THE day of his twenty seventh wedding anniversary, April 14, 1948, was also the day before his death.
It began, like all his days, with visitors, and ended, like all his days, with even more visitors. He was, after all, Manuel Roxas and he was President of the Philippines. His close friend and adviser, slim, slight, bespectacled and loyal Marcial Lichauco, would later reminisce that that as early as that morning, he had remarked to the President that he looked pale and haggard; Roxas diplomatically dodged the remark, smiling and nodding his head as if indicating that there was nothing he could do about it. After all, the afternoon of the day before, April 13th had seen him receive an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of the Philippines, its main campus along Taft Avenue a bunch of Quonset huts amongst the hastily patched up ruins of once proud buildings still being reconstructed, even as its new campus was already beginning to be expanded in Quezon City.
During the event, it had rained, and the President been “slightly drenched”: yet the President, proud to be honored by his alma mater, would not leave though the ceremony capped a day that was a positively grueling one.
Marcial Lichauco was a close friend, a confidant, who had come to introduce two American friends eager to meet the famous Manuel Roxas – because, as, Lichauco would later write, the Americans “wanted to discuss certain matters” with the President. The early morning call to discuss certain matters was just one of a series of visits, the continuous comings and goings of those who needed this and that – “certain matters,” important or not at all, but all made by people who saw in Manuel Roxas the font of all patronage, the source of all solutions, the resolver of all disputes. Even as his country remained very much in ruins, in the grip of an independence so fresh and yet already so tainted with disillusionment and disappointment, it was clear that Manuel Roxas realized that as President, his countrymen saw in him – and projected on to him- the hopes that the independence that was barely two years old would still bear the fruits of the sacrifices it had endured during the Second World War.
Never mind the fact that as Lichauco noted, the President had been looking haggard; and those close to him had been anxiously but discreetly monitoring his health for some time. He had been losing weight; he had been missing meals, though he was known to enjoy good food; his doctors, among them Dr. Antonio Sison who had once looked after Manuel L. Quezon, who, though suffering from an entirely different ailment, tuberculosis, had been as equally stubborn about ignoring his doctors until he would end up bedridden and weak. Dr. Sison had been warning Roxas about his heart; about the need for the President to take vacations: the President’s response was always: later, later, there is still too much to do.
Still, from time to time when he felt discomfort in his chest, Manuel Roxas would relent and take the strychnine tablets his doctors had prescribed – this was long before nitroglycerine was used to treat heart disease- but on he went, never giving pause, never quite taking the vacation his doctors urged him to take. This, his last day at Malacanang, would be like all his other days – days that had passed, since he had assumed the presidency, carried out at such a dizzying pace his only son would later recall they were spent “as if each day was his last.”
THE night of April 14, 1946 even if it was red letter day in the eyes of his family and friends, celebrating as they were, the anniversary of his wedding, was a day of parting as well.
The President’s only son, Gerardo “Gerry” Roxas, bespectacled and at the time rebellious, was preparing to leave for the United States to study. Early in the evening Gerry inquired as to where his father was, and was told his father was in the reception hall. Son went to say goodbye to his father; he found his father pacing back and forth restlessly in the reception hall under the glare of the three Czechoslovak chandeliers that were the pride of the Palace, and standing beneath which his father had been photographed by LIFE magazine in a portrait commemorating the birth of the independent Republic in 1946.
The President heard his son’s footsteps padding towards him and turned to face his son. Gerry extended his hand, expecting the rather formal handshake that father and son usually exchanged; to his surprise, Manuel Roxas put his arms around his son’s shoulders and held him close: then, holding his son by the shoulders at arms’ length, and looking him straight in the eyes, said, “Gerry, take care of yourself, and above all, never do anything that will bring dishonor to our name.” He again hugged his rather astonished son, wished him God speed, and let Gerry leave in the company of his friends for the airport. The President, was, after all, expecting many guests shortly. Typically Roxas found himself mixing private celebrations with official business. Besides the wedding anniversary party earlier that evening, the President was also tendering a state reception in honor of the birthday of the second United States Ambassador, Emmet O’Neill.
The guests soon began arriving; the President his son had seen restless and deep in thought put on his best smile. Manuel Roxas had a tasteful yet not gaudily stylish sense of the clothes appropriate for his position and the occasion and this night was one in which he was dressed to the nines, in black tie; as he circulated among the guests everyone found him cheerful: a man who appreciated fine wine, though never much of a drinker, he probably quipped to the Americans and other guests who often headed for a small ante-room by the rear of the reception hall where hard drinks were served that, “Fellows, this drink may be mild for you but not for the President of the Philippines,” although he was known to prefer a Manhattan as his cocktail of choice, if he did, by chance, want a cocktail.
Somehow amidst the mingling he found time to send someone on a highly personal and hurried mission. A motorcycle policeman was called, the President handed him a slice of his wedding anniversary cake wrapped in tissue paper, and told the cop: “hurry to the airport and give this to my son – make sure Gerry gets to have some cake.” The policemen zoomed off and Gerry Roxas found himself surprised yet again by the sight of a motorcycle patrolman bringing him a piece of his parent’s wedding anniversary cake.
A man who enjoyed dancing, President Roxas that night danced twice or thrice; and despite the past few tiring days and the tiring day ahead, went to bed late.
He slept not as long as he should, and fitfully at that, that night.
On April 15, Manuel Roxas woke up a little earlier than 7:30 a.m., the time at which he usually began his day. The President had breakfast; put on a stylish double breasted white linen suit, with matching white hat; was driven to Tutuban to board a special train that would bring him to Clark Field. The train, pulling seven coaches filled with the usual flock of dignitaries and officials and members of the press – the pressmen getting, as always, the particular attention of the President- then proceeded to Clark Field in Pampanga, home to one of the largest American military bases and, ironically, also to the brewing Hukbalahap rebellion.
Upon his arrival at Clark, where the President was greeted by Air Force Lt. General Walter E. Eubanks, commander of the base, the American honor guard rendered the President of the Philippines full military honors, and then General Eubanks proceeded to take President Roxas on a tour, including the viewing of an exhibition of P-47 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft doing aerial acrobatics at noon. Only after that, around 12:45 p.m., did Roxas have lunch: cold meats, potato salad, baked beans, iced tea, ice cream, cake. And after lunch at the officers’ club, there was still a scheduled speech – the speech that would be his last – and then a military revue. It was April, it was hot, the President was tired, but the day was far from over.
The President vigorously delivered his speech to the officers and men at the U.S. Air Force Bass’s Colin Kelly Theater: and was applauded vigorously in turn, but the packed auditorium was stifling. A relieved President was brought to Gen. Eubank’s house to refresh himself and get a bit of rest, preparatory to the parade.
At two-twenty in the afternoon, the President went to have a wash; he soon emerged from the bathroom, pale and sweating profusely, and said: “I am feeling dizzy.” He asked that Senate President Jose Avelino take his place in the scheduled military revue; and then, turning to his military aide, instructed that a doctor be called for.
An American Army doctor arrived; the President complained of chest pains. The doctors ordered a mattress brought; in and it was suggested the President lie down to be more comfortable; the President said he felt better sitting up – his extremities, he said, felt cold; the doctors knew these were symptoms of at least one heart attack and feared it might lead to progressive heart failure. A loudspeaker summoned health Secretary Dr. Antonio Villarama from the parade ground to hurry to the cottage where the President lay ill; a jeep full of American MP’s went to the parade ground to pick up Dr. Jose Ojeda, the President’s accompanying physician. Urgent calls were made to Manila: to the First Lady; to Dr. Antonio Sison. The U.S. Embassy plane was dispatched from Clark Field to Nielsen Field in Makati to fetch the doctors.
At four in the afternoon, Roxas had difficulty breathing; oxygen was administered. As ranking officials stayed behind, unessential members of the presidential party boarded a train at this time to return to Manila.
Half an hour later, the First Lady left Malacanang by car to be by the stricken President’s side. At six o’clock, an hour and a half after his wife and mother had left the Palace, the President asked that his mother be informed of his condition: a few minutes later, the First Lady, accompanied by the President’s mother, the Executive Secretary, Emilio Abello, finally arrived.
By this time, the doctors sent for from Manila had also arrived and were attending to the President. The condition of the President seemed to have stabilized; the afternoon papers were already reporting in Manila that Roxas had been stricken by a heart attack, but that his doctors were confident he would be able to return the capital. Yet his extremities still felt cold. Nurses, doctors and aides took turns massaging the President’s feet in an effort to make him feel more comfortable.
Eight p.m. saw the condition of the President still apparently stable; he was drowsy; it was decided to let the President get some rest. The President told his anxious mother, “Mama, I am all right, you can go home now. I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.” Gen. Eubanks, Dr. Antonio Sison, , and the First Lady retired for dinner. An American nurse and one of the President’s military aides kept vigil over the patient.
At nine-twenty p.m., the President suddenly began gasping for breath; Drs. Sison and Ojeda rushed back into the President’s room; they found the President, mouth agape, trying to breath. At around 9:35 p.m., the First Lady was brought into the room, but the President had already passed out. Then, five minutes later, suddenly, what seemed to be hiccupping, but what was really the last agony as the walls of Manuel Roxas’s heart literally gave way; and after the hiccupping – stillness.
“The President,” said Dr. Antonio Sison, “is dead.” The time was 9:50 in the evening. Manuel Roxas was fifty six years old. He was dead of a coronary thrombosis.
At 11 p.m. the government of the United States officially informed the Republic of the Philippines of the fact. The American liaison officer sent to the office of the Press Secretary at Malacanang found only two people there. But news spread fast by word of mouth. Ambassador Miguel Perez-Rubio, former aide of the President, recalls people calling up each other in shock; they went to their neighbors; then listened to the radio as the grim news was announced; the news became official when, at 3 a.m. on the 16th, Malacanang issued a statement that the President was dead.
While preparations were made for the train that would take Roxas’ remains to the capital, Marcial Lichauco arrived at Clark at 2 in the morning of the 16th, to find the President’s mother bearing her grief with stoic dignity. “At last,” the President’s mother gently told Lichauco, “no one can add to Manoling’s problems anymore.” Meanwhile arrangements were being made to gather together the Roxas family.
THE President’s eldest child, vivacious, charming, young Ruby Roxas, at the time of her father’s death, was in Baguio, vacationing with friends. At 9 p.m. Mrs. Elvira Rufino, wife of Bataan veteran and businessman Ernesto Rufino, called up Baguio and confirmed that Ruby’s father had had a heart attack.
“I’m calling to tell you not to worry, your dad is o.k.,” Mrs. Rufino, a close friend of Ruby’s mother said, “and your mother and grandmother are with him now -he’ll probably be going home tomorrow.”
Ruby Roxas hadn’t even known her father had been stricken by a heart attack. She was told to be ready to be fetched by plane early the next morning to join her father and mother. She went to bed early.
Between two to three a.m., while Ruby Roxas was sound asleep, the telephone rang. Conchita Acuna, Ruby’s aunt, who was chaperoning Ruby and her friends, answered the phone. Ruby Roxas’s young friends – even the friend sharing Ruby’s room- had crept out of their rooms upon hearing the phone ring at such an odd hour and were gathered around when the President’s aunt was told that her nephew -Ruby’s father- was dead.
No one of Ruby’s friends went back to sleep that night; everyone sat around in shock, some in tears, some emotionally numb; at one point Ruby’s friends softly asked each other if they should wake their friend to tell her that her father had passed away; no one had the heart to do so.
When Ruby Roxas was finally awakened to have breakfast prior to boarding the plane she knew was being sent for her, she found it strange that everyone was so quiet. “Not one of my friends would look me in the eye,” she would recall many years later. “They told me General Eubank’s plane was on its way; I noticed the eyes of many of my friends were red; and my most talkative friend had nothing to say to me that morning.”
Ruby Roxas was brought to the airport where General Eubank’s personal plane was waiting on the runway. Her feelings of foreboding were prevented from getting much worse as a doctor immediately administered a sedative right before she boarded the plane.
All Ruby Roxas was told was, “your father is not feeling well.”
All she could ask was, “where is my father?” She was told they were headed for Clark Air Base.
Not too long after taking off, the American pilot came out to the passenger cabin and gently told Ruby, “we have been instructed to proceed to Manila, because the President is being brought to the Palace.”
Hoping against hope, Ruby Roxas tried to tell herself this might be good news.
But as the Douglas DC-3 plane landed at Nielsen Field, Ruby saw Geronima Pecson, head of the Social Welfare Agency, and not an official normally sent to greet the children of Presidents – dressed in a black terno: a mourning terno. Ruby also saw the presidential guards – all wearing black armbands of mourning. The finality of it all hit her at that moment; what she had dared not think about was so obviously true: her father was dead. She knew it. No one had to tell her. A car was waiting to bring her to Tutuban station.
Gerry Roxas, got the news upon his arrival in Honolulu on the morning of April 15, where he was met at the airport by Philippine Consul Modesto Farolan; Gerry immediately noticed the rumpled suit and the black arm band of the man meeting him and was just as quickly told that his father had passed away. They lingered just long enough to await the next plane back to Manila. Gerry Roxas then arrived the next day at two a.m. to join in his family’s – and his country’s- grief. For the next week both presidential children would quietly sit, their friends describing them as polite, even gracious, to the throng of mourners, but both of them in a daze.
AS Ruby Roxas was preparing to be flown to Manila, and twenty hours before his son would get back, at six in the morning, April 16, 1948, Manuel Roxas was carried out of the two-story cottage in Clark Field on a US Air Force stretcher. The stretcher was placed in a waiting ambulance. The ambulance rushed to the train station at Clark Field where anxious dignitaries, led by former Speaker Jose Yulo, who had all left Manila at three in morning, awaited the man and the distraught First Lady.
In Malacanang the President was laid on his bed. Manuel Roxas had been dead since late evening the day before: the nation knew this; Ruby Roxas knew this, Gerry Roxas by this time probably knew this; but in her grief, her anguish and sorrow, Manuel Roxas’s own wife could not come to terms with the fact that her husband was dead. She clung to the believe that her husband could be revived with the same tenacity she had shown clutching his slipper as she brushed past the hushed throng at the train station. So adamant was she that he must not be dead, that she could not bear to have him put in a coffin, or be brought to the Palace in a hearse; instead, he was to be treated as patient. A man whose life could be brought back. Hence the sight of the President on a stretcher, the ambulance instead of a hearse, and now the President’s lifeless body on his bed.
Soon after the arrival of the ambulance at the Palace, former first lady Aurora A. Quezon accompanied by her eldest daughter, arrived. The silver haired former first lady was approached by anxious officials. A tired and concerned Jose Yulo told her of the depths of grief-struck denial of the First Lady. His worries were echoed by other officials who did not know what to do in the face of such an implacable refusal to come to terms with death. She asked to see the First Lady, and was ushered into the President’s bedroom.
It was a scene few saw, but which was filled with an especial poignancy for those close to Aurora Quezon and Trinidad Roxas. The wives of two Manuels; of two presidents; of two men suddenly dead on foreign soil – for Clark Air Base at that time was considered every bit as much American territory as Saranac Lake New York, where Quezon had died in 1944; two wives of two men dead while still in office. Now it was theÂ sad duty of one to tell the other as a friend, what she must now accept and endure.
Brought to the President’s bedroom, retiring, maternal Mrs. Quezon, in her quiet, deliberate way, approached Trinidad Roxas, took her hands in hers, and told her of her own experience with losing a husband so quickly.
“Trining, Manoling – the President- is dead”, Aurora Quezon told Mrs. Roxas. “You cannot bring him back; God has taken him.”
Mrs. Roxas looked intently at her friend, and it seemed as if in the eyes of one widow the other widow saw that the abyss was indeed there, and must be faced. Mrs. Roxas’s clinging to the hope that life might be brought back gave way to questions as to what to do to fill the void, to keep the grief that must now be faced, private.
Aurora Quezon proceeded to recount to her friend what her own husband had told her, when he knew he was losing the battle against Tuberculosis in an American sanitarium so far away from home, and that he might never reach his homeland alive. Manuel L. Quezon had called his wife into his sick room in Florida that day, and told his wife to prepare for the worst.
They spoke as husband and wife but also as President and First Lady, and what Quezon had told his wife, in 1943, his wife now repeated to the widow of Manuel Roxas in 1948: “If I should die in office, you will have to allow the government to do with my remains as it pleases, for as an ordinary citizen I belong to you and our children, but if I die in office I will belong to the country.”
“Trining,” Aurora Quezon said, “Manoling belongs to the country now”. He died in harness. Like my husband. “You must do what must be done.” Again, she repeated: “your husband belongs to the nation.”
A last attempt to keep her grief private came from Mrs. Roxas – “but I do not want Manoling embalmed, it is not what I would want for my husband”, Dona Trining said.
“It is neither what I nor my husband ever wanted,” Mrs. Quezon replied. “But we had to do what the government said they should do. The people will want to see their president for the last time. You must allow them to render their respect to the President they have lost. The entire country is grieving.”
Only then did the First Lady relent. Officials hurried to put into effect plans for the state wake and funeral due Manuel Roxas as the departed head of his people.
WHEN the remains of Manuel L. Quezon had been brought back to Manila from the United States less than three years prior to Roxas’s death, the newspapers had criticized the laying-in-state at the Palace being off-limits to the public. Articles chided the administration of Roxas for limiting the visitors to the high and mighty, reserving public homage for when Quezon’s remains were brought to Congress and then the chapel of the University of Santo Tomas. It was disgraceful, the papers said, that the dead president’s countrymen were kept out, while others resorted to trying to barge their way into Malacanang and still more were turned away at the gates.
This time the government made no such mistake. The gates of the Palace were flung open to the public at five that afternoon, and would remain so for more than a week while flags were lowered to half-mast and high officials designated to take turns keeping vigil.