World War II in Catanduanes (Third of Four Parts)

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Guerilla Resistance, Guerilla Atrocities


The failure of conventional warfare to ward off the Japanese in the Philippines through the joint US-Filipino forces, the USAFFE, was apparent early on in 1942. The sheer brunt and bulk of the invading swarm was too much to overcome. In Catanduanes, this was felt by the return of local USAFFE personnel as they failed to regroup with their units in southern Luzon mainland when the Japanese occupied Atimonan, Quezon just before Christmas of 1941. By April 9, 1942, Bataan surrendered, resulting to the infamous Death March which was participated in by some Catandunganon USAFFEs. When MacArthur departed Corregidor for the U.S., the resistance was continued through guerilla initiatives.

Guerilla resistance was immediately activated in the Bicol mainland, which in no time reached the shores of Catanduanes. According to Vicente Alberto, it was just a few days after the fall of Bataan that guerillas from Camarines Sur came to Virac and killed two Japanese nationals, Matsuni and Suyi, to exact revenge. These two Japanese were companions of the celebrated Arata who must have been spared of the killings due to the good will he has built up with the local population when he settled in Virac years before the war (more on Arata later below here).


Guerilla resistance in Catanduanes

Formal occupation of Catanduanes by the Japanese took place only in June 1942 when they set up a garrison at the old municipal building of Virac. Aside from the capital town, the enemy had established significant presence in two other locations, namely in Bato with their observation posts in Buenavista (now the PAG-ASA weather station) and Batalay, and in Panganiban for their coal mining operations.

Such enemy presence becoming ubiquitous in the island eventually spawned nascent guerilla resistance activities. There were several such initiatives, mostly organized by former elements of the regular USAFFE who were able to stagger back to home base. First there was so-called “Virac Troopers” organized by Lt. Agustin Reyes which, according to Vicente Alberto, aimed “to carry on the resistance movement against the Japanese and keep alive the faith in America.”  Then there were the “Vanguards” of Baras and Bato put together by Maj. Salvador Rodulfo. On the other hand, men of Col. Francisco “Turko” Boayes of Camarines Sur crossed the Maqueda Channel and operated along the western towns of Calolbon, Caramoran and Pandan. For his part, Capt. Ernesto Barba had set up a command at Cabugao, Bato, while Capt. Lapasigue operated on the eastern coasts of the island. Later, these groups would merge to become the Catanduanes Liberators’ Battalion under the command of Rodulfo for the final siege that liberated the island.

However, due to the meager logistics and the extreme difficulty of their operating conditions, these guerilla initiatives were not able to effect significant challenge to the enemy for quite a time. Through the period from formal occupation in June 1942 up to the early months of 1944, the guerillas merely stayed in the shadows, allowing a benign lull from the full traumas of a war on the civilian population up until intensification of hostilities by the last quarter of 1944 when MacArthur made good his promise to return.


Who was Arata?

One character that lent color and nuance to the Japanese occupation of Virac was Miyoshi Arata (Hogi in other accounts), a Japanese national who came to town some 15 years before. He was with two other compatriots who as mentioned earlier were eliminated by the guerillas in April 1942. There were persistent rumors that Arata and company were actually spies planted by the Imperial Army, implying that the plan for eventual invasion had long been hatched decades earlier. In an interview, Col. Pepe Sorreta told that as a child he saw Arata in Legaspi in full military uniform, apparently high-ranking. The colonel, veteran of the Korean War himself, said that he took a ride with Arata from Legaspi to Tabaco.

But such claims were never supported by the accounts of Fr. Jose Arcilla, nor suggested by stories about how Arata carried through during the occupation.  Apparently, it was business-as-usual for him. His conduct was quite out of the official military operations of the occupying forces. So the other possibility was that Arata and the two other Japanese nationals Matsuni and Suyi might have actually been part of the influx of Japanese to the Philippines during the 20s to 30s in order to supply labor for such enterprises as the building of Kennon Road in Baguio, or the abaca plantations in Davao, or even as courtesans in the famous “Gardenia” brothels in Sampaloc, Manila.

In order to establish himself in Virac, Arata had put up a variety store in the ground floor of a house fronting the Plaza. He specialized in candies which he personally manufactured. My mother told me that as a child, she used to be transfixed watching Arata making candies. He endeared himself with the people of Virac with his affable manners. He apparently developed a strong liking for his new adopted place; he became fluent with the local language and even took a Viraqueña common-law-wife. When his compatriots came as conquerors, he acted as interpreter. Soon, he did much more than facilitate linguistic exchange between conqueror and conquered; he interceded in behalf of the natives so as to cushion the adverse impact of military subjugation. It is said that he saved a good number of Viracnons from incarceration, torture or even death.

Towards the final period of the war, Arata had apparently shifted over to the cause of the Catandunganons against his compatriots. Just before the siege of Virac, he defected to Rodulfo’s unit through a dramatic “rescue” operation staged by Lt. Vicente Surtida. For the guerillas, he supplied crucial tactical information that aided their operations. In the aftermath of the war, it is said that he was escorted to Leyte upon initiative of the guerillas and became a prisoner-of-war who was eventually repatriated back t japan. In the 1980’s, the husband of my mother’s first cousin, Tiyo Simeon Borja who worked as a seafarer, told me that he had an encounter with Arata in Nagasaki in the early 1950’s, apparently living the life of a regular Japanese at home. Whatever the real score about Arata, he was a most curious and complicated case. He was an exiled Japanese national to the Philippines who seemed to have become a Viracnon at heart. He engaged in humane deeds in his adoptive community which would be considered high treason by his native culture that gives paramount value to loyalty to country. But he was rehabilitated back to the fold of his homeland.


Guerilla atrocities

With the general break-down of law and order, many parts of the island became a virtual “Wild, Wild West,” especially the remote communities where not even the Japanese were able to hold control. Such areas became fair game for excesses and atrocities by guerillas who took advantage of the situation. In Virac, Fr. Arcilla reported of the activities of “pseudo-guerilla” bands roaming the barrios and committing abuses by taking liberties on the folk’s hospitality, confiscating their food stuff and properties. So much so that Lt. Vicente Surtida, son of the mayor-designate Joaquin Surtida and an escapee of the Death March, activated the remnants of the “Virac Troopers” to act as counter-force to guerilla atrocities.

The most serious of these atrocities were committed in the northern towns. The section on Viga of the Historical Data papers (HDP, kept at the National Libray) contain a detailed account of an episode of abuses in Viga in 1943 perpetrated by guerillas from the Bicol mainland under a certain Miranda of the Francisco “Turko” Boayes command. I quote here part of the HDP Viga accounts:


“They (the guerillas) lived with us for some time. We became friends with them and entertained them because they were good to us. Yet we have never dreamed that their coming was more of a torture than a blessing to us, because one day in June 1943, a band of Turko’s men came in search for him and his companions. Jealous of each other’s powers, they became more of an enemy than an ally in arms for a more nobler (sic) cause. Having failed to settle their misunderstanding amicably, they finally resorted to clashes. It brought some casualties on Turko’s side and left the other victorious since not a man fell in the short skirmish that transpired” (parenthetical notes mine).


Frustrated, Turko’s men turned their ire on their leader, one named Quiñones who was said to be a former mayor of Basud, Camarines Norte, blaming him for the setback. They tortured him and eventually buried him alive. The Viga people witnessed all these in terror, but it was only the beginning; more was yet to come. Turko’s men sailed off to their hideout in Caramoan. But they came back soon:


“Their return was not to avenge the death of some of their comrades but for loot. Upon their arrival, they went from house to house  to search our trunks (in) demand of anything they were wanting in (sic) like clothes, shoes, rice and money. They were like tigers in loose from a cage.”


But the story made a sinister turn. Right after being feted to a sumptuous dinner by the parish priest Fr. Lamberto Tulay, a home-made bomb in the possession of the guerillas exploded, killing and wounding many of them. According to the accounts “blood ran like water on the convent floor and in the church.” But as if it the guerillas indeed turned into savages, they returned the next morning and desecrated the image of Our Lady of the Assumption, a most revered icon. Later, they would make some gestures of reparation. On one occasion that they came back, Turko, who was with them, made the erring guerillas offer a bottle each of coconut oil to the Virgin. But the atrocities continued unabated. Looting continued; private granaries were opened and emptied of contents. Eventually, the Japanese in Panganiban got wind of the guerilla activities in Viga and sent their troops. Not intending to engage the Japanese, Turko and his men hastily sailed off.

The people of Catanduanes suffered not only from Japanese occupation, but also from the guerillas supposed to protect them. Such is the evil of war. But the guerillas would famously redeem themselves from such ignominious deeds, which to be sure were committed by a small minority. The next article of this series will tackle the glorious undertaking by local patriots, the Liberation of Catanduanes.

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