The Battle for Manila

Friend: “Where were you during the battle?”
I: “Ermita.”
Friend: “That’s impossible, no one came out alive.”

In about mid 1944 we three children had returned to Manila, the capital to live with my mother and my stepfather.

We lived in Ermita at 12 Plaza Ferguson. This is the place described in the book “The Battle for Manila”, where the authors state “The foulest organized incident in modern warfare” occurred.

My mother is an American, married to a Filipino. She and Europeans had to live in the Ermita section of Manila. I mention this because many years later I was told Japanese xenophobia was the reason they tried to kill the lot of us. Except for me our group was so caucasian that this event could have occured in Stalingrad.

I was eleven years old at the time. That early Feb. ’45 evening the visible city surrounding our house was ablaze. Glowing bits of paper were sailing like leaves against the orange-black sky. We left the house and directly ahead of us on the plaza were hundreds of people. Japanese troops were shouting and assembling the crew into some sort of order. (They had passed the word that they were going to shelter us because our city was afire)

As I shuffled across the street my foot knocked over an inverted flower pot. I knew this was a cover for an aerial bomb buried with the fuse head up. We had watched the Japanese dynamiting holes to emplace them. Civilians memorized these locations so we could warn the American tankers. A Japanese soldier yelled “Kura” and shoved me away. Had my heel struck the fuse you kids wouldn’t be here. The Jap was going to die anyway, sooner than later, I didn’t. My sister Nancy told me after reading my account that a man ahead of her did step on a “land mine” and blew up a little ahead of her.

In the plaza two thousand of us were being shoved around by soldiers. The men to the left and women and children to the right. The Jap shoved me to the left, my dad knowing something was going to happen pushed me into the side with the women and children. Hey! I’m the kind of guy who would have put on a dress and scarf on the Titanic. My dad later said the men were walked to the Manila hotel, and later taken out in groups of 30 and killed — the human stack was baled with wire, gasoline thrown in followed by a grenade. Subsequently I have read that this technique was used in China. Not as efficient as the Nazis but not so impersonal.

Now we women and children were driven down the walkway of the Bay View Hotel each side of which was lined with soldiers — fixed bayonets, pointing to us, our frightened herd double timing to shouted orders

In the Bay View Hotel, which had been used as a garrison and was empty of all furniture we were shoved into rooms. Sat on the floor all night, the American artillery continuously pounding against the outside walls. The building shook, noise deafening, flashes of light all night. The building stood thanks to pre-war American earthquake construction.

No food no water. Drank toilet water, rationing out a few gulps a day. Then the tanks ran dry. (come to think of it no one used the toilets, maybe we were scared shitless}. My mother, who pretended to be crazy complained to an officer so much, that he grabbed my 10 year old sister and me. Handed buckets and accompanied by a soldier, ran to the Manila Hotel swimming pool. Filled the buckets. The shelling was deadly. When it got too close the three of us would duck into a Japanese bunker. I remember soldiers sitting there, they would look up startled at the two children and then when the soldier entered it seemed to me they were bemused. I don’t think his presence saved them from us, but I know it saved us from them. By then the lulls in the American shelling were predictable. I don’t know why but we could count on an absolute cessation of fire after a heavy barrage. With each lull we darted towards the Bay View.

Not all rooms were unfurnished, the Japanese officer in charge had a nicely furnished room, great furniture, food, drink and his mistress, Nadja. Nadja was a White Russian woman who lived near us. We passed by their pad on one occasion, she saw us and being a friend invited my mother and her three children to stay with them. My mother declined this kind invitation. Again the Gods were with us, because this act saved our lives. My dad told us that when the Americans got close the survivors of the Manila Hotel massacres ran towards the lines. Nadja lay shot on the ground. Alive and begging for help. The men ran around her, no one stopped. Probably wasn’t anything they could have done even if they had been so inclined. Her beau had shot her as he took off for his last Banzi.

All along I knew that these murderous bastards were going to fight and die to the last man. They were determined that none of us would live to enjoy it. My personal opinion is that the Filipinos had been a great disappointment to them. Sure there were the usual traitors and collaborators seen in any war, but the puppet government never raised an army to join the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” to fight against the Americans.

Overall guerrillas and graffiti fought against them during the occupation. The former were constrained, because anytime a Japanese was killed, innocent civilians were executed in retaliation. This made it most difficult to support guerrilla activity. The puppets ran civil affairs only and were later pardoned by my dad’s uncle, Elpedio Quirino, when he became president of the Republic. A remarkably good deed for a man whose family, including a two year old who was thrown in the air and impaled on a bayonet by a skillful Jap, were directly attacked because he would not collaborate during the occupation. It was preferable during the occupation to have a civil government than direct Japanese martial rule. In other words there were no Quislings or Lavals.

A twist of fate. Our family was going to hole up at uncle’s house, where we had hoarded salt pork and water, but didn’t make it there. My mother told me that uncle called and said the streets were too dangerous for us to hazard the trip. I know that the reason we did not go was because one of our servants had come over, we gave him food for his family. He opened the front door, took a few steps and was shot dead. We tried to re-open the door to pull him in. Our attempt brought a hail of bullets. I tried to peek out a second story window to see if he was alive. A few bullets through the window had me on my belly.

The Bayview Hotel after the Battle for Manila. Courtesy of James Litton. The building was ablaze as we left, orange flames, black smoke pouring out the windows, within half an hour as we sought shelter in the square building on the extreme right came two terrific explosions from within., then all was still no flames, no smoke The blast had blown the flames out.

The Bayview Hotel after the Battle for Manila.
Courtesy of James Litton.
The building was ablaze as we left, orange flames, black smoke pouring out the windows, within half an hour as we
sought shelter in the square building on the extreme right came two terrific explosions from within., then all was still no
flames, no smoke The blast had blown the flames out.

But I digress. Back to the Bay View Hotel—

At times when there were no troops around. I would wander around empty rooms. I came upon a large bound book, opened it up and it contained the Sunday colored comic strips of Tarzan. There must have been a year’s worth. Spent hours reading it and looking at the pictures. Funny how in those circumstances one can find escapism in such a trivial thing. I wondered if the Japanese had a Tarzan fan club.

At times I would look out the window. This was probably about six stories up. The view was of Manila Bay (we were in the Bay View Hotel – get it?) The first time I looked out I saw a Filipino with his hands up on the beach approaching Japanese soldiers. When he got into range they shot him. He dropped instantly. I recognized the man as a guerrilla. Before all hell broke loose, during the quiet part of the occupation, he used to have me and my friends bury Molotov cocktails by designated coconut trees. . Had we been caught with these we would have been shot on the spot, well maybe after a little torture to tell the Kempei, where we had obtained them. Another fun thing we did was to walk by the ammunition dump with a perambulator, steal gunnery shells and hide them. We had no basement so I kept them in an areaway beneath our house. Being boys we thought we were great spies. Maybe the Japs didn’t want to stop boys in drag. At any rate we were never stopped. What a dumb thing to do.

No food either. I scrounged around. Found a couple of crates of hard biscuits (I think that this is what is referred to as hardtack). That was our bread and water for about a week.

Ere long the Japanese started taking the young girls out of the rooms to rape them. The older women would cross themselves and lament “She is such an innocent girl. she has never missed a day of mass.” The girls were usually shoved back into the same room by these gentlemanly escorts. The process was unrelenting. I did not witness these atrocities of course. In time some of the people, who had been scrounging for food said they saw a soldier raping the corpse of a dead girl. By then having accepted these Japs as animals, this bestiality did not surprise me.

Earlier looking for the hardtack, I opened a door and saw several lances leaning in a corner. I recall thinking, the Americans have such superior weapons, these people have confiscated my bicycle, people’s pushcarts, now they are going to fight tanks with spears. I never told anyone until now about those lances.

My sister, Nan hid laying down behind my mother, my seven year old brother, Mike and myself. With my mother acting crazy the Japanese did not near us and did not see her. This comes to mind because after what seemed like days hiding her I remembered the lances. By now I was no longer frightened. Once I accepted as fact that I would die all that mattered was that I die quickly. Given the choices of being burned alive, shot with a rifle or bayoneted, I wanted a mortar shell explosion in the back — not a dud. This would be final. No shell, no Joe in an instant. I will never know if I would have gotten the lance and tried to kill a ravaging Jap at that time. Today I would not, not because my act would ensure my death, but also that of everyone else in that room. I even recollect figuring if I should hide him in a closet or throw him out of a window. (Wouldn’t have been feasible anyway, they entered the rooms in pairs.)

After about a week, the building was burned. I am certain that this was set off by the Japanese, since mortar and howitzer fire could not put a dent in the walls of this building, built to withstand earthquakes. Smoke coming up the halls. The building was designed so if you took a cross section there could be a square within a square. The center square was empty. If round it would be the hole in a doughnut. Smoke was coming up this hole.

The Japanese would not let us leave. I remember the next sequence vividly. My mother, who was in her 30s at the time had some knowledge of Japanese psychology. Perhaps acquired during the frequent interrogations by the Kempei at Fort Santiago. She spotted the Japanese office in charge. Said to him “Number one man say no can go.” Whatever his reason, I presume it was to “save face”, this officer said “I number one man, go!”. And without any further ado we started streaming out of the building into the shelling outside. The entire Ermita section was now rubble. Although we said that the incoming shells were “trench mortars,” using WW I terminology an American veteran recently told me that if we heard the whistle of incoming fire these had to be howitzers, that mortars were silent.

I mention this because this was the closest I came to realizing my option of an exploded shell in the back. By now instinctively we hit the ground when we heard the whistle of incoming fire. During our run through the debris ridden city (streets were no longer identifiable} I heard incoming. Flattened face down to the earth on one side of the bole of a fallen tree. The shell exploded on the other side. I would guess the impact was not more than five to ten yards from me. Had either the shell or I been located any differently we would have proved that “two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.” Oddly I didn’t think it was a big deal or a close call at that time.

We looked for any structure that would give us cover. There were some buildings standing albeit lacking much of their walls. The first place we went to had housed a beauty shop. The wall facing the Bay View Hotel was gone. I sat under a sink, with an inverted pot over my head (my sister laughed at the sight of me) facing the Bay View. Suddenly a terrific explosion shook that building. Plaster and smoke coming out of every window. Then a second blast. The building withstood both events, I am certain that had we been in that building we would not have. I understand that after the war the building was repaired and resumed function as a hotel. In retrospect the explosions must have put our the fire a la Red Adair.

We ran from ruin to ruin, hoping to get nearer the American lines. By now I believed I brought bad luck to everyone I spoke to. They all died. I remember sitting in a room in which also sat a friend of mine, Eddie Lubert. We looked at each other but neither of us spoke. I last saw Eddie when we were running out of a ruined building, to which we had attached a sheet with a large red cross. We poor souls thought this would save us from friendly fire. The Americans opened up on our feeble ruin. Eddie’s mother laid against a fallen sheet of corrugated galvanized roofing with a red spot in the center of her white top. Just that, no blood pouring elsewhere. She probably was dead. Later my father told me he ran into Eddie and Eddie told him he saw me and I looked scared. Hey! Eddie if you read this please understand that I didn’t speak to you to save your life. Weird how kids think under such circumstances.

Now there was no food or water. Went to a different edifice, laying on the floor of a room at ground level. A shell hit a room on the other side of the wall. The wall fell. On the other side were a group of refugees. Smoke, fires, death, dying people. The survivors bleeding groaning. No way for us to help. Found out that here were other small groups in other rooms. Then a surprising thing happened. A couple of Caucasian men in civilian clothes, speaking unaccented English approached our group. One guy said “watch out for the boots, they are hobnailed,” They came back with a soupy pot of boiled rice of which we gratefully ate our portion. Never saw the guardian angels again.

The shelling got worse and worse, too many hits and deaths. The upper floors were infested with Japanese soldiers, the Americans could do no wrong. The people said “they have to shell because the Japanese are in the building”

As I mentioned the area of Manila, we lived in was predominantly Caucasian inhabited- Spaniards, Italians, German Jews, American women married to Filipinos, White Russians, American Negroes, which reminds me that even in hell humans are all the same.

As we wandered through the battered, burning city a brown haired woman said to my mother “My dear we musn’t mingle with the natives.” My mother shot back “Back home you couldn’t walk on the same side of the street with me.” Later I asked my mother “Why not?” . She said because she is “an American Negro” I still didn’t get it until I observed racism in the US. Shortly after disembarking in San Francisco we were put up in a barracks in Oakland. I found my first American friend. Would go to his house, where his mother always made us cookies and other treats. Then “You shouldn’t be playing with that boy”, “Why not, what’s wrong?” “Because he is a Negro”. Incredible!!

It was decided that blonde women and children would step outside and wave a white flag at the Piper Cub spotter planes. Did not work, within a few minutes the shelling opened up in a saturation mode. Again we excused this action by saying “They think the Japanese have forced us to wave the white flag so the Americans will stop shelling.” I thought the spotter pilot was an S.O.B. He killed a lot of us but I doubt that his judgment accounted for one additional Jap. Probably the same guy who called fire on our “Red Cross” building. Had to leave this building, all the while heading for the sounds of small arms fire, which we knew had to be the American lines.

Ended up in a vacant house. I lay on the floor of the kitchen. There was a catalog of the 1939 World’s Fair, remember a picture of Sally Rand (a dancer) who some thirty years later was a patient of mine, I read this cover to cover. No food in that kitchen. Then a terrific explosion in the building, that occurred in the living room. To the living room. Dante would have been inspired. Flames, blue smoke, bodies or parts thereof all over the place. A mother carrying the upper part of her four or five year old daughter, while another daughter carried the child’s leg. The three of them dazed and wandering, scared, hysterical, crying, shocked. The little one still alive but unresponsive. The fire getting hotter and hotter. Left the building for the streets again. Again “Americans would never do this the Japanese must have planted a bomb.” Any explosive was called a “bomba” whether aerial, howitzer, land mine or booby trapped dynamite.

We ran across debris and ruins, as I got several yards away a Japanese soldier ran by, waving a pistol at us. He seemed to be smiling, but did not shoot. We had not had face to face contact with any Japanese for several days, and I was certain that this was it for me. I looked him in the eye, don’t know why, Perhaps I thought this would be my last sight on earth. Who knows? Maybe human eye contact elicited a touch of pity or mercy. He did not shoot me.

As I write this I have lost count of these close calls and I have only written of the memorable ones. I didn’t count starving as one.

By the time we were about a block from the burning house the heat was so intense to this day I can feel my body heating up, when I think of it. Literally felt as if I would fall from the extreme temperature.

Through more rubble. Another burnt out building. The small arms fire was closer and closer. Someone came and said there were Caucasian soldiers nearby. Did not know if they were Germans or Americans. Reason: before the war Americans wore the same helmets as the British “Tommies” (M-1917) while the new helmets resembled the German helmets we had seen in pictures (M-1) Now another decision. To run to the American lines or wait for them to reach us. My mother said without hesitation “We’re going to the lines, whatever they are they can’t be any worse than these Japs.” About half of the survivors elected to go with us. I later found out that those remaining were all killed in the room to room fighting. Americans had to throw grenades into each room. Of our group about half lived.

Now the next closest shave for me. As I ran to the American lines the Japanese in the upper floors were shooting at me. Bullets kicking up spouts of dirt about me. I was a speedy and by then streetwise eleven and a half year old and instinctively knew that running in a non-linear fashion would give them less chance to draw a bead on me. Never slowed up nor looked back, My speed and broken field running would have won me the Heismann trophy. I take this business of shooting at me personally, the other times were generic killings.

Then quiet. A vacant street, with three dead Japs in the middle. Corpses do not keep well in the tropics. The bodies were black and bloated, the bloated skin had split in places with yellow fat visible. The eye and mouth apertures looked like they were full of boiled rice moving incessantly. These were maggots, feasting. Some would drop off and fall down a chin or cheek. Some people were kicking the corpses. I didn’t. I thought they were soggy and my foot would go into or through them.

Tired, sat on a curb. Looked behind us on the sidewalk. Five or six more putrid bloated bodies. “Mom there are some dead men behind us.” “They’re just Japs.” “No mom they’re Filipinos, their hands are tied behind them.” Continued with our rest stop.

Heard English voices. They were the GIs. Holding their guns (O.K. rifles and BARs to you veterans I don’t want to recite “this is my gun this is my piece”) from behind a low cement wall. Someone in our party yelled “We’re Americans.” From behind the wall came a “So are we lady, get back. In about five minutes the artillery is going to open up right where you stand.” Prudently we moved on making no more idle chit chat.

Walked deeper into the ruined city. Several GIs were sitting on the ground, eating k-rations. I was starved, but too proud to beg. My emaciated face must have said it all because one of the guys said “Sorry kid, this is the first food I’ve had in days.” But those K-rations sure looked good. Later whenever I would hear soldiers and veterans gripe about army chow, I would remember that episode.

The Death March


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Text Copyright © 1997 by Joseph J. Romero