When I think of Manila past, I picture fields of cogon grass, growth unchecked, and fertile soil teeming with creatures long since displaced—snakes and bats, large incomprehensible insects, invisible dwarves, jungle rats, prehistoric roaches, and khaki slugs. I imagine a place nature-wild and breezy, where the country’s elite clustered to beat back the overwhelming weather-driven oppression typical of the Tropic of Capricorn. In their mutual company and consolation, they could emulate the happy post-war boom of 1950s America. This was the image of my mother’s childhood that she shares with me, a Manila where she and her group of preteen friends could ride their bikes unattended across EDSA as if it were just a wide empty road across a long stretch of Idaho cornfields. I rarely stop to think that just the decade prior, my mother’s bike would have traversed cracking bone and putrid air, dense with fear and shock and the particulate residue of Japan’s tenure in the land of our ancestors, that time of terror that ended so violently on February 12, 1945 and left a hundred thousand of our ancestors dead before their time.
This, among other things, is what the Bataan Legacy Historical Society, Memorare Manila 1945 and the Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program of the University of San Francisco coordinated to present on September 9, 2017 (coincidentally, my great-grandfather’s 139th birthday) in a series of panel discussions featuring speakers who came from as far away as the Philippines and Canada.
They talked of “hell ships” where (mostly) American prisoners of war were transported in subhuman conditions to likely work as slaves in Korea and Japan. Many of these ships were destroyed in transit by enemy fire, killing its human cargo. Of those who were not attacked at sea, few survived the oxygen and water starved conditions of the prisoner bays. And there was discussion of teaching the Philippine experiences in WWII in American schools. But the most compelling account of WWII in the Philippines was a personal one. This account was written by the late Miguel Perez Rubio and will be released as a book next month in the Philippines.
Ambassador Miguel Perez Rubio enjoyed a life of distinction and patriotic service including serving as chief of protocol for President Cory Aquino, our Cory. His long life may have taken a different turn if he had not joined the resistance at the age of 17 against the wishes of his family. His family was together in Manila on February 12, 1945 when the Japanese soldiers in retreat took his entire family, burned down his family home, and tortured certain members before their death. The Ambassador, then 19, was in a Japanese prison in Baguio awaiting his own execution.
Perez-Rubio’s story, along with many others, are being brought to light by the Memorare-Manila 1945 Foundation. The Foundation has set out to preserve the accounts of atrocities in WWII after decades of efforts to collectively disremember the memories. Funded by such organizations as the Ayala Foundation, the Fundacion Santiago, the President Elpidio Quirino Foundation and Ambassador Perez-Rubio, among other individuals.
The most haunting line of the reading was the last part read by Perez-Rubio’s son, Carlos Perez-Rubio. While in that Japanese-controlled Baguio jail in February 1945, the late Ambassador Perez-Rubio dreamt thrice of his brother. “Miguel, I am dead,” said his brother.
Like dreams often are, it was true.