Hell on earth, the Battle for Manila
It was the Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi who established his capital on the island of Luzon in a place known as Maynila. For more than 300 years, the city would be the seat of the colonial government of Spain, except for a brief period of two years from 1762 to 1764, when the city was occupied by the British.
Before World War II, Manila was one of the loveliest cities in Asia, going by such titles as “Pearl of the Orient,” “Queen of the Orient,” “The City of our Affection,” and “Distinguished and Ever-Loyal City.” The magnificent Manila sunset was considered one of the more famous attractions of the city.
Two events, some 46 years apart, one at the end of the 19th century and the other several months before the end of World War II, serve to highlight the role Manila has played in the life of our nation.
On the evening of Feb. 4, 1899, Private William Grayson and a companion, Orville Miller, both Nebraska Volunteers, were patrolling their camp perimeter in Sta. Mesa. Around 7:30 in the evening, they saw four armed men moving toward them. They immediately called out, “Halt!” Upon hearing the command, the four men cocked their weapons, whereupon Private Grayson again called out, “Halt!” and fired at them.
It was the shot that started the Philippine-American War, a conflict Americans would often refer to as an “insurrection,” perhaps to indicate that Filipinos were rebelling against their authority.
The first Battle for Manila lasted for two weeks, from Feb. 4 to 23. It was marked by “troop misconduct, brutality, criminal activity, and atrocities… even more disturbing were reports that soldiers were firing indiscriminately and killing civilians and prisoners.” (“The Philippine War, 1899-1902,” Brian McAllister Linn.)
Incidentally, there was an earlier battle, but it was a “sham battle” between the Americans and the Spaniards, providing the latter with an opportunity to save face by putting up token resistance.
The Philippine-American War officially ended on July 4, 1902. In the words of US President Theodore Roosevelt, “It represented the most glorious war in the nation’s history.” The cost of the conflict was some 7,000 dead and wounded US soldiers and more than 250,000 Filipino casualties, including noncombatants. Some writers would call the war “America’s first Vietnam.”
Forty-three years later in 1945, Manila again became the scene of heavy fighting and widespread destruction, making it one of the most devastated capital cities in the world, second only to Warsaw in Poland.
One of the more detailed accounts of this local holocaust is found in Alfonso J. Aluit’s “By Sword and Fire: The Destruction of Manila in World War II, 3 February-3 March 1945.” National Artist Nick Joaquin called the book “the most agonizing account I have read of Manila’s 1945 ordeal.”
Another account of what I would call the second Battle for Manila is by a trio of writers Richard Connaughton, John Pimlott and Duncan Anderson, in their work “The Battle for Manila.”
The first phase of this second battle began on Feb. 3, 1945, when the vanguard of a flying column of the First Cavalry Division led by Brig. Gen. William Chase, entered the Santo Tomas internment camp to free Allied POWs. Three days later, on Feb. 6, Gen. Douglas MacArthur announced to the world that “Manila had fallen.” President Franklin Roosevelt sent a congratulatory message to President Sergio Osmeña, saying “The American people rejoice with me in the liberation of your capital.”
Little did they realize that the agony of Manila had just begun.
Shortly after, Japanese naval forces, under Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi started the massacre of civilians, first at Fort Santiago, then in St. Paul College on Herran Street, and later at Paules Church on San Marcelino. And the horror would continue in various places throughout the remaining days of February—in De La Salle College, the Quirino family compound, the Mascunana home, the Palacio del Gobernador, Santa Rosa College, among others.
My father, Modesto Farolan, was then general manager of the Philippine National Red Cross, with offices at Isaac Peral (now United Nations Avenue). He related to us what happened to him on Saturday, Feb. 10. He was in his office with a volunteer nurse Marina de Paz, when Japanese marines entered the Red Cross premises, shooting and bayoneting everyone in sight, despite protestations that it was a Red Cross hospital.
One of the victims was Corazon Noble, popular movie star of the prewar era, who was stabbed nine times in the chest, abdomen, back, and other parts of her body, while protecting her 10-month baby in her arms. As soon as one of the Japanese soldiers opened the door to his office, my father ducked under his desk and luckily was partially covered by the fallen body of one of the doctors who got hit in the first volley of fire. He would later escape from the building.
One of the more pitiful accounts in Aluit’s book that reads like a page from a Holocaust story, concerns the rounding up of families in the Ermita section of Manila. The residents were gathered at Plaza Ferguson and the young women, some 400 out of 1,500, were brought to the Bayview Hotel fronting Dewey (now Roxas) Boulevard, while the men were taken to other buildings in the area.
“Bayview Hotel (in front of the current US Embassy) became a horror house, a brothel for the Japanese military. Singly or in groups, Japanese soldiers or marines would come into the rooms where the women were held. They would shine flashlights, lighted candles, or kerosene lamps, at the faces of the women, and by force and violence, take away the ones they would fancy into any of the rooms of the hotel.”
Fighting in the city would be house-to-house, building by building, with much of the destruction caused by US artillery fire. In place of carpet bombing from the air, it was shelling from the ground with cannons firing at almost zero elevation, blasting every structure along the way. Reports indicate that for every six Filipinos killed by the Japanese, four were victims of the artillery bombardment. Carmen Guerrero Nakpil wrote: “Those who had survived Japanese hate did not survive American love. Both were equally deadly, the latter more so because it was sought and longed for.” (“A Question of Identity,” Carmen Guerrero Nakpil.)
US casualties in the Battle for Manila came up to 1,010 killed in action. American figures put civilian deaths at roughly 100,000, “the highest number of human beings killed in any siege on a city in modern times outside of Leningrad and Nanking.” Japanese forces suffered some 16,000 dead.
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