I visited Dr. Benito Legarda Jr. in his Sampaloc office two weeks ago. This is the second time I’m meeting this personal hero of mine in person. The first was at a book event at the Instituto Cervantes.
I sent Dr. Legarda an FB message last October. I did not expect a reply, he is after all a nonagenarian. But apparently, he’s social media savvy (his staff helps him out). He directed me to contact his personal secretary before I drop by.
I am grateful that the distinguished took the time to meet the undistinguished. Dr. Legarda was generous of his time, he was cordial and humble. I can’t thank him enough.
Four years ago I visited F. Sionil Jose in his bookstore (that doubles as his office). I was surprised to be received like a familiar guest. He offered me a seat and we chatted like friends. I’ve never met him in person prior to this meeting. These men are great representatives of their generation. Their humility and openness we must emulate.
Aside from getting a couple of my books signed, Dr. Legarda was kind enough to answer a few questions.
I’ve always wanted to know how he feels that our WWII history is not appreciated and studied by our countrymen?
He suspects that this has to do with many elites (whose scions runs media and most remains largely influential) “were collaborators during the occupation”.
The late Andrade told me that he’s certain that many families of “collaborators to this day receives substantial amount, if not favor and support, from the Japanese government.” The Japanese after all are known to keep their word.
Japanese and guerrilla atrocities
Dr. Legarda also shared the tragic fate of one of Fernando Amorsolo’s brother who was executed by guerrillas. No one dared and stepped forward to vouch for the man he said. He was picked up near where we were (in Sampaloc). Being branded a Japanese sympathizer was enough to get you killed during those days.
I recall the story of the Chile-based Filipino writer Elizabeth Medina. Emilio Medina, her grandfather, became the war time governor of the Ilocos. When the Japanese left, the guerrillas made an example out of him. He was executed in public, with children watching. Dr. Legarda said, “Marcos’ father, Mariano Marcos, he suffered the same faith, also in the hands of the guerrillas in La Union.”
I asked Dr. Legarda if he heard of any Japanese running other towns and provinces with much kinder hands. “Yes but they were certainly not (kind) here in Manila.” He then narrated figures of deaths in Manila alone. We then spoke of Ambassador Juan José Rocha, a survivor of the battle of Manila, he was only 7 then. He was president of the Memorare Manila 1945 Foundation. Dr. Legarda wrote an informative tribute when he passed two years ago.
The reason I asked if the Japs were kinder in other places is because of my family’s experience in San Carlos (Negros Occidental). They were treated fairly by the Japanese. But when the guerrillas took over the town all hell broke loose. Believing they were collaborators, they fast became targets. The guerrillas were so cruel that they buried one grand uncle alive.
When I shared this story to WWII popular relic collector, Mr. Felix Catal, he said it probably was the case but that it was isolated. The Japanese were known to be brutal in the Dumaguete area, 160 kilometer south of San Carlos. More than a 1000 Japanese fled to the hills around Dumanguete. The relic hunter has been exploring these parts (especially the Valencia parts) all his life.
Maribel Ongpin, who I remember for her kindness (she visited our neighborhood in a couple of occasion while we were staving off eviction from our homes) wrote an interesting observation, “The beauty of the material past was trampled and it brought about a sense of insecurity and loss of confidence. Worse, the horrors of man’s inhumanity as represented and chillingly acted out by the Japanese invaders have had a searing effect on our racial memory.”
One of my college professor, Atty. Cabrera (UPHS-D) told me that the war “brought the worst in us… they turned us against each other.” He was old enough to remember. The bandits, pretending to be guerrillas, robbed his family in broad day light. They were in fact guerrillas, he said, who fought the Japanese then turned to banditry after the war.
There’s this Filipino Director who said in an interview that he intends to make a film about our WWII experience. He felt that the war destroyed our cohesive racial identity as a people—reason why we’re so split as a society today.
Circling back to Dr. Legarda’s books. I told him it is a strange thing to say that “I enjoy your stories” because in it are some of the most horrific descriptions of life in wartime Manila. But learning is a positive experience and oddly gratifying too—we need to be reminded.