By Raymund Luther B. Aquino, Reporter

The Forgotten Massacre

Posted on January 30, 2015

LIFE must go on even in wartime -- including ordinary, seemingly mundane things like a medical checkup.

So began young Jesuit Roque J. Ferriols’s day on September 14, 1944.

The skies were clear and blue, and the Church was marking the Exaltatio Crucis, or Feast of the Cross. Father Ferriols, then a 20-year-old junior brother at the Society of Jesus, had agreed to accompany a confrère to a trip to the doctor.

“I boarded a tranvía (tram) at Calle Herran with a fellow Jesuit to go and see a physician,” he recalled in Filipino. “When we got off by the Post Office, though, we suddenly heard [heavy gunfire] -- there were jets fighting overhead.”

Fr. Ferriols had been living then at the Jesuit novitiate and juniorate in Sta. Ana, Manila -- but he was an old-timer of the city. He spent his childhood in Sampaloc at the corner of Maria Clara and P. Leoncio Streets -- at the only house he had ever known outside of Jesuit lodgings, he shared, seated across me on a wheelchair at the Jesuit infirmary he currently calls home.

Now 90 years old, Fr. Ferriols sometimes finds it a strain to talk due to the effects of Parkinson’s disease. But the eminent Filipino philosopher can still recall the events of the war with stunning clarity. Then again, these are memories that cannot be easily forgotten.

“We had not seen an aerial battle for quite some time then -- not since the Americans lost in Bataan,” Fr. Ferriols said, recalling the climactic chapter of the Japanese invasion of the country in 1942. “That morning by the Post Office, we saw this anti-aircraft gun [ready to fire], and -- boom. Everyone made a dash for the building to take shelter.”

The young Ferriols and his Jesuit companion, in their white soutanes that morning, had no choice but to wait out the air raid with the crowd taking shelter by the Post Office.

“We were supposed to take another ride to Calle Legarda to get to the doctor, but the air raid lasted for four hours and the tranvía was paralyzed,” he said. “So we had to walk from the Post Office all the way back to Sta. Ana.”

That day would prove to be a mere foretaste of what was yet to come, having itself followed a victorious three-day American campaign against the Japanese in the Visayas. By September 21, planes ferried to the capital’s maritime environs by US Admiral William F. Halsey’s fleet of aircraft carriers would strike hard at Japanese airfields around Manila.

After about five more months, the defining Battle of Manila would begin on February 3, 1945 -- turning 70 this Tuesday.

“In those five months from September 14 to February 3, air raids became more and more frequent,” Fr. Ferriols recalled, motioning with his right hand to illustrate the agile movements of American dive bombers. “We couldn’t see the aircraft carriers, but we knew there were lots of them, because how else could there have been so many fighter jets? They kept on growing in number.”

There was a shift in wind, and the entire city trembled as a storm gathered in the weeks ahead. By early February, Manila was hurtling heads-on into carnage.

“By February 3, we knew there was something different,” Fr. Ferriols said. “There was no news, and there were even more air raids. But you could also begin to hear the tanks, and planes were no longer just dropping bombs, but also flares.”

“We knew the American ground troops had arrived in Manila,” he said.

The month of terrible fighting between the Americans and the Japanese from February 3 to March 3 -- beginning with the American operation to free US troops interned at the University of Santo Tomas and ending with the suicide of Japanese military officials and the American capture of government buildings -- would leave Manila completely devastated and over 100,000 men, women, and children dead.

There are those like Fr. Ferriols who lived through the whole bloodbath and so remember it clearly, but by the vicissitudes of history, there are also many Filipinos today who have completely no sense of the horror that gripped Manila that fateful month -- for some, not even knowledge of the very real massacre that took place.

It is telling, then, that there is no commemoration of the battle in Philippine banknotes and coins, for example. Perhaps the most prominent memorial to the Manila Massacre -- a humble one at ground zero of Intramuros -- was put up only in 1995 by the group Memorare Manila.

This is in stark contrast to the commemoration of the Fall of Bataan, national mourning for which has been iconized in the colossal Dambana ng Kagitingan in Mount Samat and the annual Araw ng Kagitingan holiday. There is also Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s return to the country in 1944, which has been memorialized as a nationally famous landmark in Leyte and -- just recently -- also in newly minted and widely circulated five peso coins.

This is something two young, intrepid researchers now want to rectify, not just because of the dangers of forgetfulness but also the inhumanity of forgetting.

To Jefferson M. Chua and Enrico Antonio M. La Viña, both products of the philosophy department co-founded by Fr. Ferriols at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University, the fact that the Manila Massacre has been sidelined in mainstream histories of the war speaks of the designs of that war itself.

Mr. Chua, a graduate student in philosophy, took interest in the massacre after encountering it in a college history course. He said there was no opportunity then to seriously pursue research on the topic, but it was something that never left.

“It always bugged your mind. What happened? Why is it not talked about properly? Why is it not even just talked about to begin with?” Mr. Chua said. He also noted the dearth of scholarly work on the massacre as a motivation for the research.

“On indices of scientific journals, when you search ‘Manila Massacre,’ you get two, three results that were really small,” he said. “You get a lot of results for the Maguindanao Massacre, the Jabidah Massacre….But why is the talk on Manila Massacre so small and insignificant? There must be something to it.”

Mr. La Viña, a political officer at social justice advocacy group Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan, said his interest in the process of urbanization spurred his collaboration with Mr. Chua on researching about the Manila Massacre.

“Usually, when you read books about urbanization, it’s tackled mostly from an economic perspective. For example, how cities [implement] policies to attract foreign capital,” Mr. La Viña said. But discussions on the Manila Massacre led him to also probe “the role that memory, history, and culture play in the development of cities -- and the case study we’re looking at would be the Manila Massacre.”

Mr. Chua and Mr. La Viña are now working on a possible book chapter for a planned volume on philosophy of the city. The book chapter proposes “a framework to understanding the Manila Massacre and its relationship with the City of Manila’s historical narrative” by elaborating on British geographer David Harvey’s theory of uneven geographical development and cultural commodification, according to an abstract the two researchers provided.

“In the case of the Manila Massacre, the event is noticeably absent in the narrative of the local history of Manila, as seen in the lack of the monuments and events commemorating it,” the abstract reads. It attributes such absence to the predominance of other memories from the Spanish era and also the international relations between the Philippines, the United States, and Japan.

“By considering the Manila Massacre and how it has been discursively constructed, we can see the role memory plays in the politics of the cityscape, and how much of our everyday practices are structured according to memory,” the abstract adds.

Much of what Mr. Chua and Mr. La Viña argue in their research is that institutional commemoration of the Manila Massacre exists to a much lesser degree compared to, say, the commemoration of the Fall of Bataan or the Bataan Death March because it does not jibe well with histories that unambiguously draw the line between the noble Americans and the savage Japanese of World War II-era Philippines.

In other words, for the two researchers, the Manila Massacre stands out in Philippine World War II history for the fact that the Americans and Japanese share culpability for the destruction of the city and the deaths of hundreds and thousands of people. This shared culpability, they agree, is unattractive to a mainstream that celebrates the American role in the Philippines during World War II -- and this thus diminishes official commemoration of that massacre.

This, they point out, is where commemoration of the Bataan Death March of April 1942 can again be an instructive comparison.

“When we talk about war crimes of the Japanese in the Philippines, the Bataan Death March stands out,” Mr. Chua said. “The most damning fact [on this matter is that] Americans were directly killed by the Japanese.”

Mr. La Viña noted, however, that “the difference between the two is that the Manila Massacre saw both [Americans and Japanese] contributing to the human suffering of Filipinos, whereas in the Bataan Death March, it’s Americans and Filipinos in solidarity together being killed unambiguously by the Japanese.”

Mr. Chua, for his part, noted that the tendency of focusing on triumphant American narratives says much about the Philippines’ historical relationship with Americans.

This is seen in the fact that the dominant narratives that have emerged from the events of February and March 1945 and have taken root in history textbooks are simplistic retellings of American magnanimity in these isles vis-a-vis Filipino helplessness and Japanese barbarism -- virtually turning a blind eye on the sufferings of the dead as a result of American actions not just in Manila but across the archipelago.

“The Manila Massacre is not just an event. Real people died,” Mr. Chua explains, arguing for the need to remember. “Real human lives were lost, and real human lives means real human desires, wants, futures, hopes.”

But Ricardo T. Jose, history professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman and director of its Third World Studies Center, cautioned against dismissing the real work of liberation that did take place in Manila in February and March 1945, however bloody this liberation was. Mr. Jose is among the country’s foremost experts on the American and Japanese occupations.

Of the many things to be remembered from those events, Mr. Jose acknowledges there was genuine “initial joy at the coming of the Americans.”

“If you frame it by the conditions of that time, it was strictly speaking liberation,” Mr. Jose explained. “Conditions under the Japanese were almost intolerable, with around 100 dying to malnutrition everyday.”

Fr. Ferriols testifies to this. “We were scared at the time, but we were also glad, for there was talk of liberation,” he said.

Mr. Jose also noted that “should Manila have been bypassed by the Americans, the shock would have been so great. Filipinos would never have forgiven Americans.”

“Anything was better than just staying under the Japanese,” he said. “Of course, nobody could foresee that the battle would last for a month and that it would cause that kind of destruction.”

Yet Mr. Jose acknowledges that the monthlong carnage was a terribly painful experience for Filipinos -- so much so that few were willing to speak about it afterwards. This meant a dearth of firsthand accounts from the people who were there and, consequently, the lack of scholarly research, as Mr. Chua noted.

“It was so painful to remember that many did not write about it for a long time,” Mr. Jose said, pointing to massive loss of life brought about mainly by two factors: specific attacks by the Japanese on houses, groups of people, etc.; and American shelling of such populated areas as Malate, Ermita, and the historic Intramuros. “Nobody wanted to speak about it. It was that traumatic an event.”

Still, widespread silence on the horrors of the war is not a phenomenon only seen in Manila, Mr. Jose said.

“If the atrocities in Manila are forgotten, how much more the massacres in Cavite and Batangas? Mr. Jose said. “These were entirely Japanese-caused. Cases of officers going paranoid and entire towns liquidated [as a result] -- Cuenca, Lipa, Bauan.”

“These also did not make it to mainstream textbooks,” he noted. “Only the survivors know -- even the young people in these areas don’t know.”

“If you want to talk about American abuses, you also have what happened in Baguio,” Mr. Jose said. “Baguio was bombed almost every day in 1945, and there was no reason for that….The guerrillas were telling the Americans that there were no Japanese there.”

Indeed, memory and history -- and the uses and abuses thereof -- played a role in the postwar development of the Philippines, but the question now concerns the continued relevance of remembering in the present time.

For Ateneo political science instructor Arjan Aguirre, “Memory is a very political, very human endeavor.”

“Why political? … [There can be] an activation of a particular narrative and a suspension of a particular narrative,” he explained, commenting on the research project of Mr. Chua and Mr. La Viña. For Mr. Aguirre, this is also where the continued importance of the remembering and, additionally, of the “making sense” of such events as the Manila Massacre lies.

“Families mourned at that time, but we did not mourn as a nation,” Mr. Aguirre said. The task now is “not just to remember, but also to mourn.”

“The explanations are still unfinished, the making sense is still going on,” he said, stressing that while lives were already lost then, stories too continue to be suppressed and killed today -- the stories that show “there is no beauty in war, that war is the ugliest experience of man.”

It’s this same outrage over the silencing of the stories of the dead, whether in the Manila Massacre or in the many other massacres mentioned by Mr. Jose -- or, indeed, in newer tragedies like the Ampatuan Massacre or Sunday’s Mamasapano Massacre -- that compel Mr. La Viña to borrow a quote from Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel: that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

Fr. Ferriols, to this day, has not forgotten.

“I have friends and family who died during the battle,” he recalled, looking wistful. He talked of one afternoon in Singalong: the battle for Manila was not even over yet when he and his Jesuit confrères ventured out to bury some of the dead in the areas regained by the Americans.

On that occasion, he and his fellow Jesuits were asked to bury a child who perished in the carnage. He wrote this poem then for that child, who he remembered had a disfigured left foot:

Lulled by soft weepings of leaves, little one,
Sleep through our morning hours.

Briefly on earth have your little feet run,
Brief is the sweetness of flowers.

Dead on the morning of life’s sad day
Oh morning of storm and rain 
pulling God’s roves with the angels you play,
ne’er shall you childhood wane.