The heroic martyrdom of Josefa Llanes Escoda
by Sol H. Gwekoh
One of the heroic figures of the last war was Mrs. Josefa Llanes Escoda, whose birthday falls on September 20, today. Both the Girl Scouts and the Women’s Club Federation are observing the event on a nationwide scale. This is the story of a woman who laid down her life for the suffering and the needy.
September 20, 1952–IN the nineteenth century, Florence Nightingale saved the British army with her corps of female nurses; in the twentieth century Josefa Llanes Escoda ministered to the needs of sick and dying Philippine soldiers and civilians during World War II.
Josefa Llanes Escoda was born on September 20, 1898, in the small and quiet town of Dingras, in Ilocos Norte, some 500 kilometers away from Manila.
After completing her social work studies in New York, she returned to the Philippines in 1926 and immediately plunged into social welfare work. Among her pre-war achievements was the establishment of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines.
When the Pacific war broke out, Josefa lost no time in gathering a representative group of Filipino women to render emergency service to the war casualties.
The infamous Death March was still halfway to its destination when Josefa, accompanied by her husband, Antonio Escoda, rushed to San Fernando, Pampanga, to give food to the Filipino and American soldiers who were weak and exhausted after many months in the front lines. Returning to Manila, she made a comprehensive report of the grim situation.
Having known that Josefa was already a renowned social welfare worker in the pre-war years, the enemy could not simply disregard her leadership; so she was allowed to continue with her activities. Time and again, she turned down offers of lucrative positions, having decided to devote her time and efforts to underground work for the duration of the emergency.
Josefa’s initial activity was the compilation of the names and addresses of the thousands of Filipino prisoners confined in Camp O’Donnell in Capas. She had a hard time making this list because of the confusion and chaos all over the Philippines then, but she was not disheartened. The headquarters of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs on San Marcelino in Malate district, Manila, was swamped daily with anxious relatives of the USAFFE soldiers as the list grew longer.
In the next three years, Josefa did everything possible for the soldiers, the internees, and the civilians. By a variety of ruses she succeeded in making frequent but hazardous trips to Capas where she kept the war prisoners supplied with foodstuffs, medicines, used clothing, old leather shoes, wooden shoes, and even coconut shells for plates. Although she knew that she was risking her life in these wartime activities, Josefa never faltered in her purpose. She managed somehow to elude the Japanese guards stationed at the gates of the camps and the various check-points on the way, and was able to deliver the messages of prisoners to their loved ones in Manila and the provinces.
Time and again Josefa was visited by high Japanese military officials. The charming lady that she was, Josefa pretended that she was helping the civilian population in the regular social welfare program of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs (of which she was the president at the time), and the enemy left her unmolested, never entertaining any suspicion for some time.
Following the release of the Filipino war prisoners from the camps, Josefa concentrated her attention on the nerve-wracking job of helping the American POWs and civilian internees at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Cabanatuan, and Bongabon in Nueva Ecija, and Los Baños in Laguna. For some time she was able to cover her activities in the concentration camps “under the encompassing blanket of universal social work.” But somehow the Japanese military officials got wise and began to watch her movements more closely.
Josefa’s wartime activities continued up to the middle of 1944. By then the American liberation forces under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur were already on their way back to the Philippines. News of the impending liberation of the Philippines was most welcome then, especially to Josefa, who thought that soon the war would be over, and everything in her country would return to normal.
But her hope was an irony for the Escodas. In June 1944, her husband was captured by the Japanese in Mindoro. Despite the arrest of her husband, Josefa remained serene and composed. Her engaging smiles before her numerous friends did not in the least betray “the dark sorrow in her gallant heart over the uncertain fate of her husband” who was then languishing in Fort Santiago.
Josefa herself knew that even her life was not worth a nickel to the Japanese kempetai. Aware of this, her friends, among them the Laudicos (Adriano and Minerva) of Pasay City, pleaded with Josefa that she leave the city and hide from the enemy. “You must flee, Pepa,” they entreated her.
Josefa “shook her head and smiled sadly.” She had decided to remain. She never thought of abandoning her husband at a time when he needed her most. She was determined to stick it out with him. So what she did was to contact leading Filipino officials in the service of the enemy in her supreme efforts to secure his release.
On August 27, 1944, friends of Josefa’s learned through the grapevine that she had been taken in. For many bleak months both husband and wife were confined within the dark recesses of Fort Santiago, the “grim bastion of doomed men.” Day after day they suffered the inhuman tortures inflicted on them by the kempetai whose repeated questioning proved futile to extract the secrets Josefa and Antonio knew.
During her confinement at Fort Santiago no visitors were allowed to see Josefa. Her family was permitted to send food and other necessities to Josefa only once. Her two children had to be hidden from the enemy, who threatened to take them in also if Josefa continued to refused to talk.
With her in confinement was Sister M. Trinita, Superior of the Maryknoll Sisters. Of Josefa, the Reverend Sister remarked, “For about four months, Mrs. Escoda and I shared the same cell in the military prison, and I was a witness to her heroism, loyalty, and charity under the most difficult and trying conditions. She often discussed plans for the future, when the war would be over, for her family, the women’s clubs, and the Girl Scouts. How joyfully she recalled her years in the United States studying, and how eagerly she looked forward to the time when her two children could go there to study.”
Sister Trinita also told the Llanes family of the courage displayed by Josefa during her sufferings and her deep concern for the weaker prisoners in Fort Santiago, to whom she distributed the things sent her. To the Escoda children, Sister Trinita said, “You can be sure your mother is in heaven. Even when she suffered herself, she still thought of others.”
For her loyalty to her country’s cause, Josefa paid a grim price. Just how she died is not yet definitely known, except that she must have met her death, gallantly, sometime in January, 1945, a few days before the American liberating forces freed Manila from the Japanese.