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Mondays at Miranila

Girls in Blue chronicles the valiant efforts of the Volunteer Social Aid Committee to respond to the call of Josefa Llanes Escoda and her husband Tony for "visits of succour" to Filipino and American prisoners-of-war interned in San Fernando, Pampanga and Capas, Tarlac after the Fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942 and the infamous Death March. This vignette records Herstories of Filipino heroines Josefa Llanes Escoda and Maria Orosa, as well as of outstanding achiever Helena Z Benitez and her group whose volunteer service for their country and people earned for each one a Legion of Honor medal.

As the end of the Corregidor siege approached, the Girls in Blue decided to go on a retreat together, conducted by Fr. Theodore Buttenbruch, an SVD priest I had known from the very beginning. He had established the seminary in Ilocos. A German by birth, he was a global priest by dedication and mission.

Bataan has fallen... When the same
thing happened
to Germany, the German women greeted the defeated German soldiers
with flowers
and with great joy...

In his last homily, Fr. Buttenbruch said to us—Lourdes Alunan, Lulu Reyes, Pilar Campos, Conchita Sunico, Tropy Ocampo, Emma Benitez, Nena Liboro, Betty Magalona, Nenita Barrios and the rest of us who formed my little volunteer group: "When you go out of this SVD Chapel, you will find a different countryside. Bataan has fallen. You were not told this during the retreat. When the same thing happened to Germany, the German women greeted the defeated German soldiers with flowers and with great joy, welcoming them as if they were victorious. This made a difference. The reception enabled the soldiers to keep up their morale, take heart, and this eventually led to Germany's being able to rise again." With those words for each of us, we bade goodbye and motored back to our respective families.

While I was seated in the dining room with the rest of my family that Sunday, our lunch was interrupted by a telephone call. It was Mrs. Josefa Llanes Escoda on the phone, and in a very sad voice, she said: "Helen, we've just come from San Fernando. It is horrible, they're dying over there. . ." Then I heard a crashing sound; she had dropped the phone.

Then her husband Tony said, "Peps has fainted. What she wanted to say was for you to gather all the people, all the girls working with you. We are leaving again on Tuesday or Friday. Have everything ready on Tuesday, if you can."

"What do you need?" I asked.

"We need everything," he said, "everything that you can put inside your transportation."

He knew that Papa had the only available transportation at that time, because he was Director General of National Coconut Corporation. Nacoco had invented and put into operation the charcoal-fed vehicle. Papa's own car was an official car; it had the back open, carrying charcoal from coconut shells to be fed into the machine. At that time, gasoline was no longer available, as this was limited to top government officials like Papa who was actively operating this government corporation. Since Papa and Jorge Vargas were the ones left in Malacanang, I guess we had some privileges. I remember that we could go back and forth to Mira-Nila, though not everyday.

I called Nacoco. By Tuesday, I was ready with a "pick-up" filled with whatever we could get our hands on. Then I called up Fr. Buttenbruch and quickly told him what happened. I said, "Father, will you be ready to go with the Escodas?"

"I shall be ready" was his reply. So, by 7 o'clock that morning, Fr. Buttenbruch came and they passed for Tony and Josefa. I had my transport readied by Peping Alvarez, Papa's man from Nacoco.

Medicines were very difficult to come by, for the Japanese had commandeered the supply.

Then we went to Mrs. Maria Orosa at the Bureau of Plant Industry, not far from PWU. She made concentrated calamansi juice and lots of sugar panocha, so full of energy. I can't remember everything that we had packed, but certainly that little jitney was so fully laden with provisions that there was no more bounce on the springs of the wheels. Medicines were very difficult to come by, for the Japanese had commandeered the supply. We could only go to owners of drugstores who had somehow or other kept some supplies in their own houses. We went to De la Rama steamship, and asked the officer there to give us what they could. We also went to the Fernandezes of Compania Maritima, and were able to get all the linens, everything that we could get.

Subsequently, this first succour little jitney came back with horror stories. The Filipino and American death marchers were not allowed to drink even dirty water. They were being pushed by bayonet, pushed onward to San Fernando, Pampanga and later, on to Capas, Tarlac. Sometimes when you think of it, you can't believe that it happened. But some of our prisoners saw several Japanese soldiers who just could not go on. They were killed, their war arms taken from them, and on with the march. It was horrible.

Later on, we came to know some highly educated officers from the Office of the Commanding General, as we requested their permission for our group to bring supplies to the prisoners. They acknowledged us as "fujin-kai": ladies of high stature. So we were recognized officially. The Japanese soldiers gave us respect because we were all in our blue uniforms with white aprons.

When the group came back from that first trip of mercy, it was very heart-rending. They had not eaten at all. Fr. Buttenbruch's sutana (cassock) was all stained with blood, as he had to administer to the sick and the dying. Fr. Buttenbruch came with the jitney. He was the one who told us what transpired in as comforting a manner as he could. Then he was taken by another car from Women's back to the SVD seminary compound in Quezon City where he lived. I didn't see Peps and Tony anymore because they were dropped at their house, which was five blocks from Women's.

After that, we knew we had to get more equipment for VSAC to use in San Fernando and in Capas later on. After Capas, all foreign prisoners were brought to Cabanatuan. This made it difficult for us, for there were no Filipino prisoners and rules of security made our visits of succor more difficult.

Even during those tragic moments, the poor little nuns didn't know what was happening.

I went to see Archbishop O'Doherty at his palace in Intramuros. He knew us very well, being close to my mother. One of his priests at that time was Fr. Rufino Santos whom he promoted from Imus to Manila (Fr. Santos became Rufino J. Cardinal Santos, our first Cardinal). Archbishop O'Doherty said to us, "Go and take everything you need. Tell the nuns at San Juan de Dios Hospital that they have to give full support."

Fr. Buttenbruch went, accompanied by some of our nurses. Even during those tragic moments, the poor little nuns didn't know what was happening. They were trying to keep Father from going into the bodegas (supply rooms or warehouses) with new equipment, and just showing him some already worn-out equipment. He told the nuns, "This is the order of the Archbishop." God bless them and their simplicity, but the nuns had to open even their favored bodegas. We took the equipment that we needed for the emergency hospitals in San Fernando and Capas.

All of these were quickly organized with others, bayanihan way. We continued our work in Capas. We organized brigades of visits, with official permission of course. We put up a shanty house outside the camp. Angelita Zobel's husband, Col. Jacob Zobel (Enriquito's father) was inside the camp, but he couldn't come out at the same time as Ernesto Rufino for the guava gathering brigade.

This guava brigade was an ingenious way to enable some prisoners to slip out while some member of their family happened to be waiting outside. By passing on information inside the camp, specific prisoners could be scheduled to join the guava brigade. Supposedly gathering guava leaves, they would actually be given a chance to visit their loved ones for the first time at the shanty house. When the hour was up, we would give the prisoners the guava leaves our field staff had gathered, so that they could go back to the camp. The guava leaves were boiled and used for dysentery, which was rampant inside the camp. Emetine, the usual medicine, was all gone, having been confiscated by the Japanese for their soldiers' use. Medicine and gasoline were all for the use of the Imperial Army. We kept at this work throughout the two years of the Japanese Occupation.

I was staying at a room behind the PWU chapel where we had a reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. It was from this chapel that I was brought by stages from one house to another and rushed to the Philippine General Hospital when we found out that the Japanese were going to leave Manila. We heard about the looting and killing, so we all went to the PGH and became part of that odyssey at the hospital.

When they advised us to get ready for the next evacuation, I could hardly walk because of the swollen knee that had earlier saved me from being brought to Fort Santiago for questioning as chair of the VSAC, the Girls in Blue. I was placed on a pushcart for delivering water, along with the Tirona twins who were born in the hospital just a few days earlier, and two Jesuit seminarians pushed us to safety. Everyone else was walking along Taft Avenue, which could hardly be recognized because everything had been burned in varying degrees.

© Helena Z Benitez

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