By Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor
My mother is two years younger than my eight-year-old daughter when the Japanese attack the Philippines. She is outside in the early December sunshine, playing with her five- and three-year-old sisters and my grandfather’s sister. Somewhere inside a clapboard house nearby, my grandmother rubs her pregnant stomach, her mind on what time her husband will come home from his daily patrol. A common day for Wardville, the small neighborhood where dependents of the Philippine Scouts and US Army live and sleep.
My mother hears the planes before she sees them, their sharp roar coming from the north. Was she playing hopscotch on the dirt track in front of the house, or perhaps playing tag with her aunt? I imagine everyone stands stock still at the sound, unsure. Fort Stotsenberg had an airfield and the rumble of planes wasn’t uncommon, but the noise of Japanese bombers would have sounded different, I imagine, more urgent, more strident as they flew in groups of twenty-seven planes, nine clusters in trios, like black birds in stiff formation, high in the sky. The bombs fall on the airfield first, blowing up grounded planes and pitting the runways. People scatter, screaming in terror while my mother points skyward, her sister Elsa jumping up and down beside her in agitation.
“So much smoke,” my mother tells me later. We sit in her kitchen late one night. My children are in bed dreaming dreams while my mother tries to remember a nightmarish time, to wrap her adult mind around her child-self’s experience. “So much smoke. Black. There were bamboo planes along the runway. Decoys or something. Covered in…what’s that called? You can’t see past it?”
“Camouflage?” I offer.
She nods and points to me, a satisfied press to her lips.
“Yes. Camouflage. They were camouflaged, but it all burned.”
Accounts of the day note that many of the pilots were in the Mess hall when the bombing began and that only a few survived, the ones nearest the door who heard the shouting and ran out of the building.
“My mother came out and got us. She told us to put a wet handkerchief over our faces. They were afraid of gas bombs. My grandma was there too. She had a woven basket, her suitcase –” She traces the air with her fingers in the shape of a rectangle. “There was food inside.”
My mother and her family ran to Jack and Jill hill behind Wardville and spent the night under the branches of a tree. I ask her what kind of tree it was. She shrugs.
“A tree,” she says. “A big tree with lots of branches. We didn’t know if we could go home.”
Could have been a Nipa tree, common in the Philippines and often used for building homes in a short period of time. Could have been a Banyan tree, but I dismiss this almost immediately. Spirits were known to live in gnarled roots and shoots of Banyan trees. My grandmother would have avoided it. My mother wrings her hands, trying to remember, and I realize that as a six-year-old, she might not have known what the tree was called and so never had a chance to remember its name.
“There were stars that night,” she says. “So many stars. We didn’t know where Papang was. He was on duty somewhere.”
They return home after dawn the next day and the adults hurriedly pack. The fort, their home since my grandparents married, is no longer safe and they have no way of knowing when the Japanese will attack again.
“Did you see your father before you left for the province?” I ask.
She nods, her eyes looking past me as if she can see the small kitchen of her old home, the weak December light through the windows, the cans of food still neatly in the cupboards.
“Everyone was crying,” she says. “So I was crying too. Papang says to me ‘We might never see each other again.’ And I wouldn’t let him go. I was so scared.”
Her sentences are short, the emotion of the moment still weighted even sixty years after the event, a young girl in a grown-up’s body.
They leave with all they can carry and walk to town where the train station is located. My grandfather does not go with them. Instead, he heads north with the rest of Troop A, 26th Cavalry. Their orders are to set up lines of defense from the Lingayen Gulf where the Japanese have landed foot soldiers and prevent them from reaching the Bataan Peninsula where most of the US and Philippine Army are stationed. He will fight for almost five months until the order to surrender is given and the Bataan Death March begins.
But my mother doesn’t know this as the train fills with passengers. Were they pale despite their dark tropical skin? Did they tremble as they settled into their seats, regret a forgotten handkerchief or framed photograph left behind? Did they yell and shout or just cry into their sleeves, prayers on their lips? My mother doesn’t remember, but tells me she imagines everyone was very scared.
“Then we heard the planes again,” she tells me. “And someone shouts that we should all get off the train, hide under the train cars.” She snorts softly and rubs her nose. “They were afraid we would get bombed in the train, but there we were underneath. What if the train decided to take off without us? We would have been crushed.”
The squadron of planes in their strange three-by-nine formation passes overhead toward the fort. The passengers are spared, but what about the soldiers still at the fort? Would they survive another attack? Bombs and strafing gunfire would become the stuff of their dreams, the music to their meals for many months to come.
It takes the better part of a day for the train to reach Tulin where my grandmother’s family lives. My mother doesn’t remember much about those first few months away from the fort, so I must imagine what my grandmother was thinking and feeling. At age thirty-two she has a small brood of children, a husband fighting in a distant jungle and no way of knowing if her move back home is permanent. Her family makes them as comfortable as possible, my grandmother’s sister letting them sleep on the floor of her house, then her brother moving them to his house a short distance away. When the fighting continues and the Japanese continue to press southward, it becomes apparent that my mother’s family will be staying in Tulin for the long-term.
“My lolo,” she says. “My grandfather, you see, was very well-respected, I guess. They built us a house, our own house. A little nipa hut with room underneath for chickens.”
“Who built it, Mom?”
“Everyone! The whole village came and in one day built us a house. Big enough for all of us. Right on the edge of my lolo’s plantation. There was a big guava tree and a mango tree. I remember. They fell down while they still had fruit. We didn’t starve during the war, but we didn’t have much either.”
I imagine my mother turning seven a month after the Japanese first attack, look at my own eight-year-old and try to see our life now through my daughter’s eyes. My mother remembers her mother crying every night. We adults often think that children don’t hear us when we think they’re asleep, that their world isn’t shaped by our emotions. My mother doesn’t remember much about those first few months in Tulin, other than the town being different from living at the fort. She remembers, though, the day my grandfather escaped from the Death March.
“I didn’t see him come in,” my mother says. “It was dark. Probably night time. When I saw him, he was holding my mom. ‘We lost,’ he said. Then he collapsed. Malaria.”
She shakes her head again. We don’t know exactly what day my grandfather made his escape, only that it was likely in the first few days of the march when the Japanese were far outnumbered by their prisoners, sometime after they realized they didn’t have enough food or water to keep their own troops alive let alone prisoners. Those who could not walk were killed where they lay. Those who tried to escape were shot in the back. Those who tried to save their friends were bayoneted. My grandfather didn’t talk much about the war when I was growing up, but sometime during my twenties he decided it was time to tell the tale.
“There was a well,” he told us, “and everyone was so thirsty, even the Japanese soldiers. We all rushed for the well. They were shouting for us to stop and they were firing on us, but it didn’t matter. We wanted the water.” He waved his hand as if trying to push others aside. “My friends and I, two guys, got to the edge of the jungle near the well and we decided to run. We ran and ran and ran. We thought they would shoot us, but I guess they were too thirsty. We ran until we didn’t think they were following us. We decided to go in different directions. Maybe then one of us would make it home. I don’t know what happened with them.”
My grandfather struggled through malaria, then struggled against becoming part of the resistance.
“They came in the middle of the night,” my mother says. “They beat him up, but Papang kept telling them no. He had a wife and children, he said. MacArthur promised to come back and save them, he said. I thought they were going to kill him.”
Once I told a veterans advocate about my grandfather, how I wondered if people would think he was a coward because he escaped the March and didn’t join the resistance.
“He saved your grandmother’s village,” the advocate replied. “If the Japanese had known he was there, a Philippine Scout and U.S. sympathizer, they wouldn’t have just killed him. They would have killed them all.”
“The villagers were clever,” my mother tells me. “You’ve seen those big mortars where they pound rice? Every house had one and when the Japanese would come, the first one to see them would pound their rice. Boom! Boom! Boom! Then the next house would pound their rice. And the next and the next, until Papang heard the signal and he took his bolo knife and a bag of food with him. He would go up in the hills like he was a farmer, as far away as he could from the village. We would all hide under the house with the chickens until the Japanese left. Then Boom! Boom! Boom! The pounding would begin again. All clear. And Papang would come back.”
I try to imagine what it was like living the next three years in the province for my grandfather, the soldier who became a farmer, who waited for his commander to recall him to the fort. I wonder what it was like for my mother, who was ten when the war ended. Four years is a long time for a child, and I imagine that for a time, day to day living with the war was just that, living.
My grandfather died when he was 83, and my mother slipped into a deep depression. When MacArthur returned as promised, my grandfather set out for the fort once more to report for duty. He would serve as an MP after the war, then join the US Army officially to enable their immigration to the US. My mother hardly saw him throughout her childhood and by the time he retired, she had married and moved to a different town. Even though she was the one to leave home, she always referred to her father as the one who was gone.
“Always gone,” she says to me. “I could never catch up with Papang. When he left to join MacArthur, I wasn’t sure he’d come back, no matter how many times those rice pounders would sound, you know?”
There are tears in her eyes, and I wrap her in my arms, a five-foot-four six-year-old, wishing for a sky filled with stars and a tree to shelter us.
Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor is the pen name of Rebecca Saxton. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific Lutheran University in 2012. Her short story “Yellow is for Luck” appears in the anthology Growing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults, edited by Cecilia Brainard. Her poetry chapbook Pause Mid-Flight was released in 2010.