ON FRIDAY, ALL SOULS DAY, most Filipinos joined the annual pilgrimage to the cemeteries to remember their dead. But not all were fortunate to be part of that human swell of commemoration. Sad to say, circumstances dictated by fate have not allowed me to do what most of my compatriots have done, to keep alive the tradition of honoring the memory of people closest to them.
The long weekend gave me a rare chance to reflect on why I have not conformed with this tradition. For the last 69 years, the feast day of departed souls has come and gone, and I have never visited a cemetery simply because the remains of my parents are nowhere to be found. My parents, together with three of my youngest siblings, perished during a massacre of civilians by a punitive Japanese army expedition in the mountains of Ajuy, Iloilo, in September 1943. In short, they were victims of Japanese military atrocities during the Occupation.
Up to this day, this massacre has been one of the most ignored (by both historians and official records) of military atrocities perpetrated by Japanese forces during the Occupation (1942-45). As far as I know, there are no official records showing that any postwar Philippine government has ever conducted an investigation into this tragedy, in which the brutality was as appalling as that inflicted on surrendered Filipino soldiers in the Bataan Death March of 1942.
The following reconstruction is based on interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses over the years since 1943. In the absence of official records, this narrative has been driven to rely on oral tradition.
My mother, one of the first graduates of the Philippine General Hospital School of Nursing on Taft Avenue, was a nurse in the Ajuy municipal health center. Sometime in September 1943, Japanese forces landed on the coastal town of Concepcion, fanned out to Sara and Ajuy and rounded up civilians in their path, holding them as hostages and force-marching them to the sitio of Sampunong Bulo, in the Ajuy mountains. The number of hostages remains undetermined up to now.
They were executed by beheading; children were tossed in the air and then caught by bayonets. Their bodies were dumped into the houses in the village, and then burned. I was 15 years old.
I was living in Dumangas town, 60 kilometers from Ajuy, with my grandparents. My father left me with them after he fetched me from the Iloilo provincial high school at the outbreak of the war on Dec. 8, 1941, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. I was a second-year student at the Iloilo High School. After leaving me with my grandparents, he rejoined my mother and my eight siblings in Ajuy. That was the last time I saw my father.
In mid-September, news filtered down to Dumangas that a Japanese expedition in Sara-Ajuy had massacred scores of civilians. Jose Dimson, mayor of the Laurel puppet government in Dumangas, told us my parents and some of their children were among the casualties. My father was Dimson’s godfather at his wedding. The massacre in Ajuy was a warning to Filipino guerrillas loyal to the resistance local governments left behind by President Manuel Quezon, when he sought refuge in the United States to establish a government-in-exile in Washington, DC. The warning was civilians would pay with their lives for guerrilla attacks on Japanese forces.
Porters conscripted by the Japanese for their expedition brought eyewitness accounts confirming the decapitation of members of my family. One of them was a classmate in public elementary school. When I heard this, I was numbed by shock. I didn’t cry. I told myself, What can I do. I can’t bring them back to life. Then I told my grandmother, “I want to look for my surviving siblings.” Soon after, I found two relatives in Hacienda Sto.Rosario, with a muscovado mill, where my grandparents evacuated. The hacienda was owned by my grandmother’s brother.
I convinced them to accompany me in my search for possible survivors. We walked up the provincial road for two days and two nights, taking mountain passes to avoid Japanese patrols. When we arrived at the supposed massacre site, what I saw were ashes of burned houses. There were no mounds covering mass graves. I went to the poblacion to look for my surviving siblings. The townsfolk told me the survivors were living on an island off shore with a family that had rescued them. I went to the island. When I arrived, I found my siblings—four girls and one boy—walking on the beach.
The family who sheltered them was that of Apolonio Alicarte, whose father-in-law was my mother’s patient. Prior to the Japanese sweep, my parents and the Alicartes made a pact. They had pledged that whichever family would survive, the survivors would take care of the remnants of the victimized family.
I hired a sailboat to take us back to Dumangas. It was All Saints Day and All Souls Day. We sailed against a storm. Weeks after our safe arrival, some well-meaning relatives offered to take care of my siblings. I told my grandmother, “Never, ever partition us. I will take care of them.” We have held together until today.
I have never found the graves of my parents and lost siblings.