Life in Time of War
On December 7, 1941, the United States was formally drawn into the Asia-Pacific stage of the Second World War when its major naval complex in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was bombed by a swarm of Japanese war planes. On the next day, December 8, Manila was similarly bombarded. The Filipinos’ worst fear happened: the big War had come to the Philippines. In the following days, other cities and towns all over the country got their own heavy beatings from the air. Meanwhile, Manila was declared an Open City in order to avoid further damages as Douglas MacArthur, Commanding Officer of the USAFFE, withdrew his forces to Corregidor and Bataan and concentrated his resistance in that area.
The bombing of Virac
It was at about nine in the morning of December 12, four days after Manila, that the capital town of Catanduanes took its turn of being harassed by enemy planes. By the initial volley of explosions, hell broke loose as people scampered about. At the poblacion, everybody’s impulse was to run to the countryside. Therefore, the streets going to the remote barrios were clogged as residents fanned out into streams of exodus to safety.
This explosive start of the war was favorite stuff for colorful story-telling by the old folk. They recalled how awkward and indeed funny their courses of action were as they dealt with the risks and dangers of an air strike. The signature anecdote was how they reacted as a bomb ripped the air. Accordingly, they would immediately duck to the ground in fear, hiding their heads under an available bush without checking if it was actually a snake’s lair, while exposing their butts in the open. As per earlier instruction, they grabbed anything to bite to keep their mouths open to avoid damaging their eardrums. So they pushed between their teeth any item within reach, such as a piece of pagokpok (corn husk) mindless as to whether it was used to wipe somebody’s ass clean after defecating by the bush. Indeed, many reported that ducking to the ground, they got face-to-face with a pile of human or carabao dung.
My mother vividly told me her own (mis)adventures during the bombing of Virac. After the first explosion, she ran home but found her mother missing. She grabbed a bag each of sugar and rice and shoved them into a bakay, hit the streets and joined the crowd trying to evacuate. Fortunately, she was able to ride a truck, full of refugees, driving towards Bigaa. Among the passengers was Tiyong Pedro, the resident magician of the only cinema in town where he provided live entertainment in between screenings. He carried an assortment of implements of his magical trade – cards, balls, kerchiefs, hats, etc. – all bundled in a blanket. Before proceeding on to Sto. Domingo, she and others alighted at the junction to Hicming, including the magician. From there, they hiked towards Buyo. On the way, more bombs exploded that sent them scurrying for cover. As my mother hid behind an ant hill, Tiyong Pedro dove into a llab-ugan ning karbaw. She had a good laugh as the old man’s muddied head popped out of the murky water to take a breath surrounded by a flotilla of cards, little balls and sundry items from his magic baggage. She moved on and reaching Tubaon, she was relieved to find her mother already there. To her dismay however, the rice and sugar got all mixed up inside the bakay. They only added coconut milk to the mixture and cooked a rather un-sticky linukay for a post-bombing meal.
No human casualty resulted from the bombing, although the office of the sub-provincial government (located where the present-day JMA Memorial Building stands) sustained some damages. Social order however broke down in the immediate aftermath of the bombing as government personnel abandoned their posts in the course of the mayhem. Chinese stores were ransacked clean by looters. But even while the distress eventually subsided, the tranquil life that the people knew was not restored. Everybody cowered in fear of what was to come next. Society was reduced to the barest minimum of operations. Local government was crippled as the chain of command and authority from the national level was cut. The schools were closed. Trade and commerce stood still. Soon, the basic necessities were not available in the market so that the poblacion folk retreated to the countryside and conducted daily life in a harsh survival mode. The so-called “peace-time” years of the American regime were over.
Japanese occupation of the island
It was only in June 1942, six months after the initial bombing, that Catanduanes was formally occupied by the Japanese. Earlier in April, the combined American-Filipino forces surrendered their last stand in Bataan and Corregidor. MacArthur left for the United States with the famous promise “I shall return!” With him was Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon.
In order to establish themselves, the Japanese had set up their quarters at the old munisipyo in the capital town of Virac. They tried to create a semblance of order and normalcy, although by the coercive means of a military rule. Firstly, they must have recruited collaborators among the locals to do various auxiliary roles in the day-to-day aspects of governance and control. For example, they utilized locals to man sentry posts for surveillance and monitoring. But they must have had a problem recruiting from among the resentful folk. There is the famous account of how the babayote (effeminate) Tang Atin (Martin) of barrio Sta. Cruz was given the task of watch guard at night in order to implement curfew. Oldtimers recalled how Tang Atin rendered the sentry’s challenge to a pedestrian violating the curfew with a less-than-stern and high-pitched shout of “Halt!” When the challenged disregarded the call, Tang Atin reiterated with an annoyed but lilting “Halt! Sabi nang halt!?” There is also the story of how a local beauty on her way to the church, all coifed, made-up and dressed. Passing through a Japanese sentry, she rendered the required low-bow salute with extra effort and flourish, so much so that her peluka or wig of fat curls got detached and fell to the ground.
Life in time of war
Under the Japanese regime, the people lived with extreme austerity and deprivation. Basic commodities were in grave shortage or altogether unavailable so that substitution and improvisation were resorted to. In lieu of the staple rice, people had to feed on root crops, including wild yams (e.g. namu , gamat). They had to make their own salt by boiling sea water. For sugar, they used mahamis locally made from sugarcane juice. Kerosene disappeared in the market. Instead of gas tinterohan, they lit the night using ti-om (clam shell) lamp fueled by oil extracted from coconut. Soap was home-made, again from coconut extracts and lye. Soon, they had to wear scratchy sinamay cloth dyed with locally sourced substances (e.g. achuete for reddish hue, dullaw for yellow). In the countryside, since matches were prohibitively expensive, they maintained a himullang-dan, a log that was eternally burning on one end which had to be tended 24-7.
In order to try carry on with the kind of life they knew, the people observed their cultural traditions, but in considerably scaled-down proportions. The Japanese tolerated their practice of religion. But they held fiestas with minimum pomp. They observed their novenario for the santacruzan and were even able to hold pabayle but then again with quaint modesty: the dance ramada lit with a multitude of ti-om lamps, with music supplied by guitar and banjo. They stomped their foxtrots and paso-dobles on the dry summer earth and raised clouds of dust. For Christmas, the kagharong had to be done outside of the poblacion such as in barrio Palnab.
During the early stage of the occupation, the Japanese took it easy with the local population since they did not yet get engaged with resistance. Except for the occasional patrols, checkpoints and curfew, plus the economic scarcity, the folk were able to carry pretty much normal lives: the adults labored for livelihood, the young adults wooed and fell in love, made love and then bore children, while the children relished in their playful mischiefs.
As for the Japanese servicemen, having been starved of real combat action for some time, and being themselves humans, slowly blended into the flow of life in the foreign but conquered territory. They developed a liking for tuba and native delicacies, pursued the local beauties and went on swimming excursions to the beaches and pristine rivers. In Panganiban where the Japanese engaged in coal mining, Frank dela Rosa recalled in his collection of stories how the Japanese soldiers brought native children on joy rides in their trucks to the coal mines and offered them sweets and other goodies.
Aside from sheer military objectives, the Japanese also pursued propaganda/cultural work in the Philippines. It was carried under the broad “Asia for Asians” purview that supplied the ideological justification of the Japanese imperial project. The whole idea was that the Philippines and other Asian countries must be rescued from Western influence and control, be restored to their genuine Asian-ness, but under the auspices of the Japanese. To implement this ideological/cultural aspect, the Japanese supplemented their military campaign with educational work. In this regard however, no significant inroads were made, on account of the lack of resources and personnel; the Japanese were too occupied with the political/military aims.
In Catanduanes as in much else of the country, the schools were closed, owing to their mainly American orientation and the lack of logistical means of the new dispensation. However, by the accounts of Vicente Alberto, the senior class of the Catanduanes Standard High School (later to become the Catanduanes College) was allowed to graduate in ceremonies held in November 1942 with a high Japanese officer as guest. In lieu of the regular schools, the Japanese established classes where students were given instruction on the Niponggo language plus some other basic aspects of Japanese culture, such as folk and nationalistic songs. My mother who sporadically attended these classes memorized by oido one such song. As a child, I used to request her to render the song and she would oblige: “Miyoto okai no su rakiti. . .” It had a militant marching tempo. She did not know what all that meant, and I am sure I have misspelled it here.
In any case, the Japanese-sponsored classes soon dissipated. The somewhat benign character of the occupation was short-lived. The imperial regime had put on its ferocity when the presence of guerilla resistance started to be felt. In the next article, we tackle the local initiatives to fight back the unwanted invasion and occupation of the island.