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.

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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.

The rocky El Fraile Island circa 1909 (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.