The founding of Subic Bay is credited to Juan de Salcedo who was the grandson of famed explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. The original name of the bay was “Hubek”, which literally meant “pillow head”, and its said that the name was often mispronounced as Subiq by the Americans. They mispronounced the name yet again rendering it as Subig. Eventually, the name reverted back to Subiq but the letter “q” was replaced with a “c” thus its current name, Subic Bay.
This area has been eyed as a naval port since the time of the Spanish colonization. King Alfonso II issued a decree in 1884 that declared Subic as “a naval port and the property appertaining thereto set aside for naval purposes”. Construction of an arsenal and ship repair yard was initiated March 8 the following year, as ordered by the new settlers Naval Commission.
Subic Bay’s potential as naval station reached the land of Commodore George Dewey in 1898 and shortly thereafter he and his men engaged in a fierce battle with the Spaniards. The great naval battle ensued the bay’s waters and the Spanish forces stationed in the bay were eventually destroyed. The area came under American control in 1899. The bay was then converted into a Naval base and repair station.
In 1902, Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans, Commander of the Asiatic Stations, directed 200 Marines for an expeditionary force for the first US fleet exercise in Asian waters. Guns were erected on Grande Island and Admiral Evans laid plans for emergency repairs of the station at Subic Bay but was denied. Five years later, the US Congress finally appropriated funds for a full-scale Subic Bay Naval Reservation. Words from then President Theodore Roosevelt goes:
“If we are to exert the slightest influence in Western Asia, it is of the highest importance that we have a naval station in Subic Bay.”
Subic Bay, a Promising Harbour
Subic Bay was on the rise of being one of the best training areas in the Corps. But with the US – Japan tension heating up, appropriations for operation and maintenance of the base fell short. Funds were directed to the development of Pearl Harbor as US main Naval base in the Pacific and Subic Bay, the promising harbor, was left as a small repair station. When the US was drawn into World War I, Filipinos and Americans worked hand in hand to prepare battleships for the war. Workers at Subic Bay overhauled 26 German ships that had been used to transport American troops across the Atlantic to Europe. Likewise, this period gave way for different developments; Olongapo had a taste of some of its best years; the base was lined with trees and plants, and several recreational facilities were constructed. But the skies over the Bay were suddenly raining with stick bombs – the Japanese claimed Subic and Olongapo on January 10, 1942, days after the Pearl Harbor attack, bringing with them the devastation of World War II.
Many Filipinos and Americans were killed, several buildings were destroyed, seven seaplanes were sunk, and telephone- and telegraphs lines were sabotaged. The US Marines were ordered to withdraw into Bataan before being forced to pull back all the way to El Corregidor, burning all buildings left standing. Filipinos torched all the war’s ruins in Olongapo. It would take three years of Japanese rule before the Americans managed to make a forceful rebound and reoccupy the base on January 29, 1945.
Subic Bay Naval base underwent massive reconstruction and was ready for naval endeavors on September 26, 1945. Shortly after the marines resumed their duties, the Tydings-McDuffie Law set provision for Philippine independence and was granted on July 4, 1946. Nonetheless, the US maintained that it would still retain the country’s military bases. The Philippines, acknowledging its frailty in the Cold War, entered into the RP-US Military Bases Agreement on March 14, 1947. The US was granted the right to retain sixteen military bases and to administrate the town of Olongapo. Several significant urbanization projects were orchestrated, but the most challenging was as gigantic as displacing half the part of a 1,200-foot mountain, that needed around 20 million man-hours, and required five years of labor – the exceptional air station and pier construction of the Seabees was the highlight of 1956 in Subic Bay.
Another accomplishment at the height of the cold war was ammunition bunkers and buildings that occupied over 12,400 acres of the South-Western part of Subic Bay. Set in the tropical rainforest, ammunition and ordinance from these facilities played a big role in the Vietnam War and in the Gulf War of 1991.
The original 1947 military pact between the Philippines and the US has been amended. The year 1979 witnessed a turning point for both countries – Philippines claimed a sovereign rule over the base and the US area of responsibility was reduced from 24,000 hectares to 6,300 hectares. What followed was a series of events that would change the course of Subic Bay forever.
On June 15, 1991, volcanic ashes and debris rained over the bay, devastating Subic Bay and neighboring provinces. Mt. Pinatubo’s fury has left the navy and air force no option but to evacuate all their dependents. When Mt. Pinatubo’s rage came to a halt, American and Filipino personnel restored the base, bringing it back to business in no time. Uncertainty continued hovering the Philippine Senate with regard to the termination of the 1947 treaty. Months-long discussions were held, parliamentary proceedings were organized, and a pro-bases rally was staged, but to no avail. September 16, 1991 surfaced a conclusion – The US had to withdraw its forces and equipment from Clark and Subic. Having received the rejection of 12 senators on the earlier proposed new treaty, the lowering of the American flag followed suit. The Navy bid farewell to America’s nine decades of military presence on Philippine soil. If you’re interested in the history of the bay watch The Subic Bay Story, Rising Above The Storm, a four episodes long story about Subic Bay that can be watched on Youtube.