It is the month of February again, the month in 1945 when the Japanese chose to turn our fair city into a battleground and killing ground, as Ambassador Juan José Rocha has said, leading to the death of some 100,000 noncombatant civilians, the destruction of irreparable heritage, and the near-obliteration of public utilities.
We need to be reminded of these events due to our notorious historical amnesia.
There are also misconceptions about the Battle for the Liberation of Manila that distort our recollections of that tragedy.
The first is the notion that the barbarities were committed by Koreans, not Japanese. This appears to be Japanese propaganda aiming to shift responsibility for the atrocities to others.
Ricardo T. José, our leading authority on World War II, says this cannot have been the case, as there were no Korean combat units in Manila. The only divisions recruited in Korea, which very likely consisted of Japanese residents there, were sent to Mindanao and the Cordillera, not Manila.
Most Koreans in Manila were waterfront laborers or prison-camp guards, as were the Taiwanese, and they surrendered without fighting.
There were a few Taiwanese incorporated into Japanese units, and a few survivors appeared in the rather distorted NHK film where the killings of civilians were portrayed as antiguerrilla actions. Women, children, nuns, priests, foreigners—all guerrillas? Ridiculous, of course.
The second misconception is the comparative number of casualties between Japanese massacres and American shelling. Someone has gone so far to say that the shelling killed more than the massacres did.
More sober estimates tilt it the other way. Gen. Ramon Farolan estimates that 60 percent were killed by the Japanese. Memorare Manila 1945 Foundation sent out a questionnaire to survivors in 1995, and came up with an estimate of 70 percent killed by the Japanese.
A statistical sample of sorts can be culled from Antonio Perez de Olaguer’s early postwar book, translated into English as “Terror in Manila—February 1945.” This contains a list of about 250 Spanish nationals killed during the Battle for Manila, giving the cause of death, and the resulting figure is 85 percent killed by the Japanese.
This is not to minimize the seriousness of the often excessive and indiscriminate American shellfire. The mother of Memorare president Rocha was killed by an American shell, as were my Spanish teacher Doña Laura Felix, sister of Justice Alfonso Felix Sr.; and my high-school teacher, Ricardo Pimentel, SJ.
Ultimately the fundamental issue is not about comparative casualty figures, but the moral responsibility for making Manila a combat zone, thus necessitating the use of artillery. Clearly this was the sole responsibility of the Japanese.
The third misconception, assiduously promoted by revisionist historians, is that Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, overall commander of Japanese Forces in the Philippines, was not guilty of the killing and destruction in Manila.
Starting with a book by his defense counsel, Frank Reel, which is more of a defense brief than a balanced narrative, it has been claimed that he had lost contact with the combat units (highly unlikely in the age of radio communication), that the army troops he left behind were there only to destroy or evacuate military supplies, and that he had ordered a pull-out of units from Manila, which was disobeyed (by Admiral Iwabuchi, who was conveniently dead).
The fact of the matter is, Yamashita denied the pleas of Filipino officials to declare Manila an open city, as MacArthur had done in 1941. This clearly showed he intended to make Manila a battleground.
Rather than pulling out military units and supplies, Manila was bristling with artillery, and six months’ worth of supplies were stored in the Finance Building, bespeaking a deliberate plan to endure a long siege. Several strong structures were fortified. Having gone to all this trouble, why would he order a pull-out?
It is also hard to comprehend why, if the remaining troops were simply to evacuate or destroy supplies, it was taking them weeks to do what MacArthur had done in a few hours in 1941. The Pandacan oil depots were blown up in an hour on New Year’s Eve in 1941, and supplies not taken to Bataan were made available to the public when the warehouses in the Port Area were thrown open.
Why did Yamashita not do the same thing if he really wanted to spare Manila? Obviously he did not want to. Yamashita already had a track record of massacre with the killing of thousands of Chinese after the fall of Singapore in 1942.
On the doubtful premise that Yamashita wished to avoid combat in Manila, he could have known very early on that fighting was, in fact, going on, from Domei News dispatches reaching him.
Ambassador Miguel Perez Rubio, President Aquino’s protocol officer, was in a Kempeitai jail in Baguio at that time and saw these Domei dispatches. Unknown to him, his whole family in Manila was being massacred.
The Americans did not completely encircle the Manila garrison, consisting of over 12,000 Marines and nearly 4,000 Army troops, until Feb. 12, so they had nine whole days to get out if they really wanted to. Did they?
While the Marines committed most of the atrocities, it was the Army troops along the Pasig who did the initial burning and demolition of residential and business areas and the killing of civilians in Sta. Cruz and Tondo, even before the Americans were firmly established in Manila.
Japanese testimony at war-crimes trials is shadowed by the well-founded presumption of perjury.
Captain Toshimi Kumai narrates instructions given to fellow POWS by Yamashita’s chief of staff, Gen. Akira Muto: “You should never say, for the sake of Japan, for the sake of the Japanese Army, that anyone who graduated from the Imperial Military Academy had ever ordered killing of noncombatants… The high-ranking officers meticulously followed this policy…” (The Blood and Mud in the Philippines: Anti-Guerrilla Warfare on Panay Island,” p. 126; Iloilo City, Malones Publishing House, 2009).
In short, lie for the honor of your Army and your country.
No wonder American lawyer William Quasha, when I asked him about the Yamashita trial, bluntly told me that Yamashita was a damned liar.
A former deputy governor for economic research of the Central Bank of the Philippines, the author is a National Book Award-winning historian. He was a board member of the National Historical Institute (2003-2010), and is on the board of advisers of Ayala Museum.