The Week the Free Press Said Goodbye
By Gregorio C. Brillantes
The January 3, 1942, issue marked the end of a world, the close of an era: never again would the country recapture the peace and the relative innocence of the 1930s, and the war would spawn changes more enduring than physical ruins.
December 12, 1964—ACROSS the bay, in the late afternoon sun, a black cloud hung over Manila: smoke from burning oil dumps in Pandacan. The crowd gathered about the wooden platform erected near the mouth of Malinta Tunnel could hear the explosions rolling across the graying water from Cavite and Nielson Field, as demolition squads, the tail end of a retreating army, set fire to ammunition stores that could not be transported to Bataan. There were about a hundred and fifty of them gathered about the platform, soldiers and marines and a few civilian officials, a quiet, subdued group, without the easy bravado that they wore so well in the earlier days of that disastrous month, their eyes straying from the ceremony before them to watch for the approach of bombers. For now the skies belonged to the enemy, and so did a large portion of the land.
But the words they heard as the day dimmed across the country spoke of hope, pride, courage, and, incongruous as it might have seemed then, of victory. It was the second inaugural of President Quezon and Vice-President Osmeña, who had swept the elections that previous November. There were no cheering throngs, as in 1935; no parades except for ragged processions of USAFFE troops withdrawing into Bataan; and in the place of brass bands, an American nurse played a faltering “Hail to the Chief” on an accordion. Quezon and Osmeña were inducted into office by Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos, there was a ripple of applause, and then the President began to speak, haggard in his wheelchair but his voice strong and youthful with the old eloquence.
It was Tuesday, December 30, 1941—and it is a measure of how far the nation has traveled since then that the words should reach us now with a hollow, ancient, stilted echo, the faith they expressed remote and almost unrecognizable.
“At the present time we have but one task—fight with America for America and the Philippines,” Quezon said. “Ours is a great cause. We are fighting for human liberty and justice, for those principles of individual freedom which we all cherish and without which life would not be worth living….The war may be long-drawn and hard-fought, but with the determination of freedom-loving people everywhere to stamp out the rule of violence and terrorism from the face of the earth, I am absolutely convinced that final and complete victory will be ours.” He had been feeling dejected for days; the rumored convoy from San Francisco had failed to arrive, and he was considering, it was later said, some sort of accommodation with Japan that might take the Philippines out of the war. But he had reason that afternoon for optimism: he had just received from President Roosevelt a radiogram assuring the Filipino people that “their freedom will be redeemed, and their independence established and protected” and that the “entire resources of the United States stand behind that pledge.”
Quezon read Roosevelt’s message to his Corregidor audience, adding: “My heart, and I know, the hearts of all Americans and Filipinos in this country are filled with gratitude for the reassuring words of the President of the United States. My answer, our answer to him, is that every man, woman and child in the Philippines will do his duty. No matter what sufferings this war may impose upon us, we shall stand by America with undaunted spirit, for we know that upon the outcome of this war depend the happiness, liberty and security not only of this generation, but of the generations yet unborn….” Replying, US High Commissioner Frances B. Sayre expressed “America’s gratitude and pride for the loyalty, devotion, the gallantry, with which the Filipino people have entered this great struggle by America’s side.” General MacArthur’s brief remarks brought the ceremony to a close: “For 400 years the Philippines has struggled toward self-government. On the threshold of independence came the great hour of decision. There was no hesitation, no moment of doubt. The whole country followed its great leader in choosing the side of freedom against the side of slavery….This basic and fundamental issue will be fought through to victory….”
At the command post of Brig. Gen. Albert Jones in Plaridel, Bulacan, the men had neither the time nor the inclination for such lofty rhetoric. Officers chain-smoked over maps; dispatch riders came and went on motorcycles; truck convoys rumbled by in a storm of dust, headed south for Calumpit. Formerly commander of the Southern Luzon Force, Jones had been ordered north of Manila to delay Homma’s advance across the central plains and cover the last stages of the USAFFE withdrawal over the Calumpit Bridge.
Earlier in the day, a Japanese tank-infantry force had reached Baliuag, some five miles north of Jones’s command post. As a result of some mix-up in command, Wainwright’s 71st division, which was supposed to hold the town, had retreated to Bataan. Jones knew he had to push the Japanese back from Baliuag, to keep Calumpit Bridge open at least until New Year’s Eve and save the general withdrawal from total disaster. For the crucial job he had only ten tanks and half-a-dozen 75 mm. self-propelled guns.
After a covering barrage the tanks, commanded by Lt. Col. William Gentry, smashed into Baliuag and knocked out eight of their armored adversaries. As Gentry pulled out of the burning town, the 75’s again opened up, routing what remained of the Japanese force. The successful counterthrust gave Jones the respite he needed; a deadline, on which depended thousands of lives, would be met; and the bridge at Calumpit would not be blown up until after 5:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day, when, with the last of his rear guard, he crossed the Pampanga River and headed west for Bataan.
In Manila, in a building facing Mori’s Bicycle Store on Rizal Avenue, on the day of the inaugural rites on Corregidor and the tank battle in Bulacan, another group of men were also engaged in a concerted effort to beat a deadline, to finish a job before the enemy arrived.
On the third floor of the Free Press building—the editorial offices of the magazine since 1922 and its third home since 1908—Mr. Dick’s staffers were working with a sort of controlled frenzy on the last sections of the FP’s “Farewell Issue.” Outside the sun shone palely through the smoke rising from the piers, and on the Avenida, only an occasional streetcar passed, or a gang of looters, or a truck loaded with evacuees; and in the office there was the sense of an entire world ending, the knowledge that the Japanese were not far from the city, but also there was the conviction somehow that help from America was on the way: America had lost the first round but it was the next one that counted, and the war would soon be over, in three months at the most. Meanwhile, Mr. Dick spoke uneasily of what had happened in Nanking, T.M. Locsin was worried about the safety of his treasured books, and Filemon Tutay announced that he had hidden a revolver—“just in case”—in a sack of rice. Was it true that fifth-columnists had poisoned the water supply? Was it safer to stay in Manila than in the provinces? No one, it seemed, knew the right answers; the present was a dreadful question mark, but by next summer, almost everyone felt sure, they would be back at their desks.
The Japanese took over the Free Press building as enemy property, confiscated magazine files and carted away most of the office equipment; liberation, ironically, destroyed what the Japanese spared, reducing the building to a gutted hulk. Mr. Dick spent the war years as an internee, first in Fort Santiago and later in a hospital. During the first months of the occupation, Mr. Dick’s men used to meet at office manager Floro A. Santos’s home in San Juan; but the group broke up finally as the war dragged on and each man went his own way: one worked as a bartender, another drew portraits for a living, a number joined the resistance. The Free Press was not to resume publication until February 23, 1946; but scarcely anyone on the staff during those last days of 1941 doubted that the Free Press would be back in the streets before the end of the coming year.
The Free Press printed only about 15,000 copies of its 24-page “Farewell Issue” for distribution in Manila. Dated Saturday, January 3, 1942, the magazine was being sold in the streets on the afternoon of Thursday, New Year’s Day, even as the Japanese entered the city from the north and south. One of those who bought copies was F.L. Pimentel, who lived then in Pasay City. For the last 22 years Pimentel kept his copy, but recently decided to “donate it to the Free Press.” In a letter to the FP editor, Pimentel recalls that he “bought it from a newsboy at the intersection of Taft Avenue and San Andres Street early on the morning of January 2nd. I rushed back to my house on Taft Ave. Extension, afraid that the Japs, who were said to be in Baclaran already, might catch me with it….I have since moved my residence a number of times—from Pasay to Sta. Cruz, Manila, then to San Miguel and later to Sta. Ana and finally to San Miguel Village, in Makati; but I brought my copy of the “Farewell Issue” with me wherever I moved. During the war and in the years since then, I have lost valuable things, but not this issue of the Free Press. I just can’t throw it away, after keeping it for so long….”
Pimentel’s copy looks its age: faded, torn in places, stained by decay, and half of the back cover missing, but otherwise intact, legible, a repository, as it were, of the heartbreaking gallantry, the pride and glory and also the fear and the chilling uncertainty of that distant time. The issue marked the end of a world, the close of an era: never again would the country recapture the peace and the relative innocence of the 1930s, and the war would spawn changes more enduring than physical ruins. To read it now is to marvel at those changes of spirit and attitude, sentiment and feeling the nation has undergone since 1941—more than half a century ago, more than enough time for two generations to be born and grow into adulthood and learn of that period of history only from books and old newsreels, as strange and unreal now in the age of the supersonic jet and the space-shuttle countdown as Verdun and the Treaty of Versailles must have been to the youth who went to war the year the Free Press said goodbye. How easy it seems today under the new nationalism to scoff at the brave slogans of those days; to pretend, even, that they never were, and that we had always been masters of our destiny—a comforting illusion but a denial of history. A nation builds on its memories, grows up and away from them; and whatever we have lost or gained as a people must be measured against what we once were.
The “Farewell Issue” of the Free Press carried on the inside front cover, under the legend “help is surely coming,” this message from the High Commissioner’s Office:
“This is the time when the courage of all the people of these islands, whatever their nationality, is being put to test. We are being afforded a rare opportunity to show stuff of which we are made.
“Anyone who has been in Manila since the outbreak of the war must be convinced that we can take it as well as the people of London, of Moscow, or of Chungking. We have all been thrilled as we read of the valor of the troops that are defending us. Let us continue to show the same courage as the boys at the front….
“Help is surely coming—help of such adequacy and power that the invader will be driven from our midst, and he will be rendered powerless ever to threaten us again. Obviously we are all hungry for news but details cannot be disclosed. It is part of our duty not to demand details, but to have an abiding faith that help is on its way….”
The editorial cartoon on the first page, entitled “Heroes All,” showed Uncle Sam telling an American soldier and his Filipino comrade-in-arms, “Boys, America is proud of you!” The text was unabashedly inspirational. “To the thousands and tens of thousands of Filipinos and Americans out there on the front lines America takes off its hat. America is thrilled by their gallant defense, by their heroic stand against tremendous odds, by their stirring feats of valor.
“Here in Manila we may think we are suffering or have been suffering, but we know nothing of the thirst, the hunger, the utter exhaustion, the weariness unto death of the men out there at the front….Stories innumerable of their fearlessness, their fortitude are pouring into Manila. No sacrifice seems too great for them, there is no hazard that they will not dare.
“Among all of them—the Filipinos—there is the consciousness that they are fighting for their homes, their loved ones, their native land. For them they are ready to lay down their lives, and gladly.
“Lacking such inspiration, the Americans, as the world everywhere has come to expect of them, fight not one whit less courageously. Over them flies their beloved flag, proud symbol of ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave,’ and they think of what the folks back home are saying of them.
“No wonder America, yes, and free men everywhere, are thrilled. For these our men, Filipinos and Americans, Americans and Filipinos, out there in the bloody field are writing a dateless page not only in the Philippines but in world history. Heroes All.”
The Free Press reprinted the cartoon editorial in its first issue after the war.
The next seven pages traced the daily progress of the war, from Monday, December 23, when “a huge enemy fleet estimated at 80 transports” was sighted off Lingayen Gulf, to Sunday, December 29, when “Manila was again bombed by Japanese planes and once more, the ships lying in the Pasig River, still there despite the fact that they drew Japanese fire yesterday, were largely responsible for attacks on the open city.
“Beginning at about 11:45 a.m., Japanese bombers carried out an unceasing attack along the Pasig River, with most of the bombs falling on civilian property. The raid lasted until approximately 1:10 p.m. casualties were light since most of Intramuros had been evacuated. However, the bombers inflicted heavy damage. Letran College and the dmhm plant burned down. The Intendencia building was again on fire. Most of the buildings near Letran College and Santo Domingo Church were wiped out by fire. The Naric [warehouse] on the south side of the Pasig went up in flames….”
According to Usaffe headquarters, “the fighting was desultory in the north but very heavy in the south.” The Japanese had reinforced their troops in the north as well as in the Atimonan area, and “continued to advance slowly.” There was “heavy enemy air activity” throughout the country. The British were retreating in Hong Kong and Malaya, but were on the offensive in Libya; the Nazis were suffering “serious reverses” in Russia. In Washington “as well as throughout the [United States], people were horrified by the continued bombing of Manila—an open city.”
The last Usaffe communiqué received and printed by the Free Press was issued at 8:03 a.m. of New Year’s Day: “In order to prevent the enemy’s infiltration from the east from separating our northern and southern forces, the Southern Luzon Force for several days has been moving north and has now successfully completed junction with the North Luzon Force.
“This movement will uncover the free city of Manila which, because of the previous evacuation of our forces, has no longer any practical military value. The entrance to Manila Bay is completely covered by our forces, and its use is hereby denied the enemy.”
The regular editorial page urged President Quezon “to take a day or two off and visit the firing line and sit down with the boys, those young heroes who are fighting like lions…..What an electrifying effect such a visit would have! For days the boys would be talking about it. How they would be nerved to greater feats, to still greater heroism!” Another editorial stressed that the government “keep the people informed of the war situation” to offset the “insidious work of fifth-columnists who are spreading rumors of the wildest nature to terrify and demoralize the populace.” A third editorial noted that “the most encouraging sign in the heroic struggle being waged today is the eagerness of the boys who have been relieved from the front for a day or two, many of them with wounds, to go back to the fighting.” The same page carried a reprint of an editorial from the December 31 issue of the Philippine Herald:
“Japan is racing with time. That is why she has tried to employ Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics in the campaign against Hawaii, Midway, Wake, Guam, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaya, hoping thereby to get a firm hold in these regions before American help arrives….
“Our job in the Philippines therefore is to hold the enemy until help from America reaches us. We have held our lines for 23 days, and gained that much time for America to recognize her power for a telling blow against the enemy….”
Staff writer Locsin wrote his impressions of that final week, with a kind of philosophical detachment: “The war has blacked out everything in our lives but a few essentials—books as in my case, the instruments of my craft. A man has few needs, really. Peace multiplies them and gives the superfluous the urgency of the necessary. We confuse indulgence with need. The war leaves man with only the bare wish to survive with honor, the obligation to do one’s work as well as ever, without deterioration, and a new humility….
“The war reveals the parasite, the nonessential man self-confessed. He who does not produce is regarded, with suddenly clear eyes, as an enemy. In peacetime he occupies an honorable position, being then only a thief who is allowed to live on what his neighbors make.
“The war leaves only human values and human worth. It either shows a man or shows him up. Out of this new revelation may yet come a new society—a true society—a society of men.”
The Japanese bombed the city on December 24: “I was in the Wilson building and I had a ringside seat. We saw the bombers—there were nine of them, in perfect formation—gleaming in the sun….There were three strong explosions and the building shook. I crouched against a wall, changed my mind and ran to the window. I saw the bombs flower—as young Mussolini so prettily put it—in Port Area….
On December 28, “the city authorities lifted the blackout order. The city is now open night and day. The people may keep their lights shining. Few did.
“I have just gone out of the house for a breath of fresh air. I saw two or three lighted windows. The rest along the street were dark. Intramuros, however, burning on my left, made up for them.
“The city is lighted up, all right.
“Seven days a week. Three weeks now. Twenty-one days. More coming up!”
An unsigned article, illustrated with a pen-and-ink portrait of fighter pilot Jesus Villamor, paid tribute to “those who fight in the air.” They introduced a new element into the “mechanical, collective murder that is modern war…the personal element of individual skill and initiative….And when they died, they died—not as their comrades on the ground did, in the mud, but amid the stars….
“What do these men of the air, men such as Capt. Jesus Villamor, take with them when they go up, usually outnumbered, to meet the enemy? One likes to think that they take with them the loftiest sentiments of which they, with their unclipped wings, are such stirring symbols. And certainly, in the lull between battles, they must think often and long of the rights and obligations of free men…those ideals that fall so smugly from the lips of our orators.”
The advertisements—the few that found space in the issue—also offered their own commentary on the times. “Uncle Sam has never let you down,” declared an ad of the San Juan Heights Co., J.L. Myers, general manager. “you can be absolutely sure of that! The San Juan Heights Co. wishes to reassure its purchasers that their interests will be protected….Records of purchases are in Uncle Sam’s hands in New York City vaults and he is pledged to protect them. we wish you a new year as happy and prosperous as possible.” The monthly first-prize winners of La Estrella del Norte’s silhouette contest, held from July 1 to December 20, 1941, revealed in their entries the favorite idols of the time: Uncle Sam, Joe Dimaggio, Simon La O, the Ateneo basketball star. Yco offered camouflage paints “to make your factory or building blend with its surroundings,” and presumably save them from enemy bombs.
The last four pages contained “Sidelights on the War.” The lead item reported the death of Buenaventura Bello, president of the Northern Colleges of Vigan, Ilocos Sur, who was shot by the Japanese when he refused to remove the American flag draped on the wall of his home. Two of his sons, noted the Free Press, were serving the Usaffe. There was an account of the Japanese landing at Mauban, Quezon, by Sgt. Regulo Lippago of Abra: “We waited until they were 70 yards and then we let go. We mowed down the first wave, but as the succeeding ones came on and stretched the battle line around the bay we had to retreat. During a two-day period, we halted the enemy four times, twice in the daytime, and twice at night.” As the Japanese approached a town in Tayabas, the mayor ordered his people to evacuate orderly; while the evacuation went on, the mayor continued working “as usual”; he was the last to leave the town. “We were not robbed,” the evacuees told each other, “when we elected this man.” Another town mayor, Nicomedes Suller of San Manuel, Pangasinan, led civilians against a Japanese tank. He was killed, but not before he had clambered up the tank and emptied his revolver into its occupants. “He, too, justified his election.” According to a report from Baguio, “the Igorots know the [United States] is at war with Japan and that all Filipinos are under the solemn obligation to fight the invader side by side with the Americans. Because they are Filipinos, too, the Igorots have armed themselves and are out looking for the enemy to put him out of business.” American bombers attacked Japanese transports in Davao Gulf, sinking one. A number of Japanese planes were shot down over Corregidor. While the fighting raged in Pangasinan, farmers went about their harvesting—“a banner crop this year.” There were more accounts of the “indomitable spirit and courage of our men” in the Lingayen area—a trooper was wounded when he tried to open the hatch of an enemy tank, a company commander routed single-handedly a 30-man Japanese patrol. Thousands of civilians had returned to Manila from evacuation sites in Laguna and Rizal after learning the capital had been declared an open city. Manila Mayor Juan Nolasco appealed to all citizens to “remain calm during the present emergency….”
The last page bore, in boldface, a quotation from US High Commissioner Sayre: “Death is preferable to slavery.”
The back cover appealed to all and sundry to “stop stampeding! don’t get panicky! keep your chin up! show the world we can take it!”
And then, from the direction of Grace Park, Maj. Gen. Koichi Abe marched down Rizal Avenue at the head of three battalions of his 48th Division.
It was four months before the fall of Bataan and the men dying on the road to Capas, five months before the surrender of Corregidor; three years before Leyte, and four before the liberation of Manila and the death of the old city; and two confused crowded decades before Filipino First, the Twelfth of June and Maphilindo. The war ended long ago—“a war not of our own making,” some would remind us now—and we have traveled an almost immeasurable distance since the first bombs fell on Cavite and Nichols Field.
How vast the difference between the country then and now—more than time separates us from the “Keep ’em Flying” posters and “God Bless America,” the soldiers in denim and pith helmets riding off to the front in commandeered buses, and Manila waiting for the drone of planes in the blackout. We have since grown in nationalistic age and wisdom, and the suave slogans and the simple loyalties of that era are perhaps best forgotten, together with the ugliness, the terror. But certainly some memories from 1941 are worth cherishing: the country was still young and unmaimed in spirit, patriotism was not an uncommon virtue, and men believed enough in a way of life to fight for it with courage and honor.