This February will mark the 60th anniversary of the unwarranted death of over 100,000 civilians whose lives were sacrificed in the 1945 Battle of Manila. The casualty count was that immense because advancing US troops and their commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, did not consider that these non-American civilian lives deserved to be protected and secured by US troops whose role after all is to absorb the risk of war. But I wonder if anyone has even cared to remember this national tragedy?
Next to Warsaw, Manila registered as the city most devastated by World War II. Early accounts obviously peddled by the victors had imputed the enormous civilian casualty to acts and atrocities perpetrated by retreating Japanese forces. But historians had since debunked this reason. It was the US’ relentless bombardment and razing of Manila coupled with the callous disregard for civilian lives that turned any inhabitant in no man’s land a sitting duck for the remorseless American assault on the Philippine capital city in 1945.
However, this is not to deny the fact that Japanese forces had indeed committed some of the most barbaric and the most vicious atrocities that matched the brutishness of the ancient savage. The retreating Japanese forces showed no mercy. They raped and they slaughtered with wanton abandon. Babies were flung to the air and skewered by bayonets as they fell. Samurai swords swished in a mad harvest of decapitated heads.
But for all the terrifying stories of Japanese atrocities, the greatest number of civilian casualties was dealt by the careless and cold-blooded American bombardment. Post-war photos bear testimony to the virtual annihilation of
all landmarks south of the Pasig River. The US forces were situated north of the Pasig River and by February 1945, there was hardly any Japanese air force to contend with. Manila was held by Japanese marines who were cut off from the main Japanese force that retreated to Northern Luzon with the legendary “Tiger of Malaya”, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, to make their last stand there.
MacArthur liked to avoid unnecessary engagement of troops. For the most part, his Pacific campaign strategy – dubbed the envelopment strategy – avoided unnecessary troop engagement and instead isolated enemy bases from their supply lines. MacArthur posited: “Never take with bravado what you can attain with strategy”. And that is exactly how over 100,000 innocent lives ended up as sacrificial lambs to MacArthur’s troop preservation strategy. Instead of sending in US troops – whose job is to take combat risks and minimize civilian casualties – MacArthur opted for the deployment of the artillery and the air force to clear the Japanese held section of the city. In the process, Japanese defenders as well as innocent civilians were killed; with the greatest number of casualties being those of the civilian non-combatants.
Yet days earlier, the US commanders opted to send their troops to secure American prisoners in the University of Santo Tomas. How else can we view this contrast in US military approach except to conclude that the lives of US troops may only be risked when Americans and only American lives are on the line?
If you happen to be one who still believes in the old propaganda line that the 1945 Battle of Manila was a battle for Filipino liberation, you may want to read “The Battle for Manila” by Anderson, Connaughton and Pimlott. Well-researched and insightful, the book dissolves the propaganda myths and opens one’s mind to the truth and ugliness of this episode of the Pacific theatre of the war. Liberation gave the Battle of Manila a noble sounding cause but in reality it was a mere retaking of lost US strategic territory.
The Filipino’s easy gullibility to the propaganda cover-up surrounding the facts behind the 1945 Battle of Manila clearly exposes our shallow sense of history. Ironically, we keep quoting a favorite Filipino maxim: “ang hindi marunong tumingin sa pinanggalingan ay di makakarating sa paroroonan” (one who cannot appreciate his origins will not get to his destination). Somehow the meaning of this otherwise profound advice has been narrowly confined. Many people understand it to be only about repaying a “personal debt of gratitude” (or utang na loob) rather than looking back at one’s historical roots.
Having such a superficial sense of our own history, it is not surprising to see educated Filipinos having a better grasp of the American, French and Russian Revolutions rather than their own 19th century Philippine Revolution. Let’s not even go that far – barely 19 years after the historic and awe-inspiring 1986 People Power revolt, many of our youths hardly even look back to try to grasp and understand that shining moment of our nation’s history.
Over 65% of the Philippine population is young and many of them now even think that living conditions were better during the Marcos era. I can’t blame them for thinking thus. Three years into her presidency, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is certainly making it look like life was a bed of roses during the Marcos term. A nation that regards Marcos as a good leader can only have a very shallow sense of history. It means that people can only appreciate and recall things relevant to their particular generation as though these things existed in a vacuum and unconnected with the historical tapestry of the past.
The baby boomers like me who lived through our heyday as the second most prosperous Asian country after Japan, (this was before Marcos became president) know the truth about the Martial Law era. But to the Gen Xers and Gen Yers who did not live through the early 60s, Macapagal-Arroyo’s dismal performance makes Marcos, and even Estrada, look good. The fiscal numbers and the misery index easily ‘rationalize’ that impression.
Three different generations bearing different perspectives to the national problem indeed create what it takes to be a divided people. This is the stiff price we are now paying for not knowing our history and the truth about our problems. Knowledge and information in the head more than money in the pocket are what separate the haves and the have-nots. Collect all the wealth and divide it equally among the people and in ten years time the more knowledgeable and better informed will again emerge as the upper class in the socio-economic ladder.
During the 1950s, one heard many stories about the personal tragedies that Filipino families suffered in the 1945 Battle of Manila. Up to the mid-50s, many Filipinos continued to seethe with so much hatred for the Japanese – it became prudent for a Japanese to avoid visiting Manila. A decade after the war, I remember how my mother would shake with rage every time she saw any Japanese. She relived the loss of her dear father, our Scottish grandfather who came here in the early 1900s, fell in love with the country and our grandmother, and decided to call the Philippines home.
It was February 14, 1945 and my mother and her family were in the relative safety of a bombed house’s basement near the De La Salle College – which was also the site of a massacre of civilians by the Japanese. The main Japanese defense line was just meters away in Vito Cruz and it was obvious that shells raining around the area were US shells directed at the Japanese. Our grandfather was felled by one such shell that exploded behind him, a shell that was fired upon the orders of, ironically, a fellow Scot (Douglas MacArthur’s roots are in Scotland and his biography acknowledges how MacArthur took immense pride in his Scottish lineage). Our family knew that our grandfather was felled by an American shell but still the strong emotions were reserved for the Japanese who invaded this hitherto perfect paradise and showed brutality never before experienced in the hands of previous invaders and colonizers.
On Valentine’s Day, 1945, a day dedicated to love, our Scottish grandfather, 1920 and 1921 Philippine Open Golf Champion Ian Macgregor was killed. It was typically Celtic of him to die on the eve of Allied victory.
Many Filipinos who suffered personal losses from Japanese atrocities during the 1945 Battle of Manila have long forgiven the Japanese for the anguish that they inflicted. To forgive is Christian and laudable. But as a people we should never forget. Forgiving allows you to move on. Forgetting dooms you to repeat the traumatic experience.