Have you ever been really hungry? . . . I don't mean that little restless feeling that one gets when he has gone without food for six or eight hours, I'm not thinking of that feeling that comes on one in the afternoon that causes him to have a snack. I mean that terrible gnawing feeling that causes one to grab his stomach and hold it in his fists and pinch to try to stop the agony. I mean the sensation that comes after one has not had a real meal for days, weeks, months or years until strength and vitality have ebbed away. I have been hungry. I was hungry for more than a year, not once in that long period did the internees of Santo Tomas ever have sufficient food to satisfy their hunger. Even after finishing eating what there was to eat we were still hungry and would go to bed to dream of the days when we could again eat.
Perhaps you would like to hear of the story from the beginning. When the war started I had a job at the Nielson Airport in Manila, as a stenographer in the Signal Office of the Headquarters, Far East Air Force. Co., and had a commission in the Naval Reserve as a Lieut. J.G.
The morning of December 8th, 1941, the phone rang and my husband was told to report to the Naval Intelligence for duty. I turned on the radio and heard about Pearl Harbor.
We both worked pretty hard those days, my husband worked nights at the Navy office and during the day tried to keep his civilian job in shape. I worked from 7 in the morning until midnight many times, generally with no time off for lunch. The morning of December 9th, we had our first bombing of Manila proper. It was about 2 o'clock in the morning and after decoding messages all the day before (messages from Clark Field and Baguio which were badly damaged), I was really scared to death. For some reason, I was never really frightened again after that. We were bombed every day and occasionally at night. The Japanese bombings were so effective that we were crippled from the beginning. It became obvious that Manila could not be defended. In order to save civilian lives and save the city from destruction, Manila was made an Open City on Christmas Eve of 1941. Nearly all military personnel was transferred to Corregidor or Bataan. The 'Open City' was a farce. The Japs continued to bomb us regularly, the only difference was that we fired no anti-aircraft at them. My husband was sent to Corregidor where he was later captured. He was a prisoner at Cabanatuan for a while, and in October of 1942 he was sent to Osaka. The last letter I received from him was dated Sept. 1944, he was still in Osaka.
There was no order in Manila after the military pulled out. Filipinos broke into grocery stores and storehouses and located food, clothes, Persian rugs, cigarettes, typewriters and everything they could find. A demolition squad was left behind by our forces to destroy anything that might be of use to the incoming Japanese. All the gasoline and ammunition that was left was burned. Some bridges leading into the city were blown up. We could hear blasting and explosions continually. The sky was a mass of black smoke by day and red flames by night. Many of us were almost relieved when the Japs did come in. We wanted them to come and get it over with. At four o'clock in the afternoon of January 2, 1942, I looked out the window and saw them. There was a bus camouflaged with palm leaves, 2 Japs on old worn-out motocycles and 4 on bicycles. Of course they must have brought tremendous numbers in that night, but it was sickening to see them come in that way and to know that those dirty, stupid looking devils had got the best of our big fine American boys.
The following morning at 2 o'clock my door bell rang. I was a little worried, but I answered it. My attitude was more or less of a "come-what-may" one. There was a Jap standing there with our building night watchman. They asked for the keys to my car and I handed them over. We had a 1941 Oldsmobile and it nearly broke my heart to see it it go, but as I closed the door, I said, "If that is all they ever do to me, I'll never complain."
The following afternoon they came again and took everyone from the apartment to Santo Tomas, telling us to take enough food and clothing for 3 days, allowing us just 15 minutes to pack. I took very little clothing and loaded my suitcase with canned goods. Santo Tomas was dirty and there were few toilets for the number of people, for there were nearly 5,000 of us after the third day, and there were no showers. The place was full of bed bugs, cockroaches, lice and rats, and as there were no beds we had to sleep on the floor. The were no facilities for washing clothes or cooking. The first few months were pretty rugged. Husbands and wives were separated and we were crowded into small class rooms. There were thirty three in my room and we eventually built double decker wooden beds in order to have a 12 inch space between the bunks and an aisle down the middle of the room. My roommates included three prostitutes, one dipsomaniac and one professional dancer who really knew her swear words. I found it most interesting to live with these people though I would never have selected them, had I had a choice. The first few days we all sat around expecting to be registered and sent home, however, we finally decided we had better get little bit organized as it looked as if we might have to stay a couple of weeks. We got all kinds of things together and the Japs allowed a few people to go out and buy materials for building showers and wooden beds. At the end of two months it was not too bad. We still had only one shower for fifty people but at least we did have showers. We had a community kitchen, hospital, carpenter shop, caustic soda plant, vegetable market and even a jail. We had one toilet for every thirty-five persons, and one wash basin for every seventy. We were always crowded and uncomfortable, but became accustomed to it, and settled down. When Corregidor fell—May 8, 1942—we realized that it might be some months and many little native huts sprang up all over the grounds. At the end of the first year there were 500 shanties which were cooking and eating. Eventually many people slept in these shanties.
The Japanese generally did not molest us. They would give orders and then see that our own committees carried out these orders. We had little personal contact with them. They did not molest the women in our camp. Occasionally one of the internees would get caught by the Japs with a radio transcript, prohibited money or newspapers. Those internees were punished severely. We all had to bow twice a day to the officer of the day, when he checked us at roll call. We bowed in gratitude to the Japanese Imperial Army for the protective custody extended to us. Occasionally we would have our personal possessions searched by the Japs. Three men were tortured then executed for attempting to escape. Four were tortured, starved, then decapitated for trying to sneak food over the wall for the internees. Many internees were slapped for not bowing just right, many were tortured for various reasons and many were taken to the torture house, Ft. Santiago, and held there for some time, then were either returned to our camp or killed. The majority of us however, were left alone.
The first two years we were allowed to receive packages from the outside. Filipinos were wonderful. Most of as managed to get money one way or another and we would give it to old friends or servants who would shop and send on what we needed. The Japs in charge of us at that time were civilians and they were'nt too strict. We had nearly every necessity, but few if any luxuries. Beginning September of 1943, the Japs became more and more strict, and at the end of that year, the Japanese military took over the management of our camp. Our package line was closed permanently, and our front campus was always full of Japs, who were guarding the Arsenal which the military had placed there. The market could not bring in nearly enough for the whole of the camp so we were rationed very closely and eventually could buy only one banana or one mango per person.
People were really beginning to get hungry and many small private gardens sprang up around the little shanties. Space was limited however, and soil was poor so no one could grow more than just a little patch. Most of us grew Talinum, an edible hedge which grew easily. It was just as well however, that we had no more space, because no one had the energy to work a large garden anyway. When we had our first bombing by American planes (Sept. 21, 1944) and what a day that was!) our market was closed permanently. We then had to depend on the food the Japs gave us and what little bit we could scrape together from our gardens. The food was never good, there was no variety, but the first two years there was enough to keep us going. Toward the last we were receiving 140 grams of cereal per person per day. Cornmeal or rice was all they ever gave us and we received it in two meals. We were receiving 600 calories per day and when you realize that a man lying quietly in bed requires 2400 calories you can understand how systematically the Japs were starving us. Breakfast was a small portion of soft cooked rice or cornmeal, without sugar or milk. Dinner was rice with an ounce of soup made of a few vegetables, better to say dishwater. By October and November of 1944 we were losing an average of one person per day. By the first of February, 1945, we were losing seven persons a day—death due to starvation. Coffins. The food was horrible and we ate it as though it was the most delicious. We cooked on wood and had little or no seasoning. We never threw anything away. About 3 times we had horse meat and loved it, once we had the head of a carabao to feed 3700 people. The first year we had bread made from rice flour, but after that we had no bread at all. The first year we had eggs, then duck eggs, but the last year and a half we had no eggs. We had no flour, so we couldn't even make gravy.
Many people ate cats, dogs and lizards. One Navy nurse had a cat she was saving for Thanksgiving. A well-known Manila lawyer stole it and ate it. He was prosecuted and jailed. Incidentally cat isn't half bad.
The average man lost fifty pounds, the average woman lost 32 pounds during that last year. On January 27, 1945, it was the birthday of little John John, a four year old friend of mine, and I worked and bartered for weeks to get a little canned fruitcake, that a man had been hoarding for his Christmas dinner. I made a little icing for the cake out of lard and two teaspoons of sugar. I got hold of 4 battered little candles and stuck them on, put little red flowers around it and it was a birthday cake. In walking from my shanty to John John's shanty I saw a little boy—he was about 8or 9 years old—so terribly thin he could hardly walk, his eyes were glazed, his skin was stretched over his cheeks, his little arms hung limply at his sides, his skin was an emaciated gray color—he looked at the little cake and his eyes looked quickly away. He was so hungry he could not bear to look at food he knew was not for him. I still wake up at night and see the face of that starving child. On February 3rd, 1945, a girlfriend of mine came tearing into my shanty and said that the Americans were coming and she was going to the front gate to meet them. I laughed at her and within a few seconds she was laughing at herself. She thought she had heard a siren, a man climbed atop one of the shanties to see over the wall and claimed he had seen a tank with a star on it. This was much too good to be true, an we decided that imaginations had got the better of a few 'stir crazy' internees. Those tanks passed our back wall, missed our camp, got into a battle farther into the city and had to turn around and come back and find Santo Tomas.
The Japs had made definite plans to destroy us. Drums of poison gas were planted under the stairs of the largest building, all of our walls were mined. Machine guns and barricades were all over the campus, however, the Japs were taken by surprise.
Our boys arrived at 8 p.m. and the yell went all over the camp that there was a tank at the front gate. We all dashed out to see what was going on. I hung out a second floor window and saw the tank. It was coming in very slowly, a tremendous man was walking in front of it, with a tommy gun in his hands. We still weren't sure whether it was the Japs, the Guerrillas or the Americans, so everyone started yelling, "Are you an American?" "Are you a Guerrilla?" "Who are you?" "Why don't you say something?" The sergeant just kept walking slowly, slowing in front of that tank. Finally when he got near enough and we were still screaming at him, he threw his hand into the air and yelled, "Take it easy"—Was there anything more typically American that he could have said? We knew for sure that he had come to rescue us and the roof nearly blew off the building from the noise. We watched him kill a couple of sentries which he found hiding. Col. Abico, the most hated Jap, was shot and killed, and everyone shouted and cheered. He was later put on exhibition so anyone could see him and know that he was dead at last. They got a couple of Japs hiding around the Campus then our boys walked right into our building without any resistance at all. Tanks, jeeps, ducks, tractors and every imaginable type of equipment rolled into our grounds and everyone nearly went crazy from joy.
The building which was next door had some 65 Japs in it and it took three days to get them out and rescue the 200 odd Americans that were caught in that building when things started to happen, however there were few casualties at that time.
The afternoon of February 7th the Japs shelled our campus from the other side of the city and made more than 36 direct hits on the building that I was sleeping in. It was pretty horrible. A number of my friends were killed. Our minister was killed, his wife lost an arm, and our favorite soprano lost an arm. One of my good friends had half of her face shotoff. She lost an eye and an ear, had a brain exposure and will probably never recover mentally. I saw a little 16 year old girl who had been hit in the abdomen by a shell fragment. She had been hit with such terrific force that her insides were pushed out of her mouth.
Although we were rescued on the third, it was more than two weeks after that, before the whole of the city was in our hands. The Japs dug in, in the big buildings and fought from room to room. Shells flew over our campus night and day. The Japs destroyed almost all of the residential section and business center. It is impossible to describe the destruction of the city. There is nothing left to except a few homes in the north of the city. Thousands of civilians were killed. The Japs would throw hand grenades into the houses, or set them afire then machine [gun] the people as they ran out. One of my dearest friends, a Free-French, was raped then had her husband shot before her eyes. My apartment was so messed up that I couldn't get through the door to see if there was anything left. Not that that bothers me a bit, I'm happy to have ten fingers and ten toes.
I have enjoyed seeing here in Los Angeles many people who survived Santo Tomas. We talk, we eat, we drink, and listen to music and all the time we know something about ourselves and each other that no one else can ever know. It is impossible to explain what it is like to meet them here in the opulence and security of America and look back to the unspeakable things, the suffering and the agony—yes, and the glory—we saw together.
I've seen man's inhumanity to man in its most hideous aspeot, but under the most terrible conditions I've met people who were great and good. My memories now are of people who remained civilized and kind in the face of unspeakable horror.
America is what Americans have made it—friendlier and richer in meaning than ever before.