Sixty five years ago, the U.S. forces were wrestling of Philippines from the invading clutches of the Japanese Empire. In this fight to the finish, they carpet bombed my hometown of Baguio. My grandfather built bomb shelters next to the Baguio Cathedral, and in other locations in Baguio. He was a mining engineer, and so he knew how to build tunnels.
On the morning of the bombing mission, my family knew the drill. They were staying with the Catholic bishop, who was a good friend of the family. The Blessed Sacrament would be taken from the Cathedral tabernacle to the underground shelter. The Bishop would give Holy Communion one last time, give them the final absolution, and then they would wait.
My mother was fourteen. In fact her birthday would pass during those days. I always think of her as a little girl, because in her narrative, she always sounds like a child, deferring to her parents in a high pitched voice. She never told us the story until a few years ago, when Hollywood released, “The Great Raid” about the rescue at Cabanatuan. She told the story to my children. We sat around the table and she reached into some unaccessed piece of memory and told us what happened.
At the end, we are all in tears. At fourteen, you have an idea of life and death. You have a sense of dread. You can feel terror. So there they were, in the bomb shelter. They had received the Last Sacraments, they huddled together in the embrace of their parents who held hands around their children. There was Patricia, 14, Teresita, 11 Buddy, 8, Sonny, 4, and baby Mary Anne. It must have felt like being on the Titanic.
Lolo started praying out loud, when the high pitched whistle of the falling bombs began. There was, of course, tremendous noise, the force of the concussion, and earth quaking. I can just imagine them bearing it in however children can bear things. I can just imagine my grandmother holding my grandfather’s hands, truly, for dear life.
Then, unbelievably, it was over. My mother did not know if she was dead or alive, and felt her face. She could feel blood coming out of her ears and nose. Then someone opened the door and she could see a pinpoint of daylight.
They staggered out into hell. There was fire all around them. A decapitated head blinked its eyes. My mother said the bishop’s palace was a smoldering ruin. The only thing she could think, at that time was of a dress she had. Her only dress. She reverted to her teenager’s mind and thought, “There goes my dress. How will I ever get another dress?”
They weren’t done yet, the war wasn’t over yet. They still had to refugee on foot down the mountain, and refugee back up to Baguio. If you have never heard of Baguio, I will tell you this. It was a beautiful American city in the highlands of the Philippines.
I have often pondered how it would be if our city would be invaded and taken over by a cruel conquering army. How would it be if we had to withstand a carpet bombing? I think of the people in Baghdad. I think of the people in Bosnia. It is always so hard on the people who survive. It leave scars, believe me, it does.
I carry scars from my mother’s war experiences. I carry a fear of lack, a fear of what might go wrong. So, unlike my husband whose parents grew up in relative security, I fear things he would never think of. Because encoded in my DNA, are memories of terror that became normal.
At least I know this, and have worked to overcome it all my life. The war was the single world event that formed the psyche of my mother’s family. Many of their reflexes are still as children in the war. They all miss their parents, even if their parents died in the 1960′s. Time, of course, has abated the pain, but their absence is still palpable. How can you ever let your parents be human beings if they saved you over and over again when you were a child?
My poor grandparents, what did they bear? My poor mother, what things did she see and hear that she still cannot fully process? War is horrible. We should think twice or thrice about the legacy of violence around the planet when a child is witness to horror and brutality.
And interesting thought about the Philippines and all who witnessed the horrors of war. I don’t know how people dealt with it except through repression, because there was no therapy movement. It looks to me like people just buried it and went on. If Americans have a triumphalist view of history, then Filipinos has a triumphalist view of life. They like to look on the bright side. Ever optimistic, they buried the pain of the war deep where it wouldn’t come to them during the day. It just wasn’t spoken about when I was growing up. I never even heard of the plight of the “comfort women” until I was a grown woman in San Francisco. So much pain, my island home, so much suffering. And such a beautiful country.
When I was a little child, the war was right next to us. The servants told us of the atrocities, my mother never did. Stones will tell the story of that sort of violence.
Sixty five years ago, the bombs fell and my family live to tell the tale. Many other people we know collectively, people who were part of the family story, didn’t make it. That is how it is in the time of war.
I am very grateful to be here. I am glad my mother has these years of peace and plenty in California. As a mother, I am so sorry my family had to endure that. It scarred them. Some of it was transferred to us. You don’t have to look hard.
Only with compassion can everything be forgiven. The conquering Japanese, the Americans who liberated with bombs, the encoding fear that shaped that generation. May they all have peace now, for the rest of the road.
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