Memories of War

A short story of courage

Civilian Internment Camp at Sto. Tomas, Manila 1945. From

Stories of war often revolve around the main protagonists and their violent clash of wills. We don’t often hear the stories of the third parties in the story — the non-combatants or civilians — at any level of significant detail. They are often referred to collectively as ‘the civilians’ or ‘the locals’ or whatever name the grouping has been assigned. ‘Victim’ is an epithet that is often attributed to civilians. However, we sometimes discover that heroism, courage and resilience are also found amongst those people who are set against the background of the great battles and the warriors that fight them.

I discovered one such story when I decided to interview my grandmother last summer. I have been holding on to the notes from that interview of the last few months, unsure of what to do with them. My grandmother turned 97 years old last week; and due to both good fortune and her disciplined adherence to her own philosophy that ‘if you don’t get out and move, you’ll die’; she is still mentally lucid and maintains quite an active social life. I am grateful for this, for many reasons, as it has given me an opportunity to sit with her and capture some of her experiences, particularly her life during the Japanese invasion and occupation of the Philippines from 1942 to 1945.
The stories she told were not in any chronological order, but rather like a montage of memories that still linger in her mind. She talked of the days during the Battle for Manila in early 1945; when she saw what she described as ‘dogfights’ in the skies and constant bombardment of the city. During this time, she hid in a makeshift bomb shelter that was 2 metres deep and covered only by a piece of corrugated iron. She hid there with her son (my uncle) who was 2 years old at the time. She was mindful of hiding him from the Japanese and dressing herself in baggy clothes with her face hidden- she wanted to look like an old man, in a bid to avoid being raped by the Japanese.

My grandmother frowned while she told me this, but she then makes an interesting remark that ‘they weren’t all bad’ and were sometimes capable of kindness. She tells me about a Japanese soldier who she often saw fishing at a nearby river and used to visit their house to give them fish. But then she switches back to frowning and talks about the Japanese taking away all able-bodied men, and the soldiers who came to her father-in-law’s house to take him away. She was there at the time and witnessed a Japanese soldier shoot her mother-in-law because she was making such a fuss and pleading for the soldiers not to take away her husband. She pauses, folds her hands in her lap and sits peacefully for a moment, as I write furiously in my notebook.

I look up and see a solemn look on her face. She starts to talk about my grandfather, who fought at Bataan as part of the 21st Division, Philippine Army. He was awarded the Gold Cross medal for his actions during that battle. He was captured and held as a PW at Camp O’Donnell, the terminal point on the Bataan Death March. My grandfather was fortunate in that he was not part of the Death March, but was captured by the Japanese Navy after stealing a small boat to escape from the peninsula. On his return from captivity at the end of the war, he suffered from chronic health conditions directly caused by his time in O’Donnell. My grandmother also pointed out that ‘a lot bothered his mind’ and he was so moody, angry and sad all the time. My grandmother’s generation did not have a name for this. I suppose they just seemed to expect that it was a normal outcome of what they had experienced and carried on with life in a tragically changed world.

My grandmother then pauses, thinks for a while, and talks about the American soldiers who soon entered the city. She tells me about one who looked after her and my uncle as he escorted them across the city to a government building in Paco that was used as a civilian shelter. This ‘Amerikano’ walked with them to the shelter, constantly telling them to ‘get down’ due to the presence of snipers. He made sure that my uncle was safe by walking in front of him to protect him from gunfire. My grandmother was so thankful to this soldier. She regretted not getting his name.

I was fascinated at this chain of stories. I cannot begin to imagine what she has gone through and I feel there is so much more to these stories than she discloses. I hope to speak with my grandmother in more detail, to capture the nuances and do justice to her story. But for now, I wish her a happy 97th birthday and leave a small note here as a reminder of her quiet courage and tenacity. Her story is one of millions from that time and highlights to me the importance of looking at war from all perspectives — that those in the background may not be part of the grand battles, but are just as courageous and resilient. They are not ‘victims’ in the pejorative sense, but people who are just trying to weave their lives into the gaps and seams of war.