Reflections on Watching Ken Burns’ THE WAR

We have been watching every night, hubby and myself (every night, including the one when we arrived late from spending the day in San Luis Obispo).

We watched the segment on the London Blitz.

We watched the segment on the all-Japanese units of the U.S. army and pondered the way they were sent in again and again, only to be cruelly decimated, in the European campaigns. From this, Mr. Burns did not flinch.

We were waiting for the bits on the Philippines, and they came, interspersed with all the other military campaigns. Naturally, the segments on the Philippines had to mention MacArthur, but the bits on him were mercifully brief. None of the heroics of war for Mr. Burns. Must say that the documentary as a whole is a marvel of control and restraint. And has provoked in self some profound thoughts.

When the documentary turned to the Battle for Manila (which self watched last night), the focus was on conditions inside the prisoner-of-war camp in the University of Santo Tomas. Self read somewhere that where you lived in relation to the Pasig River was crucial to whether you survived the Battle for Manila. Everyone knew that the Americans would head straight for Santo Tomas. South of the Pasig and you made it; north of the Pasig, you were vulnerable to the rampages of the retreating Japanese.

Self has seen the diaries of the Santo Tomas internees. These diaries, some of them, are in the Hoover Archives in Stanford. But last night, she finally saw the people. And they were walking cadavers.

Still, it’s not the Americans self wanted to know about, but the people who lived in the city. This was the toll, at the end of the battle to liberate Manila: 1000 American soldiers, 16,000 Japanese soldiers, and 100,000 Filipino civilians killed.

Here is what self’s father told her about the occupation of his city, Bacolod:

One of self’s uncles ran away, soon after the Japanese occupied Bacolod, and joined the guerrillas. After the war, he told self stories about eating monkeys. This is all she can remember his saying about that time. But self’s father told her that the real reason her uncle left was that one of the Japanese officers, a very refined and courteous man, began spending a lot of time with this uncle, and self’s grandfather didn’t like it. So he sent self’s uncle away to the mountains around Kanlaon, where he could be safe.

Self’s father told her that once, there was an attack on a Japanese garrison and several soldiers were killed. So they rounded up the civilian population of the entire city, and made them file past two prisoners on the plaza, in front of the Church of San Sebastian. And the two prisoners were being beaten to reveal the identity of their fellow guerrillas. And just as one of self’s uncles passed in front of one of the prisoners, the Japanese guard gave the unfortunate man a particularly vicious blow, and the man’s hand flew up and pointed. And when everyone looked up, the man in front of the pointing finger was self’s uncle. So, even though this uncle had never met the guerrilla in his life, he was led away and was never seen again.

The house of self’s father was one of the biggest houses in Bacolod. This house, on Burgos Street, was where the Japanese High Command chose to stay. The house had a deep basement, reached down two flights of stairs. The door to this basement was heavy wood, a wood that probably doesn’t exist anymore on the island of Negros. When self was a little girl, she would sometimes see servants emerge from this mysterious door. She remembered peering down once. She couldn’t make out the bottom of the stairs, only blackness. She felt a chill. She thought the house was haunted. She imagined people had been brought down there, to be tortured, even killed.

Here are some things self learned today, in the course of doing research on the internet: Manuel Arguilla, who wrote some of the most beautiful stories in the English language, was killed during the Japanese occupation. So was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Jose Abad Santos, who had refused to flee even though the President of our fledgling republic, Manuel Quezon, urged him to do so. He and his young son were captured just outside Carcar, on the island of Cebu.

No one knows this, but my husband’s grandfather was a general, in charge of the rear guard action during the retreat to Corregidor. He was captured, of course, and incarcerated in Fort Santiago. And even though my husband’s grandmother went everyday to the Japanese guards and tried to speak to her husband, they kept turning her away. And finally, at war’s end, when all the people who had been held prisoner were released, the general was not among them and no one knew what had happened or even where his corpse was and his passing was received by his family with a melancholy and tragic silence. There is no memorial, not even on Corregidor, for this man.

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