Sunday, December 3, 2006

An Unknown Heroine

Some readers have asked for more information about my grandmother Magdalena and her family in the Philippines. In the darkness of this world there are souls of courage who, by their moments of valor, inspire for years to come. One such hidden soul was Magdalena's oldest daughter, my Aunt Floy, who died about a year ago on November 24, 2005. To most people she was a tough, chain-smoking old lady in a Florida trailer park. I grew up aware that she could be counted among the brave.

Floy was born on August 10, 1928 in a mountain silver mining camp where her father was the accountant, in the Philippine Islands. "Floy" was an Alabama name and she was called after her father's little sister who had died at age twelve. She was baptized in the Anglican church. At the age of four she lost her sister Jeanette Fe, age 3, an event from which I do not think either of my grandparents ever fully recovered. The family
eventually settled in Manila after two more children, David and Alice, were born. The above photo is of Floy at age twelve when she was chosen "queen" of the carnival at her school during Mardi Gras.

At the beginning of the Japanese occupation in 1942 my grandfather was arrested as an American citizen and imprisoned in the Santo Tomas concentration camp in Manila. He worked at hard labor, suffered beatings and almost died. The camp was liberated the day before he was scheduled to be executed. In the meantime, Floy helped her mother take care of the family. They worked for the resistance by hiding a Filipino guerilla soldier in their house. My Uncle David, who was a little boy at the time, describes it as follows:

I remember the Filipino guerilla my mother hid. I walked in on him once when he was cleaning his gun and he told me not to tell anyone. Mother also told me if I ever saw him on the street, to ignore him. I did see him once when on a errand, he looked at me and held his forefinger up to his lips....

Once the Japanese searched the house while the soldier was hiding in the attic. Floy and David both thought it was the end. They did not know that my grandmother had made a deal with the elderly lady next door. The gardens of the houses were connected and the guerilla slipped over the wall into the neighbor's garden, saving all their lives.

Before the liberation forces landed, the Japanese planted land mines in the streets. Floy, age sixteen, happened to be at the window and memorized each place where they planted a mine outside of the house. That night Magdalena, Floy, David (age nine), and Alice (age five), escaped with a few possessions in pillow cases. It was raining so they had to crawl in the mud around the mines. My grandmother prayed for guidance and heard a voice tell her where to go. They hid in the cellar of a burnt-out house. She found out later that she had almost gone to a neighborhood where there had been a massacre. The Japanese had begun to slaughter all civilians, committing every atrocity. My grandmother, Floy and the children endured days of terror and near starvation which afterwards my aunt said they survived by being completely obedient to their mother. Some neighbors had a small boy whom, while hiding from the Japanese, they could not keep quiet. The soldiers found them and bayoneted the entire family.

When Magdalena and the children ran out of food, Floy several times dodged bullets and Japanese troops to return to their house for supplies. Her clothes were so filthy from crawling in the mud that she changed into clothes from the laundry hamper. She would sneak to the house after curfew, cook food, and bring it back to the hiding place. Once on her way back she ran headlong into a soldier. Her heart almost stopped from dread until she saw his blue eyes; he was an American. He helped her to get safely back to her famly. They were finally reunited with my grandfather after the fighting stopped but their house had been destroyed as was most of Manila. They took a ship back to the USA; it almost capsized during a storm in the Pacific.

The rest of Floy's life was very difficult. My grandparents divorced; Floy quit school and went to work at seventeen. She had two marriages ending in divorce and was not able to have children. While she was with her second husband, she was asked to babysit a beautiful three year old girl named Debbie. The father of the little girl never came back for her so Floy, after trying to locate Debbie's family without success, raised the child as her own. In her sixties she moved to Florida to be near her adopted daughter, who was with her in her last days.

Before moving to Florida, Floy lived with us for a few years in Maryland. She read voraciously while chain smoking and watching TV. For someone who did not graduate from highschool, she was one of the most well-read and well-informed individuals I have ever encountered. It was fascinating to watch the evening news with her, in order get her take on events. She did not go to church and efforts to convert her only resulted in horror stories of misbehaving Catholics and priests she had known in the Philippines. "I am not the praying type," Floy always said. However, after losing a slip of paper on which I had scribbled a prayer, I saw it in Floy's room, among her crossword puzzles and novels. Here is the prayer, from an old Irish poem:

O Holy Mary, take thy suppliant under the shelter of thy shield. When walking on the slippery path, be my firm support and handstaff. There is no hound in swiftness nor in chase, swift wind or rapid river, as quick as the Mother of Christ to the bed of death, to those who invoke her help and protection.

Rest in peace, dear Aunt Floy. Share


Anonymous said...

What a strong lady she was. May she rest in peace.

I think this story would make a terrific book for Young Adults.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Georgette. Yes, she was a strong lady. She used to bring me grocery bags full of novels that she had already read, creating an endless source of reading material at our house. Later, her reading habit got so expensive she started borrowing from the library!

Anonymous said...

Well done.

I distinctly remember running into the soldier with Floy.

We were both going back to the house where the others were hiding, I
was right behind Floy carrying some food.
We were sneaking around a corner when we saw the soldiers. At first we
thought they were Japanese, as their backs were to us.
And we didn't know that the US troops had the new type helmets. The
last US army helmets we had seen were the old "doughboy" type.

Floy froze and I ran into her. The soldiers then heard the noise behind
them and swung around with their rifles pointed at us.

When they saw who we were, one of them said "Holy Cow! White kids! What
are you doing here?"

They were the advance scouts for the infantry squad. We showed them
back to the house where all the others were hiding.
By this time the other soldiers had arrived. The people came out of
hiding. I remember one of the soldiers putting his helmet on my head.

Just at that moment, gunshots started from somewhere across the street.
The soldier shoved me under the house, and they ran into the house for

I could hear the soldier yelling at each other as to where the shots
were coming from. They were from a Japanese sniper in a tree across the
street. I was watching through the lattice work as they raked the tree
with gunfire, until they got him.

Anonymous said...

It is a beautiful piece. She truly was inspired by God, because I believe people can not do such acts of bravery without His Aid.

I will remember to include her in my daily Mass prayers along with your father.

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

The place my father was in (Santa Thomas University Campus) was a POW
camp, then when civilians were placed there by the US Army it became an INTERNMENT

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Uncle David, for the added details! And thanks to Miss Sally for the kind words! Mom, thanks for the clarification.

Lylia M said...

What a fascinating story. You should write a screenplay based on it! (Only if I get to direct the film, that is.) Thank you so much for sharing this fascinating family lore.

This is off-topic, I know, but I viewed your television interview (on YouTube)! It was great -- very interesting!

elena maria vidal said...

LOL! Thanks, Lylia! Don't worry, there is no such thing as "off-topic" on this blog!

Anonymous said...

What a story! Thank your for sharing - I like your blog!

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Amy. Come again soon!