Before the Japanese attacked the American naval base in Hawaii on December 8, 1941, their invasion of the Philippines was expected. By then, the Japanese had already occupied Manchuria, large portions of China. French Indochina and the island of Formosa. In Manila, the siren atop the ice plant at the south end of Quezon Bridge wailed to announce the black out during which all lights in Manila were extinguished or shaded. We had evacuation drills even, but all these exercises were of no avail when the Japanese, on the same date that they bombed Pearl Harbor, also bombed Fort Stotsenburg in Pampanga, Iba, Zambales and Nelson airfield in Manila. I was a senior high school student at the Far Eastern University in Azcarraga; schools were closed immediately. Warehouses in the Port Area were looted. I hurried to Tutuban the following day to take the train to Rosales. Tutuban was chaos. I got into the coach by climbing to the window.
It was quiet in Rosales. The traffic consisted mostly of local caretelas and the sequestered Pantranco buses camouflaged with coconut fronds and branches carrying soldiers to the beaches up north. My cousin, Raymundo Alberto dropped by briefly to say goodbye; he was going to Bataan. One afternoon, a high flying airplane unloaded leaflets showing a demonized picture of Franklin Roosevelt.
We evacuated to a distant barrio where my cousin, Dr. Eustaquia Alberto, had land. We were all afraid; the Japanese were reputed to rape and kill indiscriminately. We stayed in the barrio till the Japanese came on bicycles and open trucks in the distant highway. We went back to town in late December.
The first few weeks of the Occupation were quiet. The Japanese appointed a local politician as mayor and they occupied the elementary school buildings and posted a sentry in the town municipio. We were instructed to bow before the sentry.
We followed this instruction faithfully; then come April, after the fall of Bataan, the sentries started slapping people. By then, too, we heard of the Death March and in June, I went to Capas to look for my cousin, Raymundo. I stayed in Capas for a week, asking questions, looking at lists. I went back to Rosales with the sad news that my cousin had probably died either in Capas or in Bataan.
Soon, life in Manila became difficult with so many shortages. American cigarettes were gone, Akebono cigarettes from Japan were rationed. By the end of the year, tobacco had dwindled. Dried papaya leaves were a substitute and cigarette wrappers were pages torn from the Bible or any thin paper from magazines and books. Soon, too, rice was rationed. It was forbidden to transport it unless there was permission from the rice agency, BIBA. Roasted coco meat was sold in the sidewalk and called castañog. Medical supplies were exhausted and substitutes particularly medicinal plants were in demand. Dried fish and meat were very expensive. Almost every vacant plot of land in Manila was planted to cammote and talinum. Garbage pits were dug.
Jobs were available. I worked briefly as a peon (laborer) for a construction firm building warehouses in the Port Area. Once, for a survey firm, I worked in Florida Blanca, Pampanga as a line man. The Japanese were enlarging the airfield there. After two months, however, we stopped work. The guerrillas told us to leave. We were paid in Japanese war notes whose value diminished slowly. But we had rice rations which we valued more.
Soon, almost all commodities like cloth were rationed. Towards the end of the Occupation, some farmers started wearing sack cloth.
The absence of Western cultural artifacts, Hollywood films, books provided a great opportunity for Filipino cultural production. The major movie houses started presenting Tagalog plays that were adaptations from the classics as well as Filipino originals. Filipino musicians, too, were greatly in demand. Tagalog literature was encouraged.
Divisoria became the hub of the buy and sell business and was where the shortages were alleviated by local ingenuity. Imported soap was no longer available but was replaced by locally made soap. Only the Japanese and the most powerful Filipino collaborators had gasoline. A few cars were made to run with what its inventors called “charcoal fed”—a big contraption in the back of the car that generated gas from charcoal. With no more leather or rubber for shoes, finely carved wooden shoes for men and women emerged.
My most important chore during the Occupation was to bring rice from Rosales to Manila, my cousin, Dr. Eustaquia Alberto with whom we were living. At the beginning of the Occupation a few trucks operated as buses but towards the later part of the Occupation, it was the trains from Bicol and the Ilokos that brought people and goods to Manila. In late 1943, I brought a half sack of rice to Moncada, Tarlac, I was stopped at this Japanese outpost there at the railroad crossing. I was telling this story to the late Horacio (Boy) Morales who used to come to the bookshop; and he told me that the camarin at the crossing belonged to his family.
The moment I got off the caretela, I showed the sentry the permit from BIBA. The Japanese didn’t even look at it. He slapped me several times then pointed to the open door of the camarin or bodega. I went there; it was around ten in the morning, a brilliant sun, and on the open bodega front, on the cement floor—eight men stood, their hands tied behind their back with wire; their hands were already black. And the horror of it all—a man lay on the cement floor, a pool of blood beside him. The blood had not yet dried. A Japanese—his gun with fixed bayonet shouted at me, then he struck me in the stomach with his rifle butt. The pain was indescribable, I collapsed. When I regained consciousness, I rose in pain and trembling and joined the line. There must have been an organ that was damaged, perhaps a broken rib. I knew then that I would be killed. I looked at the blue sky, the white clouds. At my side was the rusting iron sheet and on the floor was a line of ants carrying grain bigger than themselves. These were the last things I was going to see. I had difficulty standing. When the pain was too much, I crouched. Past high noon, towards four when the sun had gone down and we were in the shade, an officer came towards us. We can easily recognize the officers because of their double shirts, their boots and sword. He came direct to me and barked at me in Japanese. I thought that my end had come. But he pushed me instead and pointed to the wide open door of the camarin. As I stumbled toward, expecting a bullet on my back, or a slash of his sword, but he continued barking, and when I reached the door, I realized he wanted me to leave. I reached the highway, whole and alive and I was filled with such relief, I will never forget that feeling. I walked with great difficulty the whole night and I reached Rosales the following morning.
Almost immediately at the start of the Occupation, the guerrilla movement started; I saw this in that village where we evacuated, the farmers taking up arms.
One morning, a couple of guerrillas came to our village with a prisoner, his hands tied behind his back. They said he was a Japanese spy. They went to the house close to where we were staying. The whole village went to look at the prisoner; he was wan and fear was imprinted all over his face. They left soon after but around midday, one of the guerillas returned to tell us that their prisoner had escaped.
As usual in the village without electricity, we went to sleep early. It must have been past midnight when we were waken by shouts and soon after, a volley of gunfire. The Japanese had come. The whole village was going to be annihilated. After that first volley, no more shouts then everything was quiet. In the morning we learned that the Japanese strafed the house where the Japanese spy had been taken. A guerrilla had jumped out of the window and was slightly wounded.
I saw two killings of Japanese soldiers in 1943—in my hometown and the other in Manila. We were leaving the church that Sunday morning and I happened to look towards the east, at the sentry post before the municipal building. I saw this man bow before the Japanese sentry, then draw a pistol and fire at the soldier who immediately slumped. All of us ran away. We were all aware that the Japanese would hold six Filipinos whom they will execute. We fled to the barrio where my cousin had tenants and stayed there for about a month till things quieted again, then we went back to town. The other execution was in Felix Huertas. It was about ten in the morning. I was visiting a relative. A dokar came up the street with an officer. It was headed to the Jockey Club which was then occupied by them. A man darted out of the alley and shot the officer. He slumped forward. The cochero jumped out of the dokar which trotted on.
In June 1944, I enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas in Intramuros. At the time, the main campus in España was used as the interment camp of Allied civilians, mostly Americans. The campus was walled with sawali.
Our classrooms were in the old building next to the church of Santo Domingo. Farther to the left was San Juan de Letran. Aside from the science subjects, we also had Japanese language lessons, by a young naval officer whose English was very correct. He had the usual sword. We were also taught a song which I can sing to this very day. I always recalled the song when visiting Tokyo afterwards, it was played by those black trucks which the demonstrators used. As for our Japanese language lessons, all I remember now is Kore wa Hondesu—this is a book.
We were having Japanese lessons at around 10 a.m. In September 21 when the first American air raid in Manila took place. The anti aircraft guns atop the Letran college started popping as the dark grey American planes zoomed just above the acacia trees as they headed for the bay to bomb the Japanese ships there. The planes had white bands and white stars on their fuselage. Some of their cockpits were open and the pilots were waving. When we realized they were not Japanese, we started screaming, stomping our feet. Our Japanese instructor sneaked away. That day, all classes were stopped. And that afternoon shortly after lunch, the massive air raid was preceded by a distant hum which grew louder and soon the sky was dark with American planes headed north. The Japanese anticraft guns pocked the sky with black bursts but none of the planes were hit. Many were wounded as shrapnel from the aircraft guns fell. We didn’t know it then, but after that we all stayed indoors. That massive raid was not repeated but everyday American planes ranged the skies. Soon, by grapevine, we learned that the Americans hand landed in the South.
By late October, little food was left in the city. All the empty plots of land in the city had been planted to camote and talinum. Late that month my mother, a male cousin and I walked all the way to Rosales. We had niggardly provisions which we supplemented on the way. We walked in the daytime and slept under the empty houses along the highway. By then, all the residents had moved to the villages. At night, we could hear the Japanese marching—they did not dare move in the daytime for the American planes ranged the skies unopposed.
We got to Rosales after a week. Our house was beside the elementary school and one morning, we woke up to find that the school had been occupied by a company of Japanese soldiers in retreat to the mountains in the north, we were very scared but they kept to themselves. They were hungry, too, for one of the soldiers who saw me gestured and asked for food. I went to the kitchen where there was still left over rice. I brought to him and he ate it with his hands.
We decided to leave the house the following day to settle in the village where we had evacuated when the Japanese came.
The Longest Fifty Meters
During the last days of November, the towns were empty as again people evacuated to villages in anticipation of the fighting.
One morning, my cousin the doctor told me to go back to Rosales to retrieve some of her instruments. I left immediately and wandered around the empty town. In the house, I felt sleepy so I went to sleep. I woke up in the late afternoon and having gotten the scalpel and forceps in a bayong, I started out for Carmay where we had evacuated. When I reached the Andolan creek, to my surprise, the wooden bridge was gone and portions of it were still burning. The guerrillas had destroyed it. I went down to the gully which led to the creek. It was no longer the rainy season so the water was not deep and I waded across. When I reached the other gully, I was stunned—a company of Japanese soldiers with hoes and spades were widening it for their trucks to go through. It was too late for me to turn back to run. I decided to go on through their very midst. It was the longest fifty meters I went through. My heart was still, I was chilled but I walked on as if I was on a stroll. Some paused to look at me—just another barefoot young peasant. At any time I expected a shot in the back, a swift stroke with the sword. When I reached the other end of the gully, a truck was in its mouth. There was not a person in sight; all the villagers have fled.
Although Lingayen was more than 50 miles away from Rosales, we could hear the boom of the big guns as they pounded the beaches where the Americans would land. We left our evacuation haven and walked back to town, and were in our homes when the Americans came the following day. We were amazed at how big their trucks were, their tanks, and the war machines, the bulldozers. And most of all, we were very happy. They brought the goodies, spam, doughnuts, coca cola. The following week, I joined the American Army as a civilian employee of the medical unit of the combat engineers. I remember very well, my brief interview with Dr. Edward J. Amorosi who hired me with the official rank of technical sergeant. I had worked at my cousin’s clinic—I knew how to give injections, even intravenous injection, dress superficial wounds etc., now, I could pursue my ambition to go to Japan with the invading army to wreak havoc, my personal vengeance on the Japanese.
I learned from the war, most of all, the value of life. In those moments when I thought death was just a breath away. I knew fear—that kind that paralyzed the body, and shriveled the heart. I learned hunger, to know that there was nothing to eat. Patience, hard work, I learned these, too, to do what was at hand because there were no alternatives. As with the Marcos regime, I prayed that I would live long enough to see how it will end. I learned how important it is to be prepared, not in the sense that we could win and defeat a mighty enemy, but that we could live under the lash.
The war raised a fundamental issue which divided the nation—collaboration. It was settled as a political issue when President Jose P. Laurel, the puppet President was elected senator after the war. But as a moral issue it continues to rankle the Filipino conscience to this very day.
In the same manner that fire tempers steel, calamities like war also tempers the nation. That is the positive side, the downside is that it ravages civic morals. When anarchy prevails everyone is concerned only with self preservation. It is very difficult for a nation to recover civic morality once it is lost. This perhaps explains why there is so much corruption in the country today after these series of calamities—World War II and then the Marcos dictatorship.
There are no Ifs in history but in afterthought, it would have been better for us if it was the Japanese who colonized us as long as they did Korea and Taiwan. They would have brutalized us and we will not have the ambivalent feelings for them the way we have such feelings for the Americans. A bit of their fanatic nationalism would have rubbed off on us, too, and this sentiment is the impetus to modernization as had happened in Korea and Taiwan. And finally, there would be none of the oligarchy created by American largesse such as we have today. But all this, of course is what the Americans call spilled milk. The nation that we could become, prosperous and just is yet to be built. We can do it because we are a talented and heroic people.