The US military has two Fort Drums (or is that Forts Drum?). The better-known one is in upset New York and is home to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. I’ve spent many a frosty night there battling raccoons, trying to break into my rucksack for a bit of food. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll understand. The second, lesser-known Fort Drum is on the other side of the world in the Philippines. That’s the one we’ll be talking about today.
Ingenuity and resiliency were among the qualities Fort Drum exuded during its heyday in the early 1900s. Formerly known as El Fraile (The Friar) Island, the now massive block of ruined concrete stood stubbornly as a fixed sentinel in the mouth of Manila Bay, guarding relentlessly from a naval attack coming from the South China Sea. It was built in 1909 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers as part of a series of strategic fortifications to defend the Bay and prevent invaders from getting into the capital city. It took ten years to complete the reinforced concrete slab that American military engineers reconstructed from scratch and reshaped the rocky islet to resemble a battleship, hence its nickname.
Fort Drum went almost dormant until it saw action during World War II. Japanese forces heavily bombarded it during the Battle of Manila, but it never surrendered. After the war, the Americans eventually abandoned the fort, which has since remained in ruins—slowly rusting away like an immovable ghost ship.
The Rocky Islet
There’s a rich history behind the strange-looking blocky silhouette of Fort Drum that, even after a hundred years have passed, largely remained intact at the entrance of Manila Bay. Prior to becoming a relic of a bygone era, the hulking concrete fortress started originally as a rocky islet named by colonial Spaniards El Fraile. The islet sat alongside other strategically vital and much larger Corregidor, Caballo, and Fort Carabao islands.
The Spanish recognized the value of Corregidor and other smaller islands at the entrance of the Bay, including El Fraile. They utilized them as lookout posts and defense fortifications for hostile ships entering the South Channel. They installed three 120mm guns around the rocky islet. These proved to be inadequate for defending the area from the invasion of US forces during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
After the war ended, when the Philippines came under American rule, El Fraile Island underwent a major renovation. The US saw the port’s huge potential as a strong bastion, determined to avoid repeating the mistake the Spanish made—that, and the fact that the tiny island made an impression as a solid defensive position.
Initially, the Army engineers planned for the rocky island to be a small naval mine control and casemate station. However, the inadequate defenses in the area prompted them to ditch the idea. The concrete battleship concept first emerged when First Lieutenant John Kingman of the Engineering Corps proposed a dramatic transformation of the islet as a cheaper alternative to constructing an artificial island from scratch. Despite the rejection of Kingman’s idea, the main concept stuck, and overhauling the islet soon began.
Between 1909 and 1916, the US Army Corps of Engineers completely rebuilt the islet, leveling it and constructing a steel-reinforced concrete structure shaped roughly like a battleship, transforming the rocky fort into 350 feet (106.7 meters) long concrete battleship that stands 44 ft (13 m) above sea level and about 144 ft (43.9 m) wide at its widest point. It also featured thick walls of up to 36 ft (11 m) that protected itself and its crew from bombardments, making it virtually impenetrable.
America’s Stubborn Stronghold in the Philippines
Fort Drum boasted two 14-inch custom-made gun batteries, further adding to its battleship-like appearance. Dubbed Batteries Marshal and Wilson, each capable of firing a 1,660-pound shell up to 11 miles (17.7 kilometers). It also mounted two 2-inch anti-aircraft guns, a cage mast, and two secondary 6-inch turrets in side casemates. The fort’s interior featured multi-deck rooms, including a large engine room, weaponry, a mining casemate, storerooms and tankage, a mess hall, medical facilities, a communication hub, and enough space to accommodate up to 300 enlisted men and 20 officers.
Like its steel-moving counterpart, Fort Drum’s overall design includes self-sufficiency, enabling itself to operate even when friendly forces cannot provide supplies, especially during conflict or natural disasters.
Fort Drum’s strategically advantageous position and powerful armaments equipped “on board” made the concrete battleship an effective defense in Manila Bay. However, the fort didn’t immediately go through action and, for a period, had become dormant. Apart from being unable to be maneuvered, the concrete battleship became a white elephant, with some servicemembers calling it the USS No-Go. Moreover, the reduction of military funding post-World War I made it impossible to keep the heavily fortified island in the best shape. Not long after, its technology became obsolete.
Less than a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese soldiers invaded the Philippines, landing on both sides of Luzon and capturing the capital. They have bombarded the region relentlessly. However, the invaders who went to penetrate via Manila Bay went on hell’s fire as the stronghold forts in the opening put up impressive firefighting and defense, including Fort Drum.
The concrete battleship countered the Japanese assault using its massive batteries and powerful turrets and was the last fort to surrender on May 6, 1942, after two months of resistance. And only because American forces on the bastion ran out of drinkable water, which was ironic. But until the last minute, Fort Drum firmly retaliated, and despite being hit more than a hundred times, Japanese forces never penetrated it. It didn’t even lose a single member of its garrison nor acquire serious injuries—a remarkable feat.
The Japanese captured the island after the Americans left, but not before the latter disabled all the powerful armaments mounted on the concrete ship. They also flooded ammunition stockrooms and other vital sections so enemy forces could not use the fort even if they tried to repair them.
Nearly three years later, American forces returned and successfully recaptured the Philippines. Fort Drum once again found itself at the center of the last bastion of resistance. This time, however, the concrete battleship was missing its lethal armaments, making the infiltration possible for the advancing US forces.
Japanese garrison inside Fort Drum refused to surrender, and knowing how impenetrable the fort was, the American troops decided to force its defenders out by pumping thousands of gallons of petrol-diesel mixture into the air vents, which they’re familiar with, before retreating and detonating a massive amount of explosives.
Sailing at a distance, the American troops watched the resilient fortress explode and engulfed in flames. After the fire subsided days later, they returned and found the ill fate of all the Japanese holdouts trapped and burned to death or suffocated by the toxic fumes.
US troops never restored Fort Drum to its former glory, and after World War II ended, it remained abandoned and in ruins.
Today, the concrete battleship remains a popular unofficial tourist destination under the jurisdiction of Cavite City, Philippines. Visitors can explore the abandoned reshaped fortress and witness up close its battle scars.
To learn more about the in-depth history of the resilient USS No-Go, check out The Concrete Battleship by Francis J. Allen here!