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Looking Back

Saving our cultural heritage

The movie “The Monuments Men” (2014) received mixed reviews because it was a war film like no other. George Clooney and other actors played members of a small group of Allied Forces in Europe — British and American servicemen who worked as historians, curators, museum and library personnel before the war. Their mission was to save and protect Europe’s cultural heritage from destruction in the closing days of the war. I didn’t know there was something similar in the Philippines, chronicled in “Books and Documents Men in Manila,” which was hidden from history because most of them served in the Philippine Research and Information Section of the Counter Intelligence Service, then headed by the scholar Dr. Joseph R. Hayden, an important member of Douglas MacArthur’s staff.

Our story begins on Feb. 20, 1945, while the Battle for Manila was building up. Dr. Solon J. Buck, Archivist of the US, wrote to Maj. Gen. John H. Hilldring, Chief Civil Affairs Division, War Department:

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“The present fighting in Manila endangers and has probably already resulted in damage to historical and administrative records of the greatest importance both to this Government and to the Government of the Philippine Commonwealth. This Government obviously has a special responsibility to do all that it can to salvage and give protection and first aid to what may survive. The records involved include those of the Spanish administration, going back to the early years of the 17th century, the records of our own administration, 1898-1935, none of which were removed from the Philippines, the administrative records of the Government of the Philippine Commonwealth, 1935-41, such records of Japanese administration and the puppet government as may come into our hands, and the records of important private bodies, such as those of the religious orders, universities, etc. some of which are extensive and very valuable.”

Dr. Buck sent General Hilldring a list of all the archival repositories in the capital, noting that most of these were located in Intramuros and south of the Pasig where fighting was heaviest, and where most of the fires were concentrated. Buck requested that Maj. Arthur E. Kimberly be sent to Manila from Australia to supervise the salvage operations of our documentary heritage. Kimberly, being one of the US experts in paper preservation and restoration, was best qualified to provide critical first aid to recovered rare books and archival documents so that these could be adequately treated after the war. He arrived to the smoldering remains of Manila on June 15, 1945.

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Some of the collections to be secured following Buck’s list were: the Legislative Building (National Library and Museum), Normal School, National Language Institute, Manila City Hall, Bureau of Science Library, Supreme Court Library, University of the Philippines, Malacañang and nearby offices—the Budget Commission, Bureau of Civil Service, Philippine Sugar Administration, Bureau of Census and Statistics, Bureau of Coast and Geodetic Survey, etc. Last but not least, the archives division of the National Library, which was kept in a wing of Bilibid Prison.

The Dominican records were in UST, which had become a prison camp for Americans, while the Augustinian records were in San Agustin in Intramuros, etc. Dr. Buck provided the address and contact person for each collection, and the materials therein. How much of these survived the war and the neglect after the war has not been ascertained.

Sergio Osmeña’s 1945 draft report to the President of the United States stated that: “The general library and the historical and art collections in the Legislative Building were completely destroyed. The Library had contained some 300,000 books and 250,000 pamphlets, and the history and art collections consisted of some 2,500 paintings, sculptures, carvings, medals, coins and miscellaneous specimens.”

Contrary to popular belief, however, all was not lost. The treasures of the National Library, like the original manuscripts of the “Noli Me Tangere,” “El Filibusterismo,” and “Mi Ultimo Adios,” are extant because they were moved from the Legislative Building to the Normal School and a vault in Manila City Hall in December 1944.

(Conclusion on Friday)

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Battle for Manila, Looking Back, Philippine cutlure, Philippine history, Solon J. Buck, World War II
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