Monday, March 30, 2015

Memories of Manila, 1941 to 1945

 (NOTE: This post was first published several years ago but I am publishing it again in honor of my Uncle David, who passed away on March 27, 2015.)

My mother recently jotted down some of her recollections about life in the Philippines during World War II. Born in Baguio in 1939, she was a toddler when the Japanese occupation began, and so cannot always relate exact dates and times. Her father, Herman Strong, was from Alabama and so as an American citizen was interred in a Japanese concentration camp. My grandmother, Magdalena Vidal Crosby Strong, kept the family together throughout the war and the many hardships. Above is a photo of my mother, Alice, as an infant in her father's arms. The small boy is my Uncle David and the young girl is my Aunt Floy, standing next to my grandmother. Here are the notes from my mom:
When WW II broke out we were living in a beautiful, what would these days be called a subdivision, of 6 houses each one walled in for privacy and safety from robbers. House robberies were common in Manila, thus most houses had iron grills on the windows and these had the added safety of walls. I remember the street we lived on was Colorado Street. I believe my father was doing well as an accountant because my recollections are that it was fine house.
My mother had two servants who would cook and house clean, and my brother had a 'house boy' whose sole job was to take care of him. His name was Felix. When my father was taken off to Santo Tomas prison camp, Felix would ride his bicycle many miles across the city of Manila taking food my mother had prepared in order to keep my father from starvation. He remained part of our household during most of the war, as did the 2 servants. One was especially close to us, her name was Nena, and I cannot be certain if the spelling of her name is correct. The family photo of all of us standing in a doorway with my father holding me was taken at that location.
When the war broke out everyone in the neighborhood pitched in and built a community air raid shelter where we would all go during an air attack. The house had a beautiful garden with Banana Trees and other lush tropical plants. There were trees with wild orchids hanging from them. I believe it was told to me that orchids are a parasitic plant, the same as mistletoe, and would grow from the bark of trees. My mother loved flowers and had hanging baskets of orchids that had been cut from the bark and placed bark and all in hanging baskets.
It was at this location that my mother had a 'school' for her children and any neighborhood children who wanted to attend. In this way she helped the young people maintain their educational level and earned an income at the same time. She also tutored children of wealthy families in their home. I recall a car being sent for her and I would get to go along as well. I was in awe of the furnishings and size of the rooms of the large mansions we would go to for my mother's tutoring sessions. After the war started and gasoline was no longer available to private citizens, the car would appear being drawn by horses.
The school even had a theater arts program in which the students would perform in plays. I specifically recall the Christmas re-enactment of Dickens's Christmas Carol. I believe my sister, Floy, was Marley's ghost, and my brother, David, played the boy who fetches the Christmas Goose. A real goose was used, and a large bow had been tied around its neck. The scenes in my mind of the fun during rehearsals and the final performance of this play are still vivid to me.
I do not remember how frequently the Japanese soldiers would make their rounds, but my mother had prepared the students by teaching them Japanese songs which they would sing in case of such visits. She had been warned not to teach anything related to the USA, but US History and Geography were part of the curriculum along with the history and geography of South East Asia, and Japan. My mother was quite proud of the fact that after the war every one of these students was able to enter school at their grade level, and the parents were quite pleased about this as well.
Another way my mother earned income after my father was taken to prison camp was by renting the upstairs of the house to a Spanish family consisting of a mother and two sons. The sons were in their late teens or early twenties. Their names were Jorge and Miguel. I remember they were quite handsome and flirtatious. Jorge was my favorite and would take me on outings to the Zoo and other places. Nowadays with the fear of pedophiles this would be unheard of, but Jorge was like a big brother to me.
It was at this time that the whole city of Manila was flooded by the Japanese. I remember wading around in about two feet of water while everyone carried furniture upstairs. I do not know what caused the flood, but my mother said it was because the Japanese did not know how to manage the city water works having come from a rather primitive culture which did not consist of such advances. My son, Pat, who is well versed on WWII History, said the Japanese flooded the city in anticipation of the U.S. invasion.
As the war progressed we had to abandon the area and moved to a smaller house in a safer part of town, however the house consisted of two stories. In this house the air raid shelter was built under the stairway. I believe we spent most of the remainder of the war at this location. While at this location we were robbed by a person who climbed up the side of the house and entered one of the windows (no bars) and stole a bag full of electric light bulbs, which were a valuable commodity. The next day I remember seeing his muddy footprints up the side of the house. The Filipinos were quite adept at climbing. After that my mother slept with a 'bolo', which was a large machete type knife, under her pillow. We slept under mosquito nets and my brother was always getting tangled up in them during the night. It was quite comical, although he did not think so.
It was also at this house that we had a vegetable garden on top of the other air raid shelter built off the back of the house. A wall separated our house from the back yard of the other houses. We had a live chicken at the time that would peck bugs in the garden my mother planted on top of the air raid shelter. I do not know where my mother got the chicken, but she was very resourceful, and also made friends with the local Filipinos who were always helpful. The chicken was being fattened for my father, and we were greatly saddened when my mother cooked it and Felix took it to my father at the POW camp. Not only were we sad to see the chicken go, but we were sad to miss out on a tasty morsel. My mother also hid guerrilla fighters from whom we would receive vital information about future events of the war. If the Japanese soldiers came to search the house, the guerrilla could climb the wall and escape into the neighboring yard.
When the Japanese soldiers went from house to house confiscating cars, radios and other valuables, one of the neighbors slaughtered his horse rather than aid the Japanese with the use of the horse. Food of any kind was scarce at this time so he shared the horse meat with everyone in the neighborhood. My sister refused to eat any of it, but I was hungry enough that I ate it. Getting protein from Mung Beans and Sprouts did not quite satisfy my hunger.
In my brother David's notes of the war he mentions the Japanese Officer, Peco, who befriended us and would visit and bring canned goods and sugar. From my recollection we met Peco when he and another officer were in a truck that had broken down in front of our house. I recall the weather was rainy and the road was muddy. They either came to the door or my mother invited them in for coffee. Even though she had white sugar, which she had obtained on the 'Black Market', she served them brown sugar because she did not want to arouse suspicion by having white sugar. It was after this that he appeared one day with canned milk and white sugar. As my brother mentions in his notes, we knew it was confiscated canned milk. He visited several more times after that and had long conversations with my mother. We grew quite fond of him and loved his visits. He told us that when he was twelve he was taken away from his family and trained for war along with many many other young men, indicating that Japan was preparing for conquest years and years before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
My mother said Peco told her he was a Christian, and was opposed to the war but had no option but to fight. He showed her photos of his wife and baby. The last we saw of Peco was when he came and told us of the impending US invasion. He said that he was being transferred and did not know whether he would survive the coming battle. In his broken English he told my mother, "Americano coming, Boom Boom!" My mother already knew this based on information from her guerrilla friends.
One needs to know that after the Japanese invasion and destruction of the American military facilities in Manila, life went on as usual and the Japanese wanted to be known as beneficent conquerors. It should be mentioned that the Japanese were not at war with the Filipinos, but the USA. In spite of this there was limited food and other resources, and many people had fled Manila into the outlying areas. We, of course, remained in order to aide my father in prison camp. The monetary system was in shambles and the Japanese printed Philippine bills that were worthless. When my mother would go to try and buy food, she carried a bag full of this currency in order to purchase even a small item. During this time she sold or bartered most of our valuables in order to get food. In spite of this we were malnourished, but fared better than most because of my mother's, and I might add, my sister Floy's, ingenuity. After the war my mother weighed eighty-five pounds, and even though she was not a tall woman, at eighty-five pounds she was quite underweight. I would see her take food off her plate and give it to my brother, who was constantly hungry. He did not want to take her food but she would insist that she had had enough to eat.


stef said...

Thank you for sharing this, Elena! We're Filipino and my parents have stories of the Japanese occupation that I have yet to write about. I'll have my children read this for history today.

elena maria vidal said...

You are welcome. People have no idea how difficult it was in that place and time.

de Brantigny said...

I have been there! I have been to the Philipines 2 times. once just before the bloodless Aquino revolution and once during the coup attempt in 1989. Some beautiful country, wonderful uncomplaining people, and very Catholic.

I remember the humidity and the heat. It was the 4rd hottest place I have been. (#1 is the red sea, #2is Guam which is I swear a mile from the sun, #3 Wake Island)

The Filipinos are a wonderful people.

GeoMac said...

Wonderful story. I look forward to reading more.

cagayano said...

wow!!! what a very good read!!! I'm filipino and Catholic and i study in the University of Santo Tomas!! The main building that served as the concentration camp is still there!! yes! i also remember the same scenes and situations from stories of my grandfather. You have a wonderful blog here Ms. Vidal! God bless you!!