Older Filipinos, especially those who lived in Manila at that time, still use the term “Liberation” to refer to the Battle of Manila, which took place on Feb. 3-March 3, 1945.
Younger Filipinos, on the other hand, have no inkling of what that word means; to them, the Japanese occupation of the Philippines is as distant and mysterious as prehistory.
It is amazing how such an important anniversary is getting so little attention. So far, I’ve read of only one commemorative activity—in Santa Ana—for the 70th anniversary of this battle.
We need to remember the Battle of Manila. Although the Japanese did not surrender to the Americans until a few months later, it was that battle that effectively ended Japan’s occupation of the Philippines.
Pearl of the Orient
The Battle of Manila, however, had a great cost for Filipinos, so much so that sometimes it is referred to as the “Rape of Manila.” In trying to drive out the Japanese, the Americans lost 1,010 of its soldiers. The estimated number of deaths of Japanese soldiers was 16,665.
The death toll for Filipino civilians? Roughly 100,000.
The term “Pearl of the Orient” was a popular prewar description, not of the Philippines, but of Manila, a grand city that awed even the Japanese invaders. We had the largest seaport in Southeast Asia. Our buildings—government offices, cathedrals and churches, universities—and the whole layout of Manila were hailed as paragons of urban planning, and of a fusion of western and local cultures.
All that was to be destroyed in the Battle of Manila, and to this day, we have not recovered. Without memories of that Pearl of the Orient, we went on to demolish the remaining buildings and to put up some of the ugliest structures on the planet, with no appreciation of heritage.
The destruction of buildings was nothing compared to the loss of lives, and the assault on the population. Early in the battle, Japanese troops rounded up Filipinos in the Ermita/Malate area. The men and boys were sent to Manila Hotel, where they would be grouped, tied and doused with gasoline… I need not describe what happened next. The women and girls were sent to Bayview Hotel, where they would wait in dread, as Japanese soldiers came around to pick some of them and bring them to Japanese military officers to be raped.
The greatest casualties, though, were out in the streets, in the pitched battles. The most ferocious battles were fought in Intramuros and in the Pandacan/Paco area, but other areas were not spared from firefights. There was no safe haven: One of the worst massacres of civilians was in De La Salle University on Taft Avenue, where people had fled, hoping to be spared. Even the Philippine General Hospital was caught in the crossfire, with staff and patients killed.
It’s understandable that few Filipino survivors have written about the trying times during the Occupation and the Battle of Manila, given the trauma of “Liberation.” One of the more graphic accounts comes from Carmen Guerrero Nakpil in her autobiography “Myself, Elsewhere.”
The task now is for historians to reconstruct what happened during World War II. The University of the Philippines Diliman’s Ricardo Jose is the foremost authority on that period and will be spearheading a number of activities on campus. In fact, today, Feb. 11, UP’s Department of History will sponsor a talk, “Shared History: Life History of Marcot Pins, a Jewish Refugee in the Philippines,” at Bahay Kalinaw.
Back to the Battle of Manila: Nagging questions remain about the military strategy that was used, including observations that American bombs and bullets may have killed more Filipino civilians than Japanese fire.
US Gen. Douglas MacArthur was obsessed with his promise to liberate the Philippines, and Manila seemed to be the key to this liberation. But some members of his staff, such as Gen. Walter Kreuger, had thought of bypassing Manila. MacArthur, however, was obstinate, and is quoted as having ordered: “Go around the Nips, bounce off the Nips, but go to Manila.”
In MacArthur’s defense, historians point out that he was concerned with rescuing thousands of Filipino and American prisoners of war being held in Manila, especially in Bilibid and the University of Santo Tomas. These prisoners would be slaughtered by Japanese soldiers as they sensed final defeat.
Tomoyuki Yamashita, commander in chief of the Japanese armed forces in the Philippines, did not want a battle in Manila either. He had army troops move out of Manila, and then sent in the imperial navy. In the end, when Japanese soldiers realized that there was no hope with their defense, they turned their brutality on the civilian population.
Made to forget
So why have Filipinos so easily forgotten World War II? We can’t attribute this to time alone. Many younger Filipinos are aware of that war, thanks to the many western films that continue to feature it. But the films are mainly of European battlefields, of battles against the Nazis.
Some may also be aware of the destruction of great cities because of the air raids from both Nazi and Allied forces. And of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. But many Filipinos, myself included, grew up never realizing that “Liberation” resulted in one of the most destructive battles in global history. The destruction of Manila was second only to that of Warsaw and Stalingrad.
If we forget so easily, it is because we are made to forget. We have few books, few films, about World War II.
If our film producers are looking for blockbuster material, there is enough material out there around the Battle of Manila. American troops came in starting in January, landing in Lingayen Gulf, in Nasugbu, and in Tagaytay Ridge, to join Hunters ROTC Filipino guerrillas to push on to Manila.
It won’t just be blood and gore; there are many stories of valor and courage, of love and sacrifice. Expand that to the entire era of World War II and you have many more stories waiting to be retold, waiting to become part of our collective memory as a nation. How many Filipinos, for example, are aware that Baler was a major landing point for arms, to be sent to the guerrillas? Or that we provided safe haven for Jewish refugees from Europe? Or that Czech diplomats and businessmen were part of the Death March to Bataan?
To understand who we are today, and our humanity, we need to retell the stories of that not-too-distant past, of captivity and of liberation.
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