This piece is about the event that dominated the family’s storytelling when I was growing up: my mother’s memories of the second world war.
It was a child’s eye version of a brutal event. My mother, Cynthia, was only three years old when Pearl Harbor fell in 1941 and does not remember the bombing of the Philippines that followed. (My father, who was eight, does remember … but that is another story!).
Her father was an officer in the Philippine Army and years later, she discovered that he was responsible for maintaining a supply line to Corregidor Island in Manila Bay, where the American General Douglas MacArthur had removed the Philippines’ then Commonwealth government.
The beginning of the war was marked by a memory of Japanese soldiers banging on the door of their house. They shouted a word repeatedly, it sounded like ‘KURA! KURA!’—like the squawking of angry birds.
Later, she learned that her father had leapt out a second story window at the back of their house. The shock of the impact somehow left him temporarily blinded and he would not have escaped without the help of another soldier who guided him to safety through back alleys as the Japanese searched their house.
Apparently her father had left word that the family up stakes and move to Bataan where he thought they would be safer. In fact, Bataan suffered the most intense phase of the Japanese invasion.
Mom was napping in her cot one day when there was a bombing raid. Her mother was ill at the time and her two brothers, both in their early teens, had carried her mother all the way to a relative’s house before they realized that they’d left the baby behind. Her oldest brother, my uncle Juny, who must have been thirteen at the time, ran back for her, pushing his way against a solid tide of desperate, fleeing people, with planes screaming overhead, dropping their deadly loads.
Luckily, the family—sans Dad—escaped the last stand in Bataan which ended in surrender … and the horrendous Bataan Death March in which 60,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war were marched 60 miles to a camp.
Still, the family remained in Manila, now occupied by the Japanese. For the rest of the war, my mother and her family lived an Anne Frank existence in the Chinese quarter, in hidden rooms above a shop. It is not clear to me why they were hiding. Perhaps it had something to do with my grandfather being a wanted man.
The shop below was run by a Chinese man who went out each day to sell tahô, a syrupy yogurt, from two tin buckets dangling from either side of a wooden yoke on his shoulders. Mom loved hanging around the shop and the Chinese man became her friend. He allowed her to play at measuring out goods. He pretended to buy food from her. And later, he built Mom her own little yoke and she marched up and down the street pretending that she too was selling tahô.
Mom has idyllic memories of those years in the Chinese quarter, it was a feral time, running and playing on the streets with other small children. If the war had never happened, it was an experience she would never have had, growing up amongst the buttoned up, conservative middle classes in Manila.
My grandmother made Mom a small pillow. Sewn inside it was her favourite doll, a change of clothes, some food. ‘If the Japanese come and we have to run,’ my grandmother told Mom, ‘take this pillow. It has everything you need inside.’
Mom’s memories of her mother during the war are of illness, prayer and tears.
‘I was never hungry,’ Mom would tell she told us. ‘But I couldn’t help noticing how my mother, who was not petite, became thinner and thinner. As did my brothers.’ She realized after the war that the rest of the family had gone without so that she could eat.
Mom’s brothers, Juny and Dick, were a noisy, quarrelling presence always teasing, always arguing, always ending up wrestling on the floor, always being scolded for being naughty. They were fascinated by the American and Japanese planes battling over the city. They would climb up to the corrugated iron rooftops to watch the Japanese Zeroes and American Hellcats, spiralling and rat-tat-tatting at each other in the skies above, the explosions, the black plumes trailing behind as planes crashed into the city.
One day, Mom heard the boys yelling, ‘It’s Uncle Sam! He’s up there!’ She followed them onto the roof. They only realized she was there when she began to wave and yell, ‘Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!’ thinking that an uncle had arrived.
After a dogfight, the boys would scramble out into Manila’s broken streets to collect empty shells, to the background noise of their mother, scolding and warning that they were courting danger.
There were girl cousins who came and stayed for some of the time. Pretty teenagers. Women stayed out of sight, Mom said, afraid they would catch the eye of a Japanese soldier. She heard stories of girls smudging their faces with charcoal. ‘You don’t want to be beautiful during a war,’ she told us.
So it fell to Juny and Dick to go out and buy rice for the dinner table. With food supply uncertain, they sometimes had to travel long distances to find rice at all. Walking back carrying bags of rice on their shoulders, they had to go through Japanese checkpoints. At the checkpoints they had to bow to the soldiers, bending at the waist, Japanese style. Inevitably, the bowing would be declared inadequate and punished by a sharp slap. By the time they arrived home, depending on the number of checkpoints they’d walked through, the bags of rice would be depleted by up to half.
Several times, while she was playing in the street, she noticed a bearded man standing idly at the street corner watching her. She ignored him, blithely returning to whatever game of piko, or patintero, or even war was on.
One day the man went up to her.
‘Hello,’ he said.
‘Hello.’ Mom remembers only briefly glancing up, she was so busy playing.
‘How is your mother?’
‘Fine,’ she said, wishing that he would go away.
The next time she looked up, he was gone
Running wild in the streets of the Chinese quarter, Mom often got into fights with the other feral children, not just standing up shouting fights but full on, hair-pulling. One day, an argument—I think it was, in fact, about hair—ended up with Mom, now seven, in a tight knot on the pavement with a girl of about the same age, fists clutching great clumps of each other’s hair, pinching, pulling and screaming, when suddenly they became aware of a strange roaring noise.
It was the sound of people shouting. Her brother, Juny, now a sixteen-year-old, appeared. ‘What are you doing down there? Get up! The Americans are here!’
She pushed her opponent away and raced after her brother. Her underpants had been pulled out of shape during the wrestle, and they were sliding down around her knees. Juny swept her up onto her shoulders so that she could see above the heads of the crowds that, as if by magic, had appeared on the street. There were soldiers marching in ranks between the excited crowds.
‘Do this!’ Juny told her, holding up his fingers in a V. ‘Shout VICTORY JOE!’
She promptly did as she was told, holding up her fingers in a V and yelling, ‘VICTORY JOE!’ for all she was worth.
One of the soldiers reached over the heads of the people in front of them and handed her something in a brown wrapper. It was Mom’s first Hershey Bar.
It was the Liberation of Manila—the war was over.
A postscript: the bearded man turned up again soon after the end of the war. It was her father. It was an uneasy transition. Mom was not happy to give up sharing her mother’s bed. A new chapter to her story had begun.
My mom, Cynthia Lopez Quimpo, will be 77 this year. After the war, she went on to become an English major at St Scholastica’s College. She married my father, Orlando Quimpo, in 1959. I am the second of her six children. Her beloved brothers have sadly passed away. Juny (Cornelio Lopez, Jr.) became a diplomat and her brother, Dick (Ludovico Lopez), became a judge.
When you look at press photographs of those last days of the war, you see bodies piled on street corners, emaciated Americans being liberated from concentration camps, the absolute ruin of a once beautiful city. The war ended in 1945, with American carpet bombing and street by street fighting that left Manila one of the most devastated capital cities of the war, second only to Warsaw.
But listening to Mom’s stories, told around the dining table, or huddled over a candle during the frequent power cuts of my childhood, or while lolling on our parents’ big bed, enjoying the air-conditioning in their bedroom, her child’s eye view of World War II sounds like a wild adventure.