Day of Terror: Fire and Death in Manila, in 1945
by Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero
Diliman, Quezon City
February 7, 1970–FOR SHEER horror and cruelty hardly anything in history surpasses the cold-blooded massacre of thousands of civilians and the systematic burning of the entire districts of Ermita, Malate, Paco, Singalong, and Pasay during the Liberation of Manila in 1945.
One morning we heard from some youngsters that the Americans were already in Paco. Though there was no way of confirming these reports, we felt a bit relieved. Suddenly shots rang out somewhere in the district. The Japanese were shooting every human being on sight. At 4 p.m., the Japanese started burning the Union Church (now Regis House) on Isaac Peral Street. People fleeing from the fire were mowed down by rifles and machine guns.
My mother was cooking rice for supper when we heard the screams of “Fire! Fire!” We looked out the windows and saw the houses in front burning fiercely.
We decided to stay indoors as long as we could, but a group of Japanese soldiers, shooting their guns in the air, stopped in front of the Bueno house where we were staying. They ordered us, men, women, and children, to follow them. They stripped us of all our valuable belongings. My mother had in her bayong about eight pieces of gold coins intended for the chalice of my brother, Fr. Lorenzo the Jesuit, who had left for the United States in June 1941 to finish his theology in Kansas. This bayong the Japanese grabbed from my mother’s hands at bayonet point. My mother tried to grab it back. I screamed, “Don’t, Mother!” The men and boys were then taken to a house on the right side of Plaza Ferguson corner Alhambra, the very house where all of us brothers and sisters had been born, and herded into the large room where our father had died 20 years before. (We had sold the house before the war.) We were about 200 yards from Ermita Church, which was aflame. Speechless and horrified, we watched Japanese soldiers close all the windows and finally nail the main door shut. Later we were to learn that the women had been taken to the Bay View Hotel.
Rumors spread that the Japanese would blow us all up with dynamite. Resigning ourselves to whatever horrible fate was in store for us, we began saying our last prayers. Through the closed shutters we could watch how the fire was devouring the beautiful church, which my grandfather Lorenzo had designed about 80 years before, and the surrounding area. Hundreds of people who had sought shelter inside the church and the convent were machine-gunned.
The heat coming from the crackling flames was almost unbearable. Throughout the night we could hear shots in different sections of the district—hundreds of Ermita residents were dying or were to die that evening.
At 4 p.m. the next day a platoon of soldiers came and ordered us to move on to the University Club two blocks away. A Chinese, seriously wounded, couldn’t walk, so the Japanese simply shot him in the head and left his body on the street. We were placed in one room, and the door was bolted and nailed.
Two days later the Japanese ordered us to proceed to the Manila Hotel. There we hid in dugouts as American shells passed over our heads. From the dugouts we watched the Legislative Building crumbling with every blast. An hour later we were taken to the balcony of the hotel’s Winter Garden. Each day our captors fed us some tiny biscuits which tasted like adobe and were as hard. They gave us half a cup of water twice a day.
One morning, when we were not being watched, about a dozen of us ran to the swimming pool of the Army & Navy Club and, dirty as the water was, drank gallons of it. Sometimes I would sit in a corner and imagine what I would do when the holocaust was over: I would drink gallons and gallons of cold water. Some men sold their watches to the Japanese for extra water. But my brothers and I had nothing: the Japanese had taken away everything we had.
We were worried about our mothers, wives, and sisters. We had no idea where they had been taken when the Bay View Hotel caught fire. In the face of impending death, we wondered if our loved ones had already preceded us to the Great Unknown, and how soon we would follow them.
Several wounded Japanese soldiers were taken to the Winter Garden on Saturday, February 17. They were placed on the ground floor. Late in the evening we heard them moaning. An officer slapped one of the wounded soldiers who was making a racket. Strangely enough, we felt relieved to discover that even the Japanese soldier, for all his brutality and stoic nature, knew how it was to die in pain.
Sunday afternoon, February 18, the Americans started shelling the Manila Hotel. The stucco ceiling fell, the walls disintegrated. The smoke made breathing hard, and the heat was so intense we felt as though we were inside a stove. Instinctively we dashed for the outer balcony, but the Japanese guards threatened us with their bayonets.
The far end of the Winter Garden caught fire. The bodies of several Chinese women and children lay about on the floor. We stood at the top of the stairs, not knowing what to do. At every door were soldiers with fixed bayonets. It was unthinkable to try jumping from the windows. Then, like madmen, we turned to a door to the left. The flames were beginning to eat part of it, too. Then we saw a tiny window near the burning door, and we escaped through that opening.
Exhausted, gasping for breath, we threw ourselves on the grass. We left a number of dead behind us. Suddenly we heard firing from the walls of Intramuros. The Japanese there were shooting at us. By now the entire hotel was in flames. Intramuros and Ermita were a blazing inferno.
We tried to sleep. The moon was shining, and the fires made the night bright as day. The shelling and the crackling flames made sleep impossible. Soon a Japanese officer told us to go to the Rizal monument on the Luneta. When we got there, we choked with joy. The women were there—our mothers, wives, and sisters were there! My brothers and I embraced our mother, but without any tears. There was no time for tears. When the Miramar Arms building caught fire a week before, they had been taken to the Rizal monument and left to fend for themselves. My mother related how the Japanese visited the group every night, picked out the young girls, raped, and then killed them. A drunken soldier stuck his bayonet into the throats of two very young girls.
The shelling continued unabated until Tuesday, February 20. At nine o’clock on that day, a young girl in the crowd shouted: “Look! The Americans!” She pointed in the direction of the Army & Navy Club. We saw three or four tanks advancing slowly. Helmeted figures moved cautiously among the tanks, as if on the lookout for snipers. We could not be sure, dazed as we were, whether they were American tanks and American soldiers. “But they are Americans!” the girl insisted. All the time shells rustled and whined over our heads.
In the afternoon, two women ran towards the tanks which had paused on the street near the Army & Navy Club. The women came back frantically crying: “The Americans say we must leave this place—fast!” One of the women was holding three cakes of Palmolive soap.
We all flew rather than ran towards the Army & Navy Club. The Americans and their monstrous tanks were parked at the corner. But as I looked around and saw the utter devastation of Ermita, our house in ruins, I couldn’t bring myself to smile at the Americans, I could only whisper bitterly: “You’re too late. You shouldn’t have come back, dammit!”