The Writing of History:

World War II in Catanduanes (First of Four Parts)

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Come February 8 this year, the Liberation of Virac from the Japanese will observe its 75th anniversary. I grew up being regaled by my parents with stories about the war. As a young academic who took keen interest on Catandunganon history and society, I got disheartened to realize that very little had been written about this short but intense episode in Catanduanes history of which my parents and other elders had experienced and felt so strongly about, as it shaped their very outlooks in life. While the history of Catanduanes as a whole is meagerly accounted for up to now, something as recent as the Second World War not only lacks a decent narrative committed to writing, it is also fast sliding into forgetfulness. Those of the last generation who saw the war have either passed away or are in advance senility.

In early 2018, I was compelled to do some historical research on WWII at the behest of the provincial government who intended to honor two living veterans of the resistance against the Japanese in the province for the 73rd anniversary. Aside from digging into primary documents and interviewing living witnesses, I ventured on an inspection of the Japanese garrison nestled up the mountain wilderness of Batalay.  It caused me a right-leg fracture as I fell into a shallow ravine on my trek back. It burdened me with a disabling plaster cast for some six months and another half-a-year of limping with crutches.

It turned out that the physical restraint brought by the accident was an unintended blessing. It allowed me time and concentration in working on a project that I have started earlier: the writing of a sourcebook on Catanduanes history.  It is not yet an attempt at the definitive history of the province. It is merely to supply an urgent need of making available a single volume that consolidates into systematic presentation the bits and pieces of already known facts on Catanduanes history. Intended for use by teachers and students of Catanduanes history, what the book should provide are 1) reliability and 2) narrative sense or what Filipino historians call “saysay.” For the former, care has been taken to make explicit the basis for each claim of historical fact, that is, citing the primary sources. In the latter, the presentation was sewn together by a singular thread of historical motive force. Rather than being a jumble of events and personalities, the sourcebook paints a tapestry of the Catandunganons’ tedious push towards becoming a people of distinct common experience and identity, specifically towards gaining independence as a province, and what they made of it. As of now, the sourcebook, while mostly complete, remains a work-in-progress.

In an earlier article (October 23, 2019 issue), I argued that the victorious resistance by the Catandunganons against the Japanese, the only shooting war they fought in their history, proved crucial in the push for consolidation to independent province-hood. This present article is first part of a series of four essays that will present and discuss my digging into the details of the Japanese occupation of the island and the subsequent struggle against it by the Catandunganons.

To start with, I first clarify my sources. Where did I get my information? In the writing of history, the best sources in terms of reliability are primary documents, referring to first-hand written records of events. For example, a marriage contract is an unimpeachable evidence of a marriage that took place. Primary documents would include minutes of meetings, diaries, annual reports, letters, etc. A historian will have to look for these documents and use them as basis for reconstructing a story. In my search for this type of sources, I was able to access a handful.  First, there are the two sets of papers drawn up by Col Salvador Rodulfo himself, a.k.a. “Phantom”, who was the organizer and Commanding Officer of the guerilla group that undertook the Liberation of Virac and subsequent operations that rid the island of the invaders.  On the one hand, there is the document “Chronological History of Activities” of the so-called “Catanduanes Liberators’ Battalion.” It contains an enumeration of events that led to the armed engagement, from the organizational establishment of the guerilla unit to the subsequent victory. It is undated but was apparently written way after the actual events, mostly within the first decade of the 21st century. It was composed for purposes of claiming entitlements, such as compensational benefits for the guerrillas applied with both the Philippine and United States governments.  It sorely lacked details that would be tell-tales of accuracy.  It was merely a two-page skeletal outline. It is something that will be frustrating to a historian who wanted a rich narrative.  For example, the very day of the Liberation, February 8, 1945, merited only one sentence of description.  On the other hand are the accompaniments of this basic instrument, such as a roster of names of members of the guerilla unit. It contained an astounding 1,762 entries, including some 200 medical auxiliaries.

Another set of documents adjunct to the Rodulfo files are the documents furnished by Cenon Camano relative to his application for the “Filipino Veteran Equity Compensation.” These documents detailed his participation in the guerilla operations of the Rodulfo group supplying some intimate glimpses of the resistance.  The Rodulfo and Camano documents must be seen in concert. Camano accompanied Rodulfo in the move to claim entitlements, all the way to the United States. Objective appraisal of their documents, however, reveals glaring gaps and discrepancies that raise questions of veracity. Such issues will be hinted at in the course of my reconstructed narrative in this series.  In any case, these documents, notwithstanding limitations, are crucial in gaining understanding of the war years in Catanduanes.

A more engaging source document is the ten-page personal account by former Governor of Catanduanes, Vicente M. Alberto, titled “What I Did During the Second World War.” He had direct participation in the Bikol guerilla campaign, both in the mainland and in Catanduanes. By far, this has the most detailed description of the crucial Liberation of Virac, wherein Alberto was at the frontline. As a whole, it is an interesting case of a young man’s involvement in that world-shaking episode of history.

The Jesuit historian Fr. Jose Arcilla also wrote an essay on WWII in Cayanduanes. He is a Catandunganon who was already a lad during the war, and saw his growing-up years in Virac and Calolbon. Titled “The Liberation of Virac”, the essay was mainly based on interviews with Vicente Alberto. However, it is of value because of rich information re the socio-cultural aspects of the era. It is also highly reliable considering that Fr. Arcilla, is a professional historian..

There is also Osita Go-Abundo’s “O Virac Of My Dreams” (published in 2008 by Central Book Supply Inc., Quezon City). It is a slim volume of recollections by the author of selected aspects of her hometown Virac mostly from her youth in the 1930’s but also covered latter periods. There is an entire chapter on the war titled “The War Years in Virac.” It included her own experiences as a young girl growing up in times of war. It also quoted in its entirety a narrative regarding the Liberation of Virac draw up and duly signed and attested to by a group of World War II veterans namely Florentino Tabian, Henry Taopo, Florentino Valeza, Jose A. Tablizo, Eugenio Rojas, Alfredo Abundo, Mauricio Tacorda, and Vicente M. Alberto.

Finally, there is the Historical Data Papers (HDP) kept at the National Library. The HDP is a compilation of historical and cultural information gathered by public school teachers in 1952 in fulfillment of a directive by the Director of the Bureau of Public Schools issued to school divisions all over the country. The product of this massive data-gathering undertaking is a valuable sourcebook of historians and researchers. Catanduanes has an entire thick volume containing accounts from the municipalities. Unfortunately, the copy is in a sorry state of deterioration. The section on Virac, which should have proved useful in knowing about the war years, was in tatters. The part on Viga, however, was intact and contributed significantly on the account of the situation in the northern towns of Catanduanes, particularly on an interesting aspect that was the atrocities committed by guerilla elements on the civilian population.

In addition to written sources, I interviewed Mr. Tomas Gil of Rawis Virac, one of the very few surviving veterans who saw action on the frontline during the Liberation of Virac. He supplied details on the early phase of the siege. I also made use of my own recollections of stories told by people who experienced the war years, such as my parents and some of their contemporaries, especially the colorful Tiyo Botoy Gianan who, as a lad of fourteen years, participated in the attack of the Japanese garrison in Virac.  .

By and large, these sources are pitifully meager, but they are the most that can be accessed now. Much has yet to be done; sources surely lie in wait somewhere, such as the WWII archives of the Philippines, the United States and Japan. In Catanduanes, I have yet to do earnest search in the northern towns, especially Viga and Payo where the final actions took place for the liberation of Catanduanes. Information on the Japanese mining operations for coal in Payo remains vague. The Batalay garrison up the mountains of Bato as to its “hows” and “whys” is a virtual mystery.

In the next three parts of this series, I aim to reconstruct the outline of the war years in Catanduanes, both the highlights and the sidelights, and reveal new interesting details. While I uphold the uncommon valor that the participants demonstrated, of which we Catandunganons should really be proud of, I will also put in check some of its overly romanticized aspects. Getting real about the past is how history can truly be of service to the present and the future.

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