December 1941: The End of an Era

Manila before World War II PHOTOS FROM FLICKR.COM

Manila before World War II PHOTOS FROM FLICKR.COM

(Firsts of two parts)

ELIAS rose from bed at dawn to a band playing martial music along their street in Pasay. 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.

At the garage his father was checking the Nash Lafayette for oil and water. By seven, they were 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 school-ers 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. For merienda his favorite was mongo con hielo from a Japanese parlor in Quiapo. By five, they were all back in the car and on their way home where his mother and Vicky the pre-schooler would be waiting. This was their routine during weekdays.

That morning they took Dewey boulevard from Libertad—past 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 riders, then right on Padre Burgos to 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 places. But now there was a war in Europe. 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. One picture had a British family outside amidst the rubble in London, holding up a placard: “There will always be an England.” Everybody said war in the Pacific was just a matter of time.

As they turned right on Padre Burgos they heard 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 From Across the Sea.” In Cuneta, Pasay where they had moved from Paco a year before, they had gotten used to 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. 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 Generalissimo Franco and his allies, and “Loyalista” for those fighting for the Republic. He had seen the pictures in the papers of the bombing of Madrid and the civilian dead in the streets.

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 Messer-schmitts, Churchill rallying the British to fight on the beaches and streets. He followed all these in the papers and newsreels.


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 Beata street where NU High was. There were students in the street saying “No class.” In school, a greying stone building with capiz windows and tile roof, 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 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 General Luna where people seemed to walk faster than he did. A US 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. She sat a row away and he thought she always smiled at him whenever their eyes met. She did so now, waiting for him to say something.

“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. Our history teacher told us.”

“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, “A few months, perhaps, the Japanese are no match to the Americans.” He remembered the landing of the Flying Fortresses in Clark Field sometime ago and the parade of tanks and armored vehicles in downtown Manila.

“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.

He walked down General Luna 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 a lady underneath a calachuchi in bloom. The lighting crew was using tinfoil boards to reflect the sun on the singing duo. Now the place was empty. He sat on the grass underneath the calachuchi. The air was still and his thoughts were of Daisy.


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 sat in front of the next row. As the youngest in class—Elias was also seated in the front. At times when his pencil broke there was always Daisy to lend him one.

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, sipa or sprinting. She did punch a boy once for his impertinence.

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 be embarrassed 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, taught them songs from the Progressive Music Series, which had an ample collection of Western and 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 one small package—a book of Catechism—from a classmate who had turned Protestant. After the party, Daisy slipped one of the many gifts she got to him—a 1941 calendar book.

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 IV. 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 slipped and 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. Like Daisy she was athletic. The two of them could beat other pairs in patintero. She taught him how to cook country style. This they did in the backyard of the house—grilling meat or fish and cooking pinakbet. They would go to Paco market to buy the ingredients, or he would filch some from their fridge. They were like buddies.

That summer Jimmy had set up in the backyard a tent, which he had bought from Chinatown for scout camping. In no time the children were crowding inside the tent—lying on the canvas, singing songslike “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 supper was ready.

He missed Mita when they had to move to an apartment in a callejon off Ayala prior to their moving to the new house his father bought in Pasay. The neighborhood had many boarding houses 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 trambia 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. 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.

To be continued tomorrow


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