MANILA, Philippines — Team USA toured the second-largest American military cemetery in the world on Wednesday, and The Athletic was invited to attend. The following is a brief account of the experience:
It had rained here daily for well over a week, and when the skies opened, what fell was often torrential, engulfing sheets of rain that flooded main streets in low-lying areas in minutes.
The Team USA hotel is not in one of those areas, but with the constant threat of imminent weather and the soaking, heavy rains often borne out of those threats, sightseeing in Metro Manila had been greatly reduced, to maybe a walk to a restaurant or a quick nine holes of golf, if there was no lake in the middle of the fairway.
But on Wednesday, a day off for Team USA following its FIBA World Cup quarterfinal win over Italy, clouds cleared early and a piercing blue sky and hot sun returned to the city. The Americans hadn’t seen a day this hot, or this clear of rain and clouds, since perhaps the day the team plane landed in Manila on Aug. 22.
So three busloads of players, coaches, staff and family made the short trip from the hotel to the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, the second-largest American military cemetery in the world, for a wreath ceremony and tour.
There are 17,000 American and Filipino soldiers interred here. They died in combat fighting under the American flag against the Japanese during World War II. Their graves are marked by crosses (or single pillars with the Star of David for Jewish soldiers) in perfect rows, surrounded by tropical trees, with skyscrapers in the distance, and are on the lush, green, rolling hills of this 152-acre plot operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Only Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is larger, and there are nearly twice as many soldiers buried here as there are on site in Normandy, France.
The Americans were greeted as they got off the bus by the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, MaryKay Carlson, a career diplomat who has represented the U.S. on assignments since 1985, and escorted to the front of the large, stone chapel in the center of the cemetery.
Players Jalen Brunson and Bobby Portis, coach Steve Kerr, Carlson and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and retired U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who chairs the USA Basketball board of directors, bowed in front of a memorial wreath that read “In Honor of All Who Fell” that was flanked by two U.S. marines. They then stood in attention for the playing of the Filipino and American national anthems and “Taps.”
The entire team posed for pictures with Carlson and cemetery staff, then embarked on a guided tour of large, limestone tablets, rising up from marble floors, in cavernous, open walkways that stem from map rooms detailing the major land and sea battles in the South Pacific from World War II, with names of another 36,000 American and Filipino troops missing from the war.
The players walked slowly around the tablets, taking in the names. They stopped at “Bridges” and “Hart” and “Johnson” because those last names matched theirs. Walker Kessler found the name of a “Walter Kessler.” They were regaled with stories of a few of the fallen soldiers, including two athletes, an American football player who was drafted by the New York Giants and a Filipino Olympic medalist.
At the end of the tour, the American team presented a signed USA jersey to Carlson, who is from Arkansas, where Portis and Austin Reaves grew up, and she said the jersey would be framed and placed prominently at the U.S. embassy — which is on a street lined with palm trees in a neighborhood designed by architects commissioned by President William Howard Taft. (The Philippines was an American colony before the war, and after its liberation from Japanese invaders, was granted independence by the U.S. in 1946.)
Not far from the U.S. embassy is the Manila Hotel, opened in 1912, where U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur kept a penthouse suite as an office during the war. Ernest Hemingway visited the hotel in 1941.
At the conclusion of the cemetery tour, the Americans had a few minutes before climbing aboard those air-conditioned buses to walk the grounds and read the names on the crosses.
The trip to the cemetery was the second group tour of a public, historic site since training camp started Aug. 3. Team USA also visited the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, one of the largest mosques in the world outside of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
The Americans will practice Thursday and play Germany in the World Cup semifinals at 8:40 a.m. ET Friday.
(Top photo: Stephen Gosling / NBAE via Getty Images)