Friday, February 16, 2007

A Strange Kite for a Post-War Baby

Manolo Quezon, is he related to President Manuel Quezon? He's regular host of The Explainer and in his program yesterday I was confronted by archival footages shared by filmmaker Robin Jacob taken during the Second World War, most of which are found in his movie The Battle of Manila. Manolo also interviewed Peter Parsons, son of American war hero Commander Chick Parsons, a pre-war Pasay resident. Peter is brother of artist Mike Parsons who at one time worked with the late cartoonist Nonoy Marcelo. I remember visiting his home in Pasay with Nonoy, Pandy Aviado and other artist friends.

The boom tarat-tarat TFC ad finally ended and replaced by loud booms and tat-rat-tat-tat sounds of machinegun fire. It was as if I were watching again the invasion of Iraq only this time CNN was using an ancient television camera. First to roll in were some black and white footages of a peaceful cityscape; most prominent of which was a big white streamer that hung over the streets declaring Open City. Then it was followed by grainy but coloured film clips of army jeeps and collapsed government buildings; then followed by scenes of unimaginable horror, emaciated children crying on top of desecrated corpses.

                 Map showing Japanese offensives in Dec 1941   source: United States Army Center of Military History

Speechless, my eyes were bitterly fixed on these moving images of the destruction of the very city I was born in..Manila. The narration continued along with the film. I was horrified, was it really just a little more than 60 years ago when Japanese boots trampled with blitzkrieg fluidity every small alley of the peaceful prefectures of our city? Japanese soldiers slashed the strings that held high the white streamer, a bloodied rag peppered with bullets. It was as if to admit they're unable to read the gaijin's tongue. To them the sign must have read Open Season.

                                                               source: United States Army Center of Military History

Manila's majestic buildings were broken like styrofoam bits. Fragments of cultural legacies strewn around to capture fragmented armies. American artillery cocked with phallic pride pounded with complete indiscretion any walled shelter (even if it looked like the Legislative Building) to flush out stubborn Japanese soldiers keen to die for their recalcitrant Emperor. Collateral damage: more than 500,000 non-combatant Filipinos dead. What?! That's half a million of my countrymen killed by a strange, foreign war waged in our soil! Talk about body piercing and vicarious mutilations..Japanese soldiers were pro by all standards! Hitler would have high-fived Hirohito. And to add insult, the victims were mocked before being killed.

Japanese Type 89 I-Go medium tanks and troops moving toward Manila, Philippine Islands, 22 Dec 1941
source: United States Army Center for Military History

I would have asked my martial arts teacher..Sensei, why did your countrymen treat Filipinos so inhumanely? His answer would have been as blunt as a blood-stained post-war samurai sword. That's war, Sensei would have said. After which he'd have whispered..we'll move on. Manila reduced to rubble, surviving Manilans reduced to tears, war atrocities that reduced this author back down to a six-year old child again. This was at the part when the film doco mentioned the beheading factory, an area in Singalong (no, it's not Japanese karaoke) near St.Scholastica's College and De La Salle University. We lived there even before I was born. My grandparents (now gone) lived at Dagonoy St off Singalong, parallel to Maligaya St (another irony; there were massacres there, too.) Next to our cul-de-sac enclave was St. Scholastica's College compound.

My grandpa, Lolo Julian Aragon is first cousin of Aurora Aragon, wife of President Manuel Quezon.

Japanese soldiers discovered our neighborhood and unfolded their plan like a 2-fold kill and burn.Their gun barrels were like modern probing cameras which penetrated basement floorboards that hid most of my relatives. My "Mamang", Leonora Angeles Aragon was unfortunately hit at the hip and bled profusely. When the devils were gone, my dad scanned the chaotic Manila streets desperate to find money to buy her anti-tetanus drugs. He found a discarded guitar lying on the street and was able to sell it for a small sum which bought him medicine. He finally brought Mamang to an improvised hospital. I can't believe a guitar saved my grandmother's life! Not so for a great number of relatives, friends and neighbors who perished under the Japanese soldiers' murderous campaign. Our biology class frogs had a better fate. Current NatGeo docos alleged that Japanese and Hitler's armies were under the influence of drugs, particularly methamphetamine.

    A Japanese soldier passing by American propaganda, circa 1942                                 Source: Japanese Army

A number of Benedictine nuns who ran the college were raped and murdered. In La Salle eighty people were lined up and shot dead. My aunt survived by hiding under a pile of corpses at the basement of the house. Babies were hidden but their crying couldn't be so their tiny mouths were muffled by their mothers' unforgiving hand as footsteps were heard above the floorboards.
The war ended in 1945 and in the summer of '49 I was born. Thank God I missed the action! I was one of the post-war babies who first saw the white ceiling of the newly-rehabilitated Philippine General Hospital. The doctor who pulled me out into this world was Dra. Gloria Aragon. She was a relative afterall. In the 70's I learned she was a personal doctor of Mrs. Imelda Marcos.

Ten years after the war, Mother enrolled me at St. Scholastica's College at the very young age of five. Until 1985 the school offered kindergarten and primary education for free. Thanks for the heads up, Benedictine guys. All's forgiven now after your
 traumatized predecessors traumatized  our little class of wretched, emaciated post-war children. I have to tuck in my white shirt. It shouldn't be open! I was never allowed to speak in Filipino even if in verbally expressing stinging pain when woolly caterpillars drop on you from the tall acacia trees that canopied the schoolyard. Prayers before classes, it was like "hi God" in your heart and higad on your head. I had to give my monetary allowance (10 centavos) as penalty when I forget. Upside was I, even at a very young age, had the terrific luck to look admiringly at young "St. Scho" girls at the school ground before the morning class prayer.

Current generation of St.Scholasticans, smart and vibrant
Image Source Page:

Back then,  I'd walk to school almost daily and touch the pock-marked walls of St. Scholastica's College; each missile shell scar i know like a good friend. Each one I named. There's Uka, this one's Butasyo, and that one is my favourite Wakwak. Most are round but each unique both in depth and diameter.

Once my red crayola traced the wall while walking to school, dodging the holes up to the schoolgate. I had the sense of wanting to redesign the wall, not to deface it. And why won't anyone bother to patch it up? I was six and didn't understand why people have to design concrete fences with holes on them.

Anyway Lolo Julian was my friend when i lived with them when i was about 7 in order to get enrolled in a Manila public school. I was back to my roots. My parents used to live there until they bought a house in Pasay just a few blocks away from Vito Cruz boundary line.

One day I asked Lolo Julian about the recent war. He looked at me wide-eyed "Don't worry about it my child.." and started telling me about design and craft and how to look at things with capricious excitement and hope. He made Christmas lanterns out of wires, bamboo and papel de japon. Once he made a perfectly round globe lantern. It was immaculate, no silly tails and frilly things. But I thought it's a pity using a material named after a war enemy. Lolo Julian was an artist/designer and was just retired from his work at a Philippine government printing office.

I'll never forget the day when Lolo and I visited my Dad in Pasay for a weekend of kite-flying competition down on the sandy beaches of Manila Bay (now reclaimed). This is the area just near the U.S. Embassy where the Philippine Cultural Center now stands. He brought Dad a strange kite which he made himself, the design of which had a military function during the second world war. He said lots were invented and designed by the US army for communication like dropping messages out to the sea or to relay a signal. It's also like a satellite kite. To make it fly, first a big mother kite (called a gurion) is flown up and stabilized. The string is threaded initially through this satellite kite which looked like twin white stars hinged together (see image above which I drew from memory).

Dad hooked up the kite well enough, gave it a slight push then the wind caught it and briskly sailed towards the heavens. It stopped just before contact with the mother kite, then collapsed and released wads of paper money my Dad's friends initially wedged in the kite. The ocean breeze blew inward and a mob of children ran after the small bills which my Lolo said reminded him of the "Surrender or else" leaflets dropped by American airplanes for Japanese stragglers to read. Tough luck! These Japs would have rather read their Manga.

The satellite kite has now collapsed and slid its way down to my Dad's hands. Then Lolo Julian took over, he looked at me with a smile on his clean-shaven face, then proudly announced to everyone that it was my turn to hook up the climbing kite.
A number of kites flew that windy summer day until they all slowly became dark sillhouttes against the beautiful Manila sunset..
I made a vow..when I fly back home to Manila my friends and I will send up a white double-star kite bearing the words Open City.
War photos in this link if you can bear looking at them. Lest we forget:
other links:

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At Saturday, February 17, 2007 at 12:15:00 AM GMT+11 , Anonymous Cecille Di Bert said...

Hi, Uncle Edd! Thanks for this blog entry... it was so interesting to read. It was nice being taken back into a little bit of family history about you and my great-grandfather Lolo Julian.

At Saturday, February 17, 2007 at 2:11:00 AM GMT+11 , Blogger Toto Ed said...

I would ALWAYS maintain, it was that Ole' Fart Gen. D. MCarthur
who was responsible for the senseless destruction of Manila. Gen Nimitz' plan was to by-pass the Philippine and concentrate all forces and action on mainland Japan. High school student pa ako, I would already flash a one finger sign on any referral of McArthur's heroism. His own father, too, Arthur McARTHUR, has left an indelible mark of shameful act of terrorism against the Visayans by killing hundreds of them en masse. I'd mock and I would spit/piss on their graves if given a chance.


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