World War II in Catanduanes (Last of Four Parts)

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The Liberation of Virac

Rumors of MacArthur’s imminent return must have been truly afloat by the middle of 1944, and this would have had the double effect of heightened guerilla activities and increased agitation on the Japanese. Osita Go-Abundo wrote that during this period, the Japanese in Virac turned brutal. They engaged in a crackdown on the population, arrested young men they picked up randomly on the streets or else forced them out of homes during raids. They were incarcerated and tortured, all to sow terror on the people. My mother vividly remembered how they heard a prisoner held in a deep pit inside the garrison compound shouting: “Lukad lamang!” asking to spare him even just a piece of coconut meat to alleviate his extreme hunger and suffering.

So the impending realization of MacArthur’s promise inspired people to enlist support to the resistance. Soon, young men were trooping to Tilod, Baras, the center of Salvador Rodulfo’s guerilla organizing. In Virac, some others preferred to throw their lot on Turko’s (Francisco Boayes) command in mainland Bicol. For example, Vicente Alberto together with Primo Publico, Medardo Luyon, Salvador Escueta, and Ranulfo Manlangit reported to Denrika, Camarines Sur.

In October 20, 1944, MacArthur finally landed in Leyte. Just a few days after, the fiercest naval battle in world history was fought on Leyte Gulf (October 23-26) which spelled the turning of tide in favor of the Allies. Sometime between late November or early December, an American fighter plane was shot down and crashed somewhere in Baras. The pilot survived and was rescued. Rodulfo escorted him to Leyte, with the intention of asking MacArthur for arms and supplies. By the second week of December, he was back with a considerable load of war materials. It would have been a difficult and dangerous venture. Vicente Alberto reported a vivid account of how he participated in a similar trip commissioned by Turko. After completing the mission, he asked permission to return to Catanduanes and participate in the resistance in his own home.


Encounters with the enemy

Emboldened, the guerillas engaged the enemies in cat-and-mouse operations. There were at least three of such offensives recorded after Rodulfo’s trip to Leyte. By the end of December 1944, Delfin Palasigue staged an ambush of a Japanese group from Viga-Payo on its way to Gigmoto. The enemy suffered considerable losses. In early January, Rodulfo reported of an encounter in Genitligan, Baras similarly resulting to a victory of the guerillas. In latter part of the same month (January 20 according to Rodulfo, January 30 by an account furnished by Mrs. Concesa Rojas), the guerillas of Bato demonstrated their own valor, after all Bato was host to two important Japanese facilities, one at Catamcan and another on the Batalay mountains. According to the accounts of Mrs. Rojas (as told apparently by Floro Tejada), it all started when reports of a squad of Japanese from Batalay was on its way to arrest American pilot Lt. Regan and his co-pilot whose aircraft crash-landed in Batorinao. Purportedly, they will burn the entire town of Bato if they failed to get the Americans. The first phase of the operation was held in the populated area of town, which ended in the Japanese able to retreat. A second phase was planned with the deployment of two platoons, this time positioned at Tamburan hill and along the river banks, to intercept enemies reported to be taking another try to arrest the Americans. At three in the afternoon, a truck of Japanese soldiers came their way and an exchange of fire ensued. The enemies again withdrew to the swamps while leaving behind the truck. In any case, the Americans remained untouched by the enemy and Bato was spared of a conflagration.


The Liberation of Virac

The single biggest challenge to the resistance was to get rid of the Japanese in the capital town of Catanduanes. Here follows a reconstructed narrative of the siege that eventually liberated Virac. It is a consolidation from various written accounts, mostly from Vicente Alberto, Salvador Rodulfo (“Chronological History of Activities” and a section titled “The Battle of Virac” in Osita-Go Abundo’s slim volume), Cenon Camano, and the narrative attested to and signed by eight war veterans that also appeared in Abundo’s book. Other details were supplied through interviews with Tomas Gil, a surviving veteran residing in Rawis, Virac.

February 2. In the early evening, Rodulfo’s troops started to march from Baras, arrived in Virac before midnight. According to Rodulfo, some of the men were made to carry bogus rifles of coconut branches (pall-ua) in order to fool the enemy who must have watched from their observation posts in Catamcan and Batalay. They were arrayed on three flanks surrounding the Virac garrison, except for the rear facing the sea. The Virac guerrillas under Vicente Surtida took position in the church patio. A group from Albay led by Major Flor of Bacacay came and joined in.

February 3. In the wee hours, the command to engage was given. The strategy was to attack at sunrise when the Japanese, clad only in their loincloths, were doing their ritual of sun-worship. Tomas Gil, in an interview, recounted that a local woman who was working for the Japanese got wind of the guerrilla preparations and betrayed the planned attack. The ensuing exchange of fire ended in a stalemate. Major Flor’s group withdrew and sailed off back to the mainland, bringing with them their dead and wounded.

February 4. Sporadic exchange of mortar and artillery. The guerrilla troops were told to conserve ammunition for lack of supplies.

February 5.  Rodulfo ordered Cenon Camano and Tomas Gil to breach the garrison perimeter through the barbed wire fence. The attempt was aborted when Tomas Gil was hit by enemy bullet on the shoulder. Camano dragged him to safety and later brought him to the emergency field hospital in Calatagan (Gogon in some accounts). In the afternoon, a motor boat (two boats according to Arcilla and Rodulfo) was spotted approaching the port of Virac and bringing Japanese reinforcement. Fortunately, two American bomber planes appeared and pounded on the boat/s which disappeared from the horizon.

February 6. Rumors had it that two soldiers were able to escape the sinking reinforcement boat/s. One of them was reported to have swam to Igang but was killed by irate people. The other was sighted among the mangrove wilderness of Palnab. Vicente Alberto took the task of going after the straggler. Of this, Alberto wrote in his account:

“. . .at the edge of the Palnab swamps on the shore of that barangay, I saw the soldier. While on a kneeling position and my rifle pointed at him, I shouted “surrender”! He tried to seek cover so I shot him. He was not killed instantly but a few minutes later I heard an explosion of grenade. The guy must have committed his own version of hara-kiri. Men who followed me went to the remains of that brave man who gave up his life rather than to be captured alive.”

The failure of reinforcement for the Japanese and the guerillas’ slowing down on ammunition resulted to a lull in the fighting. In the afternoon of this same day of his display of valor in Palnab, Alberto volunteered to lead a squad to check on the garrison through an entry from the rear facing the sea. It proved to be a harrowing experience as they were met with heavy fire. One of them was wounded and so they staggered back to safety. Alberto said that he heard reports that they were actually fired at, mistakenly, by the guerillas during the operation. It spoke of the awkwardness by which the siege was conducted on account of the lack of training among the volunteer fighters. This aspect of the war was favorite item of the lore that people told in the aftermath, of the tragi-comic instances where guerillas would receive fire on their butts from their own comrades

February 7. Fifth day into the assault, the men were suffering from fatigue and dwindling morale. They need some effective strategy to break the stalemate. In a command conference in the morning, Mauricio Tacorda suggested to burn the garrison using bales of abaca soaked in petrol. Catanduanes, after all, is abaca country. The fiber is the economic lifeline of the province; a great many people are dependent on its production and export. And so it came to pass that the provincial product that saw through the Catandunganons in peace, would serve them well in war. For such purpose, the big traders in town eagerly emptied their abaca warehouses of their stocks. By noontime, the bales were ready in position. Rodulfo chose eleven men to be with him as the frontline assault team. The game plan was to roll the huge, heavy bales towards the garrison building, serving as cover for the advancing troopers. As soon as they were near enough, they lit the bales doused with petrol. By about five in the afternoon, the garrison was burning. According to eyewitnesses, they could hear the Japanese soldiers yelling in pandemonium, mixing with occasional pleas from locals trapped as prisoners. They, too, heard gun shots, probably from Japanese soldiers committing suicide. A lone enemy soldier went out with hands up. He was taken prisoner. Vicente Alberto described the scene from his position, in a rather sad note:

“We were less than fifteen meters away from the burning building and I kept on shouting “Popo!”, the nickname of my close friend (Ranulfo Manlagnit) who was among the prisoners inside the garrison. No answer. Dejected, I did not bother to stay during the rest of the burning and eventual capitulation of the garrison.”

February 8. Sunrise of the day after found the garrison still smoldering but in peace as the enemies lie dead under the debris and ashes. The victory was announced by the incessant pealing of bells and the people of Virac came in jubilation and gathered at the church to celebrate through a Holy Mass. According to Tomas Gil, the dead were collected and dumped into a well near the garrison.

The aftermath

Even as the stench of burnt human flesh was still lingering in the air, the people of Virac poblacion poured in from their hiding places in the hinterlands and started to reestablish life-as-usual. Even while remnants of the enemy forces would have still held positions in both Batalay and the north, the guerilla command seemed to have taken it easy. Rodulfo only saw the need to do a mopping operation two months after Virac was liberated. In late April, he gathered a team to take the Batalay garrison which, however, was found abandoned. A team led by Arsenio Olfindo made a pursuit of the fleeing enemy soldiers to the northern towns. At Bangkerohan in Viga, they engaged and killed Japanese soldiers about to take a boat to escape. In Kabatangan, another set of Japanese enemy soldiers on their escape route were finished off. Thus, Catanduanes was rid of the last of the Japanese occupation forces. The war would finally end in September 2, 1945 with the formal surrender of the Japanese to the allies.

In May 1945, local civilian government was reorganized under the Philippine Civil Affairs Unit (PCAU). With the resumption of control by the Commonwealth Government, Florencio Tacorda was designated Municipal President and Remigio Socito as Lieutenant Governor of the sub-province. In October 26, 1945, Congressman Francisco Perfecto’s proposed bill separating Catanduanes from Albay was approved as Commonwealth Act 687 by the reconvened Legislature. The Catandunganons, who demonstrated their worth as a people by winning almost single-handedly the only shooting war they ever fought, seemed to have gotten their reward by becoming an independent province.

But then, this glorious episode in the history of Catanduanes has its murky, less flattering aspects, duly reflected in the written records and oral lore. I will oblige a fifth part in this series in the next issue in order to tackle some of the controversies surrounding the Japanese occupation of this island of our affections.

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