For Pete Wygle.

Hey, Pete. Been a while since we talked.

The last couple of days were good — for the memory of Santo Tomas Internment Camp, I mean. Yesterday, Dorita Holland Urrata came to see me at the Museum. Menchu Sarmiento, chair of the Philippine Airlines Foundation (an NGO that helps children in critical need of medical care receive it — you’d have loved to hear about her work), came with her.

I don’t think you were able to hook up with Dorita; I asked her if she knew you, but she’d only heard of you by reputation, not personally. She knew of your work with the Civilian Ex-POW Committee, though I’m not sure she knew you were also with the Alliance to Preserve the History of World War II in Asia.

She was a civilian internee in UST during World War II, like you. Her dad was Albert Holland — yes, THE Albert Holland, of the STIC Executive Committee. One of the men who had to deal with Japanese military officers who were in charge of the camp on a day-to-day basis. She was two years old when her family was interned, younger than you were, and less able than you to perform mischievous acts in the face of starvation, uncertainty, and the cruelty of the Japanese soldiers.

I still have to smile when I remember your telling me about how you boys would go up to the Japanese soldiers, bow to them so they’d bow back, and keep bowing til they cottoned onto the fact that you were making fools of them, you scamps. It still amazes me you survived.

About STIC, mostly she remembered being hungry. You told me that too. You stood in line for everything — food (what meager portions of what passed for food in camp), the toilet (for which everyone was rationed two squares of paper, for gosh sakes!), your turn at anything. Dorita told me that she was around six when the camp was liberated in February of ’45. She walks with crutches — a result of joyriding with the GIs in a tank, during that oddest of periods after the camp was liberated and held by American troops, but all the rest of Manila was going up in flames, burned and bombed by retreating Japanese. UST was being shelled from every side, and her right foot was blasted to bits.

She was rushed to the medics, in unbelievable pain. There was a Filipina on the gurney next to hers, Pete. All shot up and in worse shape than she was. And you know what the Filipina lady did for this wailing six-year-old? She stroked her back and sang a Tagalog song to comfort and calm her, because the doctors had run out of anesthetic. In the middle of what must have been excruciating agony, this woman still reached out to a crying child.

Dorita still recalls, too, how Filipinos risked life and limb to help their American friends and employers in the camp. They used to come up to the University’s outer fences and hand food through the bars, until the Japanese figured it out and fenced off the entire perimeter with sawali.

And still the Filipinos came, enduring hours of waiting in line outside the España street gate, with packages that reached the owners regularly in the beginning, then never towards the end of the war. These people scraped together what they could, almost always at their own great expense, to make sure that their friends on the other side of the sawali had something to eat. Even if meant starving themselves.

In the face of war and the horrific depredations we can inflict on our fellow man, the human spirit can still shine. The Filipino spirit did, and I know that if we remember the lessons we ought to have learned then, we’d see ourselves for the great and noble people we truly are.

Anyway, Dorita went through the archival materials I had on hand, and was moved to see her family’s names on the memorial panel I had made for the 60th anniversary exhibit in February 2005. I wish you could’ve been here to see it, Pete. You’d have been proud of me.

She left right away, having a plane to catch — she was only in town for a while, working on getting a US visa for a boy who will die if he doesn’t get a kidney transplant immediately. Dorita is the president of Children’s Chance, a US foundation that helps kids get medical care, just like the PAL Foundation, which explains why she is such good friends with Menchu Sarmiento. I’m honored that I got to meet her.

Today, Pete, a man named George Snodgrass Jr. came in, with his lovely wife, Ruthee. George was born here, father American, mother a Pampangueña. Snodgrass Sr. had retired from active service in the US Army, settled here, married, and raised a family. He was retired by the time World War II broke out, which explains why he was interned in a civilian camp, not a POW camp like Bilibid or Cabanatuan.

George Jr. was 12 when his father was taken to Santo Tomas — George Sr. had fled to the mountains to hide, but contracted malaria, beri-beri and dysentery, and would’ve died if he hadn’t been found by another American and taken to town for medical care. From there he was dumped in STIC, and George Jr. would walk from their bombed-out neighborhood in Tugatog, Malabon to visit his dad. The rest of the family weren’t interned, because they were Filipino. Well, half-Filipino, anyway.

When they were repatriated to the US on a troopship along with thousands of other Americans, they were dropped in San Pedro — I remember you told me your family landed in San Francisco, and your first real glimpse of America was of the Golden Gate Bridge. George Jr. spoke not a word of English, and had to start school in the 4th grade, he was so behind.

He’s never come back til now, so that’s 60 years. He wasn’t prepared for the culture shock of seeing how dirty, congested, crowded and poor his old town has become. But he said that after visiting UST, he and Ruthee would go to Tugatog and see if they could find where they used to live.

I showed him the memorial panels, Pete. I found his father’s name.

George wept.

After 60 years, it all became real to him again, and I held his hand while he wept. For his father, for what they lost, for his childhood, for all the things he blocked out in his mind about this other world he’d grown up in. But he found closure today.

It was so hard not to cry too, Pete. Because I live for these moments. When I see that what I do matters. That being a voice in the wilderness does make a difference, to one or two people. That makes it all worthwhile. You taught me that. How important it is not to forget, and to keep going even when it seems that the world could care less about the story of nearly 4,000 people trapped in Santo Tomas Internment Camp for three years and a month, from 1942 to 1945.

What a crying shame it is that I don’t have a permanent exhibit devoted to this. No, Pete. I still haven’t got my permanent exhibition area for the history of UST during World War II. It was an incredible story, a pivot point in the Battle for Manila, and the turn of the war’s tide in the Philippines, and the Pacific theater of operations. This story deserves to be told, and the flame kept burning.

I’d like to think that you’re still around for me, Pete. You were the wisest of teachers, the funniest of wiseacres, the most erudite and witty of writers, and the most open-hearted of human beings. I learned so much from you while you were here, and when I think of you, I still find things to aspire to become.

I wish you hadn’t gone the way you did. I never knew. You just stopped e-mailing me, and I was afraid to ask anyone, though I felt something was terribly wrong. Our correspondence was incredible, and your mind truly did not belong in your septuagenarian body. I dare say if I’d been forty years older, I’d’ve tried to steal you away from your dearest Nancy — though I wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance, you were too wonderful a husband and terrific a father. 🙂

I think it was Ted Cadwallader who told me you’d gone, taken by complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Sept. 23, 2003. We never got to say goodbye.

When I watched “The Great Raid”, that film based on the Cabanatuan POW rescue, I remembered you. And oddly, how you said you wept when you saw the Golden Gate Bridge. That was the first time I cried for you, Pete. I suppose I’d just kept thinking you were on some press jaunt to publicize internee rights, though it had been over two years. But that first time, in that dark theater, telling my lover about my great and wonderful friend who was imprisoned for three years by the Japanese during World War II — I remembered you and everything I learned about being a human being from you, and the grief of losing you finally came for me.

I learned from you how to endure, and rebuild. Those lessons saw me through the darkest part of my life, Pete. Thank you. I know you’d be so proud to see me today, and the funny path my life has taken, but most of all I know you’d be happy to see me so happy.

So it’s been a good two days, Pete. I know you’re giving me a thumbs-up from wherever you are. I love you too, you old coot.

Peter Robert Wygle. May 1, 1930-Sept. 23, 2003.

Author, civilian ex-prisoner of war, mentor, friend. Pete Wygle. A light gone from the world.

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16 Comments

  1. International Man of Mystery said,

    Friday, January 27, 2006 at 2:20 pm

    What stories you can tell.

    Ah, if only all of these stories can be put together into one compilation so that we won’t forget…

  2. Spencer said,

    Tuesday, July 11, 2006 at 7:48 am

    That was just beautiful. A great testament to Pete, and to the kind of person you are.

  3. miranoriel said,

    Monday, July 17, 2006 at 8:42 am

    Gosh, thanks, Spence. *hugggggggs Spencer to little bits that challenge each other to a steel cage match* 😆

    Pete… and his memory *twinge of pain, ouchie*… keep the flame burning for me. He was a tireless advocate of internee rights, which the US Government needs to address NOW. The survivors are dying out, flame by flame, and the world grows darker with each passing.

    This story HAS to be told, the torch passed, the flame relit for a new generation that have forgotten the face of their fathers. We are free because of the great sacrifice so many made, now taken for granted, the lessons going unlearnt.

    Thank you for standing by me, and for every bit of support you give. Every kind word keeps me and my small effort going, and if I manage to never let this flame go out, it will be because you were there.

  4. Albert E. Holland,Jr. said,

    Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 1:49 am

    It was interesting reading your piece about my sister Dorita and how her foot was blasted to bits which causes her to use crutches.
    In the NW corner of Connecticut there is a group of us that were interned in Santo Tomas . Also Capt Haight who road in on the first tank -Battling Basic .

    Merry Christmas ,

    Al Holland

  5. Albert E. Holland,Jr. said,

    Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 1:50 am

    Keep in touch

  6. Albert E. Holland,Jr. said,

    Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 1:51 am

    Bye

  7. George & Ruth Snodgrass said,

    Thursday, December 14, 2006 at 8:12 am

    Dear Mira,

    We just discovered your site/blogs by accident.(there are no accidents, are there?) I too believe in karma, past lives, etc., so it is interesting that even though I had lost your e-mail, we still found your site. George was thrilled that you had been touched too that day. We have recalled our experience there with you with great warmth. You were so kind and understanding of a long ago time that suddenly opened again. Thank you so much. We hope all is going well for you and that you have a good holiday time and a fruitful New Year.
    Thanks to your sites, we also were able to order the Lou Gopal DVD “Victims of Circumatance.” It will be a good Christmas present for George.

    With special gratitude and hugs from us both,
    Ruth and George Snodgrass

  8. Sharon and George Bessey said,

    Sunday, January 7, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Dear Mira – I would like to thank you too, for my wonderful friends, George and Ruth Snodgrass. They told me of their trip back to George’s birthplace but I could never have grasped how much it meant to them without reading your beautiful article…living that moment with this wonderful man that has been through so much and still has one of the warmest hearts and souls I have ever known! He and Ruth are such loving and caring people and I, too, cried as I read your words describing those moments. Thank you so much for being there for George and Ruth! Your friend Peter has to be so proud of you for what you do! I love everything you stand for! This world needs more people like you and your friend Peter and George and Ruth Snodgrass! Thank you! Thank you! Sincerely, Sharon and George Bessey, Coos Bay, Oregon

  9. Peter Wrinch said,

    Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don’t remember Pete Wygle, but I do Santo Tomas – I was only 10, when we were interned. He sounds as though I ought to know of him.

  10. William Curtis said,

    Tuesday, March 6, 2007 at 6:14 am

    I’m researching the life of a former resident of Cranford NJ (born in 1908 of Japanese parents here in Cranford) He returned to Japan with his parents in 1934. It is rumored that he was the perfect English speaking Japanese officer at the internment camp. His name was Frank Hayashi.
    Does the name ring a bell with any of the internees?
    If so, could someone contact me. I’m a member of the Cranford NJ Historical Society. Thanks.

  11. Forrest Lindsey said,

    Wednesday, May 16, 2007 at 10:02 pm

    Hi Mira –
    I’m one of Pete’s cousins and I only got to meet Pete in person once a few years ago. He was a wonderful guy and I am grateful for his sacrifices and his ability to relate the strories that had to be told. Just wish i could’ve known him longer and talked to him more. He certainly brought home to me the horrors and the elements of humanity of the internee experience at San Tomas – it made me proud of all of those who endured this for themselves, their fellow prisoners and all of us.
    I have pictures of Pete’s military funeral at Arlington if anyone is interested in seeing them.
    Thank you for the beautiful letter to Pete.
    Forrest

  12. miranoriel said,

    Saturday, May 19, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    Hi Forrest,

    Thank you so much for your comment — I haven’t blogged at WordPress in a good long while, but I’m so glad that people find their way to it still.

    I couldn’t speak after I read your comment. I have no words for what Pete taught me, what his experience opened my eyes to, and how much he meant to me as friend and mentor. We never got to say goodbye, and… I would appreciate very much seeing the pictures. It was very hard, losing one of my dearest friends just like that. I heard from another former internee that he died, and he’d never told me anything was wrong.

    Yes, he was indeed a wonderful guy, and his heart and humor and indefatigable spirit are things which keep me going to this day. Thank you so much for getting in touch with me, and if there is some way for me to send his lovely, beloved Nancy my long, long, long-overdue condolences, I’d be very very grateful. All I ever had was Pete’s email address; the old coot must’ve assumed he’d be around forever and we’d get around to exchanging snail mail addresses… eventually…

    Again, thank you. My gratitude is inexpressible, because he was, and is, a lodestone for my life; guide and teacher and father and friend.

    He was… the swellest, Pete Wygle was.

    I look forward very much to staying in touch with you, and if there’s anything you’d like to know about Santo Tomas (although what-all I can tell you that Pete hasn’t, I have no clue), feel free to ask.

  13. Juliana Coughlin said,

    Wednesday, November 7, 2007 at 12:14 am

    I would very much appreciate seeing the pictures of Pete’s funeral at Arlington. I’ve been to his gravesite this year and I know he would have approved of the setting.Pete and I graduated the same year from high school and dated for three years after that.

    Juliana Coughlin

  14. Peter Wrinch said,

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 2:30 am

    I’ve accidentally (?) stumbled across this site again – it is very moving.
    I was passing thro Manila in December ’41, but we got stuck, my mother, brother and i, in STIC for the “duration”.
    I was only 11-13 and do not remember grown up names, except Mrs Weizlezenus!

  15. Beth DeRubbo said,

    Saturday, September 20, 2008 at 3:50 am

    I just read this article. My mother in law and her son were in Santo Tomas. She spoke to me of some of the hard times she indured there. She will turn 90 in two weeks. I am seeking more information about her time there.

  16. miranoriel said,

    Sunday, September 28, 2008 at 7:20 am

    Hello, everyone. I’m sorry about the late replies — I’ve been swamped at work, and haven’t been tending to my blog the way I would like.

    Juliana — I’ll ask for permission from Pete’s family and post the pictures as soon as I can. 🙂

    Peter and Beth — if there’s anything specific you’d like to know, I’ll try and help. There’s just so much of the story that I don’t know exactly where to begin with any information I may have, but if you have a starting point, we can work from there. 🙂


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