A horrible day never to be forgotten
Cornelius Tacitus, one of the greatest Roman historians, wrote in “The Annals of Imperial Rome”: “My purpose is not to relate at length every motion, but only such as were conspicuous for excellence or notorious for infamy. This I regard as history’s highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.”
It is for the same purpose that we revisit here an eyewitness account of an event that took place 74 years ago this month:
“On Monday, February 12, 1945, just after we had eaten lunch, all of us gathered for protection from the shelling at the foot of the stairs in the southern wing. A Japanese officer accompanied by 20 soldiers entered and took away two of the house boys whom they had badly wounded. Then the officer gave a command and at once the soldiers began bayoneting all of us; men, women, and children alike.
“Some of the Brothers managed to escape up the stairs. These were pursued by the soldiers, some of them bayoneted at the entrance to the chapel; others within the chapel itself. If anyone resisted, a soldier would fire his gun at them or cut them with his sword. As a result, several, in addition to bayonet wounds, were otherwise badly wounded. Some of the children were only two or three years old; a few were even younger. All of those were given the same treatment as their elders.
“When the Japanese had finished bayoneting us, they pulled and dragged the bodies and threw them into a heap at the foot of the stairs, the dead being thrown upon the living. Not many were killed outright by the bayoneting, a few died within one hour or two hours; the rest slowly bled to death.”
The above is an excerpt from the firsthand account of Fr. Francis Cosgrave, CSsR, the chaplain of De La Salle College at the time. Though badly wounded himself, he administered the last rites to the dead and gave absolution and blessing to those bleeding to death.
There were 68 people residing in De La Salle in February 1945. Among them were 17 La Salle Brothers, Father Cosgrave, and residents in the school’s vicinity who sought refuge in the De La Salle building, as they considered it safe from shelling because of its reinforced concrete walls and high ceilings. Forty-one, including 16 La Salle Brothers, died in that holocaust. The event is referred to in the book “The Battle for Manila” by Richard Connaughton et al., as “Of all the massacres, few were more notorious than that conducted at La Salle College.”
Every Feb. 12, a memorial Mass is celebrated in the very same chapel where many met their agonizing death. After Mass, the congregation, including a few from the thinning number of survivors of that day of notoriety, goes down to the courtyard to say a prayer in front of the memorial for the victims of that massacre. It depicts Father Cosgrave cradling a dying La Salle Brother.
While the Japanese government is a big benefactor of the school, I am certain the La Salle Brothers would not accede to any representation by the Japanese government to have the memorial removed, the way statues of comfort women in a public place and in a private property have been removed at the instance of the Japanese Embassy. That memorial, as well as other symbols of the atrocities of that war, should remain standing for all time, so that when the survivors themselves shall have passed on, the generations of Filipinos to come are made aware of the cruelty of war.
In 1995, Br. Andrew Gonzalez, then president of De La Salle, said in his homily at the Mass commemorating the 50th anniversary of that carnage: “We commemorate this sad event and the war, not to freshen the wounds of memory or to jolt anger and resentment once more, but to remind ourselves of the futility and cruelty of war.”
By remembering the atrocities of war, we prevent its repetition. That is why I wrote somewhere else that year that Alfonso J. Aluit’s book “By Sword and Fire,” which narrates the destruction of Manila during the month of February 1945, should be made required reading in high school so that, as Tacitus wrote in 1st Century AD, it will hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil deeds.
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Oscar P. Lagman Jr. is an occasional contributor of commentary pieces to the Inquirer.
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