Part III: My Father's Manila
"I remember when my family escaped from the war," he said.
"What?" I asked. It hadn't even occurred to me that my dad would have experienced the war. I did the quick math in my head: that would have been over 70 years ago.
But he did. He was 9 years old and the year was 1943.
"My parents had a feeling something bad was going to happen. Two years after the Japanese invaded, we left Manila for the countryside. We went to the province where my father was born. It was very, very far away. It took us two days by bus. We would get on one bus, then change to another bus, then change to another bus until we finally arrived. There were six of us. My parents, my brother, my two younger sisters, and me. We would cook on the side of the streets; some rice and vegetables. I remember that very well.
When we got there, we had never seen anywhere so rural. All we had known was the city of Manila - we had never seen so many trees! Everything was very green. I remember climbing the fruit trees with my brother - we thought the fruit was free because there were so many trees. We didn't know the fruit belonged to villagers! But still, we climbed those trees.
We stayed there for a year. We couldn't go back home. When my father got news that Manila might be liberated soon, we decided to journey back towards Manila. That was our home. But instead we had to stay in another province for one more year because the Japanese were still there. We lived in one room, all six of us. My father worked on a sugar cane plantation. He would help recruit villagers to work on the plantation and whatever money he made, we used to buy food. It was a very simple life.
During this time, we had an uncle who had escaped the Bataan Death March. That was when the Japanese forced all the Filipinos and American captives to march north. My uncle somehow made it to our house. He was shaking from malaria. He was able to hide from the Japanese. When buses were evacuating Manila, the Japanese stopped the buses and pulled men out of it. My uncle was one of those men. We never saw my uncle again. My grandma waited and waited for years, but we never saw him again, you know.
Then one morning, we heard a lot of noises - bombs, sirens, big blasts. We were hiding in the air raid shelter with the villagers. We didn't know what was going on, but it was so loud outside. Then someone yelled, "Americans!!!!!" We were so happy to see the American tanks. We knew they had come to liberate us.
The Americans... we knew they had been bombing Manila to get the Japanese out. It was the only way. But we weren't mad at them for that. We saw the American flag and we knew they were there to help us.
When the Americans came, they needed someone who spoke English to help them with the base camp. So my father began working for the Americans. I remember getting so much American canned food - chocolates, corned beef, Spam.
After a year in that province with the Americans, my father heard that Manila was finally being liberated. "Let's go back!" he said. We rode into Manila on the roofs of American tanks. Sometimes we were sitting on ammo. We were going home.
But as we got closer to Manila, people kept telling us to go back. That the fighting wasn't over. We finally reached the city limits and were told we couldn't enter. There were fires everywhere. They were still bombing the city.
I could see Manila burning. Right in front of me.
After the bombing, we were allowed into Manila. But there was nothing left of it. Everything had been destroyed. It did not look like the Manila I knew. You know, Manila used to be very clean? It was very clean before the bombing. I have a photograph of my father - I don't know where it is now - but he was walking the streets of Manila in a white suit. There were photographers who would take your photo and you could pay them for a copy. My father was smiling, he must have left a lunch meeting. He looked very good in his white suit. Manila was so clean that everyone wore white suits. After the bombing, Manila was not clean anymore.
You know Manila also had a cable car system? Just like San Francisco! That was our public transportation; you could take a cable car anywhere. It was like Europe. After the bombing, we had no public transportation. We could not get around anywhere. And worst of all, we could not find a lot of food.
I remember this clearly; I don't think Rolly would remember. He was 8 and I was 11. The refugee house was near an American army base. Rolly and I would sit outside the fence of the base and wait for the meal time bell to ring - the Americans called it "chow time." When the soldiers were done eating, we would scramble through the fence and pick up any food scraps we could find. We would bring the scraps back to Lily and Betty, since they were too young to find food. Rolly and I would do that almost everyday.
We also had to wait in line for water. Since I was the oldest, getting water was my responsibility. The line was always very long and there was very little water. I remember one time, I had been waiting for a long time and a boy cut in front of me. I was so mad that I hit him. I needed the water for my family. We got in a big fight, but I needed the water.
My parents would try to do odd jobs. Eventually, my mother was able to find a job as a social worker and my father started doing a little business. He would buy clothes, I think, and then resell them. We eventually moved out of the refugee house once the government started picking up the pieces.
It took a long time for the Americans to rebuild Manila; it was never the same as I remembered it. They rebuilt schools -- I remember we didn't have any desks. My grandfather made me a desk from apple crates. It was just a desk, but it was important to me. I was in 3rd grade. And the Americans rebuilt roads. But they didn't rebuild the churches.
The Manila I left when I was a child was very different than the one I returned to. And the Manila I know today... I don't recognize it. It's been a long time."
By the time the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945, one million Filipinos had been killed; more than 130,000 from war crimes. The Bataan Death March, in which my father's uncle escaped from, caused the brutal deaths of an estimated 18,000 POWs. 10,380 Americans died in the Philippines, as did 255,000 Japanese. By the end of the war, Manila was the second most devastated Allied city. Many historians - and Filipinos - admit that the city never fully recovered from the destruction.
As for my Dad, after much encouragement from his mother, he graduated from the University of Santo Thomas College of Medicine in 1960. He came to the United States for the first time in 1962 as part of his medical training, shortly after his marriage to his late wife, Clarita. He learned to drive a car when he was 30 and he became an American citizen in 1977 when he was 43. He met my mom, a nurse, in Marion, Indiana in 1983 and they married eight years later in Riverside, California. His five children - my siblings - live in Valparaiso, IN; Marion, IN; and Charlotte, NC. He is still a practicing physician and he returns to the Philippines every two years, where his younger brother and two sisters continue to live in Manila.
I pieced together my dad's story during our time in Manila, over breakfast at the Shangri-La hotel; at dinner with the rest of his family, with additional details provided by his younger sister, Betty; in the car while sitting in traffic. I don't know how to interview someone properly; all I did was sit, listen, and take notes. But for the longest time, I have wanted to collect my dad's stories of growing up. This is the beginning of that journey.