The Last February
Today marks the sixty-seventh (67th) anniversary of the commencement of the Battle for Manila. Beginning three days ago US forces began landing in Batangas and other areas, their objective the emancipation of Manila and the rest of the Philippines. For three long years the Philippines was under the thumb of Japanese rule; with far too many either outright killed or living in fear. And far too many of those among the social elites, those who chose not to fight or to at least resist (of which were the majority), were collaborating with the enemy. They hailed the Japanese Occupation as the ‘freedom of the Philippines from tyranny,’ all the while turning a blind eye to the plight of their own countrymen.
Over one million Filipino civilians died in those three years. They were brutalized, starved, scared, and cowed into submission. Men, like Benigno Aquino, chose to aid the Japanese in oppressing their people; while heroes like Justice Jose Abad-Santos were brutally executed for refusing to bow their heads. Some, later on, took the opportunity presented by World War II to pad their own personal history, to invent medals and honors and even battles for self-aggrandizement (Ferdinand Marcos). Between those three, who do we remember best? Or, for that matter, of all the moments of bravery and self-sacrifice, of all those who fought and died in defense of their country, what do we remember? That abuse of history for personal gain, that myth-making, is what happens when a country and a people lose the perspective and context that an understanding of history provides.
That was the story for those three years. Yet, for Manilenos the worse was still to come. February 1945 marked both the beginning of the emancipation of the Philippines and the worsening of a three year long nightmare.
Manila and the Philippines, while not necessarily as militarily important in the Pacific Theater as other objectives, was politically and socially significant (the Bataan Death March is still remembered) for the United States. It was the chief stronghold of American influence in the East; we were their first grand experiment in exporting American style democracy. It is arguable whether that experiment succeeded, whether they should have been here in the first place (for us, never), but what cannot be ignored the fall of the Philippines was the first, and only time, that the United States has lost territory under its control. Even here we forget that while Pearl Harbor was being bombed, the Philippines was under attack as well. The loss of the Philippines struck at the very heart of American military and social might. As expressed by General Douglas MacArthur, they will be back. They had to come back.
By this point in 1945, the Allied Forces were almost certain of victory in the European Theater; May 8, 1945 would mark Germany’s unconditional surrender. The United States and Allies had already turned its attention to the Pacific Theater, to us and other territories that had been conquered by Japan. The final offensive to end World War II was engaged.
In 1942, when the United States lost Manila, they declared it an open city. This time around, the Japanese military leadership in Manila refused to do so (there was actually an order to open up Manila that was refused). They kept Manila as a closed city. They rounded up civilians and incarcerated them. They upped their campaign of terrorization. They took out their anger towards the progress of the war out on a helpless civilian population.
There are few survivors left who remember Manila as it was before the War and during the War. But, when you sit down and talk with them their memories of February 1945 are harrowing. They are the stuff of nightmares. Japanese soldiers bayoneting women (after raping them) and children in the streets. Boarding up families in homes, setting the buildings on fire, and shooting anyone who tried to flee. Running from bombs and hit squads, watching mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, gunned down and killed.
This is not to denigrate the Japanese today in anyway. This is the reality of what happened in 1945. I think Beniting Legarda said it best: "We can forgive, but we should never forget." Some survivors though, refuse to even remember; such was the horrors they saw and lived through.
While the Battle for Manila is much overlooked and basically forgotten in histories of World War II, the numbers are staggering. Manila saw the worst and most vicious urban fighting of the entire war. Over 100,000 civilians were killed, many by the Japanese. Much of Manila was destroyed. By the end, the Pearl of the Orient was no more. The destruction and death tolls in Manila compares or even exceeds that of Warsaw, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.
Sixty-seven years ago the long month began. Manila was already gutted by then. Manila was practically non-existent by the end.
Today it is all sort of forgotten, except in vague statements like “Manila used to be the Pearl of the Orient” or “We were the second-most destroyed city after Warsaw.” Outside of that? Nothing really. And I really do believe that loss of historical remembering directly informs how we see ourselves today and how we understand our country. We have lost the fundamentals behind the beauty that was Manila; we have forgotten the bravery and sacrifice of Filipinos who continued to fight against oppression and tyranny. We have forgotten all of that. The memory of that beauty of spirit, even amidst the destruction, of our people and our country is gone.
And maybe, because of how we relate and understand our history, the spirit of the Filipino is diminished as well.
Photo from Flickr