We just celebrated the 70th anniversary of the historical landing in Leyte. Has it been that long? Unlike with more recent headline events, there are not too many people I can ask, “Where were you when it happened?”
But I remember where I was.
On Oct. 20, 1944, the grown-ups were huddled around a shortwave radio hidden under a table shrouded in faded “hule.” I was a “salingpusa,” off to one side with the other kids, straining to hear over the static. And we heard him say: “People of the Philippines, I have returned!”
It was a dramatic moment. Tears flowed freely, quietly. There were hugs. We could not jump for joy like our hearts wanted us to. It was dangerous. We were often warned: “The walls have ears.”
For almost three years, a nation unwittingly involved in a world war had fought, risked lives and tenaciously hung on to the promise of Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “I shall return.” Those three words filled us with hope and sustained us through the bad times.
For my generation, MacArthur was America and all things American. He was our Liberator, Superman, Captain America and Santa Claus! For us, his return was an answered prayer, better than Christmas.
A month earlier, when US dive-bombers appeared in Manila skies, we knew that liberation was close at hand. Behind closed doors, the adults discussed various scenarios, always hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
Air raids became our daily breakfast fare. The shelter at home used to be the garage for a carruaje. It was under concrete and tile azoteas, and had a massive wooden door reinforced with a steel sheet and sandbags. We sat on low benches along adobe walls. It was cold in there but we felt safe.
Every morning we heard the ominous hum of airplanes. They made a pretty patch of silver flecks in the sky. Suddenly, a few would peel away from their formation and take a breathtaking vertical plunge. The sound was terrifying as they disappeared right behind the house of our eccentric neighbor across the street. Papa said their target was the Japanese fleet anchored in Manila Bay.
The explosions were deafening and the house shook. I was never the bravest in the family, and ran for cover with Mama, while my sister wanted to get up on the roof for a better view.
We heard little antiaircraft fire. The resistance seemed random, sporadic. When we heard about the Leyte landing, we knew that the Philippines would soon be back in American hands.
Operations code “King Two,” the campaign for the recapture and liberation of the Philippines, started at dawn on Oct. 17. Leyte was chosen for the first strike because US strategists had decided that it had the weakest defense. Guerilla forces on the ground had promised to clear the coast, and they delivered.
By noon on Oct. 20 General MacArthur, Commonwealth President Sergio Osmeña, Gen. Carlos P. Romulo and a few others were starting their famous march onto Palo Beach like conquering heroes.
The romantic notion that we were liberated because of a promise made by General MacArthur has faded and frayed with the passage of time. History has a way of deglamorizing legend with a smidge of truth.
The back story is that Adm. Chester Nimitz wanted to strike Formosa (now Taiwan) instead, believing there was no harm in skipping the Philippines altogether. But we are told that MacArthur insisted on making the Philippines their priority.
Whatever. I still remember it was a day of great joy.
The Battle of Manila was a different story written with blood and tears. Some 100,000 people perished. Manila was left in ruins.
In February it will be 70 years. Do our young people today have even the slightest idea of what happened? Unfortunately, only a few!
An old friend
During my recent visit to Atlanta I heard from an old friend. I knew him when we were in our teens and had a huge crush on his younger brother.
Our families were close. We went to the same parties, and our “pandilla” was often called to be in the chorus of Mama’s Spanish zarzuelas.
Rehearsals were fun. We rode together in a weapons carrier, a canvas-covered leftover from the war, bigger than a jeep and smaller than a 6×6.
Julio Esteban Jr. is the oldest son of the late Julio Esteban Anguita, concert pianist, composer, piano teacher and director of the University of Santo Tomas Conservatory of Music.
Now in his 80s and living in Maryland, he gives PowerPoint presentations of life in the Philippines, from precolonial times to the Spanish and American eras, before the war, during the Japanese occupation, and the story of his family’s miraculous survival.
He arrived Thursday for a family reunion of sorts.
I wish he could speak to young audiences here and share his heart-wrenching eyewitness account of the bloody massacre that was the Battle of Manila in 1945.
He can tell them how it is near impossible not to cry and fall apart when you are staring down the barrel of a machine gun aimed to kill you and those you love.
Imagine if you can. There you are against a wall. And you can’t run away. How fast can you pray?