by Ernesto T. Bitong
290 España, Manila
February 28, 1949–FEBRUARY 3, 1945 is a date to remember.
The day was depressing. The sun shone briefly at noon and later was lost among the low-hanging clouds. I felt that something was going to happen. The air seemed to be charged with something ominous.
Early in the morning, I learned that the Kempeitais had paid another visit to the CO’s office in Malacañan Annex and got the roster of the Presidential Guards and a list of the arms in the PG Armory. The strength of the Guards then was greatly depleted. The exodus to Baguio of Dr. Laurel and his cabinet in the latter part of December 1944 had left Malacañan with only a skeleton force. It was this small band that neutralized the efforts of the Japanese marines to appropriate for themselves the use of the Palace.
Count Kano, the liaison officer of the Japanese Military Administration in Malacañan, came late in the morning and left hastily a little later for parts unknown. This was something irregular. Kano usually came to the office early and left late in the afternoon.
Guard mount was held at two o’clock instead of the usual five. This further enhanced my suspicion that something was in the air.
In the growing dusk, I kept to my post in the Executive Building. My senses were cocked to everything around me. Then it happened. I heard desultory firing in the northern part of the city. The phone near my position rang. It was from an agent from the Bureau of Investigation. He reported that there was street fighting in the vicinity of Blumentritt. I contacted the Sergeant of the Guard and apprised him of the situation. He ordered the closing of the gates and directed the men to take the best positions.
The crackle of gunfire and the rumble of tanks drew nearer and nearer. A single column of big tanks painted drab green lumbered into view. While the column rounded the corner of Mendiola and Aviles, a truckload of Jap heitai-sans followed by a sedan of Jap officers came upon the scene. They were greeted by 75’s and .50 caliber machine guns. The armored column came to a halt in front of Gate 4.
We were in a quandary. They could not be Americans, for according to the latest “dope” from the guerrilla grapevine, the Yanks were somewhere in Bulacan. Surely, they could not be here so soon. And supposing they were Americans, would they fire on us if we opened the gates, thinking that we were Nipponese marionettes? These thoughts raced through our minds as the armored column waited outside the gate.
Then I heard wisps of conversation from the tank column. The nasal twang was unmistakable. I felt immensely relieved. A big hunk of a GI detached himself from the column and walk boldly to the iron gate. He unscrewed the bar that held the two leaves of the gate in place. My heart was beating like a tomtom. I kept rooted to my position.
The lead tank pushed the gate open and clanked in, followed by the rest of the armored unit. The turret of the lead tank opened and out came a crash–helmeted figure. Apparently, he was the leader of the tank column. I learned later that he was Capt. “Bud” Hickman, of the Second Squadron under Lt. Col. H. L. Conner.
Sgt. Carlos San Pedro rose from his concealed position and approached Capt. Hickman. After they exchanged salutes, the tank man told him, “I’d like to see your Commanding Officer.”
Our commanding officer, Maj. “Jess” Vargas (now chief of staff of the Philippine Ground Forces, AFP) was in the Executive Building. While Vargas and Hickman introduced themselves, they were joined by Maj. Napoleon Valeriano, who led the armored unit to Malacañan. (Maj. Valeriano is now PC Provincial Commander of Pampanga.)
Associated Press Correspondent Richard Bergholz, expressing astonishment at the feebleness of the Jap opposition to the American drive toward Manila, said: “It’s definitely a race between forward elements of the First Cavalry and the 37th Division to see who enters Manila first.” In this race the mechanized First Cavalry won.
Meanwhile, the GIs rigged .50 caliber machine guns at Gate 4 and around the periphery. They dug in and awaited Banzai attacks. The medics cleared the southern section of the Executive Building of the desks and other office paraphernalia and set up a hospital… Two tank men were wounded in the encounter near Gate 4: one was hit near the pulmonary region and died before midnight, the other was grazed in the neck. Mrs. “Mommie” Pecson (now a senator) made herself useful by serving the GI “dogfaces” cookies and hot coffee and entertaining them with her stories about her experiences in the good old USA.
The next morning, February 4, the Japs must have found their bearings. They rained murderous artillery and mortar fire on the Malacañan compound. Several American casualties were brought in for treatment. The medics were kept busy.
For tactical purposes, Malacañan was divided into two sectors. The Palace and the immediate grounds were assigned to the Guards. The Americans were assigned to the Executive Building and the surrounding areas including the Annex Building. The Palace grounds were swept with Jap machine gun fire from the San Miguel Brewery. Sorties were sent out to destroy the Jap stronghold. The Americans in their sector had enough trouble on their hands to keep them busy. Strong Jap positions in the Malacañan Park across the Pasig river menaced the Yanks with their knee mortars. All through the day there were exchanges of gunfire. Before nightfall American firepower asserted itself. The Jap ammunition dump in Pandacan was hit. All night long shells in the ammo dump exploded. It was like a New Year’s Eve and July Fourth celebrations rolled into one. For several days thereafter fighting continued intermittently.
On February 7 we had a distinguished visitor, that almost legendary figure—General Douglas MacArthur. There was no mistaking the tall, handsome, stern military bearing, the distinctive cap. With him was Col. Andres Soriano. They visited the Palace and the Executive Building. The General paused at the slit trencher and “battled the breeze” with the GI dogfaces. Later he walked up to the San Miguel Church escorted by Maj. Valeriano.
Two hours after General MacArthur’s departure, the Palace was subjected to the heaviest shelling since the arrival of the Americans. The families that took refuge in the Palace had to be evacuated to the Executive Building. The Palace shook from the effect of the terrific shelling. The southwestern side of the Palace was destroyed. All the windows in the Executive Building were broken. Many casualties were brought in.
Malacañan was left to the Guards when the tank column moved to Santo Tomas University Camp in accordance with orders from higher headquarters. The only Americans left in the compound were a platoon of signal corpsmen who lost no time in establishing themselves in the presidential air-raid shelter behind the Executive Building. The Japs stationed at the Hospicio de San Jose continued to threaten the Malacañan fortress. Camouflaged with water lilies and other plants, the Japs attempted crossings at night. But they were always checked by the Guards who peppered them with rifle fire.
The first crossings to the southside of Manila of amphibious tanks through the Uli-Uli Road wrote finis to the attacks on Malacañan. The Guards played a stellar role.