A swell gent originally from Minnesota and a typical hulking frontiersman, didn’t look a day over fifty. He was a great gourmet, too.’ When Bulkeley asked Dad how he was going to pay for the repairs, he answered: ‘You fight ‘em and I’ll fix ‘em. It’s the least I can do.

Pamela Brink recalled in her childhood memoirs:

The only other American that lived on Mactan was Dad Cleland. His granddaughters were our age. He was a crusty old guy, had a huge old Colt. 45, and could take his teeth out.

One of his granddaughters Mary Lou Cleland Hedrick remembers a comfortable life of servants and country clubs, the small expatriate community in Cebu and Dad’s tales of playing poker with General MacArthur.

As the Japanese pressed southwards, with Bataan and Corregidor poised to fall, Bulkeley asked Dad what he was going to do.

Have my dignity to think about,’ the old man said, clenching his huge fists. ‘I’m not going to the hills. I’ll stay right here and face them. They can get me if they can, but they’ll have a fight on their hands first.

In the movie the camera lingers on Dad sat on the shipyard porch with a Springfield rifle across his lap, pistol in his holster, pipe and jug of moonshine while Red River Valley plays softly in the background. At the end of the movie the officers essential for their PT boat experience are flown out and the fate of those left behind remains unsaid, the audience aware of their suffering and that MacArthur’s promise would be redeemed.

Dad Cleland and his family were taken prisoner by the Japanese and incarcerated in Santo Tomas internment camp at Manila. He survived the war dying in Cebu City on 9th January 1948 aged seventy seven and was buried on Mactan Island. Today Dad Cleland Avenue connects the shipyards and naval base on the north side of the island.

Dad Character American MoviesBy 1945 the character of ‘Dad’ was already a caricature for American cinema audiences – the homesteader, the frontiersman, the Indian fighter and pioneer of countless western films and serials. To American expatriates in the Philippines he was real, living in towns and barrios across the islands from the Cordillera mountains to the Moro homelands of Mindanao. Until 1890 the United States always had vast unexplored territory to settle but instead of the west being won it just moved further westward when the Philippines were ceded from Spain. Immigrants were mainly discharged soldiers but also included missionaries and teachers. Collectively the teachers became known as Thomasites after arriving by ship on the Thomas. These Americans were adventurous individuals from the Western or middle Western states attracted to unsettled lands with unlimited natural resources.

Acquisition of the Philippines in 1898 required raising of a colonial army and the fact there was never a problem in recruitment reflected the harsh social conditions back home in the States. The quality of recruits to the bamboo, carabao or pineapple armies varied greatly and they were often grateful for three square meals and a bed. Volunteers signed up for two years and if they didn’t succumb to malaria, venereal disease, alcoholism, madness or the spears and bolos of the natives had the option of another tour or local discharge. Kevin C. Murphy in ‘Inside the Bataan Death March: Defeat Travail and Memory’ relates that:

One officer was known to have ‘gone asiatic’ after eight years in Philippines – he loved flowers and sometimes talked to them and insects. Others were called ‘Sunshiners’, old army men ‘who had missed too many ships to the States’ who sometimes sang a popular song ‘the monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga’.

This song from the Spanish-American war was parodied later by Olongapo marines adding the line ‘Oh we won’t go back to Subic anymore’. Many sunshiners with native wives were forced to remain in the islands because of the Asian Exclusion Act and state laws against interracial marriage. To the author and historian of this period Joseph P. McCallus these were the men who had been ‘forgotten under a tropical sun’.

At the turn of the century Manila was very much a Spanish city consisting of the old walled city of churches and cathedrals paved with cobble stones and various suburbs outside the gates. In 1898 a British Major later Major General, Sir George John Younghusband was appointed as military observer to the Spanish-American war. Together with his wife he later wrote ‘The Philippines and Round About’ vividly describing the city and early American occupation.

‘Of saloons and bars’, he wrote, ‘there is sufficient quantity. Each saloon is filled with small tables, and at each table are seated permanently four American soldiers, and in front of each warrior is a pile of monkey-nuts and a glass of beer. As the bar keeper rakes in 40 cents on each of these glasses of beer, it is obvious that the bar keeper’s daughter is a lady worth marrying. The majority of these saloons are now in the hands of Americans, but a few Spaniards are still holding on, aided by American assistants – heaven preserve us from calling them waiters.

Younghusband’s first encounter with an American soldier was one working in a saloon who introduced himself with;

My name’s Crosby, an’ I got an ignominy discharge from the army three days after landin’; and who may you be?’.

Of those Americans who had come out with the army and stayed on most of their business ventures depended on the military such as tailor shops, restaurants and bars.


In 1925 Vic Hurley, a veteran of World War I and athletics record holder from the University of Washington, travelled to the Philippines intending to start a coconut plantation on the island of Mindanao. This venture failed and after a year he went to work in Zamboanga as an expatriate manager for American companies and later reserve Lieutenant in the Philippines Constabulary. Vic became a prolific author whose first book – ‘Southeast of Zamboanga’ described his failed plantation venture and solitary time in the jungle. Bored with life in Seattle he tells a friend:

To Hell with it. I’m going to wear a white suit and plant coconuts.’ This is as much about the tropics and coconuts as he knew.’

Like many in the 1920s he suffered from dislocation and restlessness in an age when military personnel were expected to re-integrate into society and battlefield stress was largely undiagnosed. Vic had enlisted in 1916 seeing continuous action with field artillery units and suffered lifelong chronic illness from a mustard gas attack. During his service he would have rubbed shoulders with old soldiers who had served in the Philippines and read popular memoirs of the time such as Sydney Cloman’s ‘Myself and a Few Moros’ or Colonel John White’s ‘Bullets and Bolos’. One day he made his life changing decision:

‘I was looking out between the bars of an iron cage and I was handling thousands of dollars of other people’s money every day. I was cashier to an American Express Company office. One day I quit. I wanted to go to the tropics. I had no money to speak of. In the interior of the Express office, I found a dot on a map. The dot was named Zamboanga. I liked the sound of the name and that is why I first came to Mindanao as a fireman on a freighter.’

Kicking his heels in Zamboanga while waiting for a steamship to Makar Vic sought advice from the old timers and observed the politics and petty jealousies of the small American community. On a day trip out of town he encountered a different class of expatriate:

The Philippines Drawing
Philippines Sunset

Eddie and I drove out to a popular beach near Zamboanga. On the way we passed through a small suburb which is devoted almost exclusively to a colony of old ‘sunshiners’. There were dozens of these old privates left over from the old army days of the insurrection. They have taken their discharge in the Philippines and have settled down with native women on small coconut plantations. They take no part in the social activities of the town and they have been completely ostracized by the whites. Their uniform is a suit of khaki. We passed dozens of these old fellows along the way. They were sitting contentedly on the porches of their nipa shacks. They all had a pension of a few dollars a month and their living was in their back yard in their coconut trees. They were probably better off than they would be at home. They have deliberately forsaken the ways of white men and have avoided the responsibility of making a living in the competition of the United States. It seems strange that a man cannot wear khaki without losing caste. A white suit is the badge of a contract man in the Philippines. To the ‘sunshiner’ is reserved the khaki.’

Charles Ivins, a Constabulary officer and contemporary of Vic felt the same about who belonged to respectable society in Zamboanga. The sunshiners he agreed were usually ‘soldiers who had been retired at lower grades’, married to local women and were often drunk on cheap ‘square-face gin’ bought from Chinese merchants. They could be seen wandering around their huts ‘stooped over with dull vacant eyes’, unshaven, unkempt and averse to bathing.

After a year in the wilderness Vic was a broken man his health permanently damaged by malaria:

Maybe I am not tough enough for this country. I have stood up to the strain of highly competitive athletics in college and I have stood up to France in wartime but I am afraid that I cannot stand up to the bush in Mindanao. It is sapping and I am becoming more afraid everyday.

Vic returned to the U.S. in 1934 becoming an author of novels and short stories including ‘Men in Sun Helmets’, ‘The Swish of the Kris’ and ‘Jungle Patrol’. During World War 2 he was a naval officer attached to the Pacific Theater as an expert on the Philippines and South East Asia. In 1978 he took his own life.

The Real Tropics Newspaper Vic HurleyBy the 1930s Manila was known as ‘The Pearl of the Orient’ and service in the PI had become a sought after posting for both officers and enlisted men. In 1939 8,709 Americans lived in the Philippines most in expatriate communities and were called ‘Manila Americans’.

On January 10th 1941 Lieutenant John R. Bumgarner of the US Army Medical Corps embarked at San Francisco on the U.S.A.T Grant for Manila. John was a freshly graduated doctor and reserve officer who after call up in December 1940 volunteered for the Philippines to escape from the wintry boredom of barracks life at Camp Custer in Michigan. Due to be relieved from active duty in December 1941 he was instead imprisoned by the Japanese and later recounted his harrowing experiences caring for survivors of the Bataan death march in his book ‘Parade of the Dead: A US Army Physician’s Memoir of Imprisonment by the Japanese 1942 – 1945’. On arrival in Manila John was escorted to his billet at the old Luneta Hotel overlooking the park and Manila Bay:


‘The Luneta Hotel was run by an old ‘sunshiner’. When I inquired about his reason for being in the Philippines he told me that he was wanted by the police back home in Tennessee. He had earlier been in the Philippines with the army and had liked it so well that when he got in trouble he came back with no intention of returning to the United States. I did not pursue that line of questioning any further. The sunshiner did run a good hotel, and the food was marvelous. Where else would one be served fresh mango or papaya on ice as a breakfast opener? I am sure, though, that the hotel made all its profits from the little bar in the narrow hallway leading to the dining room.’

Within a few months John and the Manila Americans would find themselves imprisoned and struggling for survival in Japanese prison camps throughout the islands.


On 20th October 1944, a 24 years old merchant marine officer Eddie Woolbright watched from his supply ship in Leyte Gulf as U.S. troops stormed ashore at Dulag and Tacloban to begin the liberation of the Philippines.

Eddie had seen action on Arctic convoys to Russia and during the allied invasion of Sicily but on his first shore leave was shocked by the dirt and devastation he witnessed in Tacloban:

‘I went from Leyte Gulf to Tacloban in late October 1944, and that was the worst place I suppose I ever saw in the world.’

At the end of the war he shipped out to the U.S. but soon signed on another ship ending up back in Leyte. Eddie who had grown up around his father’s blacksmith and machine shop in Oklahoma saw an opportunity in the abandoned military equipment and scrap metal scattered across the islands. Feigning illness Eddie was discharged in Tacloban and began his career as a junk dealer collecting military surplus. In 1947 he opened the Airline Hotel Coffee Shop to attract customers to his hardware and spare parts store all the time developing contacts with local politicians and businessmen including the Romualdez clan whose beauty queen daughter went on to become the First Lady of the Philippines – Imelda Marcos.

Tacloban after the war was a lawless, wild west town and in spite of his contacts Eddie needed security guards with machine guns, an armour-plated jeep and guard dogs. As the supply of war surplus dried up he moved down to Cebu to open the famous Eddies’s Log Cabin Bar and Restaurant. Stepping inside the bar from the tropical heat of the waterfront customers entered an air-conditioned western style saloon with wagon wheels on the ceiling, chequered tablecloths, log panelled walls and leather bound menus. In the early 1950’s the wild west decor was a novelty and with fewer dining choices in Cebu the restaurant attracted local celebrities, journalists and politicians whose families remained loyal over the years. The food was American diner style with their coconut cream pie, corned beef and cabbage and thanksgiving turkeys still prepared today at the family’s Beverly Hotel.

Eddies Log Cabin Coffee Shop

Eddie is also remembered in the Far Eat for naming of the dice game- Balut which to Filipinos means the embryonic partially formed duck foetus in its shell sold at roadside stalls. According to the history of balut, poker playing GI’s at the Airport Hotel in Tacloban were out of playing cards and improvised a poker game using five dice. A group of Danish businessmen developed the rules and its popularity quickly spread through Asia via the Cebu British Club and the Singapore Cricket Club.

Eddie married Miss Philippines 1957 and branched out into real estate creating Beverly Hills, the first planned subdivision in the city. He was later declared an adopted son of Cebu with Woolbright Drive named in his honour and a bust unveiled after his death from lung cancer in 1996.

They Have Not Tails In ZamboangaOn July 4th 1946 independence was celebrated at Rizal Park within sight of the Manila Hotel, the Army & Navy Club and facing the bay where the Spanish fleet had been defeated in 1898. The Philippines however remained dependent on the U.S. compromising their sovereignty for security under an agreement giving the U.S. a lease on military bases including Subic Bay Naval Base at Olongapo and Clark Air Base next to Angeles City. The bases were closed in 1992 following a 12-11 vote of the Philippines Senate rejecting an extension of the agreement and after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo had caused extensive damage to the facilities at Clark. During those years thousands of sailors, marines and air force personnel were posted to the Philippines, passed through on deployment to Vietnam and the Gulf, took shore leave or returned as civilian contractors. Many returned to the U.S. leaving behind fatherless children whilst others chose to retire and stretch out their pensions under the tropical sun.

America Navy Sailors PhilippinesMemories of Subic liberty call remain; the shit river bridge, kids diving for pesos, Magsaysay drive, money changers, touts, pimps and monkey meat sellers, feeding live chickens to a croc, ‘Hey Joe!’, rock and roll bars, clip joints, honky tonks, short time hotels, the jungle for the brothers, jeepneys, San Miguel, pitchers of mojo and bullfrogs, smiles, SP armbands, last call and curfew.


In a jungle clearing on the western shore of Subic Bay is a weathered concrete tomb that was the resting place of ex- Chief Petty Officer Ernest J. Gaines or Ernie to his shipmates. In Ernie’s day the white sand beach at the foot of Mt. Redondo was accessible by banca from White Rock Resort across the bay but since building of the Hanjin shipyard in 2008 workers accommodation and squatter huts have sprung up in the once pristine jungle. Some say because of this Ernie’s widow had his remains removed to a quieter part of Iloilo City on Panay Island. Ernie was a lifer who retired from the navy and built a rustic tropical retreat he named Gaines Beach Resort at this former WW2 submarine base. Nipa hut bungalows provided accommodation for sailors on R&R with activities focused around a bar of varnished bamboo walls and thatched roof. The walls were decorated with ships plaques, lifebuoys, native crafts and sun faded photos from Ernie’s service past. Cheaper local drinks like Tanduay rum, Emperador brandy and ice cooled San Miguel were served unless sailors brought Jack Daniels and Jim Beam from the PX. The navy appreciated the more wholesome experience Ernie provided at his resort and laid on boats for sailors to enjoy barbecues, fishing trips, poker, liar dice and a game of horseshoes before the sun set over Subic Bay. Ernie was a drinking man and though the living was easy in his tropical paradise he passed away in 1985 at only 60 years old.

Phillipines Small Boat Dock Beach
Ernie Philippines Parrot

On November 24th 1992 U.S. marines from the USS Belleau Wood lowered the American flag at Cubi Point Naval Air Station, Subic Bay bringing to an end 94 years of American military presence in the Philippines. The Philippines continues to attract U.S. military retirees under a favourable retirement scheme but the old sunshiners who served in country and chose to stay on are a dwindling band.


The blue public jeepney from Olongapo City to Barrio Barretto zig zags past Kalaklan point and the public cemetery above the old naval base before heading down onto the north bound national highway. The highway cuts through Barrio Barretto dividing the hotels and dive resorts on the bay side from the concrete houses and breeze block shanties on the jungle covered hillsides. The American influence is immediate; the Arizona Beach Resort named after the battleship sunk at Pearl Harbour, the sky blue Retired Activities Office flying the U.S, Philippines, USMC and navy flags and a strip of bars and restaurants such as Dynamite Dicks, the General’s Command Post, the Alaska Club, Cheap Charlies and the Captain’s Arms all run by expatriate Americans. Victory liners, trikes, jeepneys and trucks belching smoke thunder through town day and night posing a risk to bar hoppers. Stop the traffic, add hitching rails and saloon swing doors and the barrio could pass for a western town with beer bellied gun slingers stalking the cheapest happy hour. The highway has been widened but a few bars cling onto their shaded porch area with cane chairs and space for a handful of drinkers. Sunset is magic time when the sun goes down over the Zambales mountain in a fiery red glow but no one checks the yardarm here, empty San Miguel bottles start to pile up after opening time.

Dynamite Dick and his crew are the last of the sunshiners, amiable tough guys with poorly inked forearm tattoos, vests and navy baseball caps drinking their lunch and reminiscing. Dick, an ex-marine demolitions expert, runs a popular bar and restaurant that proclaims ‘Have a blast at Dynamite Dicks – best bang for your buck in the Philippines!’ Inside the bar is decorated with the usual memorabilia including Dick’s Vietnam wall of glory, navy plaques, life size cut out of John Wayne, marine flags and looney tunes style dynamite plunger all festooned with strings of fairy lights. Fox news plays on satellite TV, the volume turned low with Merle Haggard playing in the background while Dick growls good naturedly at his waitresses.

Another long day wanes and the crew drift home picking up a takeaway from the Sit n Bull diner and Dryden’s Cantina, dodging traffic for just one more beer at the Crazy Horse or hunting out a game of pool further along the strip.

Philippines Usa Flag

About The Blog

About Blog In March 2020, after 28 years in Hong Kong, I moved to Penang as a base to travel in the region. The Covid 19 pandemic ended that plan and I spent much of the time re-reading books I had collected over the years. The only new book I bought was ...
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