Saving Private Klein | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Saving Private Klein

Filipino researchers who visit the University of Michigan (U-M) at Ann Arbor make a beeline to the Bentley Historical Library for its wealth of archival material on the Philippines.

I feel like a child in a candy store exploring papers from the late 19th-century naturalist expedition to the Philippines by Joseph Beal Steere to Frank Murphy, who served as the last US governor general (1933-1935) and first US high commissioner to the Philippines (1935-1936). The original Camp Murphy in Quezon City split like an amoeba into today’s Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo. Also in the Bentley are the papers of Supreme Court Associate Justice George Arthur Malcolm (1917-1936) who moved for the establishment of the University of the Philippines College of Law in 1911. Malcolm Hall in Diliman is named in his honor. Three of Malcolm’s students—Jose P. Laurel, Manuel Roxas, and Elpidio Quirino—served as presidents of the Philippines.


I did research in the Bentley 23 years ago on a Fulbright senior research fellowship and would have spent time there again during my present term as visiting professor in the University of Michigan Center for Southeast Asian Studies, but found myself enjoying the reading room of the William L. Clements Library, an Italian Renaissance-inspired building that houses rare books and manuscripts not found in the nearby Shapiro Undergraduate and Hatcher Graduate Libraries. Ferdinand E. Marcos was conferred an honorary doctorate in law here in September 1966. The late Miriam Defensor Santiago winced when I said she and Marcos were alumni of the U-M School of Law. Her master of laws and doctor of juridical science were earned degrees.

In the Clements, I held a rare copy of “De moluccis insulis” (1523) by Maximilianus Transylvanus, an account of the first circumnavigation from interviews of the survivors of the Magellan-Elcano expedition. I browsed photographs from the early 1900s (showing the construction of Kennon Road up to Baguio) to photos of charred landmarks and ruins following the 1945 Battle for Manila. I concentrated on small collections of letters from young men who served in the Philippines during the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars.


Seven letters by Private Jacob Klein from Dagupan and San Carlos, Pangasinan, were posted to his cousin Carl Meitzler in Ohio. His July 7, 1901 letter, as transcribed, reads:

“The Philippines [is] a bunch of troubles on the horizon of civilization. [It is] bounded on the West by Hoodaism and smugglers, on the North by Rocks, Typhoons and Monsoons, on the South by Can[n]ibals and Earthquakes. The climate is a deceptive combination of changes well adapted for raising Cain. The soil is fertile and large. Of treachery and insurrection are produce[d] quit[e] frequently. The inhabitants are industrious, their chief occupation is digging trenches and making bolos. Their houses are chiefly made of bamboo and landscape. Filipinos marriage service impression especially a clause where in the wife is given the privilege [of] working as much as her husband[’s] desire. The[i]r amusements are cockfighting, murdering, and stealing. Principal diets are: fried rice, stewed rice, boiled rice, and rice. The beast of burden is the Caribou [Carabao] and should a journey of one hundred miles be undertaken the driver would die of old age before reaching his destination. The rivers are serpentine in the[i]r courses having many currents all of which are [in] opposition to the well known laws of gravitation. Malaria fever is a prevalent that on many occasion[s] the earth has been shaken as if by a chill or because of the vibration of the population. Filipinos are a good present for an enemy. The natives are friendly at the point of your gun. The climate is pleasant healthfully for Mosquitos, Ants, Lizards, Bats, Snakes, Tarant[u]l[a]s, Scorpions, Centiped[e]s, Alligators, and the American Soldiers. Such is the condition of the beautiful Island where American Soldiers are dieing [dying] every day to save sugar for the Trust. I will come to a close for this time.”

These biased anti-Filipino soldiers’ letters preserved in the Clements Library brought me back in time and made me resolve to find Filipino first-person accounts of the US occupation of the Philippines to balance them out.


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