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Day of Terror: Fire and Death in Manila, in 1945, February 7, 1970

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!”


Malacañan memoirs, February 28,1949

Malacañan memoirs

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.