World War II Weaves stories of survival
Growing up in Lumban, Rosel Aquino Zobel never could have dreamed that as an adult he would be a distinguished university professor, an award-winning journalist and founder of a model nonprofit organization.
World War II left many unforgettable experiences to Rosel, whose memories seem to fade as time passed. This series is a heartfelt story that dares to look at the realities of the war, highlighting the values, preoccupations, attitudes, and behaviors that shaped his persona and world view.
Unique Birthday Gift
Certain years are memorable than most; and wartime years were quite significant for a lot of people like Rosel Aquino Zobel, who in l941 received an 18-inch itak or bolo with a red-painted sheath, as a birthday gift. It had a hardwood handle with a blade that both curves and widens, considerably so, tapering at the tip.
The all-purpose knife is used for all sorts of odd jobs, such as breaking open coconuts, cutting tall grass, slaughtering pigs, digging out roots and weeding, and harvesting rice. It is also used as a combat weapon with historical significance.
Like his peers in Lumban, Rosel could already climb up and down the coconut tree like a monkey. During the war, boys in Lumban helped their families’ food supply by bringing in coconuts either from wawa or Sierra Madre coconut plantations.
Although most kids got their itak in their teen years, Rosel’s father gave the itak to him at age 7. A lot of these knives were family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. The itak is sharp, versatile, and resourceful just like the Filipino people. It can be the symbol of the Filipino struggle for survival, one writer commented
“Growing up,” says Rosel, “I knew a lot of kids had knives. The bolo was almost like a rite of passage into manhood.”
“But owing to wartime condition,” my Tatay gave it to me much sooner. Besides, I asked for an itak, partly because I felt I was so left out when hearing my older friends’ conversations about the knives they received; and I wanted to be able to relate to them.”
For Lumban boys, the bolo is a necessity, both as a tool and weapon. In peacetime, men and children were wearing a bolo on their waist. The bolo is notoriously used in combat in Lumban.
“As boy,” says Rosel, “I have heard about Tagaan [duel of death fighting], which means patayan sa pamamagitan ng itak between two individuals, whose arms are tied together, freeing one arm each to hold a matched bolo and fight each other to the death. Such combat is based on a pretext of defense of honor or a matter of challenge to redress a perceived insult to one’s honor.
Bolos also developed as military weapon and as such they were a particular favorite of the Filipino anti-colonial resistance during the 1898 Philippine Revolution against Spain, the Philippine-American War, and the Commonwealth period.
The bolo was first used as farming implement, subsequently developing to a combat weapon because it had been readily available to the common person in colonial times. For this reason the study of the bolo has become common in Filipino martial arts, such as Balintawak, Pekiti-tirisia kali and modern Arnis.
The slang term “to bolo” emerged in the US military, which means having failed “… a text, exam or evaluation. It is said to have originated from the Philippine-American forces during World War II. When Filipino guerrillas failed to demonstrate proficiency in marksmanship, they were issued bolos instead of firearms so as not to waste scarce ammunition.
One incident that possibly saved the lives of Rosel and his sister was an incident at the foot of Sierra Madre Mountain Ranges, when the two De la Cruz brothers ganged up on them. The confrontation developed on an earlier fist fight between Rosel and De la Cruz’s younger brother Berto.
Berto was a town bully, who consistently intimidates other kids, including Rosel, in both school playground and the neighborhood. Bigger in size and stronger, almost every kid was afraid of him, until he squeezed Rosel’s bayag (testicles). Reacting involuntarily, Rosel retaliated with a right hook to Berto’s jaw knocking him to the ground, landing his head on a big stone that rendered him unconscious for almost 30 minutes.
People in the neighborhood became concerned about the damned bully. They also feared the repercussions of this incident on Rosel’s personal safety as the De la Cruz brothers were notorious as basag-ulero (trouble-makers) and matatapang (brave). For a few months nothing expected happened until that day when Rosel and Avelina came down from Sierra Madre Mountain Ranges with their coconut harvests.
Seated under the mango tree the two brothers menacingly stopped them and asked Rosel to explain what actually happened. Sensing danger, Rosel took his bolo out, pulling his sister behind him ready to mix it out, and explained it was not his fault..
“You guys should know,” Rosel nervously cried out, “If you hurt us, it’s not a good idea because this will only lead us to more hurt or ubusan ng pamilya. We have more than enough relatives to come down on your family members. You may succeed in what you plan to do with us, but I will definitely hurt one of you very badly. So let the two of us pass, and leave us alone.”
“In time of danger,” recalls Rosel, “I have learned how to be prudent, firm and courageous to avoid or evade a fight. And when there is no other way to get out of a situation, the only option is to fight to survive. That is a concept that Lumban instilled in me growing up: that is, not to be afraid. Bravery is in the mind. Shall we call it moral courage?”
“And the saddest part of my boyhood,” Rosel sighed with a deep breath, “was when one of the retreating Japanese soldiers confiscated the itak my father gave me. It took days, perhaps weeks, for me to get over it.”
Tatay, Avelina and Rosel were caught in the rural areas of Santa Maria while Japanese troops retreated to northern Luzon via Pasig, Rizal in l944. By then, the Allied Forces had landed in Lingayen, Pangasinan to liberate Luzon..
The Guerrilla War
By the end of June 1942, organized resistance in the Philippines had come to an end.
But as the Japanese soon found out, this did not bring the end of all resistance. Thousands of Filipino and American soldiers — some acting individually, some with the encouragement of their commanders — formed guerrilla units of varying sizes.
On Luzon, which held the bulk of the Japanese army in the Philippines, guerrillas were restricted to gathering intelligence and harassing the Japanese as best they could. “It was the most important thing we could,” Leon Beck recalled in an interview, “in hope that it would benefit our army when they did come back to the Philippines.” But Lumbeno guerrillas went far beyond that.
Rosel saw American POWs who were incarcerated in Cine Lumban. Out of curiosity, he observed them walk or bath under the sun outside of the prison camp.
“We kids threw stones at them,” relates Rosel, “partly to show to the Japanese sentries that we hated Americans. Little did these bastards know that we mixed some kamote (sweet potatoes) with the rocks and stones that we threw at them, at the same time shouting, ‘banzai, banzai!’ The guards seemed to have been amused with the spectacle.
“I personally witnessed those cold eyes of a few POWs glimmered with an inaudible whisper, as if saying to us: “Thank you kids, we appreciate the food, just don’t throw the stones at us too hard,” Rosel nodding said..
For four years the Filipinos recoiled in the face of brutalities and acts of oppression committed by the Japanese soldiers. Lumbenos however were not to be intimidated by the Japanese military. They have too much pride in them.. And indeed numerous hardy and patriotic guerrillas had struck anxiety and terror among the Japanese soldiers. They harassed them by sporadic ambuscades and lighting raids.
The late Eliseo de Lumban of Col. Hugh Straughn’s FAIT (Fil-American Irregular Troops), who fought under his nome de guerre Col. Glicerio Moya, led attacks on the Japanese troops and inflicted considerable damage in casualties and captured weapons form the enemy.
Reynoso, the legendary USAFFE corporal and triggerman, killed many Japanese in the ranks of the Japanese troops and also Filipino pro-Jap Makapilis.
There other Lumbenos who distinguished themselves in the underground resistance movement that included the likes of Captain Bruno G. Ablao of the Hunters-ROTC guerillas; Bataan veteran and Death March survivor Estanislao R. Llames of the Bonn Military Corps, Anderson’s guerillas; and Lt. Danding Baretto, also of the Fil-American Irregular Troops.
Rosel’s father was supposedly a Marking Guerrillas’ supply officer, but unfortunately was secretive about his affiliation and support to the underground movement. As mentioned before, it was extremely dangerous to live a life under such wartime conditions. The war rivalry between various resistance groups and leaders were rife and deadly in Lumban. “In fact,” comments Rosel, “I have some relatives who died in the hands of fellow guerrillas, and it was sad.”
The first and one of the boldest raids ever conducted by guerillas was the attempt to spring 115 American POWs who were quartered in Cine Lumban, a rickety converted into a movie house. The Japanese utilized the American prisoners, mostly engineer and pilots, as a labor force in the construction of a wooden bridge to replace the dynamited steel bridge that previously spanned the Lumban River.*
On June 11, l942, under cover of darkness, a band of courageous fighters assisted by guerrillas from Lumban and led by Col. Marcos Villa Agustin, the famed Col. Markings himself, of Straughn’s FAIT jumped on the unsuspecting Japanese guards keeping watch on the movie house.
With firm determination and commando fashion, the raiders bludgeoned and slashed to death ten Japanese sentries and broke into the dingy Cine Lumban.*.
The mission could have been easily accomplished, had the POWS consented to escape; but they stubbornly refused to go with the guerillas. “No amount of coaxing and prodding could make the Americans take a chance with their Filipino liberators. Only one, George Lightman, gambled and made a run for it. He fought later with the guerillas in the mountains and lived to tell about his flight to freedom.*
Japan troop of eighty soldiers searched the town house-to-house looking into every nook and corner for traces of the guerrilla raiders. The activity almost cost the lives of Ong Sen Dio, a Chinese sari-sari storeowner and Juan Bague, a barber, who both lived near the scene of guerilla attack. Together with Mayor Moises T. Paraiso and Chief of Police Gaudencio ll. Añonuevo, they were picked up and held as suspects for having knowledge of the June 11th raid.
Japanese Kempetai subjected Mayor Paraiso to rigid, long investigation; and was flogged, hog-tied and left for hours under the sun. Failing to obtain the information about the raid, the Japanese commander, Captain Fujita, had the Mayor and Chief of Police brought before a firing squad. Luckily for the two Lumbenos, they were not shot. They were taken to the spot only to witness the death by firing squad of ten able-bodied American POWs as the price for the escape of George Lightman the night before.
The town mayor found out later that, before the June 11th raid, one POW had already escaped and that the Japanese officer had warned the Americans that any similar act would be penalized by killing ten POWs for every escapee. He also learned that the Japanese had divided American POWs in Cine Lumban into groups of eleven each. If one got away, the remaining ten would be shot. True to the warning, the ten American POWs were shot and killed before the unbelieving eyes of Mayor Paraiso and Police Chief Añonuevo.
The Japanese then buried their fallen bodies in the slope behind the Central school building. Typical of Lumban men, Mayor Paraiso suffered the Japanese abuses and never squealed on the raid. He survived the ordeal, along with his equally spirited Chief of Police.*
In August 1943, the Japanese troops zoned Lumban, simultaneously with Pagsanjan. The adult men folk were herded into the Lumban church and were incarcerated for three days and four nights. During the “zona” the Japanese tried to flush out the guerillas that have caused them no little trouble in ambuscades and other forms of harassment.
To attain their objective, the Japanese would bring the Filipinos in with sacks over their heads and eye holes, and whoever they pointed at, they would indicate that either they were guerrillas or supporting the guerrillas. Most of these Japanese collaborators were local Makapilis or members of the New Philippine Constabulary.
The Japanese military sent a big contingent of Filipinos to Japan, put them through military school, brought them back to Luzon and put them in a Philippine Constabulary. “And we had more trouble with the Philippine Constabulary than we had with the Japanese,” reported Leon Beck in an interview.
“They were a real thorn in the side because you couldn’t distinguish them from the clothing they wore or their appearance, and if they saw you, they’d report you. The next thing you know, there’s a Japanese raid on that barrio,” he said. “As one would imagine, participation in the resistance movement carried with it a severe penalty, for soldiers and civilians alike.”
In Lumban, the Japanese rounded out veritable suspects like USAFFE veterans, municipal officials and barrio lieutenants. From these persons the Japanese Kempetai squeezed out information that may be lead to the capture of guerrilla leaders and their men. Besides the water cure, they applied the painful flogging, skin-searing and nail pulling methods that led to the capture and death of many guerilla chieftains.
The others who tried to escape got killed in the attempt. Several men died of shock and diseases as a result of the “zona” and another one that followed months later. All these did not discourage the remaining guerillas to continue their underground resistance. They later resumed their operations with damaging although sporadic skirmishes with the enemy.
To natives of Lumban, a knock on the door in the middle of the night usually portends bad news during the war. This happened to several families, whose members might have either collaborated with the enemy or belong to rival guerrilla units.
Rosel’s family got a knock on the door deep in the night of April l944 from a group of four local Hunters-ROTC guerrillas. “Our family was, of course, nervously disturbed with such unexpected visit; and feared for the life of our father. My mother trembled with fear and we kid started to cry, hugging our father’s legs, only to learn that these guerrillas just wanted to borrow our pick-and-shovel equipment.
The night after gossips spread like wildfire around town that the guerrillas had again buried alive a suspected collaborator at the nearby banana grove; and the surviving family members were forcibly enjoined to leave town lest they might reap future reprisals. Also every so often, bloated corpses of suspected Makapilis were fished out of the Lumban River, usually credited to local guerrilla night riders.
Such pattern of “elimination” (or salvage) continued on to the end of the war that came in March 1945 as the American fighter planes and bombers made mincemeat of the last vestiges of Japanese Imperial forces in Lumban. Japanese troops, in their pocket resistance against the American Liberation Army, retreated to the mountains. U.S. planes and tanks routed them in brief engagements.
At that time, the highest ranking Japanese officer in Lumban, Major Yamaguchi, lived with Don Segundo Samonte’s nice house across Rosel’s grandpa’s. Yamaguchi had succeeded in marrying the pretty Cecilia Samonte, a daughter of Segundo, a town dentist and former municipal president (1929-1931).
Cely, as friends fondly called her, “would wield the unseen hand in providing safety and protection for their families and for their own behalf.” Little did all of these persons know that Cely saved thousands of her town mates by allowing them to evacuate first before her persuaded husband fulfilled the Japanese High Order of setting Lumban afire as retaliation against local guerrilla activities. Fortunately, only half of the town was razed by fire.
The real story of Cely’s redeeming act only came out in early1945 when in desperation, the Japanese planned the burning of Lumban. Cely became aware of this and she exerted her wide influence on Yamaguchi, who gave in to the wife’s plea.
Only after the townspeople had left did the Japanese commander give the orders that the town be put to the torch. Today, Cely is no longer despised, but lives a life with dignity and honor befitting a true Filipina. And Lumban rose from the ruins of war by sheer resolve and hard work. Its courageous people were bent on rebuilding and development of their ravaged town. – Riz
(To be continued)
*Most of the information about guerrilla activities in Lumban were adapted from History of Lumban and a testimony furnished by the town Chief of Police G. Anonuevo to a Military Commission convened by General Douglas McArthur, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Forces in the Western Pacific, on January 9, 1946.