In the 17th Century, Spanish naval forces began to use Subic Bay to safeguard their holdings in the Philippines. Folklore says that Olongapo was named as a result of a Chinese sailor who arrived at Subic and wished to trade with the natives for porcelain, silk and trinkets. As he sailed past Grande Island, a storm blew up, and he began to pray for deliverance. “Orong”…he said, meaning “Return” and “Apo” meaning “Gods”. The story goes that said together the words sounded like “Olong-apo”, since there is no “r” in Chinese.
The Spanish held the place for over a century until the Spanish fleet’s defeat at Manila Bay in 1898. The “Spanish Gate” at the Naval Station still stands.
As soon as the Americans took possession of Subic Bay, they found the place strategically important for food and fuel for the fleet. The Americans maintained friendly relations with the locals and the population grew as Filipino civilians moved into the Olongapo area to take advantage of the opportunities thus created. The town became the pride of Zambales province, but the only access was from the sea. No roads penetrated the high inaccessible mountains that ringed the bay.
In 1932, the road through Zig Zag Pass was completed and the city of Olongapo was connected to the rest of the country. The growth of the town continued, despite a temporary move of most of the naval facilities to Cavite Nav Yard.
By 1941, the population of Olongapo had increased to 15,000 souls.
The sudden bombing of Pearl Harbor and the invasion of the Philippines by the Japanese brought a swift end to the good times in Olongapo. Only a few American personnel were present at Subic Bay when the Japanese attacked . the small force could not withstand the air attacks so they moved to strategic positions of defense and to areas where their services were badly needed.
After a week, the resources of the defenders were exhausted. The townspeople evacuated to the mountains leaving behind them the ruins of the Naval base and the town, which was burned to the ground. The people adopted a “scorched-earth”policy as the Japanese advanced rapidly.
In the latter part of 1942, the Japanese |Imperial forces occupied Olongapo and began clearing the ruins of the once beautiful town. The few remaining houses were occupied by the Japanese soldiers. The fall of Bataan on April 9 and Corregidor on May 7, 1942 diminished the last hope of the Filipinos. American and Filipino defenders surrendered unconditionally., placing the country under the iron rule of the Japanese, except in some places where underground resistance movements were organized. Most of the people retreated deeper into the mountains and lived on whatever they could and whatever they’d saved in the way of clothing and provisions. They were exposed to the elements and attacked by disease and malnutrition. Some of the civilians “mortgaged” their certificates of employment with the US Navy at exhorbitant interest rates. They resorted to eating “bojo” roots and leaves that caused the death of many. Beri-beri and malaria took amny lives.
Some Filipinos worked for the Japanese Navy at Subic out of desperation, earning a few liters of rice for a day’s work or they were paid in “mickey mouse” money. Others worked for the Japanese out of fear of being suspected as guerillas, which would mean certain death.
An anti-Japanese resistence movement was formed in the nearby hills around Capt. E. S. Johnson, who had lost a son and a brother to the Japanese. All those who were identified as belonging to the resistance were sentenced to be shot on sight by the Japanese. Johnson and a few comrades were captured due to the treachery of one of his men, but while awaiting execution, they escaped from prison and returned to the hills. They then harassed the Japanese forces whenever they could at night and then returned to the mountains at night.
Finally, on the morning of January 29, 1945. the people of Olongapo awoke to find hundreds of American planes in the sky. the Japanese forces got into their trucks and headed for Zig Zag Pass. None of the townspeople dared come out for fear the retreating Japanese would shoot every Filipino they could find on sight. Hours later, Subic Bay filled with American vessels, and the American troops landed without resistance. Zig Zag Pass was the site of a bloody battle between Japanese and American forces, as the American liberation troops pursued the fleeing Japanese and the Japanese made their last stand. Zambales guerillas fought alongside the American forces to victory.
As soon as the enemy left, the Americans recognized the plight of the people of Olongapo and began to help them in all posssible ways. Employment boomed and by 1946, there were 10,000 Filipinos employed in the various Naval activities.
Stores were reopened, roads rebuilt and housing projects initiated and the city and Naval Base were on the way to becoming the economic and military force it continued to be through the 1990’s.
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