Special Liberty Trip to Manila, Philippines

April 4, 1945 Special Liberty Trip to Manila, Philippine Islands

You can’t imagine how happy I am at this minute heading towards the shores of Manila, weaving past an estimated seventy-five sunken Japanese ships. They present dangerous navigational obstacles for the traffic that fills this bay daily. Most of these monuments project partially above the surface of the water, with buoys to mark their dangerous presence to boats and shipping.

Thirty crewmen from my ship and as many from other ships were picked to go on the first liberty allowed into the recaptured city of Manila. A large cruiser, acting as host and hotel, brought us here for a two-day holiday. What a thrill. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would get ashore in Manila at this time. To think, we will be here for two whole days to roam the city freely, albeit within certain restricted military boundaries. We are only a relatively few short hours traveling time from Subic Bay, where my ship is being patched up in a floating dry-dock.

As we picked our way past the burned out hulks, we were able to see what was left of pier seven and the rest of the Manila waterfront area. American bombs had changed what used to be piers and warehouses into great mounds of shattered brick and twisted steel.

Going ashore, we were met by many small Filipino children, who wanted to sell us Japanese invasion money for cigarettes. Here in the Philippines, American cigarettes are worth more than their weight in gold.

This WWII Japanese invasion money was found while on first liberty to the recaptured city of Manila. It may be a counterfeit note, as the US printed and distributed counterfeit currency to disrupt the local economy while under Japanese rule.

We walked along about five blocks of burned out, shell-torn buildings that were at one time garages, warehouses, office buildings, etc., until we came to the great walled city. This is, or was,  the oldest part of Manila, built by the Spanish back in 1621. It is constructed entirely of adobe and adorned with beautiful wrought iron gates and balconies. There is very little of this two-mile-square city left standing except the great wall itself. Its weight and strength were almost impervious to the heavy shelling.

It was here that the Japanese made their last stand. They set up their guns on the second and third stories of these old buildings. The Americans had no choice but to blast them out, even though doing so meant demolishing many very historic halls, churches, museums, and other valued structures. The Americans finally made a small break in the wall and sent in a demolition crew of sixty men who dynamited most of the buildings that remained after the intense shelling. The destruction of the great walled city was certainly complete, and a great loss.

After passing through this area, we came to what was left of the customs building on the Pasig River. The old bridge that used to span this waterway was destroyed by the Japanese during their retreat into the walled city, but was quickly replaced by a new Army Corps of Engineers’ bridge.

Despite all the horrendous destruction, life continued with an ever greater sense of urgency. Almost every person we saw, including children, was carrying a large bundle of faggots on his or her head. Many of these children were smoking cigarettes, and it was not uncommon to see old prune-faced ladies puffing on big black cigars. Perhaps the strangest visual quirk was the unprecedented numbers of young pregnant women. I think this population saw more action than the whole Pacific fleet.

A pregnant woman and child resume daily activities in the newly recaptured city of Manila during WWII, April 5, 1945

Crossing the river brought us into the remains of the new business district of Manila. This area was destroyed by the Japanese, equal to the destruction of the great walled city.

We wandered around this part of the city for some time. Hunger inspired our next move. The army has been inspecting all the eating places in Manila, closing unsanitary ones and okaying the better places. We found an “okayed” restaurant and enjoyed an excellent meal at a great price. It was far less than I had anticipated, especially when I discovered that a peso was worth only fifty cents in American money. Chicken was five pesos, sandwiches, three-fifty, and ice cream was  one-fifty.

From the cafe owner we learned a little about the food problem and how the Japanese had treated the people during their occupation.

After leaving the restaurant we went to Billbados Prison but were not allowed to go through it because it was now being used to contain the Japanese POWs. There were not many prisoners taken when the Americans captured Manila.

Our next stop was Santo Thomas University, where all the liberated internees representing many nationalities had lived in freedom and later as prisoners. Although most of us could not get in, we were able to talk to a great many people who were held captive there by the Japanese. We were held spellbound by their experiences during their long period of internment.

As it was explained to me, early in January 1942, when the Japanese first took over, they herded all the white people and some Filipinos into this big University of Santo Thomas, where they were left pretty much to themselves. It was to the advantage of the Japanese to let them do so. The people were able to print their own newspaper, plant vegetable gardens, work around the buildings, as well as many other things. There were weekly contests to select the cleanest rooms in the dormitories. The internees set up comprehensive committees, headed by eminent lawyers, miners, and sugar men, to govern all phases of camp life, even a kindergarten class. One doctor was allowed to go outside to take care of his patients. Sometimes the Japanese issued passes to other internees to go downtown if they showed good reasons.

In Leyte we had been told that the Japs went into schools and took girls away to army camps, but they evidently had not done that in Manila. Up until the very last of the Japanese occupation there were few cases of rape. They did not molest the white girls in the concentration camps, but we were told of some instances where some girls who had large families interned went to live with Japanese officers in return for a guarantee that their families would be taken care of.

One man with whom I talked had been in the Army several years ago in Manila and had started a small business there upon his discharge. He said many people felt quite strongly against MacArthur because he had given them no warning that the Japs were closing in to take the city so fast. They had no time to close their businesses or get their personal affairs straightened up. As he put it, it was like going to bed one night with everything normal and waking up the next morning to find the Japanese had taken over the city.

He said the Japanese had treated them pretty well up to the time we took the Gilbert Islands, but then things got worse as we moved west. As time wore on, the prisoners were fed less, only getting about two ounces of rice a day per person and sometimes none at all. The women were forced to dig ditches and do other strenuous tasks, even though they were starving to death. One couple that I talked to said that they had lost so much weight that their thighs were as big around as their wrists. If things had gone on that way for even a month longer, only about half of the camp would have survived. Although the mix of people contained within the boundaries of this University camp suffered the indignities of forced control, there were no military prisoners interned here at Santo Thomas, past or present.

The next day we landed at the pier at eight AM and caught a truck to the northern outskirts of the city. It was here that the outside markets and stores had been set up. Breadlines reflected the poverty of the people. The conditions in which they lived were appalling. Still, the presence of expensive cars driven by well-dressed and obviously well fed farmers and plantation owners was not uncommon. These were the lucky ones who were able to hide away from the Japanese.

Although the Japanese treated the Filipino people themselves fairly well at first, they did not hesitate to take nay property such as cars, radios, tables, or other items that satisfied their needs. There was heavy inflation with the introduction of the Japanese occupation money. When we started bombing Manila’s harbor areas, we also dropped a great deal of American-made Japanese occupation money to add to the inflation. The Filipinos called this Jap money “Mickey Mouse Money.”

Japanese Invasion money printed for the Dutch East Indies, yet found on other Islands in the South Pacific during WWII

The majority of the people used the old barter system while the Japanese were in power. They would go out into the province and trade clothes or whatever they had for food. Even this was not too good because the Japanese took all the food they could find for the army.

After our tour of the markets, we visited the Malacanang Palace, the White House and capital of the Philippine Islands. This  palace was built in 1867 by the people for the governor general and served as his home until 1935 or 1936, when Quezon was elected the first president of the Philippine Islands. We were very fortunate in having as our guide through the palace, the head of President Quezon’s personal staff who had lived in Manila since 1935. He showed us through every room in the palace and explained in detail each item of interest; the oil paintings, the magnificent cut-glass chandeliers, which had been brought from Czechoslovakia, the antique inlaid beds, the marble statues, and many other artistic treasures.

Our guide told us how, when the Japanese came, he went with President Quezon to Corregidor and from there to Mindanao. Later, when Quezon and MacArthur went to Australia, he came back to take care of the palace.

When the Japanese came into Manila, the Filipino people told them if the palace was left alone, they would cooperate with them. The Japanese put in a puppet governor and kept the military out of the palace altogether, except when meetings or large affairs were held there. Not long before the Americans landed on Luzon, the Japanese took the governor and all of his staff up to Baugio, the summer palace on northern Luzon.

We asked our guide how it happened that the Japanese had not blown up the palace as they had the rest of the city when the Americans came. He explained that one of the guerrilla fighters stuffed his pride in his pocket and played the part of a collaborator with the Japanese, working his way into their confidence. He knew when the orders form Tokyo came to blow up the palace and to kill all the male prisoners from age six to sixty. At this time the American forces were battling for Clark Field. He got word to MacArthur who sent two divisions into Santo Thomas and the palace. For six days and nights they fought their way into Manila and arrived at eight  o’clock on a Saturday night. The mass execution was to have taken place at dawn on Sunday – the next day – and the men had already been separated from the women. It was like a story book ending.

The Jap who was in charge of Santo Thomas was arrogant and demanded the protocol of bowing to his station of authority. He made all the prisoners adhere to this gesture when they went to see him and when he passed them on the college campus. Unfortunately this interpretation of forced subservience went over like a lead balloon with the Americans. I talked to a vibrant lady in her sixties who came from the deep south, and she in her caustic way described how deeply hated the commandant of this camp was. When the Americans came in, they shot this Jap in the neck. She said she saw them dragging him through the streets with his head “just a floppin’ around” and it made her so happy, she “yelled and hollered and carried on like a kid at a Georgia Tech football game!”

When the Americans rescued the camp in force, the Japanese fled across the river. From here they shelled Santo Thomas, killing more than one hundred of the interned civilians before being silenced.

The Americans who took over the palace did it very quietly. Soldiers, machine guns, and three tanks strategically waited in place. When the Japs across the Pasig River fired their first volley of mortars, our tanks knocked them out with little damage to the palace. The machine gun bullet scars left in the palace were far from the inevitable disaster had the Americans not been there to prevent a tragedy.

As we were leaving, a rather distinguished looking man, who we later learned was a lawyer with mining interests and the owner of a sugar plantation, extended his people’s deep gratitude to the Americans and hoped we would carry this message to our people. He said by Philippine standards he would be considered very wealthy, but would have been only too willing to give it all up to be under the American flag again.

It was sad to learn that by the time the Japanese were finally driven out, they had killed ten thousand civilians. Most of the killings followed the long efforts made in training young Filipinos to fight for the Japanese. Upon graduation, these well-trained youngsters ran into the hills to join the guerrillas with knowledge to retaliate.

After all that I have seen and heard relating to the many fascinating stories of Filipino heroism and sacrifice, I don’t think I shall ever be the same again. Perhaps this is called maturity. I guess l have reached a point in life where problems can be put in proper perspective. I certainly have enough experiences to measure relative values of importance. Now when I hear people arguing over petty problems, I find it a disgusting waste of energy.

We wanted to go look closer around the ruins of the Manila Hotel but it was restricted. It was still full of dead Japs and filled with booby traps. We saw the Great Eastern Hotel and the San Miguel Brewery but it was too late to stop in to sample their product.

This day was ending, culminating a two-day adventure I shall never forget. I still can’t get over the magnificence of the palace. The thick rugs, paintings, mirror-topped tables,  glassware, chandeliers, chapel, and unbelievable inlaid furniture. With the image of such visual opulence swimming in our minds, we started back for our floating hotel and the war.

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