Tag Archives: WWII

Seeing Kranji and my WWII Obsession

My current reading list are mostly WWII books these days. Like “Tears in the Darkness” by Michael Norman, about the horrors of the Bataan Death March. Another is “Counting the Days” by Craig B. Smith, chronicles of POWs and stragglers in the pacific war. I have two more that I haven’t even started reading.

WWII literature are the most accessible online. If you’re searching under “Philippine History” you get more hits about WWII than any other time (or subject) in our history. The library here (Singapore) has plenty of great titles too. Some are in digital format that you can download using their app.

Although the Spanish-Philippine epoch has long been my area of interest, lately, I’m getting more and more fascinated by WWII stories. For one, it reminds me of my father’s experiences as a boy during the Japanese occupation. I interviewed several individuals in the past that shared with me their unbelievable stories of hardship, courage and spirit. My current reading list echoes their voices inside my head.

WWII happened less than a hundred years ago. Almost every Filipino knows relatives, or know someone, that survived it. For something that happened fairly  recent in our history it is without doubt greatly underappreciated. I don’t think our standard history text in schools gives it justice.

I admire Japanese who travels to the islands to offer their prayers, flowers, and paper cranes for their war dead. I was told that in Muntinlupa’s Japanese Cemetery, these visitors would still weep and sing the popular Japanese 1940s song ”Night Goes on in Muntinlupa” (composed by Japanese prisoners, later pardoned by Quirino). And these visitors are not that old. They’re much younger. They probably only heard of their dead relative’s fate from their older folks.

The Japanese have long memories. There was a Japanese soldier, said to be of royal origin, that was buried somewhere in downtown Dumaguete. The relatives never stopped​ looking until they finally did half a century later. WWII artifact hunter Tantin Cata-al shared this story with me. He gets regular Japanese visitors. Whenever he stumbles upon dead Japanese soldiers from Mt. Talinis during his expeditions, he puts them in a sack and brings them home. He’s got two when I visited, he was expecting Japanese representatives to get them.

I remember visiting Libingan ng mga Bayani a few years ago. I came to pay my respects to our WWII dead and to Nick Joaquin, the national artist. I lingered long enough time to see the portions that are neglected. Then I spoke to the guy cleaning Nick’s gravesite. He told me then that he hasn’t been paid yet.  “By who? the government?” I asked. By the dead’s relatives.

What?!?

Why does the living has to pay for contractors to maintain the grass? to clean the marker? Is the cost too much for the government to shoulder? these men unselfishly served the nation. What’s wrong with us people?

– – –

When I visited Kranji cemetery it was Sunday. There were only five people. Most likely visiting relatives because they were busy locating a tombstone. A maintenance crew told me that visitors are rare even during weekends. Only exception is when dignitaries make official visits. Two years ago the British Royals, Kate and William, dropped by to pay their respects. Crowds gathered to take a glimpse of their former royalties. The event highlights the importance of Kranji Cemetery as a war memorial.

The area where Kranji cemetery is located was converted by the Japanese into a prison. It was a camp and ammunition storage previously. Not far, down the Kranji river, was where the Japanese forces first landed in Singapore. They crossed the straits of Johor, some in bikes. The cemetery is elevated, on a clear day you can see Johor Bahru’s skyline.

There’s less than 100 tombstones in Kranji but there are around 4400 that are buried in its grounds, more than 800 are unidentified. Its memorial walls has the name of 24000 allied soldiers.

Kranji cemetery also serves as a state cemetery. The first Singapore president, Yusof Bin Ishak, the only man featured in the country’s paper currency, was buried on the northern portion of the cemetery.

Like the American Cemetery in Taguig, Kranji is managed by a non-local European group tasked to oversee maintenance and commemoration of allied soldiers and servicemen. It is funded by member states unlike the American Battle Monument Commission (ABMC). The ABMC representative, a retired Marine, told me that their funding is not granted by congress’ budget. So I assume they operate from grants and contributions.

ABMC’s first chairman was Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing. A US military legend who mentored Patton, MacArthur and Bradley, even Eisenhower. He served in Mindanao where legend has it that he scared the Moros by dipping bullets in pigs blood. This is unfounded (but was mentioned by Trump during the presidential campaign!) and is believed to be inaccurate but it could also be a real, a psychological tactic employed to sow fear. This kind of historical rumors don’t crop up from nothing.

gloomy day it was #WWII #kranji #kranjiwarmemorial

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I’ve been deep in my reading WWII books lately that I feel compelled to visit historical sites here linked to WWII events. If there’s something that binds Singapore and the Philippines aside from being close South East Asian neighbors is that both experienced the brutal Japanese occupation.

Back home, we have so many places that witnessed​ the war: old houses used as Japanese residence, rice fields once converted to air strips, larger buildings converted to makeshift hospitals, bomb shelters, even caves that were used as temporary covers. There’s so many to see. When I get back, I’m visiting the Mabalacat airstrip used by Japanese pilots to launch deadly attacks against the allied forces. The Kamikaze East Airfield in Mabalacat is where the Kamikaze pilots first took off.

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That Ol’ Ford Factory at Bukit Timah

The museum doing a free ad for Ford Motors

Coming from the northeastern part of the island, a trip to Bukit Timah takes around an hour or so. The duration of the trip depends on where you are and what type of transport you use. The island is stringed together by an extensive network of secured train stations (most are annexed to shopping centers) so traveling around is convenient.  I alighted at the Clementi MRT station, went opposite the Clementi mall and took the bus number 184. After passing the campuses of Singapore Institute of Management, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and six bus stops,  I reached Ford’s old factory.

When I arrived I was greeted by this affable Singaporean fella, Jimmy, who supervises the entire museum all by himself. We spoke for awhile about the history of the place, how it was restored (the museum is actually just the facade, reception hall and administrative area of the former factory, that’s almost 1/4 of the original). The Japanese picked this location for the British to surrender to send a strong message to Britain and her ally, America. The guy knows his turf, knowledgeable and passionate not only about the tasks he performs around the museum but to his country’s WWII history. He invited me to the second floor where the museum’s theater is located. The place could seat 50 or more people, but there I was, watching the history of the island during WWII alone! I later found out from Jimmy that he have Filipino relatives (a first cousin of his founded the brief and t-shirt company “Warren”). During his first visit to the country, he recalls how the posh villages of Makati and the one “near Camp Crame” took him “by surprise”. Seeing those palatial American sized and styled abodes, he thought the richest people in the region lives in the Philippines!  But he frequented old relatives in Chinatown too, so he got to see the surrounding suburbs of the capital where he witnessed some of the most wretched living conditions in the country.

The room where paperworks were signed officially surrendering the islands, and effectively the British resistance in Asia. Those are the original seats where the generals sat by the way.

The first time I saw the Ford factory was in a book I borrowed while I was in grade school. Of course, I didn’t know what the place was then but I remember the caption reads,”The Fall of Singapore”. I’ll never forget that iconic black and white photo of Gen. Yamashita and his party sitting opposite Gen. Percival and his men. Yamashita demanded his forces unconditional surrender and the British commander, in almost a sheepish manner yielded to his terms. It was the largest capitulation in modern British military history. Yamashita bluffed his way through the negotiation. I wonder if the British General would have made a different decision had he known that the Japanese was running out of supply and ammunition. The failure to continue defending Singapore understandably falls on his laps, as a local historian points out, not only was the Japanese having difficulties with their arms and food provisions during that time; the British, Australian and all local forces out numbers the Imperial army – 30,000 to 100,000+!

The facade of the Ford Factory

Percival carried the weight of this surrender until his death. The only British officer with his military rank that fought in WWII that was never knighted (big honor among the Brits). While he had a storied military career  his commanding skills had been subject to criticism and questions after the fall of Singapore. But in fairness to him, while it is claimed then that Singapore was “impregnable”, it was really not that secure. The British empire had thinly “outstretched” her military. Yamashita  knew the key to Singapore was to attack it from Johor. So he decided to enter Thailand and take all the Malaysian towns he could get his hands on and from Johor, besiege Singapore. From the time the Japanese reached Johor, there was really no stopping them. Percival destroyed the bridges that connected Johor to the island but it was just a matter of time before the Japs cross the narrow straits. Yamashita’s brutality and sadistic methods against his enemies and civilians weighed on everyone, and I’m sure it did on Percival. For the Japanese, fear paralyzes the mind and then the heart. During the surrender, when Percival demanded that some of his troops remain armed to maintain order, Yamashita threatened him that he’ll command more vicious attacks. At one time during the war an entire hospital, staff and patients were savagely massacred. The island was subjected to continuous air raids that targeted homes and shops. So many had perished during the initial days of the battle that it was impossible to bury everyone that died. There were also these killings called sook ching that took place in Changi and Punggol, hundreds of young Chinese men, mostly civilians, executed.

Seen here is the British delegation during the surrender. Except for the Ford sign, the facade has been fully restored. Photo courtesy of http://lsmpostcard.blogspot.sg/

I can’t help but think about Corregidor, which is much smaller (7 kms long, width around 2 kms) and like Singapore was ferociously besieged by the Japanese. They had to take it, otherwise, their ships would continue to be under threat when it enters Manila bay. Corregidor was bombed from high hell and back – the most bombed piece of land on earth! It took so much shelling that the entire island had to be reforested after the war. The relentless Japanese attacks started on December 1941  and ended when the island was surrendered by Gen. Wainwright, on April 1942. How those men resisted, inflicting damages to their adversaries while doing so, is testament to their fortitude and fighting spirit. The American had the foresight that one day they would be challenged for the possession of the country and control over the pacific. The series of tunnels (complete with a medical facility) and a plethora of high powered, far reaching cannons positioned in the main island and the surrounding islets made it difficult to capture. How the fighters of Corregidor fought under extreme conditions for four long months is stuff of legends.

Homeboy striking a post in the entrance where Yamashita and his men entered. The British were made to walk with the Union Jack and a white flag (they entered this same door of course) while Yamashita road a sedan and alighted just outside this door.

When things was going bad for the Japanese in the Philippines they called on Yamashita. But around this time the tides of war had already turned against them. Percival would have his revenge, sort of, he attended Yamashita’s surrender in Baguio. A symbolic gesture more than anything because he was not really involved in the Philippine operations. Percival recalls seeing the Japanese general having a surprised look when he saw  him in Baguio. It is said that the British general refused to shake hands with the Japanese because of how he treated the POW’s. I think it’s incredible to think that people would hold on to values and morality in times of war (when everybody’s going berserk, mad and just bananas!) but believe it or not, some people do – even Japanese had men who conducted themselves honorably. A story was told to me by film archivist Ernie San Pedro of Japanese soldiers visiting farming villages to help plant rice and during the reaping season, harvest them side by side with farmers. People suspect them to be farmers before they were enlisted. Men wishing to experience their former lives albeit temporarily. Once work is done or when they’re called to report back, they leave without taking anything.

Another look at the historic administration room of the factory where Singapore was surrendered to the Imperial army. The interior is off limits to visitors.

Another popular photo (see here), taken at the end of WWII, was the signing of Japanese surrender aboard USS Missouri at the bay of Tokyo. MacArthur, understanding the symbolic significance of Singapore and Corregidor, invited the commanders that surrendered these two islands as witness aboard. Both appeared gaunt and tired. There he asked the two generals to stand behind him while he sign the instrument of surrender. Each received pens (a Parker Duofold) that was used by the supreme allied commander in signing the surrender documents. MacArthur was said to have signed the last document using a purplish ink. This last pen he later gave to his wife.

I like this glammed up version of the proceeding. The work of one Saburo Miyamoto. Showing the Union Jack and the white flag. Now, the original photo doesn’t have the flags. It was added to symbolize the capitulation of the British forces. Photo courtest of http://lsmpostcard.blogspot.sg/

In our country, it’s a challenge to bring the younger generation to take interest on history. Same thing here but the local government is pushing hard to bring historical awareness close to the people. And I think they’re slowly meeting their objectives. This museum and similar institutions like it are not only well funded but creative programs are drawn up and created to continue engaging the citizens (locals pay a minimal fee, sometimes fees are waived, like in public holidays). Some of the library and museum projects I’ve seen here are just absolutely incredible. I like that they used “Ford factory” as part of the name (I wonder what the company felt about it). The government is not getting any monetary gains here  but they don’t mind that. No one’s counting money here when it comes to matters of historical education.


One Morning in Changi Museum

Sign pointing to the museum

The replica chapel that has become a pilgrimage spot for veterans and their families.

Messages left behind by visitors. Some are moving dedications to fathers that died during the war…

This one, dedicated by a son to a father that survived the Changi gaol

They call this tsuru… when it reaches 1000, a wish is believed to be granted.

Another tsuru, paper cranes, this time with dedication written in Japanese

Growing up hearing stories about WWII, and reading about it, I learned that nothing good ever comes from wars as a child. Its a simple thought. With all the suffering and misery the wars has caused us, you’d think that we have learned to avoid it.

I recently visited the Changi museum and it brought back the memories of the stories told to me by my adopted grandmother, my father and all those elders I had the luck to speak with that survived that war. How I wish that the father of my mother is still around. He fought alongside the Americans during the war in Negros. It was a tragic irony that he endured and survived life as soldier and died in a vehicular accident after the war.

Changi museum became a pilgrimage site for former POW and their children who wanted to see the place where their parents and grandfathers were kept as prisoners during the war. It was moving to see the yellow notes with messages of remembrance and love coming from the families of the veterans.

The museum displays letters, photos, skeches and personal belongings of former POW’s of the gaol. The story of how Changi, a small relatively unknown village, became a vast internment camp in 1942 is told in one of the galleries. It was fascinating to see the replicas of the popular Changi Murals. The original are still around but because of its location inside the present prison its not open to the public. The books on sale in the museum gift shop was quite impressive but I had to content myself with hastily browsing over them.

The chapel in the courtyard, a replica of the churches the men built around the prison, has become a pilgrimage area for veterans and their families. In the center is a brass cross that was made by a former prisoner. There were several makeshift chapels that was constructed by the POW during their time in Changi. Chaplain Hughes explains the practice: “men who are employed in forced labor and growing weak… do not build Churches and worship in them unless they are persuaded that there is value in such toil”.

Having mentioned my grandfather, Elpidio Díaz, in this post I’m hoping that by chance somebody may come across this page and forward it to Celia Diaz-Laurel, widow of former Vice President Salvador Laurel. Documents related to my grandfather’s service in the war and other personal materials were kept in the old Bacolod house where he stayed with his uncle (Celia’s father). Back in the Philippines, I tried to get in touch with Mrs. Laurel but failed. It’s my hope that I could, at least, see these tangible evidence of my grandfather’s life. We don’t even have a photo of him. His things would be the closest we’ll ever come to a Lolo we never knew.


Remember the Sook Ching…

The gold lettering set in black marble partially reads, “On 23 February 1942, some 300-400 Chinese civilians were killed along Punggol foreshore by Hojo Kempei firing squad. They were among tens of thousands who lost their lives during the Japanese Sook Ching operation to purge suspected anti-Japanese civilians…”.

I like watching the waves hurl themselves toward the surf, see the birds fly over and watch recreational fishermen try, mostly in vain, reel in a catch around the shore of Punggol. Little did I know that the beach I’ve been frequenting these past few days was witness to one of the most gruesome massacres during the Japanese occupation.

I live not very far from the beach. Ever since it was developed for recreational activities I’ve visited it a number of times. The water is not good for swimming. I don’t think its good idea anyway, with all those factories across the Malaysian side but there’s plenty of nature to see — enough for me to turn a bad day to a good one.

Rain clouds over the horizon

Our country went through similar experiences during the war. After it was over we had to rebuild from all the destruction and heal from the devastating effects of  that cruel occupation. This war is very recent history — just more than 60 years ago. But it seems strangely forgotten. Commemorations are largely ignored by Filipinos these days. Veterans lament how they feel mistreated and unrecognized. Its unbelievable that to this day thousand of Filipino veterans are still fighting for recognition and compensation.

“Countries should never, never, ever go to war”, said my Father who lost almost his entire family during the war; but isn’t it strange that such views are regarded as mere utopian thoughts? I guess that those who have not seen war first hand tends to glorify it. The way the world operates today we’ll always have war in some form or another — some countries are just so greedy, vicious, angry. Werner Herzehog could be right when he said that “chaos, hostility and murder” are the only true “common denominators”. That’s a frightening thought but with all the bad things we’re witnessing today and mankind’s inability to learn from his past mistakes; Werner could be stating mankind’s painful truth — and future.


Proud Tanauan

Tanauan’s population is around two hundred thousand. Considering its substantial land, that’s not a lot of people.  Calamba, its next door neighbor to the south, is smaller but have twice the number of people.

What’s fascinating about Tanauan is how it remained agricultural. Tanauan retained its rural outlook and agricultural economy as late as the 1950’s and even in the 1960’s, it must have been completely rural and agricultural during Laurel’s (Pres. Laurel) childhood and juvenile years”, say the President’s biographers, the  del Castillos. Traditionally agricultural it was an influential town that produced great national leaders that played key roles in our history.

There were changes of course, but Tanauan has largely remained agricultural even today. Or at least it felt that way.

When we hear provincial, what comes to mind are backward communities. If we look back at our provinces in the 18th century, most of them were  progressive agro towns where hunger was never much a problem. The Spaniards introduction of crops and simple technologies had long solve the threats of famine. In Cebu, for example, the maize had been grown abundantly that in some areas it had challenged rice as staple. The 20th century saw the decrease in the produce that led us to import rice and other crops that we use to export to distant lands.

Tanaueño’s would send their children to Manila and abroad to study. A common practice among top families during the 18th century. Prominent families are known to commit their children to higher education. These children would then comeback take over the family business 0r make their mark in local politics. These educated Filipinos would later constitute the leadership of the revolution of  ’96.

These families, with their political influence, businesses and landholdings, represents the continuation of traditional prefilipino royalties [datus & local chiefs were assigned as cabeza de balangay by the Spaniards] that adapted itself into the times. Philippine society was stratified then on the basis of education and property. These divide between the rich and poor are magnified today because productivity in the fields has gone down. Unlike before when farming has been stable source of employment and food, these days the dwindling agricultural industry and continued oppression of the farmers and the poor by their corrupt government and landowners has increased the gap. Our farmers are subjected to conditions which makes it impossible for them to succeed. Today, the only farms that profits are those that are run by big corporations.

However, there’s a difference between the relation between the aristocratic Filipino families that employed the rural town farmers then and now. Their experience with the Spanish and then the Americans had bonded them closer. When the propertied class revolted against the colonial government it was their farmers and obreros that served as their soldiers. This relationship is no longer present in our agricultural towns. Prominent families had long abandoned their traditional lands [sold or left to be administered by corporations] and farmers has been preoccupied in their struggle to own part of the farms their ancestors tilled and providing the most basic of needs for their often over sized family. Farmers children has been sent to the cities to work for lowly jobs. However, This urban employment haven’t alleviated the flight of their families as they remain poor and exploited due to lack of education and discipline.

At the gate. an engraved metal plate reads "Jose P. Laurel, Abogado"

I visited the ancestral house of the Laurel’s not far from where I alighted. When I got there it was close. I kept knocking. The security guard won’t even talk [the house is about 300 meters away from the gate]. I have a feeling that I wasn’t the first curious observer that got snubbed there.

It was a great looking house none the less.

I’ve always been interested in the Laurel’s because an Ilonga aunt married one. I long since wondered what makes them successful. A historian, elegantly wrote “they breathed and drunk the idyllic atmosphere of the countryside at Tanauan and inherited the headstrong temperament attributed to those in propinquity with Taal volcano”.

Well, a more realistic explanation is that the Laurel men were expected to lead. They came from a long line of educated and successful fore bears.They had to exceed their parents expectations – anything less would have been unacceptable. Such were the demands of the tradition we once had.

The Tanauan’s first family were the ruling elite. From their line came the most fervent of Filipino nationalists who distinguished themselves as public servants. Sotero was representative in the first Republic who died of dysentery in an American concentration camp, then there was the son Jose who became president and later his sons; Teroy the senator, Jose Jr a former house speaker and Doy vice president during Cory’s presidency.

Tanauan's elegant looking church. Like all old churches, this figured prominently in their culture and history.

Of all the presidencies  of the country, Laurel’s is probably the most controversial because to many the second republic of which he was the chief executive had been reduced to in some to a puppet government that did nothing but the bidding for the Japanese.

Recto would later suffer the same fate. Tagged as a “collaborator”. They were accused of traitorous acts against their people. President Laurel would be pardoned but Recto (one of the glories of Philippine Spanish letters) would refuse the pardon, electing to fight for his freedom in the courts – and he won.

These patriots, upon their release would be the main opponent of the absurd American parity rights. Their actions during the war and after it showed their true patriotism. The Laurel’s for their part had been one of the staunchest nationalist of southern Tagalog. Many of those accused of “collaboration” were merely acting on behalf of the people. What an unfortunate task these men had but someone had to accept the responsibilities of representing the peopl otherwise there would have been more blood shed.

If it were not for President Laurel, “an up and coming jurist, a native of Tanauan, Batangas… long time resident of the district of Paco in Manila, member of the Supreme court”, Marcos would’ve rotted in jail. He was almost in a similar situation as Marcos was in his youth. He felt it would be a terrible waste to let the young Marcos rot in prison. If he never did pardon the man, just imagine how different our history would have been.

Of course, discussion’s about Tanauan’s past would not be complete without mentioning Apolinario Mabini. I met some of his relatives in the town during my first visit. Like Mabini, they are common folks, not into politics nor do they seek it. The highest post ever held by a Mabini in Tanauan is that of a Barrio Captain.

Mabini is the ideal man to lead the government during the revolution and he was practically running the country as Aguinaldo’s chief adviser. But being honest and upfront, he quickly alienated himself against his own government. He made enemies who were constantly intriguing against him. He later resigned his post and went underground. He became a fierce critic of the excesses of Aguinaldo’s deposed government.

Mabini’s letters [originally compiled by Teodoro Kalaw] are among the most revealing documents in Filipino historiography. Hopefully one day, we could dedicate a course in our schools that would study these correspondence. Its a pity that such documents, although available for the public, are hardly ever studied.

According to the Mabini’s of Tanauan, all of his siblings struggled in life even after his death. He left no properties, no bank accounts. Unlike his contemporaries, he never used his position for his material advantage. He lived frugally all his life. The only well off Mabini’s of today are the descendants of Agapito, who married into a prominent Manileno family.

Another Tanaueño worthy of  mention is Hen.  Nicolas Gonzales, the last of Aguinaldo’s general to surrender to the Americans. Along with Malvar, he fought relentless against the invasion until his surrender. Its unfortunate that very few knew of his admirable dedication towards the revolution. Tanaueños of old looked up to him. The Americans, saw him a worthy opponent and named the peak of Tagaytay ridge [formerly Monte de Sungay] after him. Hen. Gonzales married a Laurel’s and stayed in Tanauan almost all his life. He would later serve as governor of the province.

There are a handful of Antillean houses left around here. This one looks great.

The origina site of Tanauan's "escuela pia" where young men like Mabini learned the rudements of education from Friar educators.

This visit coincided with the initial work on the recreation of Mabini's house in the shrine dedicated to him. Laborer's strictly follow the exact measurements of the Hero's Nagtahan home.

Reference/Further readings:

The saga of José P. Laurel (his brother’s keeper) by T del Castillo and J del Castillo

So help us God: the presidents of the Philippines and their inaugural addresses by Jonathan E. Malaya

The Mysteries of Taal by Thomas Hargrove


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