Same time, next year.

They came, they saw, they left. Half an hour, with a thousand unanswered questions left over. I hate short tours. I hope next year there’ll be more time. 😦

The 2008 Valor Tours group, whose ETA was 2:00-2:30 p.m., arrived at the University at ten minutes to three. By the time we got everyone up the grand stairs to the Museum Gallery, it was 3:10. They had to leave at 3:30 to make it to Bilibid Prison (used during WWII as a military POW camp), and then straight to the airport.

I’ve never had to talk faster.

Still, they had so many questions that I wished I could’ve answered. I’m really glad I got to shake hands with a gentleman who served in the 1st Cav, though. To see him nodding when I described the 6th Army under Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger landing at Lingayen on 9th January and 8th Army under Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger landing at Nasugbu on 31st January… it felt like I was plugged into a direct pipeline into history. There’s no feeling in the world like being able to pass the story on, and seeing someone who actually lived it nodding their approval — basically telling you you’re doing it right — I’m a happy grasshopper.

I shook this white-haired gentleman’s hand, and was rewarded with a strong, youthful grip, and once more I felt a surge of appreciation for what Tom Brokaw rightly called The Greatest Generation. I laugh at younger people who dismiss older generations as relics, to be dismissed and forgotten, because all that’s important is their lives, NOW. What succeeding generations don’t understand, with our selfish, spoiled, self-indulgent, overly-developed sense of entitlement, is that we’d have nothing of what we have now, were it not for their sacrifice.

Robert B. Holland, author of “The Rescue of Santo Tomas, Manila WWII — The Flying Column: 100 Miles to Freedom” put it wonderfully:

This generation was united not only by a common purpose but also by common values — duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love, family, country, and above all, responsibility.

Have we learned nothing from the horrendous loss and unspeakable tragedy of that time? Apparently so. For every American that died during the Battle for Manila, a thousand Filipinos died too. 100,000 Filipinos — men, women and children. Yes, children. General Tomoyuki Yamashita withdrew his troops to Baguio to avoid needless violence, but Vice-Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi and 19,000 Japanese troops remained in Manila in defiance of Yamashita’s orders. They dug in and chose to fight to the death rather than flee and accept defeat. American troops followed them into the heart of the Distinguished and Ever-Loyal City of Manila, with flamethrowers and grenades, bazookas and bullets. The fiercest urban fighting of the Pacific Theater left over three hundred years of European architectural influence, stately homes overlooking tree-shaded avenues, cobblestoned streets, soaring American colonial edifices, our museums, schools, churches… a wasteland of smoking rubble, with bodies everywhere. Mothers with infants, clergy, Red Cross workers. No one in Manila in 1945 was spared the crazed wrath of the Japanese Imperial Army. The stench would have been unimaginable.

The Filipino psyche was irreparably damaged by WWII. What we were before then was a noble, intelligent people, poised to take a leading role on the Asia-Pacific regional stage. With our unique blend of European cultural influence, a fiercely independent spirit, strategic geographic location at the Pacific Rim, we were already a key player (albeit as a property of Spain). The American colonial period brought public education, civil liberties and infrastructure. The only Christian country in Asia, where the majority of the population spoke English and Spanish, with strong trade ties to China and the rest of the Southeast Asian region, gearing up for independence. What a formidable little nation was my Philippines.

And then… it was gone.

Our capital city, pounded into unrecognizable debris. Half of our tangible cultural heritage, up in smoke along with our National Museum. Our identity, our government buildings, our people. Lost forever.

Legal records were lost, burned, torn, destroyed, and people’s homes and other real property, confiscated by the Japanese at the start of the occupation then bombed flat during liberation, was all gone. War is a great leveler of society. Everyone lost something. Some lost everything, to paraphrase a great war quote. After the war, so many had nothing. It was every man for himself. Paranoia and greed, and looking out for number one became the attitude. Is there a connection between that mentality and the current culture of graft and corruption that has replaced nobility and compassion as the Filipino’s signature trait? Good answer. I love smart readers.

Of course I got asked the most popular questions I get, with every WWII tour I handle, which of course have nothing whatsoever to do with STIC:
1) Are you American? You sure sound American.

2) Why do you do this/were any of your family interned?

To the first question, my answer is “No, I am Filipino. Proud to be, in fact, because I’m lucky enough to be aware of where I came from, and what my people are capable of being again.” I don’t speak English, I speak American, LOL! Which comment invariably elicits laughter and overwhelming agreement. If there isn’t time to really explain, I tell them that it was an early overexposure to Sesame Street; if there is, I tell them the truth: my father, born in 1936 to a Filipino father and a Japanese(!) mother in Tsingtao, who grew up during the war years in Shanghai and went to the British School there, can’t speak Tagalog to save his life. I was raised with English as my first language, and as a child couldn’t speak my native tongue either. I learned it in self-defense, however, so I’m alright. My 7-year-old son is now in the same predicament, and people who don’t know me constantly ask my ex-husband how the heck we taught our son to speak English so well, and the ex is nice enough to tell people “His mother speaks English and Tagalog without an accent in either language.”

Why do I do this? No, none of my family were interned at Santo Tomas. My mother’s family were hiding out in the boondocks in Batangas, and the Japanese left them mostly alone. My father’s family were in Shanghai, living in the Japanese ghetto there.

I do this because… someone has to. I grew up on the campus of the University of Santo Tomas. My mother taught there for over 40 years. My parents were married in the University chapel, and I was baptized there. I went to kindergarten, high school and college there. I gave birth to my son in the University hospital on campus. I walk the halls of my building every day, constantly aware of the wealth of history I’m privileged to be a part of.

The story of STIC is a very important part of the University’s heritage, yet we haven’t a permanent display for it at the Museum. Former internees come and all there is to memorialize their three years and one month of suffering and privation is a bronze plaque bolted to the wall just outside the Main Building’s front entrance. What a poor tribute. Grab a student in the hallways, and ask them, “Do you know what happened here during World War II?” and you’ll get a blank stare, if they even bother pausing their thumbs while texting inane jokes to their friends.

The lives of close to 4,000 people and the sacrifice of a hundred thousand Filipinos cannot be forgotten, and that won’t happen. At least not on my watch. If I have to tell this story again and again, to one person at a time, so be it. If just one person starts caring and one more piece of the story is added by someone willing to share it, then I will have done my job. That’s why I do it.

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1 Comment

  1. marcoftheweb said,

    Sunday, April 13, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    You do your job very, very well, my friend.

    This world needs more people who share your “because someone has to” attitude. Ironically, that very attitude was likely what made the difference for those brave men and women who defended our world during WWII. It’s good to know that their spirit is still alive and well in someone in our generation. That is the best “tribute” to The Greatest Generation that I can think of.


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