By RJ West
Of Strife & Life
War affects people in ways unimagined. During the Gulf War my parents were in Papua New Guinea. Tribal people on the Sepik River were refusing to plant their crops. When asked why they said, “Because of the Gulf War.”
“But that’s thousands of miles from here, it’s got nothing to do with you.”
“The Japanese war was far away and had nothing to do with us either, but they came and took all our food. This time, if the enemy comes, we will give them nothing!”
Generations later they still remembered.
1521 was the beginning of the end for Philippine independence for a long time. On their way to becoming an Islamic nation the Philippines was invaded by brutal foreigners bent on conquering & converting so called savages to Christianity. Filipinos have bravely fought overwhelming odds against Spanish, Dutch, English, Chinese, Japanese, and even Americans. Not always winning outright they prevailed in adapting & surviving.
My dad once told me that the best war stories are not the ones found in textbooks, but those written by the soldiers who were there. This story is not from soldiers but children barely in their teens.
December 7, 1941 the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.
For those in Southeast Asia, the beginning of World War II.
Island of Leyte, in the middle of the Philippines.
When the Japanese invaded, Mila's parents & grandmother took her & her younger sister out of Tacloban City and into the interior, to the barrio (village). Mila's mother was from the barrio, but her father was a city boy & never really took to country life. Mila's grandfather remained behind, no matter how much Mila's grandmother pleaded with him to come, he said he was afraid of no man and would not leave his home. Eventually, after the Japanese conquered the island with bombs & troops, things settled, schools reopened and Mila & her sister returned with their grandmother to live with their grandfather who had indeed survived the onslaught of invasion. The Japanese now taught in the schools and all the children had to learn to speak & write Japanese.
While Mila & her sister lived in the city her parents remained in the barrio working with the guerilla movement. In 1944 during one of the visits of her mother, Mila was told that they would be joining her parents in the barrio. "Something is going to happen this year," they were told. American submarines had been in contact with the guerillas and Mila's mother had rolled up magazines such as “Philippine Freedom” & stuck them in a pillow case, then wrapped that up in reed mats with some other materials that she brought when visiting the city, these had to be hidden as people were searched entering & leaving the city. Mila remembers packs of gum wrapped in paper with little pictures of General MacArthur & the slogan "I shall return", there were also packs of cigarettes with the same slogan. That night the children were smuggled out of the city in a horse drawn carriage, it took until the next day to reach the barrio, as they had to let the horse rest along the way, always fearing the Japanese would come upon them.
When I met Mila in 1993 she had always been deathly afraid of snakes, it was not until 1999 that I found out why. The barrio had been abandoned for fear of discovery by Hapon, Filipino for Japanese. Some miles further away, at the foot of the mountains, lay the armed guerilla camp, but the civilians had all moved into small nipa huts built sparsely around the barrio, hidden by jungle; it was in one of these “escape huts” that Mila's family now lived. On occasion someone would venture back to their home for supplies, first having to make sure no Japanese were present.
It was Mila's job to fetch water each morning. This was done by carrying long bamboo poles (which were leaned against trees when not in use) down to the spring fed stream. Mila had to climb steps cut into a steep embankment, to reach the well spring half way down; the top of the pole had been cut on a diagonal to form a funnel of sorts so the spring would flow into the bamboo. Once filled, the 3-meter pole was brought back up and, while most of the pole remained outside on the porch, the mouth was tipped into large porcelain, Spanish style jars by the stove just inside in the hut.
One morning while young Mila was pouring water into one of these jars something long & black poked out of the pole and began gliding out over the cistern: a cobra. The young city girl dropped the pole screaming, the cobra desperately sought escape from the room. Mila's father ran to find his hysterical child crying & screaming and the cobra slithering down through the rafters under the hut. Across the stream a neighbour heard the screams, thinking the Japanese had found them he quickly but carefully made his way to the stream brandishing his bolo (leaf shaped machete). When he heard the cry of “snake” he realized there were no soldiers and ran unheeded, the danger was from the snake & knowing Mila's father was a city man unacquainted with such terrors, had to act fast. Running to the hut he killed the cobra with one blow.
Inevitably the Japanese did find Mila's “escape hut.” Mere moments before, however, a neighbour ran up pulling at the corners of his eyes to signify “Hapon.” Everything was done in utter silence least the enemy hear. Everyone kept a bag packed with essentials for just this occasion: change of clothes, sack of rice, and some canned goods. In panic Mila's father grabbed the first thing he saw, a clothes iron, his only priority was to get his daughters to safety, and hustled them into the forest. They evacuated with such speed & silence that Mila's mother, who had been praying in a separate room with a blanket over her head to block the outside noise, did not know anything was amiss, and had been left behind. Once the girls were safely away from the hut, he remembered his wife was alone & could not have known of the danger. He told the two girls to remain hidden under gabi leaves (huge heart shaped leaves) & not make a sound while he returned to the hut. Mila & her sister sat beneath the leaves as they had been instructed; alone, not knowing what would happen to their mother but having a child’s unwavering faith in their father that things would be all right. They sat barely moving, making no sound at all, terrified the Japanese might find them, everyone had heard the stories of what Hapon did to children, throwing babies into the air & catching them on their bayonets. Yet a fear greater than all these griped Mila as she sat on the jungle floor: what if a snake came! Her father was successful in silently reaching his wife, still praying, and getting out safely. When Mila's parents returned they continued on to another safe hut. A few days later her mother returned, stealthily, to the escape hut to bring back whatever supplies she could. All the food was gone. Blankets and torn sheets were strewn across the floor, and there was blood as well. The Japanese, always hungry, took whatever food they found; the sheets were torn to make bandages for their wounded.
OCT. 20 1944- LIBERATION DAY; U.S. TROOPS RETURN TO THE PHILIPPINES
NOV. 25 1944- THANKS GIVING
Mila was 13 years old, the Americans had landed and it was their Thanks Giving day. Turkeys had been shipped in for the troops to enjoy their holiday so far from home. Not just turkeys, canned cranberry sauce, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, it was to be quite a feast! A large area had been turned into a mess hall across from Mila's house, and cooks were busy roasting turkeys, the afternoon air filled with their aroma. The sky was blue & clear and the day hot as only tropical sun can be. The Filipinos went about their chores as they always did, for even under the Japanese life went on, only now their oppressors were gone, and the hard work of day to day life went on with a lighter heart. Mila & her sister were back with their grandparents, the maid was cooking on a stove consisting of a raised platform covered with sand on which a fire was built, a spit could then be placed over the fire for roasting or hanging a pot to boil water, this was typical of most Philippine households. Mila was helping prepare food while her sister teased her. No one noticed a lone Japanese bomber sneaking in from over the island of Samar. It had already dropped its load when the air raid siren went off, too late for the troops & civilians caught running in the open.
Terrible whistling of the descending bombs, the confusion of the air raid sirens as people looked up in disbelief and then blind panic as they ran, screams drowned by explosions, and raining down earth. Mila saw the maid trying to hide under the stove, grandfather was pulling them to the back of the house: "Foxhole! Shelter!" They stumbled, rushed down into the 9 by 10-foot hole in the earth, wooden beams overhead holding up the collapsing world. They waited. Sometimes all night, sleeping in the earth, waiting for the all clear. It was not long in coming this time, the second wail of the siren.
Silence. Sobs. Cries of pain and help. Bewilderment. Children ran outside. Mila could see her friends and while the adults sorted out the damage to the house she walked out front, through the gate, into the street. Where there had once been the aroma of roasting turkeys there was now only the stench of burned flesh permeating the air. Fires burned here and there, smoke roiling into the blue sky. Earth & trees and building parts strewn. Glancing up into a tree, an arm hung precariously, hand grasping nothing. To the right, caught on the fence a piece of cloth fluttered like a flag, a torn, bloodied fatigue pant with only the leg attached. On the ground a bloodied, dirt grimed head. After ten minutes, wide eyed, she left her friends and returned to the house. She did not go out again that day.
"The smell, that terrible smell of burnt flesh. You just can't imagine! Bombs don't just kill you, they tear people apart. There were no bodies just pieces of them. So many cooks must have died that day, they were all there cooking, roasting those turkeys. Maybe the Japanese knew they would all be there. After about 10 minutes I went back inside. That was when I realized just how terrible war was," Mila told me 53 years later.
Mila’s husband, Andres, saw horrors as well but mostly he speaks of that time with a big grin on his face, as once the American’s landed it was a grand adventure! It had been young Andres’ job, during the occupation, to count how many Japanese where in the barrio, where they were & what they were doing (actually the only Japanese on the island were officers, the “grunts” were all Koreans), he then had to report to the guerilla unit camped in the jungle (even the young did what they could to regain freedom).
Once the horrendous battle to retake the island was over, Andres found his ability to speak English came in handy & became an aid to an American Medic. Now in his 70’s Andres laughs & makes the gestures of driving a tank straight into a tree, bloodying the nose of the soldier inside with him. He was also able to ride in one of the landing craft, a great thrill for a fisherman(boy) use to an outrigger canoe. The first time he ever flew was inside a truck; he had been in an ambulance with a wounded soldier, the ambulance drove straight onto a transport plane and the plane took off, Andres never left the truck. Andres had got along quiet well with the Japanese commander while spying for the guerillas, after the landing Andres & his friends would throw rocks at the now P.O.W.’s sitting behind fences, until G.I.’s shooed them off.
The Medic wanted to take Andres back to the States with him, but Andres had to stay, his father was dead and he was the oldest. He would put himself and his siblings through school, become a teacher, a principal, & eventually education minister for the province, marry, have 4 children and put all of them through university.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the biggest navel battle of the war. Where “Big Mac”, General Douglas MacArthur, strode out of the water (in truth he was carried, it wasn’t until the camera crews arrived that he walked back into the surf to be filmed striding triumphantly ashore). The place where City Hall now stands used to be foxholes where civilians went during air raids; unfortunately Americans believed it was occupied by Japanese and shelled the area killing hundreds of Philippine civilians, some of whom were relatives my wife would never know. Yes Mila & Andres are her parents, my in-laws. They remember the horrors, their fears, the jokes they played, & the adventure. They harbour no ill will against the Japanese—that was then. For them life is too precious to hold hatred.
- Written by: RJ West