Echoes of Never Again
by Fr. Ramon Fruto, CSsR
Highlights of Redemptorist Experiences Towards the End of World War II in the Philippines
NEVER AGAIN! The first time I was jolted by those words was seeing them over a door in what was the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. It served as a reminder to the world not to ever let the atrocities inflicted on the inmates of Dachau happen again. Closer to our own time and place, the Never Again refrain is chanted by people in fear that the coming elections might place in power officials who will renew the horrors of martial law.
As Redemptorists in the Philippines, reading over our On This Day memories, the months of February and March bring back memories of events that we hope will never happen again. Those were the months when in 1945 the American liberation troops were about to liberate the country from the Japanese invaders. Having overrun one Japanese stronghold after another in the islands of the Pacific at great cost of American lives, they began softening the ground for their eventual landing by bombing and shelling. In the meantime, the occupying Japanese forces would make the life of civilians within the ambit of their influence unbearable by indiscriminate killing.
There are some who would argue that all the bombing and shelling and the loss of American, Japanese and Filipino civilian lives could have been avoided if Gen. Douglas MacArthur had bypassed the Philippines and gone straight on invade Japan forcing it to surrender. The critics felt that MacArthur was too bent on fulfilling his “I SHALL RETURN” promise, making a hero of himself, that he had to liberate the Philippines first.
What these critics were not aware of was the fact that the longer the American liberation troops delayed their landing in the Philippines, the more chances the Japanese had of wantonly killing the civilians who had stayed on in the Japanese- occupied city. It is the memory of the Japanese on the rampage that finds an echo of the NEVER AGAIN lament in the lives of confreres who have survived the horrors of World War II.
Most remembered is the heart-rending story of our Australian confrere of the Manila Vice-Province, Fr. Francis J. Cosgrave, CSSR. I first heard about his heroic survival at recreation around the common- room table when I was stranded in Manila for months while awaiting the approval of my visa for India.I was then being sent to Bangalore,India was where I was to take up my studies in philosophy and theology.
Briefly, Fr. Cosgrave of the Baclaran community, was assigned as chaplain in De La Salle College. In February 1945 civilians had taken refuge in De La Salle College. I suppose, like the civilian evacuees in our monastery in Cebu, they felt safety in numbers in a religious house. Shortly before the American liberation troops landed, Japanese soldiers moved in and started bayoneting the civilians, irrespective of age or gender, including babies and small children. Fr. Cosgrave received several bayonet wounds and lay among the dead, himself bleeding for three days. Burning with thirst from loss of blood, he crawled up to the altar and drank the water from the flower vases. He was rescued by the American soldiers. After returning to the community, he went home to Australia, eventually dying there, a nervous wreck.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Ambet Ocampo, wrote about the De La Salle College massacre. Mr. Ocampo’s article bristled with painful details culled from primary sources and the testimony of Fr. Cosgrave. It described how those who resisted the bayonet thrusts were shot or cut down with the sword by the officer leading the raiding team of 20 soldiers. The carnage had started shortly after noon on February 12. By about 10 o’clock in the evening Fr. Cosgrave was able to raise himself and administer the last rites to those who were dying. The few who survived with Fr. Cosgrave stayed there till three days later, on February15 at about four o’clock in the afternoon, the Americans entered the building and brought them to a clinic in Sta. Ana.
One can only painfully imagine what would have happened to the civilians detained in the concentration camp in Los Banos were it not for the timely arrival of the American troops freeing them. Among the 500 interned civilians freed were members of our Baclaran community.
The confreres in both our Iloilo and Cebu communities, coming from neutral Ireland, were spared the long internment suffered by our Australian confreres. However, because some of our Irish confreres were holders of British passports, they had a taste of life in a Japanese internment camp. Frs. Tom O’Connor and John Hogan of Iloilo community were interned from November of 1942 till May of the following year. In Cebu eight members of the community were briefly detained, but probably at greater risk of death because they were imprisoned in the infamous “Kempeitai” (military police) headquarters, from which, it was said, hardly anybody came out alive. In both the Iloilo and Cebu internment cases, it was the intervention of friends of the community who worked as officials of the puppet government set up by the Japanese that worked out their release.
In our then Vice-Province, those last couple of months towards the end of the Japanese occupation were still months of living dangerously. By then I was with my family safely hidden in the mountains of Danao, Cebu, in relative tranquility in guerrilla-controlled territory. With the Americans advancing towards the Philippines from the Pacific islands liberated from the Japanese, my father had anticipated the perils of living in the Japanese-occupied city. He felt that with the Americans landing on the shores of Cebu, the Japanese would unleash their fury on the civilian population before withdrawing to their hideout in the hills. This was the daily threat hanging over those who had stayed on in the city, among them our Cebu community and the scores of families who had taken refuge in our monastery.
True enough, the day before the Americans reached the city, a group of Japanese soldiers went around torching the buildings that had survived the bombings. As a result, St. Theresa’s College and Sisters’ convent next door and all the surrounding residential houses were burned to the ground. Our monastery survived, but not after one of the rooms downstairs had been doused with gasoline and set on fire. The conflagration was checked after Fr. Pat Murphy had gone to the Aboitiz residence where the Japanese officer in charge of the burning team was housed and got a paper from him to stop the burning. The civilian refugees then got together and doused the burning room with water. For months after the war that room remained in its burned state, a grim reminder of the horrors of war.
Before the Japanese arsonists left, they “promised” to return next day to kill the civilians, but with the timely arrival of the American liberation troops, the Japanese withdrew to their mountain hideout unable to carry out the threat. It would have been a carnage comparable to the De La Salle massacre.
But where material damage was concerned, perhaps Cebu, next to Manila suffered the most. Manila was considered the most bomb-devastated city after Germany’s Dresden. Before the Americans landed in Cebu, the city was subjected to carpet- bombing. The monastery was one of the structures that remained standing when the war was over. The woodwork all over was riddled with machine-gun and shrapnel wounds. During one of the raids, Fr. George Kilbride, the oldest member of the community, got wounded in the forehead with a piece of wood sent flying by the machine-gun bullets.
Most tragic of all was the death of a young boy of the Faelnar family, who were among the civilian refugees taking refuge in the monastery. As a US bomber swooped down on the monastery, Boy Faelnar, who was standing by the back door at the center of the building, was hit by one of the bullets fired from the forward guns of the bomber. The wound was not fatal and he was able to crawl towards the front door of the monastery. Unfortunately, he was again caught by the bullets from the tail-guns of the bomber. He managed to crawl back to the center of the corridor-intersection. Under the big crucifix hanging on the wall he died, clutching the book of St. Alphonsus, “Preparation for Death”. He had just been back from a spiritual direction session with the Rector, Fr. Tom McHugh, who had given him the book to read. A couple of years later, as a novice in the newly-opened novitiate in Cebu, I was given for my spiritual reading the same book that bore the bloodstains left on it by Boy Falenar’s death. Boy was buried in the monastery grounds near where the gate to St. Alphonsus seminary (sacfh) now stands. His remains were exhumed and transferred elsewhere when St. Alphonsus Seminary was being built.
A parachute bomb landed on the back corridor, leaving a spider-web-like scar on the cement floor just outside where the burnt room had been. Until the vinyl-tiling of the corridor floor, that scar remained clearly visible, reminding us of what damage could have resulted if the bomb that fell were not a parachute bomb. Parachute bombs are anti-personnel bombs and explode on contact with the ground, scattering shrapnel horizontally at low level. Hence, damage to structures is minimal. The scars on the corridor floor were barely an inch deep. Thank God our monastery was spared heavy damage. But most of Cebu City was levelled to the ground, and from the monastery upper corridor one could see forever an unobstructed view right down to the waterfront.
After this painful excursion into the memories of the carnage and devastation of the war, I can only end this essay with the closing paragraph of Ambet Ocampo’s article:
“ There is something about firsthand accounts – primary source documents historians call them—that hit us in the gut. When people blame history teachers and history textbooks for the lack of national memory in the youth, one has to realize that textbook history, monuments and memorials have a way of desensitizing people into forgetting. Requiring students to read more primary sources, or more gripping stories, like that woven into Gilda Cordero Fernando’s classic “People in the War,” will teach them that the hashtag #neveragain is not just for the martial law years but for anything in our history that we wish we will never forget nor repeat.” (PDI, Opinion, Ambet Ocampo, #neveragain, Looking Back. March 16, 2016, p. A15)
The VISION THEATER, the one building on Colon St., still standing but severely damaged, like the Redemptorist monastery and the Bank of the Philippine Islands on Magallanes St. among the few structures left standing after the war, all Jereza constructions.
CEBU NORMAL SCHOOL: This became the headquarters cum prison of the notorious Kempeitai (Military Police) where our Irish confreres with British passports were briefly interned. With the intervention of the governor (Mr. Paulino Gullas) of the puppet government set up by the Japanese occupation troops, they were released – thanks be to God, for Kempetai prison was reputed to be a place from which nobody came out alive. Mr. Gullas himself and the other officials of the puppet government of Cebu were spirited away by the Japanese after the Americans landed and were never heard of again.
The CEBU PROVINCIAL CAPITOL. Except for the dome that was blasted away by the USAFFE demolition team before the Japanese invasion, it stayed functioning and relatively undamaged. Today it stands proudly as Cebu’s eye-catching historic landmark. (On a personal note: When the BANK OF THE PHILPPINE ISLANDS (BPI) started operating again after the Japanese invasion, the Japanese allowed the bank to use a section on the ground floor as they had commandeered the BPI main building downtown. My father was employed as one of the bank’s skeleton-staff. Looking for a place where the family could reside within walking distance from the Capitol as no transport was available then, he found available for rent the house of one of the Opura families. That house stood where the sanctuary/sacristy area of the present Redemptorist Church is now located. So, our family lived in the Opura house, in the shadow of the Redemptorist monastery, where I learned to serve as an altar boy – and eventually live as a member of its community. As the Irish say, “’Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” Without the war, we wouldn’t have lived near the Capitol, in the Redemptorist area. This was considered a high class residential area where the Spanish Aboitizes and Morazas lived. Lesser beings like us would be content with residences in the lower-class Sto. Rosario area. Without the war, then, I would not be where I am now to write this article!