My daughter Monica, who was less than 10 years old during the martial law years, asked me if life in today’s lockdown is like life in those days. “Not quite,” I said. There was fear and anxiety in the beginning — fear of indiscriminate arrest and anxiety over what the government in the hands of military officers would be like. But after Marcos had political enemies, journalists critical of him, and militant labor and student leaders arrested, things normalized. Business resumed, schools reopened, and people moved about freely. The shutdown of Congress, the judicial system, and the independent media had little impact on the life of regular folk during the days of military rule.

What the lockdown reminds me of is the Japanese Occupation. I lived through the three years of that dark era. I was three and a half years old when war broke out. The family lived alternately between Manila and Pampanga during the occupation.

Just as we now live in fear of the coronavirus and in anxiety over how long the crisis will last, we then lived in fear of the ruthless Japanese soldiers and in anxiety over the prospect of the Japanese Imperial Army occupying the country forever.

There are gaps in my memory of the Japanese Occupation but I still remember vividly certain episodes and personal experiences during that dark period, although I have forgotten their chronological order. My earliest memory is of the days before the outbreak of war. My parents and my sister lived in the house built by my paternal grandparents on Maria Clara Street, about 20 meters from where the street intersects Dimasalang, not far from Dimasalang Bridge, which crosses not a river but the Manila Railroad tracks.

Like most of the houses built during the Commonwealth Era, my grandparents’ house was large enough to accommodate married children and their families. Also living in that house aside from my grandparents were my father’s younger and unmarried siblings, three brothers and two sisters. I remember one uncle was always in a soldier’s parade uniform. I was told when I was older that he was an ROTC cadet.

Then one day sirens blared, causing the entire family to grab bundles, rush out of the house, and run to the open area off the side of the railroad tracks. An uncle carried me on his back. I didn’t know why we had to do that and why my mother and aunties were crying. I learned later that the sirens warned of Japanese air raids. People assumed Japanese planes bombed only buildings and houses. When the sirens blared at night, all lights were turned off, the entire neighborhood falling into total darkness. I heard the word “blackout” for the first time. Days later, I would see convoys of trucks carrying soldiers in battle gear speeding on Dimasalang towards the north. Then my ROTC cadet uncle, this time in combat boots and helmet, bade the family goodbye. He had been called to war. We would never see him again. The family was told after the war that he survived the Death March but died in Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac.

What I remember next is that we (all the residents of the house on Maria Clara house) were living in my paternal great-grandfather’s house (still standing but now half buried in lahar) in Barrio San Francisco, about four kilometers from the poblacion of Minalin, with great uncles and their families. My great-grandfather owned rice fields and a rice mill across the river. The Japanese confiscated all the sacks of rice in storage at the ground floor of the ancestral house. They didn’t cross the river to inspect the rice mill, where a few sacks of rice were. The Japanese had also taken much of the livestock in the barrio.

The extended family (there were at any time more than 20 people living in the ancestral house) had to make do with the limited supply of rice the Japanese had overlooked and whatever the men could fish out of the river or catch in the rice fields. There were times when meals consisted of boiled rice and roasted mice, which were in abundance in the rice fields.

Most of the time we stayed inside the house as Japanese soldiers would sometimes come around. They slapped or kicked those who didn’t bow properly. The young women, fearful of abduction by the soldiers, hid in the dugout at the back of the house.

There was no plumbing in the provinces, unlike in Manila. Water for drinking, cooking, and washing was drawn from artesian wells. The ancestral house had one in the azotea, the open back portion of the house where clothes were laundered and pots and pans washed, and a smaller one by the banguerra (the rack jutting out of the window of the dining room on which the washed plates and glasses were placed to dry). Typical of bahay-na-bato, the house had only one toilet, an adjunct connected to the house by a foot bridge.

The toilet was reserved for the women in the family. The men went out to the field for their morning ritual. Likewise there was only one bathroom, also reserved for women in the family. The men bathed in the azotea, some in the garden with water collected from the artesian wells.

When the fighting subsided, my paternal grandparents and my father’s siblings went back to Maria Clara. We moved into my maternal grandparents’ house in the poblacion of Minalin. Also living there aside from my grandparents were my mother’s three spinster-sisters. Her brother (a doctor) and his family. He was the epitome of a man true to the Hippocratic Oath. Armed men came to the house in the dead of night to fetch the doctor to attend to a wounded comrade. The women in the family were weeping, begging him not to go for if the Japanese found out, he would be executed. “I took an oath,” said he and went with the men. His wife, mother and sisters including my mother continued to cry as they thought they would never see him again. The men brought him back at dawn, alive and well.

Weeks later, a detail of Japanese soldiers came to the house. This is it, they have come to get him and execute him, the family told him. But he picked up his medical bag before he left with the soldiers. They too had come to fetch him to attend to a sick Japanese soldier.

There was a time when we spent much time cruising on a river and sailing out to Manila Bay in a casco. At that time a livelihood popular among breadwinners was what was called “buy and sell.” Men bought anything they thought they could sell to someone else with a mark-up. My father would buy things from different towns of Pampanga, transport them to Manila by casco (barge), sell them off in Manila and in turn buy things in Manila to sell in Pampanga. Helping him man the casco were some skilled sailors.

He brought us along in those trips to and from Manila. We ate dinner as we cruised on the Pampanga River, slept as we set sail for Manila along the coastline of Manila Bay. We arrived at the mouth of the Pasig River around noon time. I was too young to know how dangerous those trips were. Sometimes somewhere along the route, Japanese soldiers would board the casco to inspect the cargo. Another time we encountered inclement weather in Manila Bay.

After many casco trips, my father decided to confine his buy-and-sell activity to Manila. We would take a caretela to hear Sunday Mass at the UST chapel. I remember seeing Caucasians sunning themselves outside the building beside the chapel. I did ask who they were and why they didn’t hear Mass. I didn’t understand what my father said.

Then the sirens blared once again. This time it was planes with star symbol flying over the city. The Americans were returning. There would be fierce fighting in the city, the elders said. It was time to pack up again and leave for Minalin. My mother, my 88-year-old but still ambulatory great-grandfather (I don’t know why he was with us and why my father and sister were not) left Manila at dawn on a caretela. Along the way, I would ask my mother for water. My mother would not buy water hawked on the road. She bought me singkamas (jicama) instead to quench my thirst.

We arrived at my maternal grandparents’ house at dusk. From the back window of the house we could see the aerial battle over Clark Field. We saw planes from both sides go down and pilots bailing out.

One early morning. We were roused by shouting and cheering in the town plaza. We all looked out the window… We saw American GIs being hugged by the townsfolk. My parents rushed out of the house and joined in the celebration of the end of the Japanese Occupation.

Going back to the martial law period. In June of 1972, the Asian Institute of Management, where I was teaching engaged the services of a travel agency to handle the travel requirements of the many foreign students studying in the institute. At the time, I was developing case studies on marketing management in the region. I was scheduled to interview executives in Singapore, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. Martial law disrupted my travel plans.

But as the research project had an international character, the military government gave me permission to travel. However, my travel papers needed clearance from many military officers. That was when the general manager of the travel agency got personally involved. Through her zealousness and resourcefulness, I was cleared to travel. I expressed personally my profuse thanks for her efforts upon my return and gave her the presents I brought back from my trip. We became personal friends. Soon the friendship turned into romance. I married her eventually.

Monica is our first born.


Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.