Buried alive by Japanese soldiers
On March 9, 1945, Fr. Bernardino de Celis, an Augustinian friar, narrated what he experienced in the previous month. How many religious—Franciscans, Recollects, Capuchins and Augustinians—were gathered at San Agustin convent in Intramuros but restricted to their rooms and only allowed out accompanied with an armed Japanese guard?
On Feb. 8, 1945, all the men were taken out of the convent and brought to Fort Santiago, where Spaniards were separated from Filipinos and their personal effects stolen from them by the Japanese. They were held for three days without food because whatever supplies were sent from San Agustin were taken and eaten by the Japanese. Their cell was so cramped that one could not lie down to sleep. After three days Celis was brought back to San Agustin, where he experienced better treatment.
It was the proverbial calm before the storm. Days later they were marched out to a bodega near Santa Clara, then forced into a shelter in front of the Manila Cathedral, on the corner of General Luna and Aduana streets:
“I was one of the first to enter into a very large shelter. It was long and very well made with stout timbers. We must have been about 125 in all, including about 37 priests, and I believe that in the shelter in which I entered there must have been over 80 people, because on entering I heard the soldier at the door say that at least 80 people had to enter the shelter. In the other shelter we are sure that there were 17 people of whom between 8 and 10 were saved. Perhaps there was another shelter where the others were placed, but we had no news of it.
“I remained near the door. In about half an hour the Japanese began to throw hand grenades in through the air holes. We were all very badly wounded. We ran to the door in order to go out and a group of soldiers received us with a volley, and what is worse they laughed while they were doing it. Quite a number of us [fell] dead at the door. Then the Japanese covered the entrance with large stones, gasoline barrels full of earth, and earth. They covered the entrance as best they could so that we were being suffocated. We were, in reality, buried alive.
“After this, at night, [I] decided not to die there by suffocation and to get out in any way. I went up to the door and scratched and dug in the earth until I was able to open a hole to breathe through. In the morning of the 20th [February 1945], a Japanese appeared. He saw the hole I had made. He fired several shots through the hole and then covered it up again. After a while I opened it again and no more Japanese came by that way. I was lying on top of the corpses of my companions. Each bomb that fell near caused the earth from the roof of the shelter to cave in a little, so that we were all covered, partially, with dirt and stones. The groans of the dying could still be heard, the dead bodies were already decomposing—there were already worms in them—and a swarm of flies covered everything.
“I had a companion near me, Mr. Rocamora, who was the only one I was able to save. I lay there near the hole until the 21st at night. Then I made the hole bigger and spent the night outside in the grass. My companion was still unable to go out because he was too stout and I had not been able to make the hole big enough yet. In addition, his wounds were worse than mine, even though one side of my body was covered with wounds from a grenade that had burst at my side. When day came, the shelling was very intense, and since I was convinced that the Americans would come in that day, I decided to wait for them in the shelter. The whole day passed, and seeing that they had not yet come, on the night of the 22nd, being unable any longer to resist my hunger and thirst, I decided to leave the shelter and to escape. Then I told my companion and helped [him] to get out, making the hole bigger. We left there at about midnight, by the light of the moon.”
Celis returned to San Agustin and was warned by the nuns to hide or return where he came from before the sentries returned. He did as he was told, and advised his companion to remain hidden while he foraged for food and drink. He found an abandoned Japanese garrison and:
“[I] thought that perhaps they might have left something, no matter how miserable. I did not find food, but I found water in the tank of a toilet —the tank was completely full. As I drank I could feel my strength coming back. I don’t know how much I drank, but it was a great deal. After drinking I did not forget my companion. I looked around for something to carry water in and I found a can. I filled it and took to him. He too was able to revive a little, and then I brought him to the place where the water supply was. There we lay until the following day. At about 5 or 6 of the morning of the 23rd February, the firing became intense—machine gun bursts and rifle fire, so much that it seemed a very inferno. In our building the windows, walls and doors fell in, and we were not able to breathe on account of the dust.”
Celis was later overjoyed to see American soldiers, and only realized later that he was one of the few who survived. This and other firsthand accounts compiled in the “Report on the Destruction of Manila and Japanese Atrocities February 1945” make for very painful reading, and prove that carefully chosen primary-source documents teach Filipino students more than textbooks ever will. #neveragain
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