TACLOBAN, PHILIPPINES – Many elderly people in the Philippines have made it their task in life to tell the younger generation of their ordeals during World War II in a bid to prevent war from ever happening again.
One of those survivors is 80-year-old Alejandro Devaras, who has kept an unusual piece of “war memorabilia” to underpin his story.
He has never had shrapnel in his leg removed — shrapnel that injured him at the height of fighting between U.S. and Japanese forces 70 years ago in the central island province of Leyte.
In a recent interview, Devaras said the shrapnel in his right leg was discovered only 14 years ago during a medical checkup, and he decided not to have it removed because of its “sentimental value.”
“It proves that the things I say about the wartime here really happened. Anyway, it’s just small and I’m already old,” Devaras said of the shrapnel, which he caught when American forces began a strike against the Imperial Japanese Army in his hometown of Dulag on Oct. 18, 1944.
A coastal town 37 km south of Leyte’s capital, Tacloban, and about 890 km south of Manila, Dulag is believed to be the first area in the Philippines liberated by the American forces.
A hill in Dulag has been marked as the site where the Americans, on Oct. 20, 1944, raised their flag to mark victory over the Japanese.
It came two years after the Japanese lowered the U.S. flag in Bataan province on Luzon Island on April 9, 1942, marking the beginning of Japan’s full control over the Philippines.
“The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, that’s what we were taught (by the Japanese). But it was not good for the Philippines because it only brought us hardship and trouble,” Devaras said, referring to Japan’s euphemism for its military conquest and economic exploitation of Asia during the 1930s and 1940s.
Devaras said he was 9 years old when Japanese soldiers arrived in Dulag in 1942 and immediately declared the entire town to be “under the Imperial Japanese Government.”
He said there was a lot of fear among the local people, including himself, because the foreign troops arrived in military trucks, wearing full battle gear.
“People locked themselves in their houses, and we just peeped through our windows. We were surprised about their arrival. It was my first time to see Japanese soldiers, and they looked like they were ready for a fight. As soon as they got off the trucks, they requested all people to gather at the plaza,” Devaras said.
“They told us to obey whatever the Japanese government ordered and they went on to occupy two school buildings,” he said.
As time went by, Devaras said his fear subsided because the Japanese soldiers turned out to be friendly, and he also enjoyed studying the Japanese language and culture in school.
“I learned how to speak Japanese, and how to write my name in katakana and hiragana. We were also made to bow every time we met some Japanese to greet them,” he said.
Devaras said his “hardships” and “terrible experiences” began on the morning of Oct. 18, 1944, when the American forces arrived, marking the start of an intense battle.
“While on the seashore on Oct. 18, 1944, we saw three battleships in the sea,” he recalled. “But we couldn’t identify them as U.S. ships because of the distance. Then we noticed there was commotion among the Japanese soldiers in Dulag. And we also noticed that more and more battleships arrived. So we rushed home. And then, the Americans started bombarding, and the Japanese lined up at the seashore both for defense and offense.”
He said he and his family hid in foxholes near their house as the shelling went on until the afternoon.
He, his mother and brother all sustained injuries but decided to go to town for safety, taking only a few items of clothing.
“It was already evening when we met some armed Japanese soldiers heading to the shore. They wanted to take my injured brother with them to use him as a carrier for their equipment. Luckily, they didn’t after I told them we were wounded,” Devaras said.
The family decided to stop at an “abaca” (Manila hemp) plantation and dig a shelter there.
“We ate whatever we found on that farmland — sweet potatoes, young corn, cassava, bananas. We ate them raw because we couldn’t make a fire, otherwise we would have been bombed by either the Japanese or the American forces. We were just so afraid,” Devaras recalled.
Their ordeal ended on Oct. 20, 1944, when they saw planes flying low and dropping leaflets saying, “The Americans have landed on your island.”
The U.S. soldiers took his family back to the town center along with other survivors, with Devaras saying they were shocked about the devastation.
“We could not recognize it anymore,” he said. “We had many friends and relatives who died during the war. And I was saddened by the sight of the devastation, with our house destroyed too. It was terrible.”
They received medical treatment on a U.S. military ship and started to rebuild their life after that.
Devaras went on to become a teacher in Tacloban, got married to a fellow teacher and had five children with her.
He went on to become a high school principal before finally retiring, and now he has nine grandchildren.
“I never knew I had shrapnel in my leg from the war until 2000, when I had a medical checkup after falling from a ladder. The doctor asked me why there was something inside my leg,” he said.
With that kind of evidence of the horrors of war inside his body, Devaras said his most important mission is to continue sharing his story, because “war should never happen again.”