Subic Bay, known as the United States’ largest military installation overseas for almost a century, covers some 67,000 hectares that included besides the former naval base land, a wide expanse of jungles and triple canopy forests. Since the American withdrawal from the area in late 1992, it has since been transformed into the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, a bustling hub for business, commerce, and tourism.

Earthmoving Shaped Subic
Aerial view of the old Subic Bay after the United States took control of the Spanish Arsenal and the adjacent town of Olongapo.

Not too many people are well aware though that before it became what it is today,Subic Bay — or more aptly the former site of Olongapo — was a small, quiet fishing village surrounded by towering mountains on three sides and a deep-water bay.

The place was precisely like this when the first Spanish explorers arrived in Zambales while looking for a refuge from a passing storm at the time.

But even though the Spaniards recognized its potential as a fine shelter for shipping as early as 1542, the Spanish Fleet did not attempt to move in and put up a naval base here. It wasn’t until 1762 when Subic Bay came to be used as temporary port in view of the British occupation of Manila in that same year.

And it wasn’t until 1868, when the Spanish Fleet conducted a military survey and saw the suitability of the deep harbor of Subic Bay and its pristine environment that they finally decided it is ideal for a naval base. In 1884, Spanish king Alfonso II declared Subic as a “naval port and the property appertaining thereto set aside for naval purposes,” which firmed up Subic Bay’s destined role in world maritime affairs and ushered its development as a port and harbor.

Among the first projects undertaken by the Spaniards in related to the naval base development was harbor dredging, which included the harbor basin, and the excavation and construction of a drainage canal to isolate Olongapo as an island and establish the Spanish Arsenal.

The Spanish Fleet used local labor to dredge the harbor basin, and built a drainage canal surrounding the port making an “island” of the Spanish Navy Yard.

The canal, according to early historical records, was also part of a Spanish defense system to protect the main entrance as Subic Bay was originally designed to have artillery defenses at the ends of the naval base and powerful Spanish gunboats were placed to ward off any invasion from the sea.

The canal also served to reduce risk of acquiring tropical diseases — by draining the formerly swampy terrain. This canal still exists today, surrounding the Subic Bay Freeport and connected by bridges to today’s Olongapo City proper.

Local people in the community were made to work as laborers, as substitute for tax payments. Through them several seawalls and causeways were built. Permanent structures, including walls similar to those of fortified old Manila, a watchtower, a gate, and several buildings were constructed. A railway line for transporting lumber was also constructed over the tidal flats bordering the Navy yard.

A mountain turned into a lagoon

Efforts to fortify the planned Spanish fortress further required quarrying thousands of tons of dirt and rock from the mountain at the Kalalake area of the former Olongapo. The Spaniards remedied the swampy areas around by removing rocks and other debris from Kalalake and used them as landfill over the muddy areas.

Old Kalalake
The lagoon that emerged from the extensive excavation and leveling of the Kalalake mountain now hosts a number of commercial business establishments around it.

This quarrying feat leveled an entire hill, and today, a lagoon stood in its place, which now serves not only as a reminder of the huge effort to build the Spanish Arsenal but also created a permanent landmark that has played a pivotal role in an important episode in the history of Subic Bay.

After the Spanish Arsenal was finished, the gunboats Caviteno, Sta. Ana, and San Quentin were assigned to its defense, complemented by gun batteries on the station and on Grande Island at the mouth of the bay.

Mountain leveled to build an airport

When the U.S. Navy took over control of Subic Bay, including the Spanish Navy Yard in the early 1900s, further reclamation projects were undertaken to improve the facility, coinciding with the development at the new site of Olongapo, which has become a town.

Subic Bay CUBI Airport
An engineering feat comparable in magnitude to the building of the Panama Canal best describes the cutting of a 1,200 foot mountain in half to create an air station in Subic Bay.

American military engineers continued where the Spaniards left off, and a vastly improved community controlled and managed by the U.S. military rose across the naval base.  

During the Korean War in the 1950s, Admiral Arthur Radford, chief of naval operations saw the need for a naval air station at Cubi Point. It was a rugged and jungle-covered finger of land three miles (4.8 km) across the naval base.

Adm. Radford believed that an air station would be a valuable asset for the U.S. Navy in the Philippines. U.S. Navy engineers sliced off the top of a mountain and dumped the soil into the bay. The reclaimed land enabled the creation of a naval airport with a 2.3 km runway. The Subic airport proved vital as a strategic base during the Vietnam War.

Radford’s Folly

The plan to create an air station in Subic Bay was considered the world’s biggest earth moving operation since the digging of the Suez Canal. But in spite of the magnitude of the job and the tremendous difficulties involved in the construction, The Pentagon approved the project.

Subic Bay International Airport - Terminal Subic Bay International Airport - Arial
The 3,000 meter runway in Cubi Point that the US Navy left in 1992 and improved upon by the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority to make it a modern airport and the terminal of the airport built in time for the hosting of the 1996 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit in Subic.

Civilian contractors were initially hired to work on the project but after seeing the forbidding Zambales Mountain and the maze of jungle at Cubi Point the contractors backed out, claiming it could not be done.

The Navy’s Seabees were then given the project and in 1951, the first phase of the project began. The first Seabees to arrive were Marine Construction Battalion (MCB)-3 on Oct. 2, 1951; the second, MCB-5, arrived on Nov. 5, 1951; and the third, MCB-2, arrived in early 1952.

The first problem they encountered was moving the fishing village of Banicain, which occupied a portion of the site for the new airfield. The village and its residents were moved to Olongapo, which became New Banicain. The former village of Banicain is now under 45 feet (14m) of earth.

The next, and the biggest issue however, was cutting and flattening a 1,200ft-mountain in half and moving soil to fill in Subic Bay and create a 10,000ft (3,000m) long runway.

The Navy Seabees blasted coral to fill a section of bay, filled swampland, removed trees as high as 150 feet (46m) tall and 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4m) in diameter. It was one of the largest earthmoving projects in the world, equivalent to the construction of the Panama Canal. The construction project took five years and an estimated 20 million man-hours.

The $100-million facility was eventually commissioned on July 25, 1956. It comprised an air station and an adjacent pier that was capable of docking the U.S. Navy’s largest carriers. On Dec. 21, 1972, the Naval Air Station Cubi Point was renamed to honor Adm. Arthur W. Radford.

Adm. Radford had the rare honor of personally dedicating the facility. A plaque memorializing the occasion reads: “Dedicated in honor of Admiral Arthur W. Radford, whose foresight in founding U.S. Naval Air Station Cubi Point has enabled the United States Navy to provide invaluable support to the Seventh Fleet and to carry out its obligations under the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty.”

In Dec. 7, 1959 — under the RP-US Bases Treaty Agreement –Olongapo was turned over to the Philippines and converted into a municipality through Executive Order No. 336 issued by then-Philippine president, Carlos P. Garcia.

More earthworks

Development involving earthworks and reclamation projects characterized the U.S. Navy’s almost-a-century stay in Subic Bay. These included building housing areas for officers and enlisted men in former jungle areas now called Kalayaan and Binictican. A network of roads cutting through the thick jungle was also built, which enabled the U.S. military to construct what have been described as “bomb-proof storage areas” for various weapons and ammunitions.

When the huge Subic Naval Base – by now officially called U.S. Naval Facility Subic Bay — was finally turned over to the Philippine government in late 1992, it has total value at US$8 billion left behind by the American military.

Reclamation and earthworks in present-day Subic and Olongapo

Tipo Express Way Tunnel
The Subic Clark Tarlac Expressway, an expressway connecting the former US bases Subic and Clark and Tarlac province, included this tunnel in Tipo that cut through a mountain.

After the American withdrawal in 1992, the Philippine government created the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) to transform the former U.S. military base into a civilian complex. In the last 25 years, SBMA pretty much engaged in conducting its own earthworks and reclamation projects to achieve its ultimate goal of creating jobs, generating livelihood, and boosting an economy that for decades depended solely upon the existence of the U.S. naval base.

Among the first major infrastructure projects undertaken by the SBMA was the building of an 8.8km expressway going out of the Subic Bay Freeport via Tipo in Bataan. This expressway project included building a tunnel cutting through a mountain.

New Container Terminal - Subic Bay
Subic’s new container terminals created by reclaiming an area beside the Cubi Airport has increased the port’s cargo handling capacity to 600,000 TEUs.

This brainchild of former Olongapo City mayor, SBMA’s first chairman, and now senator Richard Gordon was accomplished in the early years just in time for the hosting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in November 1996.

Another huge project by the SBMA was the reclaiming of an area near the Cubi airport to make way for new container terminal that can handle an additional 600,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs).

Funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the building of a new container terminal was intended to increase the Subic port’s capacity to handle cargo volume.

An abundance of sand

With so much sand spewed by the eruption of the volcano Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 in the former naval base and Olongapo City, there was simply an abundance of sand. Much of these went to reclaiming the beach areas and used in local infrastructure projects.

Mount Pinatubo Eruption - Mushroom Cloud Richard Gordon Hands On Coordination during Mount Pinatubo Eruption
Olongapo City Mayor Richard Gordon leads rescue efforts in the aftermath of the eruption of the long dormant volcano Mt. Pinatubo.

The Korean company Hanjin, described as 4th largest shipbuilder in the world with some 40,000 workers in the Philippines alone, has also done massive earthworks in building its huge ship building facility in the formerly barren Redondo Peninsula.

Hajin Heavy Industries
Korean shipbuilding giant Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction,the world’s 4th largest shipbuilder, has chosen to set up shop in the Redondo Peninsula.

Other investors are following with a coal-fired power plant under construction near the mouth of the bay and a huge industrial estate complex eyed to rise near Hanjin soon.

When the city government of Olongapo under Mayor Rolen Paulino started undertaking serious dredging and de-silting of the river channels in 2013 to avoid a repeat of flooding that had caused so much deaths and damage to the city prior, there was more than ample source of sand for reclamation and other projects.

Among those who benefitted from this abundance were contractors building homes and infrastructures, beach resort owners located near the mouth of the Kalaklan River and those located along Barretto National Highway, who made respective expansion projects, using these nature-given bumper supply of sand.  

Vista Marina and Lighthouse - Subic Bay 2017
Photo shows some of the developed sand from Kalaklan River now part of the reclaimed area of the Moonbay Marina Waterpark and Lighthouse Marina Resort near the mouth of Kalaklan River.

The SBMA, as announced by its new officials, also plans to do reclamation projects soon as the agency is now running short of developable land for its new investors.

 “More investors want to come in and do business in Subic and our main problem now is finding them a place to put up their factories and businesses,” says SBMA administrator and CEO Atty. Wilma Eisma.

Indeed earthworks — from the time of the Spaniards and throughout the American military’s stay — has done so much in shaping Subic Bay in the past and reshaping its future.
Obviously, earthworks will continue to become a major part of Subic Bay as seeks to solidify its niche as a well-developed and progressive hub for business, industry, and tourism in the future.


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