It was the departure place of the famous Manila Galleon from 1565 to 1821

Fort Santiago: the Spanish fortress that survived a brutal battle of World War II

Spain and Spanish America did not suffer the disasters of World War II, but former Spanish territories did.

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Specifically, the Philippines, Guam, and other former Spanish possessions in the western Pacific were invaded by the Japanese during that war. Specifically, the Philippines experienced a brutal Japanese occupation between 1942 and 1945, during which more than half a million Filipinos died, most of them (more than 300,000) due to starvation, and the rest due to of the fighting, the massacres perpetrated by the Japanese and the harsh conditions of forced labor to which many natives were sentenced.

The moat and the door of the Fort of Santiago (Photo:

One of the biggest battles of the Philippine War took place in Manila in 1945. It lasted just over a month, beginning on February 3 of that year and ending on March 3 with the defeat of the Japanese in front of the US military forces and the Filipino guerrillas. The battle was devastating: 100,000 civilians were killed, many of them victims of Japanese massacres in churches, schools and other places. The Japanese also used Filipino women and children as human shields, killing those who managed to survive.

The old Royal Warehouses, in ruins since World War II (Photo:

One of the toughest episodes of this battle took place in the part of the city known as Intramuros, which preserved historic buildings from the Spanish era . Thousands of Japanese soldiers, sailors and marines had entrenched themselves there, so this historic place experienced some very hard fighting, in which the US forces ended up resorting to an artillery bomber to liquidate the resistance of the Japanese forces . In the Intramuros area alone, more than 16,000 Japanese soldiers died.

Flags of Spain preserved in the Fort of Santiago (Source: intramurosph).

Of all the historic buildings in the Intramuros area, only 5% remained intact. 40% of the perimeter of the walls of Intramuros was destroyed. The only building in Intramuros that was only damaged (specifically its roof) was the Church of San Agustín, from the end of the 16th century, but the Adjacent monastery was destroyed.

The half bastion of San Francisco, located between the river and the forum, to the east of Fort De Santiago (Photo:

One of the places that were protagonists in that battle in Intramuros was the Fort of Santiago, built between 1590 and 1593 by order of Miguel López de Legazpi, the first Captain General of the Philippines. Located at the northwestern end of the Intramuros enclosure, it was the most important fortress in the city and the starting point of the famous Manila Galleon, which connected the capital of the Philippines with the city of Acapulco, in the Present-day Mexico, from 1565 to 1821.

The main square of the Fort of Santiago (Photo:

The Fort of Santiago had a perimeter of more than 600 meters. Triangular in shape, its northern part ran along the banks of the Pasig River, and its main entrance was protected by a moat. Due to its shape, it had three bastions: the half-bastion of San Francisco (between the river and the forum, to the east), the bastion of San Miguel (to the south) and the bastion of Santa Bárbara (the largest, to the west). Next to the latter was the faussebraye de la Media Naranja , where the dungeons were located.

The old dungeons, located in the faussebraye de la Media Naranja (Photo:

During World War II, the Japanese used the old Spanish dungeons to imprison hundreds of American prisoners of war: 600 of them died in captivity, from starvation and suffocation, after being crammed into a very small space. In addition to them, the Japanese killed 1,000 civilians they were holding hostage, eventually freeing another 3,000.

American soldiers transporting a wounded man inside the Intramuros compound, in Manila, on February 23, 1945, the day the assault on Fort Santiago began (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command).

The assault on Intramuros by the allies began on February 23. The fighting lasted three days in that compound. Of the eight Intramuros gates, two were badly damaged. Likewise, the main gate of Fort Santiago was badly damaged when the allies attacked it with Sherman tanks. A famous photo of the assault shows one of those tanks breaking through the smashed gate.

A US Army Sherman tank entering the gate of Fort Santiago de Manila on February 26, 1945, the day the assault on the old Spanish fort was completed (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command).

After the war,the Fort of Santiago and the rest of the Intramuros enclosure were rebuilt, to the extent possible. The monastery of the Church of San Agustín was also rebuilt. Reconstruction took decades, as almost the entire city of Manila was razed to the ground. What had been one of the most beautiful cities in Asia, the fruit of three centuries of Spanish presence, was left in ruins.

Plaque that remembers the prisoners murdered by the Japanese in the Fort of Santiago between 1942 and 1945 (Photo:

Today, the Fort of Santiago is one of the most important and visited historical places in Manila, becoming a place to remember those who suffered the effects of the war and Japanese crimes there. You can find more information about it at its official website.

The door of the Fort of Santiago, today, after being rebuilt (Photo:

Under these lines you can see the location of this fortress on Google Maps.


Main photo: Intramuros Administration.

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