WAR: FROM A CHILD’S EYE – by Cery S. Abad and Cely Bacani-Abad
Dec. 8, 1941. World War II started for me at the age of six — in a barber’s chair. My brothers and I were having haircuts in preparation for my First Communion. My father, a pediatrician, called from the Philippine General Hospital with urgent instructions to our agitated but uncomprehending maid to bring us home immediately. Pearl Harbor has been bombed!Punk haircuts not yet in style, I remember going home mortified, with my head half-shaved and my First Communion aborted.
Dec. 26, 1941. Manila was declared an “Open City” by President Manuel Quezon to save it from destruction by invading Japanese forces. The Philippine military and the U.S. Army contingent detailed in the country during the Commonwealth period made hasty preparations to evacuate Manila. I can still hear the ominous sound of trucks, with dimmed lights, rumble past our street in the dead of night while transporting war supplies and soldiers to make a last stand on Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island.
One morning — on Jan. 2, 1942 — we woke up to find that the Japanese had virtually sneaked in to occupy Manila. January – April 1942. The Filipino and American forces merged as the USAFFE (U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East) under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, retired U.S. chief of staff who currently served under President Quezon as adviser on Philippine military affairs. The USAFFE, undermanned, under-equipped, with many soldiers sick and facing starvation, fought a valiant but losing battle for three months — finally surrendering to overwhelming Japanese forces on April 9 in the Fall of Bataan. Shortly before the fall, MacArthur was ordered by U.S. President Roosevelt to sail to Australia, now as Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Asia and the Pacific theatre of war. He left his beleaguered forces with a vow, “I shall return!” And the hope of eventual victory. Pres. Quezon never saw his good friend return, dying of tuberculosis in the U.S. before the Philippines could rejoice, free of the Japanese, three years later.
Following the fall of Bataan, thousands of prisoners of war — famished, thirsty and sick — were marched non-stop for days by their captors from Bataan to Capas, Tarlac, in the infamous Death March. Hundreds perished on the wayside from sheer exhaustion or were shot to death by merciless guards. In prison those who survived disease, torture or death languished in filth and hunger for the next three years. Some who escaped the march, like my handsome 20-year-old cousin Carling, hid in forests or with villagers. One night he knocked on our door, unrecognizable from the ravages of hunger, stress and malaria. Risking danger of discovery, we hid and nursed him back to health — only to rejoin one of many guerilla units that kept up the good fight against Japanese forces deployed throughout the Philippines.
In Manila, after a couple of months under the Japanese, some semblance of normality returned to daily civilian life. Schools and offices re-opened. My father and mother, a pharmacist, returned to work at the Philippine General Hospital. I finally had my all-important First Communion — now happily sporting a respectable haircut. My brothers, sister and I returned to St. Theresa’s College, taking the tranvia which ran along Avenida Rizal to San Marcelino Street. When the tranvia broke down, my father hired a cochero with a horse-drawn calesa to take us to and from school. It was fun to take the reins of the calesa, when Mang Pabling would let me.
At age 8 in the third grade, my class put up a performance at the Metropolitan Theatre for Japanese officials — after which we were treated to the novelty of ice-cold coffee! The treat was to remain vivid in my childhood war memories of tastes, sounds and sights. But otherwise the sight of a Japanese soldier struck mortal fear in adults and children alike. I remember peeking through a hole in our front window, despite fatal warnings that one would be shot dead if caught watching the funeral procession of a high-ranking Japanese official who had just died. What child of war has not been haunted by dreams of a Japanese pilot flying a small plane, peering into the dining-room window, to get you cowering in the corner! It is a recurrent dream to this day buried in my psyche — grown old and delicious in the telling but just as frightfully real. Dread fear and smoldering hatred festered in the Filipino even as he smiled and bowed to the Japanese flag and posted sentries: Ohaiyo gozaimasta! (“Greetings”), while muttering under his breath O hayop ka! (“Beast”)
Manilans suffered hunger and malnutrition because the Japanese confiscated all rice and meat products brought to the city. Residents took to planting bananas and camote in their yards and street shoulders as sources of vegetables and carbohydrates. Coconut, when allowed in by Jap sentries, was eaten as broiled copra. The only rice available to Filipinos called sisid was recovered by resourceful divers from boats sunk in Manila Bay.
The food situation had worsened by mid-1944. My parents sent us boys to the province–three less mouths to feed–to stay with our paternal uncles in Amaya, Tanza, Cavite, where we would not starve. In fact, it was mango season! So I sat and pigged out on baskets of mango as if there was no tomorrow. Tomorrow did not almost come, in fact, as I got deathly ill to my stomach. However, after only a few weeks, our parents, missing us terribly, brought us back, starving or not, ending our glorious diet of green and ripe mangoes.
Hopes of impending American return were raised as fleets of U.S. bomber and fighter planes periodically flew over us, bombing and strafing key Japanese installations. From our second floor we could see clear through to the Pandacan fuel depots being bombed, sending thick black smoke billowing up the blue cloudless sky. Dogfights between American and Japanese fighter planes were spectacles thrilling to behold. I saw an American plane hit, its pilot parachuting down. But before he could land, his parachute was met by ground fire and he plunged to his death. I watched the end of his life . . . Sadly, I wondered what his name was.
October 1944. In Manila, through the grapevine we learned of the greatest World War II naval Battle of Leyte Gulf. The American Pacific naval fleet had massed in the Gulf as the Japanese fleet wended its way slowly up the narrow waterways of Surigao Strait to engage in battle. But in a surprise attack, fleets of American planes emerged thick as locusts from the eastern coast of Mindanao, sinking the Japanese fleet and eliminating it as a threat to American ships in the Pacific! The Americans soon landed on Leyte Island. As promised, Gen. MacArthur stepped back on Philippine soil, triumphantly proclaiming: “I have returned!”
February 1945. Now nine years old, I tried to make sense of the human chaos and destruction happening around me. Unlike the relatively quiet Japanese takeover of 1942, when Manila was declared an open city and American-Filipino forces retreated to the mountains of Bataan — now all hell broke loose! Out of nowhere, American liberating forces descended on Manila with lightning force, surprising the Japanese with their pants down. Cornered out of their wits, the Japanese literally ran amuck on a burning and killing rampage.
Between the two forces, Manila was razed to the ground, earning for it history’s tragic distinction as the most devastated city in World War II — second only to Warsaw! Piece by piece, my young mind understood what had happened. To liberate the city from Japanese control, the Americans planned the “pincer movement” strategy on Luzon Island. In late 1944, one force — the 21st Cavalry — landed at Pangasinan in Lingayen Gulf, slowly fighting its way south towards Manila. A second force landed in Batangas Bay and moved northwards, reaching the Manila outskirts of Paranaque, Rizal, by late January.
Meantime the 21st Cavalry was a good 66 km away in San Fernando, Pampanga. To all appearances it posed less of a threat to the Japanese, who then massed their defence against the nearer forces south of the Pasig River. But on Feb. 3, the Cavalry clandestinely motored overnight to Manila from San Fernando, liberating in a flash in the wee hours of morning two concentration camps for civilian American prisoners of war– the University of Santo Tomas in the Sampaloc district and Bilibid Prison in the Sta. Cruz district. I will never forget the shocking specter of skeletal Caucasian men, women and children shuffling dazedly from Bilibid Prison northwards past our windows to the already liberated areas. Compared to Filipino residents already emaciated from virtual famine, in hindsight, the cadaver-like survivors in skin and bones looked like walking ghosts of Auschwitz.
As American soldiers moved southwards, pausing from house to house, at our gate Tia Trining welcomed a soldier. Returning to the second-floor dining room, a sniper shot from a neighboring rooftop missed her by an inch, leaving a bullet-hole souvenir on the glass cupboard. My family was lucky to have resided in the area of Manila initially liberated because of the American internment camps nearby. Other areas later freed did not escape the wrath and vengeance of the Japanese. But for the geographical location of my house, I could be dead as a doornail. The Japanese — caught by surprise while expecting the American southern force to enter Manila ahead of the northern force — went on a rampage south of the Pasig River.
In the residential districts of Malate, Ermita, Paco and Intramuros, menfolk aged 16 to 60 were herded into buildings and bayoneted to death. In other buildings, women and children huddled together in terror. Turned vicious, the killers poured gasoline around, torching the buildings. Like a drowning monster flailing and clawing at anyone to drag under, the Japanese in one last monumental act of bestial fury plundered, burned and butchered all within striking distance — to take down with him in defeat and shame.
North of the river, the burning raged on unabetted in the commercial districts of Quiapo and Sta. Cruz, prompting our family to evacuate residence only four blocks away from the towering inferno. We fled farther northwards with possessions loaded on wooden pushcarts. Father bravely stayed behind to monitor our house from fire and looting. A couple of nights we spent under the stars within the walls of a Chinese cemetery temple. Then we moved in with our piano teacher’s family in Blumentritt until things cooled down. It felt good to have a home to return to. Near us the flames had devoured everything in its path all the way to Azcarraga Street, leaving an ugly blackish blanket of ashes.
Meantime, with Intramuros still in Japanese hands, American trench mortars set up throughout Manila, one near our house, shot up barrages of shells at regular intervals towards the Walled City. We got used to periodic blasts day and night, until the American troops seized Intramuros commando-style, preceded by flame-throwing vehicles that flushed out Japanese snipers concealed in ruined buildings. After the bombardment, San Agustin Church alone stood as survivor and mute witness to the Japanese’s final stand.
After the Liberation, the smoldering hatred for the Japanese turned to ugly revenge when Makapili — suspected or identified collaborators who aided Japanese arrest and torture fellow Filipinos — were rounded up and similarly tortured by their Filipino captors. The anger and pain, too close to home, cried out for the catharsis of violence. There were horrific tales of collaborators’ tongues sliced off, eyes gouged out, genitals mutilated — in retaliation for unspeakable cruelty daily inflicted by the Japanese on somebody’s father, mother, son, sweetheart, brother, wife, lola or baby.
For a decade until the late ’50s, Japanese could not set foot on Philippine soil without being stoned in hate. The months following Liberation happily marked relief from gnawing hunger, at last. People lined up for rations of rice and U.S. canned goods; and quickly began the work of repairing and rebuilding. But more than anything else, it was especially a time of rebuilding bodies and spirits broken and scarred by war. In mid-1945, schools started to re-open. My siblings and I walked along railroad tracks to school or took U.S. Army 6×6 trucks which, like calesa days of old, was great fun.
I leapfrogged through grades 4, 5 and 6 in one year, in time for enrollment in the Ateneo, where classes were held in newly-built Quonset huts. There, amid the ruins of bombed-out buildings on Padre Faura Street, a new life had begun. Peacetime had come.
Or so I thought.
Today, 60 years later . . . I see that wars have not stopped. World War II has impacted my life . . . not to mention the ongoing wars all over the world — inside or outside one’s own country. History keeps repeating itself — from Hitler’s pathological delusions to rule Europe, Asia and Africa; to Japan’s greed to create a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”, making Japan conveniently the hub for her potential Asian markets and sources of raw materials. One theatre of war ended in suicide and ignominy; the other in defeat and dishonor. No matter. Power freaks obsessed with similar human motives continue to plunge their countries into the hellish horrors of destruction and human suffering. It is, after all, humans, and their motives, that cause wars.
Will wars, then — as long as humans remain human — ever stop? Perhaps not. Yet the counter-force of human hope and its saving grace forever beckons . . . So, perhaps yes. Perhaps, perhaps. Wars have taught me only one sure thing: He who conquers . . . will be conquered. And sorry for everyone else caught in between.