My Dad was in High School during World War 2. He lived in Paco. He was shanghaied into working for the Japanese at Nielson airfield. The runway at Nielson later became Paseo de Roxas Avenue. The large ramp became Ayala Avenue. You can see a history of Nielson Field here.
Dad was put to work helping overhaul Mitsubishi engines of the Japanese A6M Zero fighter aircraft. Nielson was then a staging base for Japanese airplanes being ferried to the battlefields of the South Pacific. When the big Japanese bombers would come in, my Dad would sneak into the airplanes and forage among the lunch boxes that the crew left behind. Pickled rice and fish.
In the morning, they lined up to sing the Japanese Navy hymn. Then they would all bow toward Tokyo, where the emperor was. All the Filipinos in the work force crossed their fingers behind their backs during this exercise.
Years later, in the bathroom, my Dad would still sing the Japanese Navy hymn.
The newspapers were full of stories about Japanese victories. Scores of American ships and hundreds of American airplanes were being destroyed. But the Filipinos all noted that the “victories” were coming closer and closer to the Philippines. Guadalcanal, then New Guinea, then the Marianas, then Palau….
In 1944 the Americans landed at Leyte. My Dad noticed that the Japanese soldiers, for the first time in 3 years, looked fearfully at the sky while on sentry duty.
The first American air raids on Manila began. There would be the deep thrum of many airplane engines. Then one airplane would appear out of the clouds, then three, then 50. My Dad said they were like ants – first you would see one, then a whole lot! The squadrons would circle Manila Bay, as the flight leaders assigned targets. Then they all dove down. Not one at a time like in the movies, my Dad said. All at the same time.
Japanese guns would fire at the diving airplanes. A few airplanes were hit, and fell like leaves, fluttering back and forth. Not like the dramatic, flaming power dives in the movies, my Dad said. Like falling leaves.
During one of the air raids, he was upstairs at the family home in Paco, on San Marcelino street. He was beside his own Dad, my grandfather, watching F4U Corsairs strafing the Paco railroad station, near what is now Quirino Avenue and South Super Highway. His three sisters and his mother were downstairs, praying the rosary. His mother was seated on a rocking chair, holding his baby brother, my Uncle Carlos, in her arms.
My Dad heard a loud crash. He and his Dad went downstairs. An American 0.50 caliber bullet from a Corsair had passed through one wall of the house and gone through the rocking chair, blown a hole in a closet and exited out the other wall. His mother was killed. My Uncle Carlos was untouched.
The Corsair had missed its target by more than a mile.
The Americans landed at Lingayen (sheep on the runway!) and began the drive towards Manila. My Dad’s family evacuated to Pagbilao, Quezon. After the devastating Battle of Manila, my Dad and his Dad hitchhiked on American Army trucks back to Manila. Manila was almost totally destroyed, the second most devastated city in the war, after Warsaw. From San Marcelino street they could see all the way to Manila Bay. Every building in between was flattened rubble.
Their house had been hit by an artillery shell, a neighbor said. They tried to put the fire out, but it was hopeless.
The place where the house stood became a car repair shop for a while. I don’t know what it is now. I can’t find the place anymore.
My Dad would tell me these stories years later, when I was a young boy. It would be night, when everyone else was asleep. He would go out and buy a can of spicy spanish sardines and a loaf of bread. We would share the sardines, but he would take all the spicy pickles for himself. We mopped up the olive oil with the last of the bread.
One of my Dad’s best airplane stories was about P-38 Lightnings. He was walking on the rice fields at Pagbilao. Then he heard a deep rumbling sound, “like empty 55-gallon drums rolling on the ground”. Then he saw them, P-38 twin-tailed Lightnings, twin-engined fighter planes.
They were no more than 20 feet above the ground. They were looking for Japanese soldiers. The pilots looked at him and waved. Just 20 feet above his head.
I asked him how low 20 feet was, and he would point to the Royal Tru-Orange billboard, the only one on Highway 54 (now EDSA). That low, he would say. (Today you couldn’t see EDSA from the air, for all the billboards.)
Wow, I would think. That was REALLY low. I never tired of hearing that story. Such low flying!
My Dad bought me a scale model of the P-38 Lightning. I would fly it all the time, flashing low past the rice fields, looking for enemy soldiers. I would bank and turn, following the rivers, zooming over the trees. In my imagination.
One time he told me of how they used to put water in nearly-empty catsup bottles, during the war. They would drink it as tomato juice. He would do that, actually drink catsup tomato juice, sometimes, while telling me stories, while we were eating sardines.
Another story he told me was how Franklin Roosevelt died. Roosevelt was sitting for a portrait and complained of a massive headache. Then he died from a cerebral hemorrhage.
My Dad became an electrical and a mechanical engineer. He finished both degrees in just 5 years, at U.P. When he was working at Filoil (which later became Petron) he went to England in 1963, on a scholarship from the Colombo Plan. He topped the course in Chemical Engineering at the prestigious Loughborough University in Leicestershire.
Just 14 years later, he spent an entire night hauling water in drums, by himself, from his Dad’s house to our house, in his ancient 1948 Chevrolet. There was a drought that year, 1977. There was no water in most of Manila.
Then, without any sleep, my Dad drove to Baguio to meet his sister, then an American citizen who was visiting the Philippines. At Santo Tomas, Pampanga, he complained of a headache, parked the car, and fell unconscious. It was a cerebral hemorrhage. He never woke up. He was only 50 years old.
That was 30 years ago, today, April 5. If I live as long as he did, I have only one year and 8 days left. That’s how young he was.
I certainly miss his airplane stories. I think he would have gotten a tremendous kick from flying with me, if he were alive today. I could show him what 20 feet low is like, from the air.
Tonet and Carlo on high-speed low pass, 20 feet over Omni