The Explainer: Manila

37:44 -38:25 “It’s obvious” to “American troops enter the fortress…”


That was a scene from “The Battle for Manila”. It shows the transformation of the liberation of Manila in 1945, into the death of a city. From February 3, to March 3, 1945, the Manila of fond, prewar memories, was destroyed. The destruction of Manila, on the 62nd anniversary of that tragedy, is our topic for tonight.


I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. The Warsaw of Asia


As a martial law baby, it seemed to me that everywhere the Second World War and its aftermath was inescapable. The gate of Fort Santiago was as smashed as it had been when an American Sherman tank blasted through it in 1945.  In San Juan, the Waterous Hospital still operated out of Quonset huts, temporary, prefabricated steel buildings which the new Filipino culture of poverty had kept useful four decades after they were first built.

Ruins still existed in neighborhood after neighborhood: gutted mansions in Pasay and Mandaluyong; the Quezon Institute retained on its roofs the painted Red Crosses that had been meant to deter first Japanese, then American, bombing.

But as for the survivors, they kept their memories out of sight and mind. They did not begin to speak, until 1995, half a century after their ordeal.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said of Manila, that it was the second most destroyed Allied Capital after Warsaw, destroyed by the Germans as thoroughly as the Japanese did to Manila. The Allies hadn’t intended it; but the Japanese made sure it would be leveled to the ground.

On December 24, 1941, Manila was proclaimed an open city. In international law, that means a city will be surrendered without a fight, to spare it the ravages of war. The Japanese bombed it, anyway, destroying St. Domingo Church, the Intendencia building, and the Debate-Herald-Mabuhay-Monday Mail newspaper offices. On January 2, the Japanese marched into Manila and four years of enemy occupation began, two of them under a puppet republic.

On October 20, 1944, the Americans had landed at Leyte, and the log, hard, slog back to Manila began. By September 21, 1944, the Americans had begun air raids on Japanese ships in Manila Bay and other military objectives.

The Americans had landed at Lingayen; Filipino guerrillas were activated to aid in the liberation of their country, just as French partisans had assisted in theirs; a grand victory parade on the model of the liberation of Paris in 1944 was drawn up.

Today we’re quite familiar with some of the highlights of that effort, most famously in “The Great Raid,” the liberation of allied prisoners of war in Cabanatuan.

American troops raced to Manila; On February 3, they liberated the internment camp for civilians at the University of Santo Tomas.

By February 4, they had liberated 1,000 prisoners of war in Bilibid

The Japanese had originally established the Manila Defense Area, composed of ten sections, defended by 23,000 Japanese troops. But by January 10, 1945, troops began to be withdrawn to the Sierra Madre, and then to Baguio, where Gen. Yamashita had moved his command; so that by January 25, 1945, only two Japanese detachments from this main force were left to defend Manila.

The problem was there were fanatics outside of the Manila Defense Force. This was the Manila Naval Defense Force, under the command of Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi. He would defend a perimeter that stretched from Manila Bay to Novaliches, Marikina, and Laguna de Bay. He had 17,000 troops, 12,500 of which were Imperial Japanese Navy personnel, and 4,500 Army troops.

Iwabuchi divided his force into three: a Northern Force, a Central Force, and a Southern Force. The Northern force would be the most fanatical of all. It was commanded by Col. Katzuo Noguchi, and its territory North of the Pasig River, the Manila suburbs in the North and Northeast, the eastern Sector of Manila, and included Intramuros.

Iwabuchi himself busied himself with the Southern side of the Pasig, and concentrated troops in Ermita, the government center from the Post Office to the Agriculture and Finance buildings. 

The Japanese under Iwabuchi would make a last stand. They ignored orders to retreat to Baguio. They mined streets, established gun emplacements in government buildings, set up hardened positions along bridges. From February 4 to 11, the Japanese fought street to street, burning neighborhoods as they pulled back. Manila would not be encircled by American troops until February 12, when forces blocked at Nichols field finally broke through.

It was on February 12 that the massacres in Manila began.

Fighting was intense practically anywhere in Manila: on February 15th, for example, the battle you’re seeing on your screens was taking place inside the Rizal Memorial stadium.

By February 23, the Americans had surrounded Intramuros, where the Japanese had dug in. It took them five days to pound the walled city into submission. Resistance continued until the last pockets of Japanese troops, holed up in the Finance Building, were “flushed out” by heavy artillery on March 3. The last stragglers were eliminated in Intramuros on March 4.

Writing in “The Battle for Manila”, John Plimlott, Duncan Anderson, and Richard Connaughton, put together a fascinating analysis of the American tactics that lead to the destruction of our capital.

“According to the American Field Manual that dealt with urban fighting (FM 31-50, revised in 1944),” they wrote, “the capture of a defended city required a great deal of forward planning. As ground forces advanced toward the city, commanders were expected to produce an ‘estimate’ of the situation facing them, integral parts of which would comprise detailed descriptions of the area and of the enemy dispositions. Once the attack began, the primary aim would be to seize key locations, partly to deny them to the enemy, partly to give the attackers positions from which to observe defenses and call in supporting artillery or air strikes. Then, and only then, would the infantry, backed by armor and artillery, push into the city, driving toward observed enemy strongpoints that would be softened up beforehand. Enemy defenses could be bypassed, but only if follow-on units were available to deal with them before their occupants mounted counterattacks. The key to success was seen as the creation and maintenance of momentum, denying the enemy any opportunity to consolidate.”

The book goes on to identify that:

“One overriding lesson was learned early on – in any attack on a defended building, the key was to go in firing with every weapon available. The alternative was just to stand off and allow the artillery to demolish the structure brick by brick, burying the Japanese in the ruins.”


The Battle for Manila also quotes an artillery officer named General Beightler who had this to say about the destruction of Manila. Explainee, please read.

“We used these shells and plastered the Walled City until it was a mess. It fell to us with ease we never expected. We made a churned-up pile of dust and scrap out of the imposing, classic government buildings. Our bombers have done some pretty fine alteration work on the appearance of Berlin and Tokyo. Just the same, I wish they could see what we did with our little artillery on the Jap strongholds of Manila.”


Beightler was referring, with a great deal of exaggeration and American military braggadocio, to the means his artillerymen found to defeat the Japanese holed up in Intramuros and its environs. Forbidden by General Douglas MacArthur from using aircraft, to spare civilians, the American forces systematically leveled the government area of Manila. Take a look at these pictures

Of Intramuros…

Of the environs of Manila…

Of the ruins of the legislative building….

And the ruins of the Metropolitan Theater…


General Beightler went on to say that –Explainee, would you like to read?

“Although I know there was plenty of weeping and wailing from property owners who saw the buildings disappear in the blasts of 240mm shells, if I could have had those dive bombers too, I might have made the big rubble into little rubble. So much for Manila. It is a ruined city —unhealthy, depressing, poverty stricken. Let us thank God our cities have been spared such a state.”


But so far, we’ve discussed Americans and Filipino guerrillas fighting the Japanese. But what of Filipino civilians themselves? The other part of Manila’s ordeal –it’s rape and burning to the ground- when we return.


II. By Sword and Fire


24:59 to 26:00 “Aurora Garcia…” to “his last words were, ‘be brave’”


That was a scene from the documentary, “Manila: 1945 The Forgotten Atrocities.” There is no substitute for actual testimony from survivors, when it comes to understanding the horrors of war.

THE Battle for Manila saw whole districts –Intramuros, Malate, Pasay- systematically put to the torch by the Japanese, its residents capriciously and cruelly killed; famous landmarks such as the Masonic Temple and de la Salle College on Taft Avenue became the scenes of mass murder; places such as the Bayview Hotel, the scene of the rape and torture of women by the Japanese; places such as the Philippine General Hospital were turned into fortresses by the Japanese. The Americans shelled anything that could shelter the Japanese.

The documentary lists the massacres in broad but stark strokes:

Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero, the playwright, remembered the ordeal in this account from the Philippines Free Press. Explainee, it’s rather long, but this testimony must suffice to represent tens of thousands. I’d like you to read part of it, please.

We were about 200 yards from Ermita Church, which was aflame. Speechless and horrified, we watched Japanese soldiers close all the windows and finally nail the main door shut. Later we were to learn that the women had been taken to the Bay View Hotel.

Rumors spread that the Japanese would blow us all up with dynamite. Resigning ourselves to whatever horrible fate was in store for us, we began saying our last prayers. Through the closed shutters we could watch how the fire was devouring the beautiful church, which my grandfather Lorenzo had designed about 80 years before, and the surrounding area. Hundreds of people who had sought shelter inside the church and the convent were machine-gunned.

The heat coming from the crackling flames was almost unbearable. Throughout the night we could hear shots in different sections of the district—hundreds of Ermita residents were dying or were to die that evening.

At 4 p.m. the next day a platoon of soldiers came and ordered us to move on to the University Club two blocks away. A Chinese, seriously wounded, couldn’t walk, so the Japanese simply shot him in the head and left his body on the street. We were placed in one room, and the door was bolted and nailed.


This was the beginning of their ordeal. By the 12th of February, as another account has it, “ the night raged with fires… All over Manila, fires had erupted. An orange, reddish film covered the sky. In some portions of the sky, the gray smoke was thick. Manila was a raging inferno. Sadness overtook the people as they witnessed the maddening scene.”

But let this portion, which quotes a letter from American war hero Chick Parsons, himself a prewar Pasay City resident, tell us of what the aftermath of the massacres were like:


[play 28:49 -30:13 “Perez-Rubio” to “several housegirls…”]


Fire, grenades, artillery and the crossfire, took its toll on the residents of a metropolis that had a population of 1 million. Of that population, at least 100,000 died. Ten percent.

How did the survivors feel, when the shelling stopped?

Another survivor, Ana Mari Calero, wrote in her memoirs,, “the American artillery shelling and mortar fire caused loss of lives and properties in Manila. Survivors, however, were all happy to see the Americans. The constant shelling and street-by street fighting was a high price to pay for freedom.”


But not all survivors felt the same way. In her famous account of her ordeal, “The Benevolence,” Carmen Guerrero Nakpil wrote, and please read it, Explainee:

…Once again, as in Bataan, we had put our faith in the myth of the benevolent protector who did not materialize until fire, shelling from both sides had reduced Manila to the last circle of hell and its people to wide-eyed, shivering madmen. Those who had survived Japanese hate did not survive American love. Both were equally deadly, the latter more so because sought and longed for.


Carmen Guerrero Nakpil had seen her father and husband taken away by the Japanese and killed; she had run through the streets and sheltered for days in trenches and basements, pregnant, and clutching her baby; she recalled spitting on an American soldier who’d shouted at her, “Hey you, wanna get killed?” when she stumbled into the American lines. Yet, she recalled, the wonder was he didn’t bayonet her, as a Japanese soldier would have done. As she ironically ended her essay, “the myth of benevolence comes alive when one least wants it.”


Defeat, occupation, resistance, and widespread destruction took their toll on their country. As early as December 29, 1941, Teodoro M. Locsin, Sr. had observed the stresses it was causing to national solidarity. Explainee, would you like to read what he wrote in his diary?


The rich and the influential are the pitiful ones. They have so much to lose! They shake for their lives, they shake for their office, they shake for their bank accounts. They read all the literature on the established methods of avoiding death and damage by bomb, bullet and gas. They sit in a circle all day and worry over every rumor and report of disaster. They scan every threat to their security with the passion of scholars poring over a newly recovered line from the Greek Anthology.

The war freshly illumines a paradox: 

One may be casual about one’s life but rarely over one’s property.

In high good humor the people are compiling a list of dishonor. With infinite malice they treasure each new story of how their lords and masters have disgraced themselves.


We see the consequences of the war in simple, things, too. In “The Good War: An Oral History of World War 2,” Studs Terkel interviewed Joseph H. Rauh, Jr. Explainee, care to read what he said?

I… was on General MacArthur’s staff… I was sort of mayor of Manila… You have no idea of the problems you face. One night we get an order. From now on, everybody will drive on the right side. The Philippines is one of those places where it’s on the left. Try that sometime, brother, to figure out in three days how you’re gonna move people from the left side to the right. Tell that Filipino guy with his carabao to go on the other side of the road. {Laughs)


Alfonso Aluit, writing for the Philippines Free Press, penned this summary of the bitter lessons of the war. Explainee, would you like to read it?

Thus emerged the phenomenon of the saboteur, the vandal, the looter, and the profiteer who took advantage of scarcity to exact his toll, the squatter who sneered at all titles to property, and worst of all the traitor personified by the makapili who would betray any person and any cause, for lucre. These also became permanent in the Philippines, in business, politics, and every sector of the community.


My view


Near Malacanang, one of the Legardas has a fine old mansion that has been preserved and turned into a place for fine dining for small parties. It is staffed with household help that have been with the family for many years.

After one such dinner, I spent some time talking to the oldest member of the staff, and she reminisced about their old employer. I asked her what it was like to live so near the palace, what with coup attempts and so on in the 1980s.

“You know,” she said, “I will never forget what the old Doctor told us when we were panicking in 1989. He gathered us around and said, ‘whatever happens, we stick together, if necessary, we will suffer together, but we must remain together.’ What employer today would ever say such a thing?”

This struck me because it was a throwback to an earlier era, in fact, the era of the war. In 1989 I remember wealthy friends evacuating Makati and Pasig, leaving their household help to guard their homes and face the putschists. Yet the grandparents or great-grandparents of these same people had, in 1945, risked fire and shell together with their staff, at times dying together -but never leaving the household help to hold the bag for them, so to speak.

To see the difference in the actions of different generations is to see the way our society has fragmented and lost its sense of community.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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