My Lola Goring was four years old when the war broke out.
She was too young to remember exactly what happened, but it must have been a normal, idyllic day when the Japanese landed in Negros Occidental.
Everyone must have woken up at the crack of dawn, as usual, and headed to the sugarcane fields to toil the earth, as they have done for years and years before the enemy planes darkened the skies that day. The hacienderos, who lived in their splendid plantation manors, went about their business, unaware that the Japanese soldiers were slowly approaching, razing everything in their way: sugarcane plantations, mansions, nipa huts, and churches. What they left in their wake smoldered into ashes. My Lola’s family hut, near the edge of the hacienda, withstood the looting and the burning.
The earthy and sweet smell of the azucarera nearby was suddenly mingled with spilled blood and carnage. The heady smell of molasses that permanently clung in the air was mixed with the acrid smell of smoke and burning wood.
Young Gloria, daughter of a humble fisherman and a laundry woman, must have been playing with her sisters that fateful day when the Japanese invaded their town of Saravia (now E.B. Magalona in Negros Occidental, about two hours away from Bacolod). She found herself suddenly and jerkily whisked away towards the back of their house where the deep well was located. Warnings of an invasion reached her father days before, and he had prepared their hiding place. The Japanese had already shelled Manila and massacred people in their own houses. Nobody would care to look inside the well, he thought, so he lined it with planks of wood where his children could hide. Gloria, together with her sisters Mercedes and Amada, all fit snugly inside the hiding place.
When the bombs exploded, Gloria, Mercedes, and Amada were all given small pieces of wood to bite on. They believed that if they bit down enough, their eardrums would close and they wouldn’t be scared of the bombshells that were leveling everything in town: the plaza, the church belfry, the public market where, just days before, Gloria was trying out her first pair of bakya, wooden clogs that were virtually indestructible, but now proved to be an inconvenience as the heavy footwear impeded running away from danger.
The succeeding days saw Saravia in a state of ruin. Everyone was busy fending off for himself, and the helpless kids were given meager victuals of boiled kamote and cassava to stave off their hunger. On days when the bombs didn’t disrupt the peace, someone would actually cook kangkong simmered in vinegar, a delicious treat during a time when seasonings were scarce and all the root crops and tubers that they ate were bland and unappetizing. It was a miserable time for Gloria, who always enjoyed her favorite paksiw with rice and sweet, ripe mangoes.
Everyone was hoping that the Joes, the Americans, would come sooner. They fervently hoped and prayed for planes with star spangled banners painted onto them to rescue them from their plight.
When the Americans finally came, there were even more loud noises and bombs. It was back to the hiding well for the Gloria and her sisters, as American planes bombed and shelled known Japanese barracks.
When the mist cleared and the smoked settled, Saravia was even worse off than when the Japanese mortared the place. The school was reduced to rubble. The convent was in ruins. Half of the hospital wing was now a gaping hole. The statue of the hero atop his steed in front of the town hall now lay strewn like puzzle pieces on the cobblestones of the plaza.
But at least, the worst was over. They were free.
Help came in trucks and jeeps. A cloud of dust covered the dirt road as Kano troops surveyed the ruined town.
Tall, blond muscular men lifted them from their hiding places. Never had Gloria seen such hulking and tall men, as tall as the talisay tree in their front yard, or so she thought. The men’s skin shone in the sun, and everyone looked on with studied interest, curiosity and awe.
When the family reunited, they were given provisions that brought smiles to their wan faces: tinned pork and beans, margarine, powdered milk, sardines. Gloria and her sisters couldn’t hide their excitement. These gifts from the Kano all looked shiny and beautiful, and for a while, nothing else mattered.
Everything looked new. Optimistic.
With the Kano helping them rebuild their town from the smoldering ashes and the rubble, Gloria could play with her sisters again.
The haystack at the azucarera would spew its white smoke again after a time. The sakada were back at their backbreaking work of clearing the fields for planting. Peace was restored, and the haciendas were once again buzzing with activity.
Gloria, now grandmother to over a dozen grandchildren and a lot more great-grandchildren, can barely recall the events of the war. But alluding to John Milton, she always says the same thing about the invasion: It was paradise, and then paradise lost, then, finally, paradise regained.