National / History

70 years later, survivors keep memory of Battle of Manila alive

by Oliver Teves


Seventy years have not dulled the memories of survivors of the monthlong Battle of Manila. The mass killings by Japanese forces, the loved ones lost and the desperation are etched in their minds, as is the elation when American forces finally rescued them in the closing months of World War II.

The U.S. liberated Manila from the Japanese, but not before it was largely destroyed and more than 100,000 civilians killed. About 16,000 Japanese soldiers and 1,000 U.S. troops also died in the fighting from Feb. 3 to March 3, 1945.

Manila was the second-most devastated city in World War II after Warsaw, according to historian Ricardo Jose of the University of the Philippines. He called the city “one of the worst battlefields in the world.”

In 1941, when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, which was an American colony at the time, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. forces, declared Manila an “open city” to spare it from destruction. But when the Americans returned, the Japanese decided to fight to the last man, from building to building, and burned entire city blocks.

Civilians died from malnutrition and American shelling, but mostly, historians agree, at the hands of Japanese troops.

Four survivors shared their stories with The Associated Press:

Mother was executed

Roderick Hall was 9 when the Japanese occupied Manila. The British boy and his family lived in a home in the Malate district, though his father was interned with thousands of foreigners at the University of Santo Tomas.

In late January 1945, before American forces closed in on the capital, the Japanese barged into the family home, searched every room and found what the raiders claimed was an illegal radio transmitter. Hall, now a business investor, said it was just a shortwave radio the family listened to for news outside Manila.

All members of the household — including Hall and his brother, his mother, his grandmother, an uncle, and aunt and the family’s helpers — were brought to Manila’s Masonic Temple.

Hall, then 12, and his brother and the house helpers were later released. They were allowed to bring food to their mother and the others for several days. Then the Japanese stopped the visits.

About 200 people were massacred at the temple, but Hall learned only recently from a war document that his mother was listed among dozens executed at Fort Santiago, a centuries-old Spanish garrison used by the Japanese to torture and kill suspected guerrillas.

For a while, Hall had hoped that his mother somehow escaped and was safe with the guerrillas.

“About two years later, I was away in school. My father wrote and said, ‘I am going to marry again.’ And that’s when I started to cry and broke down and had to admit to myself that this hope that my mother was alive somewhere was no longer the case.”

Bow or be assaulted

For someone who was 4 when the Japanese began bombing raids on Manila in December 1941, Juan “Johnny” Rocha remembers a lot from the war. Perhaps because, when those first bombs were falling, he was being rushed for an appendectomy — not in the operating room, but to the hospital basement, where it was safer.

Rocha, who later would become the Philippine ambassador to Spain, once saw a man hanging dead from a telephone pole, with a sign that said he was a thief. He remembers his family using huge wads of devalued Japanese wartime currency to buy basic commodities, and privately singing “God Bless America,” and “I Love My Own, My Native Land” at home.

“The most remarkable thing was whenever we passed in front of a Japanese sentry we had to all bow, and if we didn’t bow, he would slap us or kick us or whatever,” he said.

As fighting in Manila intensified, his family decided to flee, but tragedy struck before they could. When a shell landed on a neighbor’s house, shrapnel cut through an adobe wall and sliced off the top of his mother’s head, killing her.

Rocha’s father lost 13 relatives when the Japanese herded them inside the German Club with hundreds of others, then torched them all alive, Rocha said.

He saw Japanese soldiers shoot a man because he didn’t raise his hands, and a woman screaming as she was bayoneted against a tree.

“Christians are taught to forgive, but we are never taught to forget. We cannot forget,” he said. “All we need is that they recognize what they did and apologize.”

Death from starvation

Joan Bennett Chapman, a Philippine-born American, remembers being so deprived at the Santo Tomas prison camp that powdered milk was a special treat. When her mother was able to give her a spoonful, she would nibble on it on the steps of the large staircase in the main building.

Chapman’s father, Roy Bennett, was the first editor-in-chief of the prewar Manila Daily Bulletin. He was tortured by the Japanese before he and his family were interned.

Chapman, now an 80-year-old former lawyer, said internees looked like “walking skeletons” and starvation deaths were routine. When American tanks crashed through the university gates on Feb. 3, 1945, she heard “people being hysterically happy.”

“The soldiers were out throwing candy bars down to the people, and the people who were starving were scrambling for them. It was the happiest kind of chaos you can imagine,” she said.

The Japanese camp commandant refused to surrender and was shot as he tried to reach for what was believed to be a grenade in his backpack, she said. His body was dragged to the main building, where some internees spat and urinated on it, she said.

Chapman wanted to spit on the body, too. Her father, who was abused by the occupiers for years and would be tormented by the war for the rest of his life, forbade it.

Snipers targeted civilians

James Litton, then 11, heard thunderous explosions the day after the Americans reached Manila. The Japanese were blowing up bridges to keep U.S. troops from advancing.

Days later, the Japanese began burning houses in the Malate district, where his family lived. Litton’s four-story home was made of concrete, so it became an emergency shelter for about 120 homeless neighbors.

Then the Japanese ordered everyone to leave. As civilians hurried toward the nearby Philippine General Hospital for shelter, a 15-year-old girl stepped on a Japanese land mine.

“After the dust had settled, all I could see was a torso, legless, without the left arm. She was moaning still, but her blood was coagulating with dust,” he said. His mother lay unconscious nearby and his brother was wounded in the face.

A cousin carried his mother and they ran toward the hospital. Japanese snipers were targeting people entering the main gate, so they climbed over a fence.

Finally, on Feb. 17, Americans reached the area. “I was just filled with happiness. My chest was bursting with joy realizing that we had survived. We’re alive! We’re alive!” said Litton, now 81.

As they moved out of the hospital, he saw the body of a Japanese soldier lying on the street. “What I can’t forget is when we were walking, an elderly man got an adobe stone and with all his might threw it at this dead Japanese,” and cursed, he said.

Later, as a textile businessman, Litton often visited Japan.

“I never met a more hospitable, a more cultured, a more accommodating people,” he said. “How could a people like this have produced an army as barbaric as the one that came here and Nanking? . . . Nobody has yet explained that to me.”