Panahon ng Hapon. Those words usually bring up a lot of emotional memories for people who lived through the Second World War in the Philippines and experienced first hand the turmoil and atrocities of war. Certainly the people living in large cities were the first to experience the hardship and dangers inherent to any global conflict but this did not mean that those, like my parents, living in isolated rural communities were immune to the subsequent ravages and chaos that ensued.
Owing to its strategic location in the Pacific, and because the Philippines was a U.S. commonwealth country at the time of the commencement of the last world war, it was a prime target for the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces, and in fact was taken over shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.
For the earlier part of the war, life proceeded relatively normal in my parents’ hometown of Pook. Because of its remote and isolated location, and the fact that as a small rural community it did not have much material wealth to offer the occupying forces, Pook was spared from the chaos that had become part of everyday life in the cities and towns close to Manila. All this would change towards the end of the war in the Pacific, when the Japanese Forces, aware that they were steadily losing, moved their headquarters to the north of the Philippines and Manila was declared an open city.
Thousands of the formerly occupying soldiers, their morale at a very low ebb and food rations in short supply, began fanning out from the city towards the more remote areas away which they previously would not have ventured to. Starving and discouraged by the turn of events, their brutality and violence escalated and before abandoning Manila, killed thousands of its population, burned and destroyed most the city and left it in ruins.
Panicked residents of the small communities, not having been exposed to the realities of the war until then, were caught unaware and unprepared. At any given time, Japanese soldiers came busting through their homes demanding food and anyone unable to provide were subjected to beatings by rifle buts, or found themselves at the wrong end of a bayonet. My father used to recall exactly this situation, when one afternoon, unable to give the soldiers the food they were demanding, the enemy soldiers grew increasingly violent and ransacked the house, My father, in the subsequent commotion ran to the next house to ask for anything at all to help appease the soldiers, and came back just in time to witness a soldier with his raised bayonet ready to stab my mother. His pleading call of “Tomadachi! Tomadachi!” (Friend! Friend!) and an outstretched hand holding two eggs were all that saved my mother from a harrowing end that day.
Day to day life did not get any better from then on. There would be days when they had to flee their home along with other people and hide in the agbang, three short narrow valleys off the side of the rice fields, carrying their baby daughter in a bilao, a shallow bamboo tray to escape the mayhem.
My mother would later recall with great sadness a cousin of hers who was raped by Japanese soldiers, lost her mind and died from grief shortly after. Or the time when in the middle of the night, the Japanese lured many of the townspeople into the local church with the promise of food rations. I am not sure why my parents chose not to go, but the decision saved their lives. For once the people were gathered in the church, all the doors were locked from the outside and the church bombed and everyone inside the place were killed that night.
It was a time of great distress and torment for the whole country, and when the war ended in 1945, over one hundred and ten thousand civilians in Manila and its vicinity were massacred in February 1945 alone in what was called the Manila Massacre, about a third more than those civilians who died in Hiroshima. Manila became the second most heavily destroyed city as an aftermath of the Second World War, after Warsaw, Poland.
Who could say why so many perished and why others survived? What hand of fate decided that my parents would live when so many others died? Many years would pass, and decades later, fantastical claims as to how people lived to tell the tale would be told by those who did, my father among them.
© August 2007