“Wartime Superior in the Philippines” (Excerpt)

From John G. Hurley, S.J., Wartime Superior in the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University Press, Quezon City, 2005
In the Philippines, 30 November is “National Heroes Day.” The outstanding event of the day, attended by thousands of Filipinos, is a formal military review by the President of the Philippine Commonwealth of the cadet regiment (or ROTC) of the University of the Philippines. In 1941, Manuel L. Quezon informed the university officials that he would, as usual, take the review, but that he would, contrary to custom, address the audience and the cadets.
I had forewarning that the speech would be of more than usual importance. Fr. Edwin C. Ronan, C.P., informed me that during the week before the review, the president, obviously under nervous tension, was busy working on his address.
I made my way to the reviewing field in the afternoon of 30 November and was escorted to a seat a few feet away from the podium erected for the president. The large audience included practically all the ranking officials of the Commonwealth government, Supreme Court justices, senators, congressmen, cabinet members, and the upper echelons of their staffs. The day was cool and cloudy, threatening rain. The actual review passed without incident, but when the president stepped to the podium for his address, the clouds poured down a heavy, drenching rain. Without waiting for orders, the cadets simply broke ranks and ran for cover. Obviously annoyed, Quezon bellowed out at them. Sheepishly, the cadets returned and reformed their ranks.
At the podium, Mr. Quezon shuffled the pages of his speech for a moment. At the next, he pushed them aside and with one arm resting on the podium, he leaned toward his audience with a most serious mein. His first words were: ‘I am here to make a public confession of my first failure in public life.’ A titter ran through the audience, who obviously took it as a joke. But his glare should have removed any misunderstanding; he was not making jokes. He bellowed his next sentence: ‘If bombs start falling in Manila next week…’ An uproarious laughter drowned his words. Only a few feet away, I could see the president in a fury. His eyes flushing fire, he shouted, ‘You fools!’ Shocked into immediate silence, his audience waited apprehensive. The president resumed, “If bombs start falling in Manila next week, then take the traitors and hang them to the nearest lamp post.” He went on to tell the Filipinos that war could come to their Islands any moment and that the Armed Forces were not ready for it. Several months previously, he had complained to Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt about the weak Filipino defenses against the dangers facing the Islands. He informed Roosevelt that he felt it was his duty to warn his people. The American president had begged him not to make any such public statement, for it would have a bad effect on a delicate international situation. But now, Quezon declared, the situation had become so perilous that he would be derelict in his duty if he did not inform his people of the dread prospect before them.
President Quezon’s speech was one of the most magnificent I had ever listened to. Never have I seen a man so sincerely honest, forthright, and courageous in his remarks. He aimed to arouse his countrymen to their danger. But it appeared that he failed. As the audience broke up, I sensed that the reaction of those present was incredulity.
A further incident demonstrated that I had gauged the reaction of those present right. On returning to Intramuros, I wrote a brief letter to Mr. Quezon to congratulate him on his magnificent effort to arouse the country to the dangers he so clearly saw. I knew from experience how to get the letter to him quickly. I went to Malacañan Palace, the president’s official residence on the banks of the Pasig River, and entrusted it to the American former soldier on guard at the gate.
Early the next morning, I received a phone call from Malacañan Palace. The speaker was Mrs. Jaime de Veyra, the president’s social secretary, who told me what had transpired. Mrs. Quezon told her that the president had not slept all night; nor did she, for her husband walked the floor of their bedroom continuously. Mrs. De Veyra said that at the breakfast table, the president looked more troubled than she had ever seen him. At the table, the president received my note, ripped it open, read it, and then tossed it down the table to his wife. For the first time, Mrs. De Veyra said, he seemed to get a grip on himself. He spoke to his wife, ‘Here, read that, Aurora. That man has no axe to grind. He is not afraid to talk honestly and frankly, as he has done to me on several occassions. He is absolutely honest and I trust every word that he says. That note means more than anything that these fools think or say.’ (Quite an encomium from a man who in a few days would order my arrest!) Mrs. de Veyra informed me she was phoning on instructions from the First Lady, to express her gratitude for the encouragement I had afforded her husband.
An hour later, Mrs. de Veyra arrived at our house in Intramuros. She told me she came at the president’s order to deliver his note of acknowledgement and to express verbally his sense of gratitude; she was forbidden to send any lesser messenger. Mrs. de Veyra further informed me that I was the only man in the Philippine Islands who had sent a word of encouragement to the president. While cables of reproach were pouring in from the United States, the members of his government were silent, a fact which troubled Quezon exceedingly. For the only time in Mrs. de Veyra’s experiences, the president called for pen and ink, and wrote the message in his own scroll. (Unfortunately, the missive vanished in the later destruction of Manila).
President Quezon tried to warn his countrymen, and failed. Next week came. And the bombs started falling on Manila.

John Hurley
Author: John Hurley

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