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A Child in the Midst of Battle
One Family’s Struggle For Survival In War-torn Manila

That day was to go down in history as a day of infamy—December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Not many Americans realize that Manila was also bombarded that same day. But because the Philippines was on the other side of the International Date Line, it was December 8th for us. My sister Elyse and I were at a party celebrating the First Communion of our cousin. I was almost ten. Elyse had just turned seven.

The party was held on the top floor of a “highrise,” which in those days was probably only four or five stories tall. One of the guests left early, but quickly returned. “Los Japoneses han bombardeado Hawaii!” she cried frantically. “Muchos muertos en la base naval!”

An eerie silence settled over the room. It was disbelief, perhaps, or suspicions confirmed, as grown-ups had been whispering about the possibility of war.

The party quickly dispersed. Elyse and I went outside. People rushed by on the street with frantic determination. Our driver, Irineo, drove us to the Army&Navy Club on the esplanade of Manila Bay where my parents, FÉ and Ernest Berg, were attending a wedding.

We turned the corner and saw them waiting anxiously for us outside the club. When mom saw that we were unharmed she clapped her hands in a prayer of gratitude. Her shoulders slumped as if she were exhaling for the first time in several minutes.

We drove home in silence. Imperial warplanes swarmed in the sky. Bombs fell like dark rain on nearby air fields and ships in the harbor. Ordnance smoke drifted across the water. Some of the ships carried Christmas goods for sale in the local stores. Dad—who owned a department store called Berg’s on the fashionable Escolta—lamented that his Christmas order was at the bottom of Manila Bay.

When we reached home, Mom put us girls—Elyse and me, and our sister Elaine, then three years old—under the heavy dining room table of Philippine mahogany in hopes that it would protect us from flying shrapnel. We were terrified, and prayed the rosary ever so fervently. Dad stood in the doorway watching fighter planes engaged in dogfights over the city.

I crawled out from under the table and stood beside him. American P-40s and Japanese Zeros twisted in the sky in a dangerous chase. Bombs fell to ground in a hail of smoke and debris. Mom screamed at me in panic until I crawled back under the table. She pleaded with dad to join us, but he just looked at her sadly and shook his head.

“There’s no point, FÈ,” he said, “we don’t stand a chance. There aren’t enough soldiers to defend the city. The Americans will surrender, and the Japanese will march right in.”

Dad was right, and not for the last time. As a child he had survived World War I in Germany. Instinctively he knew what lay ahead of us.

Fierce bombing continued throughout December. Japanese warplanes dropped their loads of destruction on the city at every time of the day and night. The ack-ack of antiaircraft fire was deafening. Tracer bullets shredded the night sky. Whenever we heard planes overhead we scurried into a large closet beneath the stairs.

Day after day we held our breath at the sound of bombs whistling through the air—a horrible sound you don’t forget—and braced for explosions that rocked the earth. Ardently we prayed for the poor American soldiers who received the brunt of the attack.

I don’t know what the fighting was like for the soldiers, but for us civilians it was surreal. Set against a backdrop of fearsome daily battle, our lives continued pretty much as they had before the invasion—Irineo drove dad to work, and Elyse and me to school. Mom ran the house and visited with friends.

But where before the canvas of life had been cast in hues both idyllic and mundane, it then was stained the color of human viscera, brushed with violence. At any moment, the fighting might crash down around us. If luck was with us, we made it to a shelter in time. If luck was with us, we were protected from harm.

I went to school at Assumption Convent, which was operated by a French order of nuns. We students often had wondered what lay beyond the doors at the head of a particular wing of the school which was off limits to us. Soon the air raid sirens wailed, and we found out.

The sisters ushered us into a long interior hallway which led to their quarters, and told us to sit quietly on the floor. We huddled there in the dark for what seemed the longest time. We were protected well enough by the massive stone walls of the convent, yet still could hear the shells exploding outside. The nuns told us the Japanese were only bombing military installations, but it sounded to me as if the whole city was being razed.

Late in December, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of US Army forces in the Far East, acknowledged that his troops were insufficient to repel the Japanese offensive. American and Filipino forces retreated west across Manila Bay to Corregidor Island and the Bataan Peninsula. After pledging his return, MacArthur boarded a boat with his wife and son, and a few close aides, bound for Australia. No one thought it would take him three long years to make good his promise.

We spent Christmas Eve, 1941 in the shelter beneath the stairs. Dad had lined the little room with mattresses and pillows to make it as secure and comfortable as possible. Mom cursed the Japanese for picking that particular night to bomb the city nonstop.

Elyse and I worried about Santa Claus maneuvering his sleigh through enemy aircraft. Dad assured us that Santa was a miraculous being, and would find his way unharmed through the shelling. What a welcome relief it was to worry about Santa for one night instead of whether a bomb would destroy us where we lay. Finally we slept, albeit not with “visions of sugar plums” dancing in our heads.

Christmas morning dawned clear and quiet. We ran upstairs to our bedroom to see if Santa had made it through as promised. The previous night we had placed our shoes on the window sill, a custom of my father’s native Germany. There to my wondrous surprise I found my very first wristwatch, a beautiful gold timepiece with a black grosgrain band. Oh, Joy! And on the floor beneath my shoes was a lovely doll dressed in a nurse’s uniform. I was so grateful to Santa for braving enemy bombers to bring us our gifts.

* * *

We lived near Manila Bay in the Paco/Ermita district of central Manila. In the days and weeks following the invasion, our grandmother, Carmen Romero Mandelbaum—Mamita, or “little mother,” to us—took Elyse and me out to Dewey Boulevard, commonly called the BÛule, which ran along the esplanade. We sat on the massive boulders that fronted the harbor and listened to waves gently lapping against them. The sunsets, for which the Philippines is famous, were magnificent.

In surreal juxtaposition to the idyllic setting, battles raged twenty-five miles across the bay on Corregidor Island and the Bataan Peninsula. Clouds of battle smoke rose over the water. When a big gun fired we heard its muffled report. The sound of the guns was eerie, frightening. We prayed fervently for the Americans soldiers who fought to save us.

Decades later, I finally learned what happened in those battles. On our 1983 trip to the Philippines, my husband Richard and I took the 45-minute hovercraft ride to Corregidor, an island in the mouth of Manila Bay which had been a fortress under Spanish rule. The Japanese had totally destroyed the island. Four decades later all that was left were the ruins of what had been a thriving military base, a ghost town memorial to what had been.

A couple of families lived on the island as caretakers. One of the men was certain that the island was haunted with the souls of American and Filipino soldiers who had died there. He told me that over the years many people had seen what appeared to be ghosts roaming the grounds, had heard what sounded like troops marching and cries in the night.

A tour bus drove us around the island. Our guide recounted the story of the American defense of Manila in 1941. After the invasion, American and Filipino troops retreated to the island to consolidate their men and supplies. There were days when the island was bombarded continuously for twenty-four hours. Allied troops returned fire, but ultimately were outgunned.

They gasped in astonishment at what they found there. On the altar was a small statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The statue’s feet were muddy, its face unmistakably that of the woman they had seen the night before.

I shall never forget walking through the Melinta Tunnel, where American soldiers had holed up after retreating from Manila. The tunnel was like an underground city, with a series of lateral shafts containing offices, a mess, and even a hospital. Through the years I have heard from several sources, mostly military men, about a mysterious apparition seen by many the night before the American surrender.

It rained that night. The camp was thick with mud, heaping misery on the men’s already bleak mood. Though desperately hungry and weak, they had been unable to sleep knowing that in the morning they would be sent to concentration camps.

Late in the night a lovely woman was seen walking amongst the men offering words of encouragement and inviting them to pray. Many thought her a nurse from the hospital in the tunnel, but none could recall seeing her before. The lady’s presence brought a measure of peace to the camp. Finally the men slept.

The following morning some of the soldiers went to pray at a local chapel. They gasped in astonishment at what they found there. On the altar was a small statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The statue’s feet were muddy, its face unmistakably that of the woman they had seen the night before. The priest asked the men to carry the statue in a procession.

I have been told by many independent sources that during that somber ceremony, it rained rose petals from the sky, an odd occurrence certainly, and especially so since roses don’t grow in the Philippines—it’s too hot.

* * *

On January 2, 1942, the Americans declared Manila an “open city,” and ceded it to the Japanese. With no effective resistance in place the Imperial Army marched right in, as dad had predicted. Many of the soldiers entered the city by foot and on bicycles. We were conquered by men on bicycles! The adults worried about the possible horrors that awaited us. I imagined columns of monsters marching through the streets.

Huge banners were unfurled on the sides of buildings proclaiming “Asia for the Asiatics.” Billboards were rewritten with Japanese ideograms. The Rising Sun replaced the Stars and Stripes on flagpoles around town. We were instructed to click our heels and bow to any Japanese soldier we passed on the street. Disrespect was swiftly and harshly punished.

Stores and schools reopened. We were instructed to continue our lives as if nothing had changed. Propaganda of all sorts exhorted us to be grateful for our liberation from the grips of American imperialism, an irony not lost on the locals.

Our daily routines returned to normal, but everything was different. Each morning before class we had to face in the direction of Japan, and with arms outstretched yell the banzai salute as the Rising Sun was hoisted up the flag pole. We were taught to read and write Japanese, and learned Japanese history. Imperial Army officers arrived at school unannounced to make sure we were learning what they wanted us to know.

Text books were confiscated. All passages dealing with the United States were blacked out. Even the peso sign replaced dollar signs in math books. It was very distracting to open a text and see black spots all over the page.

Military rallies were held in a large park called the Luneta. Often we were pulled from class and made to march single-file through the sweltering streets of downtown Manila in our starchy uniforms. We stood for hours while generals and other officials gave speeches. In Japanese, of course—we didn’t understand a word of it.

He held his rifle with bayonet fixed at Mamita’s stomach.
“You like Americans?” he yelled at her, “You march with Americans.” He forced her down from the carriage and made her march with the POWs.

The rallies lasted so long we brought lunch and ate standing up, something new for us as we were used to going home for a hot meal and siesta. I pitied the nuns who were forced to stand for hours in the noonday sun in their neck-to-ankle robes and constricting head gear. I don’t know how they managed.

* * *

Troop trucks conveyed American POWs to ships in the harbor, there to be transported to Japan as slave labor. The men were thin and haggard looking, their uniforms tattered, faces burned by the sun. Whenever we saw these convoys we raised our fingers in the V-for-victory sign.

One day our carromata was held up behind a convoy. Mamita got so excited at the sight of Americans that she raised her hand in the victory salute. “Vee for Veectory!” she yelled in her Spanish accent.

One of the guards ordered Irineo to stop the carriage. He held his rifle with bayonet fixed at Mamita’s stomach. “You like Americans?” he yelled at her, “You march with Americans.” He forced her down from the carriage and made her march with the POWs.

When the guard was distracted, Irineo spurred the horse quickly away to the home of Mamita’s half-brother, Jesus Urbina. Irineo explained Mamita’s plight and drove Jesus back to the docks. Jesus reasoned with the guard that Mamita was too old to be of any use building airfields. After several tense minutes she was released. From then on we more discreetly gave the victory sign to any soldiers we saw.

Twenty years later I discovered that a neighbor living only two doors up the street had been in the Bataan Death March, and later became one of the POWs shipped to Japan from Manila Bay. Colonel John Blandy told me that during his boat ride to Japan a number of American soldiers were brought topside each day so that the Japanese could practice their bayonet technique. American officers were forced to watch, neither allowed to flinch nor to make a sound.

When bayonet practice was finished for the day, Colonel Blandy and his fellow officers hosed blood and body parts off the deck.

* * *

[Food was scarce toward the end of the war. The Japanese Army was on heightened alert, and danger lurked around every corner. Civilians stayed off the streets as much as possible.]

Even now I shudder to recall the day that dad heard there was meat for sale somewhere in the city. We were all tired of a daily diet of cornbread, and the same fruits and vegetables. The prospect of meat for dinner piqued dad’s taste buds, and he sent me out on horseback. Irineo saddled my horse Patience, and down the street I rode. I have often wondered how dad could have sent me out alone like that.

I turned onto Taft Avenue and held my breath. I was alone on the street. The click of the horse’s hoofs echoed on the asphalt. I had an eerie feeling of dread. I thought of turning back, but was more afraid of dad’s reprimand than I was of the enemy, and so continued on.

Soon a Japanese sentry shouted at me. I had learned enough of the language to know he was telling me to stop. He grabbed the reins, and led me to a big white building with marble steps.

The man shouted again. I put down my head and spurred Patience, riding as hard as I could. I looked back once—the soldier had rounded the corner, and was aiming his rifle at me. I heard a shot, and felt a bullet whizzing past my head.

Apparently the soldier hadn’t before encountered a young girl on horseback, and didn’t know what to do with me. He ordered me to wait, and headed up the steps of the building. As he reached the door, I instinctively kicked the horse and sprinted down the street. The soldier shouted at me to stop.

I rounded the corner and disappeared from sight. The man shouted again. I put down my head and spurred Patience, riding as hard as I could. I looked back once—the soldier had rounded the corner, and was aiming his rifle at me. I heard a shot, and felt a bullet whizzing past my head.

Patience must have sensed the urgency of the situation, as she neither slowed nor faltered. Somehow we made it home. My parents came out to greet me, not realizing what had just happened.

When I got off the horse my knees were weak, and buckled under me. I crumpled in a heap on the ground, sobbing. I tried to tell my parents what had happened but couldn’t get out the words. They couldn’t know how close to death I had come.

Dad passed off my explanation as childish histrionics, and said he would send Elyse instead. She was feisty and daring, and would accomplish what I had failed to do. I will always be bothered by dad’s apparent insensitivity.

My fear was compounded by concern for Elyse’s safety. She was not yet ten years old. Barefooted and with a bayong full of pesos she mounted her horse, Florian. Dad gave her a paper scrawled with Japanese characters, and told her to show it to any soldier who stopped her. The characters were meaningless, but dad knew that most Japanese soldiers couldn’t read, and thought the paper might fool them. Off into the asphalt battlefield rode Elyse, and returned home safely with fresh meat for dinner. I was so happy to see her.

Funny thing: after all my trauma, I don’t remember dinner that night.

* * *

[Sensing that Allied forces were about to fight their way into Manila, Ernest and Irineo chipped a hole through the stone wall in the backyard that led to a walled field behind the house, and covered the hole with vines. In the field, Ernest constructed a shelter out of steamer trunks filled with clothing and linens, and covered the whole with thick Oriental rugs. Nightly, he drilled his daughters in silently descending the stairs and crawling into the shelter through the hole in the back wall. Soon, he woke them for real, as American forces pushed the retreating Imperial Army through their neighborhood.]

No sooner had we reached the empty field than the nighttime calm was shattered. Machine gun fire opened up on Taft. People ran by on the street beyond the wall, shouting in fear and confusion. All was chaos. I heard the sound of wooden sticks clattering together at the front of the house. I couldn’t imagine what it was.

Soon to my dismay I discovered that the Japanese were piling whatever kindling they could find—wooden Venetian blinds in our case—in front of houses up and down the street. The stacks were doused with gasoline and set on fire.

Methodically the Japanese mowed down people as they ran screaming from their houses. From the shelter in the field, I watched the back of our house explode in a ball of fire. Flames spread to the second floor. My bedroom lit up, devouring my treasures. I remember thinking: There goes my bed... There go my books and my dolls...

The shelter was sopping wet, uninhabitable. My bayong was soaked with water. My favorite Hardy Boys book was
a swollen mess. The red dye of my doll Betsy’s dress bled on everything.

I didn’t cry. No one did. We huddled, speechless, numb, each lost in his own thoughts. I still can hear the fire raging, still can see it leap from the windows in tongues of red and yellow, flaming material crashing to the ground below in a hail of embers.

The heat was so intense that dad formed a bucket brigade to wet down our shelters. The water table is close to ground level in Manila, and dad had only to dig down a few inches to find water. He scooped up bucketsful, passing it down a line to Papito, mom, Irineo, and our cook, Jimmy Ampao. The water evaporated in a cloud of steam upon hitting the rugs.

As quickly as the battle had started it was over. The Japanese completed their gruesome task and moved on to another block. After all of the deafening noise, an eerie silence settled over the compound.

I don’t remember sleeping that night, nor where I would have curled up had I wanted to. The shelter was sopping wet, uninhabitable. My bayong was soaked with water. My favorite Hardy Boys book was a swollen mess. The red dye of my doll Betsy’s dress bled on everything.

The next day we emerged from the field to assess the damage. The neighborhood lay in ruins. Mom and I sifted through the remains of what once had been our home. A little neighborhood boy lay alone on the ground near the front of our house. There was a bullet hole in his chest, but not a trace of blood. He looked asleep.

Numb with grief, mom and I toed the debris, crying silently. We didn’t say anything beyond an occasional cry of regret. We mourned the loss of family photographs, and of mom’s recipe collection. Mom found a melted portion of a silver water pitcher that had been one of her wedding presents.

My heart keened when I remembered the tablecloths that she had painstakingly crocheted for our eventual marriages, now ashes. It was all so sad, yet a small price to pay for survival.

* * *

[After three weeks of intense fighting during the Battle For Manila, Allied forces finally routed the Imperial Army.]

A stranger appeared at our gate, a Filipino man saying that the Americans had advanced as far as Taft Avenue, and were expected to pass through our area. A while later, Irineo approached dad to say that some Americans were in the street outside the field. Dad asked for a description of the soldiers, wanting to make sure they were really Americans and not Koreans fighting in the Japanese army. Korean soldiers were typically larger than their Japanese counterparts, and wore green uniforms. Irineo said the soldiers weren’t blonde and blue-eyed like he thought all Americans were. They spoke a funny kind of English, too, but he was positive they were Americans.

Wanting to see for himself, dad followed Irineo across the field. Near the entrance they crawled on their bellies for fear of a sniper’s bullet. At the gate dad discovered the soldiers really were Americans, a unit of the 1st Cavalry. Many were dark skinned, of Hispanic decent, further tanned from their time in the tropics. The “funny accent” was because most of the men were from Texas. The houseboy’s warning had been correct: the Japanese retreat was headed our way; a fearsome battle was expected.

Manila had been a magnificent city, the “pearl of the Orient.” Now it was totally demolished, an arid wasteland. Rubble in every direction as far as the eye could see.

We gathered our bayongs and filed off the field, the horrors of the last several days etched on our faces. Jimmy Ampao carried his cooking pot with the remains of a cooked rooster in it. When we emerged from the field, we gasped at the destruction that greeted us. Manila had been a magnificent city, the “pearl of the Orient.” Now it was totally demolished, an arid wasteland. Rubble in every direction as far as the eye could see.

The charred husks of a few buildings remained standing, but were gutted and riddled with bullet and shrapnel holes. The smell of death hung heavily in the air. And bodies, everywhere, hundreds of them, bloated and covered with flies.

American soldiers were everywhere. Military jeeps and trucks motored back and forth. We had prayed for liberation for so long and so passionately, but were too mentally and physically exhausted to work up a lot of enthusiasm.

Our field had been a refuge for displaced persons hoping to survive. Now we Bergs were displaced. We were a sorry lot—dirty, hungry, exhausted, disheveled. And injured. Elyse’s bullet wound had become badly infected. Dad carried her on his shoulders. Mamita’s thigh wound made walking difficult and painful, even with Papito’s help. Mom limped along on her infected ankle, supported by Irineo.

We plodded without direction, not knowing where we were going or what we would do when we got there. Eventually we came to a grassy spot and sat down to rest. The grass felt cool after the dust and debris of the field.

Jimmy Ampao distributed the remainder of the rooster from his cooking pot, handing each of us a piece. I gratefully accepted the drumstick, but it was so tough that I couldn’t tear the meat from the bone. I cried in frustration borne of hunger. Wiping my tears, I noticed a small circle of Filipino boys, half naked, looking at us as if we were the luckiest people on earth. One of the boys was looking at me, crying. I offered him my drumstick, and he ran off with it.

That scene has stayed with me through the years. I had food, and cried because I couldn’t eat it. The little boy cried because he didn’t even have that.

* * *

[Japan surrendered the Philippines in the spring of 1945. In August of that year, FÈ and her daughters boarded a steamship, along with soldiers and other civilians, bound for the United States. As war was still being waged in the Pacific, their boat was convoyed in a battleship group.]

Our quarters were cramped—bunk beds stacked three high on either side of a narrow aisle. Mom and her girls shared a cabin with a Russian woman and her young daughter. The woman was married to an American soldier, but hadn’t seen or heard from him since the onset of war. She wasn’t even sure if he was still alive. Mother and daughter were traveling to his parents’ home to await word of his fate.

On board our ship, the TES Uruguay, were over a thousand GIs and hundreds of civilian refugees. We were really packed in. Everyone got breakfast and dinner, but only kids were served lunch. I tasted my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich on that ship, and I got my fill. It seemed lunch was always PB&J, a glass of milk, and an apple. We saved some for mom, half a sandwich or an apple.

Elyse used her apples to barter with the servicemen for military patches and ribbons. She even acquired a Major’s maple leaf insignia. By the time we reached San Francisco, she had a cigar box full of souvenirs.

By day popular music was broadcast over the ship’s loudspeakers. An on-board newspaper headlined the news and listed ship activities. Sometimes we were treated to talent shows on the ship’s fantail. Elyse and I had heard enough of the McGuire sisters by that time to lip sync some of their songs. If you’re ever feeling blue, try performing for battle-weary GIs. It will do wonders for your self esteem—all that cheering and whistling!

When the ship’s store opened in the morning the men lined up to buy cigarettes. By sheer coincidence Elyse and I happened to be around. Often we were treated to Butterfingers and Baby Ruths. We hadn’t tasted either until then, and developed quite a liking for them. When our gentlemen friends didn’t come through, mom gave us nickels to buy our own. The candy bars were huge, but I took teeny bites to make them last longer.

Behind the backdrop of children playing was the ever-present threat of Japanese submarines. Destroyers were situated on either side of us. A minesweeper trolled the seas ahead. We observed nightly blackouts and followed a zigzag course. The GIs were constantly reminded that even the light of a burning cigarette could prove fatal.

After weeks at sea, a blaring loudspeaker awakened us. Soon, the announcer said, we would be sailing into San Francisco Bay. Everyone scrambled on deck and rushed to the railing. There she was in all her glory, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, signifying freedom at last and a chance at the good life.

A few of the men started singing “California Here I Come.” More and more joined in. Soon all were united in song, the power of their voices like a giant wave rolling over us. Tears streamed down the cheeks of even the most battle-hardened men. We cried too, but didn’t sing along—we didn’t know the words.

Late in the afternoon of August 13, 1945, with “God Bless America” and the National Anthem playing over the loudspeaker, our ship docked. We were in San Francisco—we were in America.

The following day Japan accepted terms of unconditional surrender.

© Evelyn B. Empie and Stephen H. Mette

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