I noticed today’s date and did the math. Unbelievable!
Sixty-eight years ago today, after 37 months under the rule of the Japanese Imperial Army, the battle for the liberation of Manila began. One hundred thousand Filipinos perished in what historians call the Manila Massacre, described as the “worst urban fighting” ever recorded.
Where was I on Feb. 3, 1945?
I was with my cousin on the azotea of the Cabarrus home. We were admiring our “victory” garden and its lush harvest of tomatoes, pechay, talinum and upo. We had worked hard on that little patch of land. It was Doña Lolita’s way to keep us busy. Schools were closed and she felt we had too much idle time.
It was an ordinary, quiet Saturday afternoon. Suddenly we heard the drone of planes flying low and spotted four black piper cubs bearing the insignia of the US Air Force. There was no resistance from Japanese anti-aircraft guns.
The planes were circling unopposed over the University of Santo Tomas (UST) campus, where more than 5,000 American, British and other allied nationals had been kept prisoners since the start of the Occupation. They dipped dangerously low and dropped thousands of leaflets announcing that liberation was at hand. There were rumors of plans to execute the internees. Perhaps this spurred the sudden turn of events.
It was an exciting night. Dinner was served early. No one seemed to mind that it was munggo again. Conversation was animated but hushed. Lights were shrouded. Someone started to store water. A sack of rice was moved downstairs. The shelter in the back of our house was made ready.
‘The Americans are here!’
Suddenly we heard people running down the street screaming, “Nandito na ang Kano!” (“The Americans are here!”) When the sentry across the street fired shots in the air, the jubilant group quieted down and scampered away.
It was a little after 10 when we heard explosions. Crowding the kitchen window, we craned our necks, straining for any sight or sound to tell us what was happening a few kilometers away.
We had no idea that a lead jeep driven by USAFFE guerilla officer Capt. Manuel Colayco had crashed into the front gate of UST, and that six Sherman tanks had rammed through the walls. Captain Colayco, by the way, became the first known casualty of Manila’s liberation. We had no clue this was the beginning of the end of our nightmare.
The night wore on. Except for a few explosions and intermittent gunfire, it was quiet. And then a gentle breeze picked up the sound of cheering and a little later we thought we heard the strains of “God Bless America.” I remember my parents holding each other close, crying. I wondered, was the war over?
In the morning, the streets were empty. That night, we watched as hundreds of Japanese soldiers, armed to the teeth, marched down our street. We held our breaths and prayed. There was a smell of liquor in the air. They kept walking, turned into Santa Mesa. We never saw them again.
That night we slept fitfully in the entresuelo. It was almost light when I heard footsteps outside our window. I stood on a wicker chair and peeked above the shutters. Blue eyes looked straight into mine. An American! I said, “Hi.” He put a finger on his lips to shush me. I was shaking when I returned to my bed. I said to myself: “There is an American out there.”
It turned out there was a whole battalion. They had taken over our street. Slowly we began to open our doors and windows. Later that day, we met our first “liberators.” It was fiesta time outside and “open house” everywhere. I had my first taste of a Hershey’s chocolate bar. I was in heaven.
But the battle for Manila was far from over. It raged for a month. On March 3, when the smoke had cleared, there was death and devastation everywhere in what was once known as the Pearl of the Orient.
At the height of the hostilities, the Cabarrus home was turned into a first-aid station. We had two doctors in residence, Dr. Juan Cabarrus and his son, Javier. They tended to the wounded who escaped the horrors and bloodshed in Paco, Malate, and areas south of the Pasig by walking across the pontoon bridge on Nagtahan.
We saw children crying, separated from their parents. Adults walked about aimlessly looking for their children. Some were badly burned, others had broken or missing limbs and gaping shrapnel wounds.
I was 12 years old. I could not take it all in. All I could do was offer my clothes to those who had none and share whatever we had to eat. I didn’t know how to console someone who had just lost his parents, a child, or a spouse. I could not even imagine their pain. It was hard to sleep at night. I cried a lot.
Monument of remembrance
Today a monument of remembrance stands at Plazuela de Santa Isabel behind Manila Cathedral. The Shrine of Freedom (also called Memorare Manila Monument) is a stunning sculpture by Peter Guzman. It depicts an anguished Mother Filipinas surrounded by her dead and dying children.
The inscription reads:
“This memorial is dedicated to all those innocent victims of war, many of whom went nameless and unknown to a common grave, or even never knew a grave at all, their bodies having been consumed by fire or crushed to dust beneath the rubble of ruins.
“Let this monument be the gravestone for each and everyone of the over 100,000 men, women, children and infants killed in Manila during its battle of liberation—Feb. 3 to March 3, 1945. We have not forgotten them nor shall we ever forget.
“May they rest in peace as part now of the sacred ground of this city—the Manila of our affections.”