In her vivid account of the first day of Manila’s Liberation on Feb. 3, 1945, Conchita C. Razon (Inquirer, Feb. 3, 2013, page D2) writes: “There were rumors of plans to execute the internees.” How well-founded were these rumors?
CBS correspondent William Dunn, who rode with the 1st Cavalry’s Flying Column to UST, reported the prevailing apprehension: “Santo Tomas had to be taken swiftly… if we did have to fight our way into the camp, the Japanese would immediately start the wholesale slaughter everyone feared” (Pacific Microphone, 1988, page 289).
The one report I have seen citing written orders to that effect is by internee Herman E. Strong in his book “A Ringside Seat to War” (NY: Vantage Press, 1965). On page 89, he writes:
“…all male internees between the ages of 18 and 50 were to be executed on Sunday, Feb. 4, 1945! This was revealed by documents under a Tokyo military dateline found in the commandant’s office the night we were liberated. This information, I presume, had obviously been transmitted to our forces by a secret agent in Manila. It so happened that I was standing nearby when Stanley [the British camp interpreter] translated this document to the American commander. ‘So that’s why we were supposed to get here before midnight,’ the American commander said. The commander stuffed the document into his pocket and said, ‘Don’t mention this to anyone.’”
Strong is confident that no one present mentioned this until perhaps after war’s end. He himself was questioned twice about it by military intelligence before the war was over.
“I am still not sure just why the authorities wanted that information kept secret,” he writes.
The order was quite credible, as the Japanese had already massacred 139 American POWs working at the Puerto Princesa airfield on Dec. 14, 1944. Ricardo T. José tells me there was a written order in Taiwan ordering the execution of POWs before they could be freed by any possible landing force.
Without citing Strong specifically, David Bergamini repeats the information about the planned killing of internees and its frustration by the early arrival of the flying columns (“Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy,” 1971, page 1033).
A somewhat different story, but still pointing to a possible massacre, is told by Joan Bennett Chapman, who was 11 at Liberation. She wrote to historian and filmmaker Peter Parsons that behind the wide staircase of the UST building there was a lot of stuff that looked like rabbit-food pellets. Around Liberation time, children put some of the pellets in empty scavenged milk-of-magnesia bottles, tossed them to a fire, and watched them smoke and explode.
Later she learned the Japanese were planning to flee on Feb. 5, 1945, with a living shield of internee men and a few women “for breeding purposes” (although they thought white women smelled bad). The remaining internees would be seated on the wooden staircase and blown up.
If there were no massacres at the other POW or internment camps in the Philippines, it may have been because they were liberated in surprise raids (Cabanatuan and Los Baños).
One instance showing the Japanese in a better light was the freeing of old Bilibid prison in Manila.
James Halsema and his sister Betty Halsema Foley, Baguio internees who had been transferred to Manila in December 1944, narrate that the Japanese camp commander advised the internees on Sunday, Feb. 4, 1945, that he and the Taiwanese guards were leaving, but that the internees should not venture outside for their own safety.
Betty Halsema recalls: “Some guards had given candies to the children before they left.”
She reports the rumor that all the guards were shot a few blocks away, but this was unconfirmed, and there was another story that the Taiwanese guards may have melted into Manila’s Chinatown, where the predominant language was the same as theirs.
Still another story was that the Taiwanese guards were conspiring with Filipino guerrillas to mutiny against their Japanese officers, but this was overtaken by the sudden arrival of the Americans.
James Halsema, replying to a query by Michael Onorato, said: “I think we all realized that there was a possibility that something could happen to us. But I don’t think anybody spent much time dwelling on the subject.”
He discounts the story by Bergamini (his fellow internee at Baguio’s Camp Holmes) about the kill-the-internees order because no document to that effect was introduced at the Tokyo war-crimes trials.
Presumption of brutality
In view of this disagreement, the question must remain open, but always bearing in mind Herman Strong’s eyewitness account (Betty Halsema Foley, “Keepsake—An Autobiography,” 2001, page 236; James J. Halsema, “The Internment Camp at Baguio,” pages 14-15).
There was a widespread presumption of Japanese brutality. A childhood friend, 12-year-old Irene Duckworth, was not sure on the night of Feb. 3, 1945, that the tanks and soldiers barging into UST were not Japanese come to kill them.
She wrote me: “My reaction was, we will not live out this night. My determination was to go with dignity.” When it became clear that the entering forces were their liberators, “…that is when you heard the great shout from camp.”
We heard that shout from our home in Balic Balic a mile away, and our first thought (symptomatic of common opinion about the Japanese) was that they were the cries of internees being massacred.
But a phone call to a relative living near UST revealed that they were, in fact, shouts of joy. For all of us, it was the beginning of freedom.