Christmas 1941: End of An Era

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Illustration by Perry Gil Mallari

Illustration by Perry Gil Mallari

I
ELIAS rose from bed at dawn to martial music along their street in Pasay. The band was playing “Hands Across the Sea” he usually heard in parades. He rushed down to the kitchen where his mother was cooking breakfast. “Immaculada Concepcion,” his mother said, turning the rice frying in the pan. “We’ll hear mass later on your return from school.” He went to the garden and did some stretching in the cool December morning, thinking it was just three weeks before Christmas.

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At the garage his father was checking the Nash Lafayette for oil and water. By seven they had to be on their way to school. His father would park the car in front of the Philippine Normal along Ayala under the shade of an acacia. From there they went their ways – he and older brother Dedong to NU High in Intramuros, Jimmy the oldest to UP High In Isaac Peral , and his father, a professor, with grade schoolers Rose and Selin to Philippine Normal across the street. At noon they all met to have lunch in the car; then it was a free afternoon for the high schoolers.

He usually went to the National Library in the Legislative building or to the YMCA in Arroceros to play pool. If he took Arroceros towards Sta. Cruz he could see the Americans from the 31st Infantry in their barracks. Sometimes he would watch a movie in any of the theaters downtown: Savoy in Echague, Ideal, State or Avenue in Avenida Rizal, Capitol or Lyric in Escolta, and Time or Life in Quezon Boulevard. For merienda his favorite was halo-halo from a Japanese parlor in front of Quiapo Church. By five they were all back in the car and on their way home where his mother and four year old Vicky would be waiting.

That morning they took Dewey boulevard from Libertad – past Christmas-decorated Casa Manana off Vito Cruz, Admiral Hotel, the elegant apartment buildings with penthouses, the High Commissioner’s residence, Bay View Hotel, Rizal monument on Luneta where the Matorco double-deckers were already waiting for the morning rides, then right on Padre Burgos onto Ayala passing through the Legislative and Finance buildings.

On Dewey he could watch the ships in the bay, kindling his dream of sailing away sometime to faraway and exotic places. But now there was a war in Europe just after the Civil War in Spain. Manila had practice blackouts with sirens for air raid and all clear signals. He had seen the model shelters in the university campus in Padre Faura – much like those he had seen in Life magazine. Despite all these auguries of war the spirit of Yuletide was in the air.

Near Luneta they heard the drone of planes and saw towards the east a squadron of P-40s, probably the ones they heard revving up at Nichols Field before dawn, before the band marched down the street playing “Hands Across the Sea.” In Cuneta, Pasay they had gotten used to the planes warming up before dawn and flying overhead at breakfast time. War had been the staple of talk among the three brothers since the Spanish Civil War when they were then living in Paco. His parents both Spanish speaking would join in to clarify geographical places where battles were fought in the Peninsula. “Falanghe” was how his mother described Generalismo Franco and his allies, and “Loyalista” for those fighting for the Republic. He had seen pictures in the papers of the bombing of Madrid and the civilian dead in the streets. He had watched the young Falangists – Spanish and mestizo — troop to San Marcelino church from Tabacalera in Marquez de Comillas. They saluted the same way Hitler and Mussolini did in the newsreels. .

Then September 1939: the German blitzkrieg, the panzers overrunning Holland and Belgium into France, the Maginot Line smashed, Hitler doing the victory jig in Paris, the British evacuation in Dunkirk, the air battles between Spitfires and Messerschmitts, Churchill rallying the British to fight on the beaches and streets.

II
ON their way to Intramuros he and Dedong heard a newsboy shouting “Extra.” The headline read “PACIFIC WAR IS ON NOW!” They rushed along General Luna towards Beaterio street where NU High was. Students were spilling out in the street saying “No class.” In school, students and teachers were milling about in the courtyard – talking about Pearl Harbor, Aparri, and Baguio being bombed. He was concerned about Baguio. He knew someone from there. Now he wanted to leave.

“I’ll stay awhile,” Dedong said, mumbling something about going to the Rizal Memorial stadium with his classmates. “Tell papa, I ‘ll go home by myself.”

It was a bit overcast that morning as he walked along Gral. Luna where people seemed to walk faster than he did. A U.S. army command car sped toward Fort Santiago. Urgency was in the air.

In San Agustin he saw a classmate playing hopscotch with a friend in the churchyard. He knew her only by her surname Carmona from the roll call in class.

“You live around here?” he asked, leaning on the stone fence.

“Yes, in Cabildo,” she said, “just a street away.”

“You know about the schools closing?”

“Yes, I was in school earlier.”

“What will you do now?” he asked.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe we’ll go to the province. And you?”

“I don’t know. I won’t see them until lunch time.” He couldn’t think of a change in their routine: at noon, as usual, they will all have their lunch from a fiambrera in the car. Then. . . he wondered.

“This war won’t last long,” he said, remembering the landing of the Flying Fortresses in Clark Field sometime ago and the parade of tanks and armored vehicles in downtown Manila. Along Dewey he also saw the Americans marching in full battle gear with gas masks and new rifles slung on their shoulders. The rifles—called Garands—were different from the Springfields and Enfields that the older students drew from the armory in Parian Gate during Saturday drills in the Sunken Gardens.

“I hope this war ends soon,” she said.

“I think so. Then we’ll be back in school, and we’ll have stories to tell each other.” He had a fleeting vision of an air raid – like the blitz in London. He tried to imagine Manila in an air raid. It won’t happen, he thought, by now, the Flying Fortresses must be bombing Tokyo.

She broke his reverie by touching his hand and said, “Good-bye.” She was no longer smiling, and he thought he saw her eyes moisten,

“I’ll see you in school soon,” and he walked down the street towards Normal. Past Puerto Real he stopped by the Aquarium where he had once watched the shooting of a period costume film. In this sylvan setting amidst moss-covered walls, Serafin Garcia was singing before Elsa Oria underneath a calachuchi in bloom. The lighting crew were using tinfoil boards to reflect the sun on the singing duo. Now the place was deserted. He sat on the grass underneath the calachuchi. For now the air was still and his thoughts were of Daisy.

III
AFTER Normal—in the first batch of sixth-graders to graduate in March 1941 together with the last of the seventh-graders—he never saw Daisy again but he did receive two letters from her from Baguio where her family moved. She stopped writing after her reply to the second, and he had wondered why..

Daisy was the most popular in Homeroom 6-A in Normal. Fair-skinned and round-faced she was called Shirley Temple for her curls, dress and shoes. Sometimes the boys called her Boxer because she was equal to them in any game like patintero or sipa or sprinting. She did punch a boy once for his impertinence.

Having moved to Normal from Paco, Elias had to adjust and depend on the kindness of new classmates. Daisy was one of them. Her thoughtfulness drew him to her but when he spoke admiringly of her to the boys he was teased for having a crush on a tomboy.

During music class she could belt out “Somewhere over the Rainbow” like Judy Garland but she would blush when the class sang “Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do, I ‘m half-crazy all for the love of you…”

Mrs. Lardizabal, the music teacher, had a real knack for teaching them the songs from the Progressive Music Series which had an ample collection of Western and a lesser number of Filipino songs. Daisy could easily follow the teacher’s renditions of “Comin’ Thru the Rye” as well as “Pamulinawen.”

Once called upon to sing a song from the text, he ventured with Stephen Foster’s “Swanee River” but he faltered in the refrain (“All the world is sad and dreary. . .”) and Daisy helped him finish the song.

During the Christmas party Daisy was showered with presents from her classmates. In the calling out of gifts he received just one small package—a book of Catechism—from a classmate who had become a Protestant. He thought the others received more than one present. After the party Daisy slipped one of her many gifts to him—a song-hit booklet.

Daisy was not his first crush or as the boys said puppy love. In Paco he looked longingly at Priscilla, she with the long hair and really pretty face, in Grade Four. Under Miss Ang they would have little plays and Priscilla was always picked as Snow White or Virgin Mary. But Priscilla, knowing herself to be pretty, virtually ignored him. Just the same he was very much distressed to learn that during a heavy rain she fell from one of the planks of the bridge nearby that was being repaired. The workers saved her from drowning in the swollen waters of the estero. Since then Priscilla had become subdued and hardly smiled.

Meanwhile his attention had shifted to Mita, the niece of the professor who rented the apartment in the first floor of their house in Paco. She was in another section and they would meet during recess when she shared her pan de sal sandwiches. They ate under one of the bougainvilla bowers that lined the school perimeter. She was an orphan who spent her early years in Abra. That summer Jimmy had set up in the backyard a tent which he had bought from Chinatown for their camping in Antipolo. In no time the children were crowding inside the tent – playing games or lying on the canvas singing songs

like “Deep Purple” or “Once in a While.” Once, lying beside Mita and feeling the warmth of her side, he had his first awakening, a new sensation coursing through his loins. And then his mother called from the azotea that lunch was ready.

He missed Mita when they had to move and live in an apartment in an interior street off Ayala prior to their moving to the new house his father bought in Pasay. He and his younger siblings were enrolled in the Normal close by. The neighborhood had many boarding houses for college students and their street was busy with young men and women going to and from school. At night he could hear their laughter and an occasional song with guitar music. At dawn he would wake up to the clanging sounds of the tranvia along San Marcelino.

The Allies in Europe then were falling back and by the time he got to high school the Japanese were on the move in Indo-China. Current events was his favorite subject so he read the Tribune and Herald as well as Life for stories and pictorials about the war. The kids in school talked about The Wizard of Oz, Bobby Breen (“There’s a rainbow down the river”), Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, and the Andrew Sisters. They wondered where they were going for high school for the word spread that they would be graduated together with the seventh-graders who had already turned hostile to them. Indeed, when graduation came, the seventh-graders who were given charge of the ceremonies made sure that when the sixth-graders entered the auditorium the piano music from “Aida” stopped. They were then herded to the balcony where they watched the seventh-graders receive their certificates and their valedictorian giving the speech. The sixth-graders later got their report cards with a note that they had finished elementary and were eligible for high school.

Their class made up for this snub by holding a raucous party in their rooms – singing “Roll Out the Barrel” and gently jeering at any seventh-grader passing through their corridor. Daisy was in her resplendent white and he was too shy to approach her. She finally noticed him and asked him where he was going for high school. He did not know yet but said it might be in the university where his father taught. On her part, she said they were moving up to Baguio where her parents ran a boarding school. Could he write her? Of course, she said, and gave him her address. Before he could enjoy the last moments with her and his fellow graduates, his father came to pick him up. All the way home, his thoughts were of Daisy.

IV
WHEN he got to the car they were all there waiting – except for Jimmy. Dedong said that his friends backed off from their swimming date at Rizal Memorial. Rosie and Selin were fetched by his father after receiving the news of school closing. Then Jimmy came to say he had practice drill that afternoon at U.P. High and would just go home by himself. Just turned 17 Jimmy was serious about a military career. He had just qualified to take the entrance exam for the military academy on December 15.

After an early lunch they went by way of Mabini, then Harrison to Cuneta. Along the streets knots of people were huddled together, some reading the new extras. At home his mother was agitated. Talk in the neighborhood was the impending air raid on Nichols Field. The fiesta of the Immaculada Concepcion was called off, and people were preparing to evacuate their homes. Their next door neighbors whose father worked at Nichols said they were not leaving because the Americans were ready to repel the Japanese.

They were themselves divided about leaving that night. Elias and his older brothers had wanted to leave if at all the next day. Besides they asked where were they going. His father said his long-time colleague Mr.Villafuerte had a big house on Mayon St. in the outskirts of Manila.

So this was evacuation, much like the civilians in Europe with their belongings. Each one was to pack only one bag. In packing he made sure he had the two letters of Daisy. The letters were about her stay in Baguio, her school, Burnharm Park and new friends. Every night he would read them inside his mosquito net using a flashlight, looking for subtexts in the friendly tenor of her letters. One time, during a practice blackout, his mother saw and chided him, “turn off that light or the wardens will see us.” He turned off the light but in the darkness glowed Daisy’s face.

That early evening they drove through traffic on Taft, past Pasay market where people were buying up supplies. Jimmy had earlier bought kilos of rice, mongo, sugar, and tinned goods for their trip. Near Jai Alai there was a convoy of army trucks bearing soldiers and Japanese civilians being brought to the Old Bilibid on Azcarraga. Otherwise, things seemed normal; people going about their business as usual, and the sight of their car with bags and tampipis strapped around it was the object of some derisive laughter from a crowd in Quiapo.

He and his brothers were assigned to sleep with the Villafuerte sons in the tower room of the house overlooking Manila still ablaze with lights like there was no war on. Shortly all the lights were out but the boys talked through the night. He had to forego his ritual of reading Daisy’s letters before going to sleep. When he woke up he saw Jimmy and the rest by the window pointing excitedly to the south where searchlights were scouring the black sky. Manila was covered in darkness but in the distance anti-air craft guns started to send tracers and shells bursting in air like fireworks. So this is war, he thought. Fires were raging in what everybody said was Nichols Field. No sounds of airplanes, just the anti-aircraft flak from the base, with some coming from Fort McKinley to the southeast, and muffled explosions on the ground. No sirens heard. Manila was caught by surprise.

At daybreak they learned from the radio that fifty American planes were caught on the ground and destroyed. At breakfast of champurado Mr. Villafuerte told us. “You are lucky.” His father and Jimmy decided to check on the house in Pasay. They came back that afternoon to report that Cuneta was not bombed but their neighbor’s wife was crying. The explosions seemed so close and deafening and the ground shook every time a bomb fell. Now they were leaving for the Canlubang evacuation site.

The next day, Wednesday, the Japanese planes came at noon. They were already flying over Manila when the air raid siren at the Post Office by the Pasig started wailing. The planes first hit Cavite naval base and then did Nichols over again. He and his father were caught in Pasay during the raid. At the corner of Cuneta and Harrison, not far from their house, and as they with others were looking at the truck-mounted anti-air craft gun manned by two Americans, the Japanese planes flew over the neighborhood. The ac-ac gun as it was called by the soldiers went boom-boom-boom in rapid fire, and the civilians ran away in several directions. His father pulled him towards a vacant lot where there were a few uninstalled culverts. They hid in one of them and waited. One of the planes returned and dropped a couple of bombs at the anti-air craft gun. The first explosion shook the ground and their culvert rolled a few yards; the next blast made it roll back. Not before long they heard what seemed like rolling thunder. The planes had hit Nichols. When it was all clear, they found the gun destroyed and the crew blasted away. He saw shreds of flesh and uniform hanging from the branches of the mango tree nearby. Then he threw up.

After that he was no longer allowed to go with his father in forays to the city or Pasay. He was limited to watching the war from the house on Mayon—with its panoramic view of Manila to the west and the open fields of the newly named Quezon City to the east. Air raids became regular, and the siren had become more efficient. It took only a minute after the siren for the bombers flying in silvery formation to appear over Manila. The anti-craft guns from Fort McKinley and Luneta would start firing but he had yet to see a Japanese plane hit.

Once they saw a dogfight. A lone Japanese fighter plane was sighted going north pursued by a Philippine army plane from Zablan Field near Camp Murphy. There was cheering for the Filipino pilot flying the Curtis pursuit plane with fixed landing gear and open cockpit. Maybe it’s Villamor, some said. As the two planes tried to get into each other’s behind, there was a burst of machine gun fire and some bullets sprayed the roof of the house. People ran to seek cover. Just then the planes disengaged with the Filipino plane going into a dive toward Zablan and the Japanese plane continuing its flight north. .

A few days before Christmas the house in Mayon had become the refuge of three more families and the evenings were spent talking about the war: the landings in Lingayen, Atimonan and Mauban. There was no noche buena because of the blackout.

On Christmas Day the older children organized a party complete with program and exchange of gifts. There was community singing of carols and solo numbers of song hits like “Apple Blossom Time,” “Maria Elena,” “Star Dust,” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The last song never failed to stir thoughts of Daisy, and while everyone was busy in the program he slipped to their room and read her two letters – the touchstones to a time of innocence and peace that he fervently wished would return soon.

Jimmy was no longer around for he had enlisted on December 15, the same day he learned that there was no exam for the military academy. His mother cried when he saw Jimmy in a maong suit with a cartridge belt, canteen, and an ROTC helmet painted fatigue green. He had an Enfield slung over his shoulder. He said they were billeted in a school not far from Mayon and were undergoing training.

By the last week of December the army began its withdrawal to Bataan. Army trucks and commandeered buses filled with regular and newly recruited soldiers passed by way of Mayon which would be lined with people giving the victory sign to the retreating troops. They saw and waved at Jimmy in one of the buses. He looked quite cheerful, as if he were going on scout camping, waving back at them. His mother cried through the night.

By December 29, with Manila declared an open city, the Japanese bombed the ships along the Pasig river and also hit Sto. Domingo, the Intendencia building, the Herald building, and other parts of Intramuros. Camilo Osias whom every student knew as the author of the Reader, went on the air to rally the people with his cry of “Remember Sto. Domingo!” – evoking the Alamo and the Maine.

Then there were huge explosions. The Pandacan oil tanks were on fire, so was the Port Area. Huge billows of smoke had risen over Manila darkening the sky. There was looting in the Port Area and downtown Manila. More trucks and buses passed through Mayon, and now the soldiers looked grim and the people were no longer cheering as much. He first saw it in his mother’s grief over the departure of Jimmy. Then he saw it in his father’s face.

That night Elias took out Daisy’s letters and went across the street into a field where he stood for a while under a starless sky. Then he tore the letters into small bits and flung them in the darkness.

On New Year he saw the enemy in camouflage coming up the street in bicycles.

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