Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 20

Corregidor, known to the lowlifes, scoundrels, and pirates of the South Seas as the Rock, sat at the mouth of Manila Bay. It was part of the Philippines, technically United States territory, won at no great cost during a brief war with Spain in 1898, when Cannon was a young boy. He still remembered the marching song sung by the soldiers returning home to Akron: “Underneath the starry flag, civilize ’em with a Krag.”

It hadn’t gone well. For all the noise in the United States about manifest destiny after the Civil War, its settlers only got as far as the Montana Territory. The nation of Columbia got antsy, understandably so, about its larger neighbor. There was another brief war, if it could be called that; it was a border skirmish in slow motion. The United States hadn’t forced the issue, and thus it was that a nation with a large colony in the Far East had no port on the nearest seacoast. The Philippines got the dregs of American colonial power, the old ships too battered for service on the Liberian station, the governors too corrupt for the Bahamas.

The Rock sat in the mouth of Manila Bay, thirty miles west-southwest of Manila itself. The Spanish had fortified it, and the Americans had maintained a garrison there until money got too tight. Where the authorities retreated, pirates moved in.

It was a small island, tadpole-shaped, about four miles from head to tail, pointing west. The head, a mile or two across, rose some few hundred feet above the sea by means of tall, windblown slopes. The locals called it Topside. It sprouted gun barrels arranged in a dozen batteries amidst a sea of ramshackle buildings. At its center, the old stone garrison and officers’ quarters now flew the skull and crossbones: the seat of the South Seas Brotherhood.

Descending eastward from Topside, the island narrowed. Its tail was a mere five hundred yards from north to south, covered in dense jungle. A ribbon-like road sliced through it. A steep hill, filling the whole width of Bottom Side, forced the road to detour all the way to the north shore of the island, cut into the face of the hill. From there, it ran to the far eastern end of the island, ending at a grass airstrip cut into the woods: Kindley Field, named for a talented but hapless American aviator, wounded in crashes half a dozen times in his career.

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