The Explainer: The saddest Philippine Christmas

OPINION: The saddest Philippine Christmas

Manolo Quezon – The Explainer

Posted at Dec 27 2016 02:28 AM | Updated as of Dec 27 2016 02:43 AM


This editorial cartoon captures a moment in time: when the Philippines was experiencing an invasion, but still hoped for a quick liberation.

It’s been 75 years –three quarters of a century, an entire lifetime—since World War II began in our country on December 8, 1941.

The anniversary came and went with very few Filipinos bothering to notice. But on behalf of the few who are still with us, who lived through those times, I think we should take pause to remember.

This picture is of Filipinas and Americans in what is now known as the Chick Parsons ballroom of the US Embassy. Back then, it was the official residence of the US High Commissioner to the Philippines. Not yet independent, we still belonged to the American Red Cross, and these ladies were practicing how to roll bandages.

There had been talk of war for months. Air raid drills had started. There had been talk of classes being suspended. Reinforcements had started to arrive in the Philippines, including tanks and planes.


The Japanese finally attacked Baguio, Clark Field, and Davao on December 8, 1942, a few hours after the first news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached Manila. Prof. Ricardo Trota Jose on that anniversary, posted a photo of the special editions rushed out by the papers.

People began to leave the city. They went to Montalban, to Muntinlupa, or to their home provinces.

These photos of evacuation drills in November, 1941, shows us what it was probably like in those frantic early weeks of December.

As December 16 turned to December 17, the S.S. Corregidor, one of the biggest inter-island steamships of the time, hit a mine off Corregidor island and quickly sank, claiming anywhere from 600 to 1,000 lives, with only 150 or so survivors. Many were headed home to the Visayas –if you’ve seen the film, “Oro, Plata, Mata,” there’s a dramatic scene when news reaches a gathering at a party of the sinking of the ship.

Japanese citizens were rounded up. The photo above, also from Prof. Ricardo Trota Jose, shows Philippine Constabulary troops on patrol in Manila, checking IDs.

A blackout was instituted. Daylight Savings Time was put in place. The flag was ordered to be displayed with the red stripe above the blue. The National Assembly certified the results of the November, 1941 elections, granted emergency powers to the government, and ran out of things to do.

The government, for its part, put on a cheerful face but behind the scenes, as the US Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) photo of President Quezon, Douglas Macarthur, Carlos P. Romulo, and Manuel Roxas around December 15, 1941, shows. But the realization was becoming inescapable that this would be a long war, and that Filipino and American troops would have to retreat to Bataan and Corregidor. The Japanese had landed in the Ilocos and Bicol, and were advancing fast.

(Japanese newsreel of their advance to Manila, December-January 1941/42)

When war had broken out, schools had indeed been closed. Reservists had been called to the colors, but when it became clear that soldiers would have to withstand a long siege in Bataan, the youngest reservists, college students and some still in high school, were told to go home.

Quite a few refused. They insisted on going to Bataan, even if they had to lie about their age. Others just hitched a ride with retreating troops. They preferred to take the risk than endure the shame of not taking up arms in the hour of their country’s need.

Finally, on December 24, the decision was made for the military high command and the Philippine government to withdraw to Corregidor. In the photo below, Jose Abad Santos takes his oath as Chief Justice in Malacañan Palace, shortly before the top officials of the government left the Palace.

The boxes are packages that young ladies were wrapping as Christmas presents for the troops. The left most person is Gen. Basilio Valdes, who was Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army and concurrently Secretary of National Defense; there’s Quezon, administering the oath; looking at the camera is Jorge B. Vargas, executive secretary and whose job it would be to welcome the Japanese into Manila; beside him is Jose P. Laurel, member of the Supreme Court and eventually, president of the government established under the Japanese. As for Abad Santos, he would be dead in five months.

Even as the government waited on a ship in Manila Bay to take it to Corregidor, an air-raid was taking place in Manila. 43 people were killed, 150 wounded.

That night, families had the saddest media noche in living memory. Fathers, brothers, sons said farewell to their families and joined the troops retreating to Bataan.

On the evening of December 25, 1941, Teodoro M. Locsin wrote in his diary the worst moment of the war so far, in his opinion. The radio announced that the city would be evacuated in 24 hours. He wrote how his mind was a jumble of thoughts –only to find out, when the broadcast ended, that the city being talked about was Cebu.

Then, 75 years ago yesterday, the announcement came. Manila was declared an Open City. The government, it was finally announced, had left. All soldiers were gone, or leaving. Abroad, Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese.

The next day, Intramuros was bombed. Santo Domingo Church was destroyed, yet the image of La Naval de Manila, hidden in a vault, survived.

Soon after that, Pandacan was set on fire, to deny its supplies of oil to the enemy.

No one who was alive then would ever forget what it was like: the blood-red glow in the sky, as the Pasig River burned for days and days.

As it was in Manila, so it was in so many other cities. The last time many families would be able to remember that they had been together.

So, on their behalf, coming from this year’s Christmas, let us remember their Christmas, three quarters of a century ago; and take the time to relive their stories for each one of those are ours, as well.

I hope you had a Happy Christmas.

You can read about December 24-25, 1941, as described in diaries, in The Philippine Diary Project. You can also read about the sinking of the S.S. Corregidor, in the same site.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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