Updated: Apr 15
Dan and JoLynn (my brother and sister-in-law) came over to visit in the courtyard last week and we got caught up on children and grandchildren news, and talked about the challenges (especially for parents) brought by Covid, and then settled into a longish conversation about my father's experience as an elementary kid in the Philippines during WWII. Dad wrote an autobiography for a 6th grade assignment that survived a lifetime of moves in a file our mother found after he died.
At such a time his story seems worth sharing.
My grandfather was a civil engineer working in the Philippines. Once the Japanese took the Philippines they rounded up ex-pats and missionaries and housed them in prison camps for the rest of the war. These are Dad's words--including his misspellings--which were remarkably few for an 11-year-old with an irregular education.
"On December 1941 when I was in second grade the war was declared. One day some Japinese bombers few over and bombed an American Army recreation Camp. We had Christmas two days early and then moved to the girls dorm in Brent School. We were only there two nites on the third day we heard the distant rumble of guns and bombings. About the the midle of the nite the Japinese came in and woke all of us up, took us outside and searched us. They packed us in like sardines there was about 300 of us, and the building only accomidated 75 comfortably. We stayed in that place one nite and one day. It was a hot stuffy day and being packed in like that didn't help any you can be sure of that! We had more of less regular meals but you could not depend on them. The last meal we had for a day and a half I missed because I had two back teeth pulled and didn't feel at all like eating. Right after the meal that I missed the Japinese put us in three groups, one of them all children one of them men, and one of them women. They had a machine gun trained on the kids. They started the kids out first each carring quite a load, then they started the women and next the men. Our goal was a camp about five miles away. When we reached the camp we were all worn out an that's no kidding. We slepped on the hard wood floor and when we woke up in the morning we were hungry an thirsty but there was neither water nor food to be had. We didn't have any of either until the next day."
He lived in the camp for four years, and when he returned to the States after two months of rehab he weighed 45 pounds. As an 11-year-old. Of course he was impacted by those years. He stored six months of dehydrated food and grains and rice in a steel lined bomb shelter he and Mom built, and encouraged each of his adult children to do likewise. Wouldn't you?
He watched a man get beat for holding his wife's hand (and becoming deaf on account of it), but he also wrote, "After I got acquainted with some of the other kids in camp we had a lot of fun. The children were not permited to pass back and forth between the men's and women's quarters and that is the reason that we did!"
Near the end of the war they were all moved to a prisoner-of-war camp in Bilibid that he described as having barred cells and dungeons and graves out back. "Just next door," he wrote, "were some prisoners of war and what a mess they were!"
"I will just skim through 2nd 3rd 4th grade because it was quite dull and nothing happened. But to get on with the fifth grade. We didn't get much done because planes would fly over low and high and we would get too interested to study. One Saturday people were lining the bank which overlooked the sea and Lingayan Gulf. There was a surprising amount of action out in that direction. You could see planes diving shooting and flying all over down there also you could see ships out in deeper sea shooting and the Japinese coast artillary's little white puffs of smoke. We did not know it but we were watching the invasion of Lingayan Gulf! ... Every since the first day that we arrived in Bilibid bombers arrived and dropped a mess of bombs... The Japinese antiaircraft guns only shot one out of all the planes that came. That one plane burned quite quickly. One of the parahutes burned, one didn't open, and out of all the men who bailed out of that plane only two parachutes opened and carried the owners down but the men in them were dead! The Japinese machine gunned them out of the air..."
Something suggests that we Pause here.
Dad was newly 11. And close enough to see parachutes not open, and one burn, and the men in the two that did open become target practice.
Could parents have protected their children from this? Did they try?
I wonder if Dad had nightmares. How could he not?
He ended up being a pilot in the Air Force and flew the U2--an espionage plane that took pictures high above the ground. But he started in a bomber, as pilots did, and quickly moved to a fighter plane and from that graduated to the U2. I remember him saying he didn't like the idea of dropping bombs.
I imagine not. He had been in the midst of bomb raids, seen their devastation, and, yes, I wonder what revisited him in his dreams. Dan and I wished we had asked him more about those years. We know a fair bit, but I wonder what he would say about how they impacted who he became.
As a parent he passed on (among other things) an adventurous spirit, measured risk-taking, resisting the status quo, and resilience. Those express themselves differently in the four of us, but I see them as emerging from his years in the Philippines.
Dad taught resilience mostly by not being empathic when we expressed weariness or complained that our feet hurt on a hike. He didn't tolerate complaining in general. Sure, there are downsides to that. For one, Mark would tell you that I'm lacking in the empathy department. The upside is that Dad taught us to lean into challenges as adventures and opportunities, and while that didn't always go over well at the time, I look back on it now with gratitude.
I wonder many things as I revisit this story and I'll end with this. How did the adults in the prison camp (mostly the women since the men were separated from their families most of those years) help the children cope with what they were experiencing on a day-to-day basis in a life turned upside down overnight? What helped them to develop fortitude? What gave them the capacity to carrying on well when the war ended?