A bayonet knocked on the door. A Filipino servant answered. The Japanese soldier asked to speak with Mr. Harry N. Salet. Mr. Salet was expecting them. It was January 5, 1942.
Mr. Salet was my grandfather. During the previous nights he had buried his WWI ceremonial saber and any remnants of his service in the US Marines under the house.
The Philippines were under constant bombardment just 10 hours after the disastrous destruction of Pearl Harbor. My family’s house shook from the force of the American airstrips, ships, and oil refineries being bombed at nearby Manila Bay. My mom Jean, then 19, held her 12-year-old brother Phillip tightly.
On Dec 26, after 19 days of continuous assault on the Philippines, the US declared Manila an open city.
By April, General MacArthur retreated by submarine to Australia, leaving behind 20,000 American and 70,00 Filipino troops who would eventually face the Bataan Death March. He also left behind 5,000 American and European citizens, including families, who would ultimately be imprisoned by the Japanese.
The Japanese soldier at the door ordered my family to take food and clothes for three days. They hurriedly packed, trying to figure out what they might need. Everyone was dressed in layers of clothing, their suitcases weighted down with food. My grandparents, my mom, and two siblings were rushed into the truck, but not before my mom ran back into the house to grab her poetry book.
How did they even get to the Philippines? It’s family legend that in 1918, on his way home from WWI, my grandfather was offered a job back in the Philippines after a bluff paid off during a poker game.
My grandfather would be working for the import business established by Americans in the Philippines in 1900. They imported the RCA Victrola phonograph and the first turntables, as well as National Cash Registers.
Prior to the war, my family’s lifestyle was like Downtown Abbey meets Manila: evenings at the Polo club, extravagant parties with bored housewives drinking more than their share, sweat-drenched businessmen being chauffeured home to change their linen suits before returning after their siesta. Wives would knit, play bridge, and gossip over ladies’ gatherings while their children were attended to by Filipino servants called amahas, and presented to their parents each evening in their perfectly ironed outfits. My mom was not allowed to set foot in the kitchen, but could see the servants polishing the floors with halved coconuts on the bottom of their feet.
The unbearable summer humidity found them at their vacation home in the hill country. Vacations would be shopping trips and sightseeing in nearby Japan, China, and Hawaii, or taking the month-long voyage across the sea to visit family in the US.
19 years later my grandfather owned the import business where he started, along with Manila’s two radio stations, KZRM and KZEG. This was 1938. Harry N. Salet believed in the economic future of the Philippines. He developed a strong relationship with local Chinese businessmen, and treated his Filipino assistant with respect. Although he did not know it, these relationships would mean the difference between life and death.
Suitcases and poetry book in hand, my family was taken to the University of Santo Tomas. The Catholic-built university was enclosed by high walls, and an ornate main gate that would soon seal them and 5,000 allies off from the outside world. As the ornate gate closed, my family officially became prisoners of war.
At that time, no one dreamed that the three days they packed for would turn into three years.
Ironically, my mom had just left the Philippines to attend university in the United States. At 18, she thought she was starting a new life, when unexpectedly her father requested she return home to the Philippines to take care her mother. I’m unsure what would have been worse: reading about your family suffering thousands of miles away, or struggling together for survival.
The internment camp was in utter chaos; the new internees were expected to provide their own food and necessities. At the beginning, thousands of Filipinos and non-interned foreigners gathered at the main gate every day to pass food, money, mattresses, mosquito nets, and letters to internees.
Chairs were taken out of the classrooms – they became converted sleeping quarters, which were separated by gender. Thirty to fifty mattresses were laid end-to-end on the dirty stone floors. The first weeks were confusing, anxiety ridden and full of hunger as everyone lived off what they had brought in their “three day” suitcases.
How do you feed 5,000 people a day? Vegetable gardens sprung up everywhere. People learned to eat talinum, a native vegetable. Internees hauled 50-lb bags of rice and flour into camp, along with cans of milk from The Red Cross warehouse.
Some families, like mine, had collected vitamins and cans of food ahead of time, yet many others were caught with only their shirt on their back. My grandfather and a group of other businessmen-internees took loans from the local Chinese businessmen to buy food and supplies for the entire camp. He even made personal loans. In his inimitable humble way, when promised that the funds would be returned with interest after the war, my grandfather was known to say, “Don’t worry about it, let’s just survive this together.”
The former bridge housewives quickly learned how to become self-reliant. Linen-suited businessmen set up committees to create structure for daily life. While Harry was a security guard and wife Phyllis finally learned how to work in the kitchen, everyone, including the children, were given jobs. My mother cared for children then worked as a nurse, including reading poetry to those in the hospital. Her younger brother Philip loaded rice sacks until he was too weak, then switched to working in the makeshift pharmacy, where he learned how to make and fill pills against dysentery.
Committees were set up for sanitation, food, water, doctors, and communication with the Japanese commander and guards. There were long lines for everything: the toilet, shower, laundry, and the longest one — food. People lined up twice daily and waited for hours to receive meager rations.
My mother distracted herself while waiting in lines by reading her treasured poetry book. It became a gift to herself. It was only years later that I understood why my mom could recite many a lengthy poem by heart.
One of the secret decisions was that Mr. Hartendorp, the editor of the Filipino Magazine at the outbreak of the war, volunteered to clandestinely record all the events taking place, knowing that one day they would be historically significant. He typed late into the night, describing in detail the extreme struggles of the life at Santo Tomas. This was forbidden by the Japanese – he faced certain death if the manuscripts were found. The manuscripts survived, and became the book I have to this day.
I would not be standing here if it were not for my grandfather’s personal assistant and his wife. Each day, for a year, she would prepare a meal at 4:00 am, and her husband would risk his life to bicycle back roads to smuggle this precious food into my family. Without this extra meal for a year, who knows if they would have survived the last two years on only a daily cup of gruel. I am proud that after the war, my grandfather set up his assistant’s family with a pension for life.
There were other gifts in camp. One man owned a most treasured item. A light bulb. He would delicately carry his precious light bulb to the hallway on long dark evenings. When my mother and others heard the sound of him screwing the bulb into the light socket dangling from the ceiling, the scratching of his chair on the stone floors, they would join with their chairs, forming a circle around his light. Each tilted their book so they could find a bit of light in the darkness of captivity.
Once when I came to visit my mom, when she was in her 80’s, she was frantic. She kept saying, “I can’t find it, I can’t find it….where is it?!!!”
She was finally able to explain that “it” was her envelope that held her precious physical memories from camp.
After an hour of desperate searching, I finally presented her with the bulging envelope. With a deep sigh of relief, she delicately placed each precious item on the kitchen table:
An insignia from a Japanese officer.
A stub of a smoked cigarette.
A single chop (letter) from a Japanese typewriter.
The hand-woven cover of her father’s cigarette lighter.
A perfectly constructed wire clothespin made by one of the internees.
A 6-inch piece of sharp shrapnel.
Her beloved poetry book.
Without taking her eyes off her memories, she asked, “Did I ever tell you about liberation, sweetie? We were in our third year. People were dying daily from starvation.
I was given an extra half cup of gruel for my work in the hospital. I still remember having to decide: was it worth expending the energy to walk 200 feet to get these minimal extra calories.”
I said nothing.
“Yet, we knew that the war had turned in our favor. The smaller our rations were, the better the war was going for the Allies. It was our 37th month of internment when we heard the planes flying over…there were cheers as one of the internees yelled, “They are ours! OUR BOYS ARE BACK! MacArthur CAME BACK!”
When bombs started falling near Santo Tomas, the Japanese guards abandoned their planned escape by military truck and took off by foot. The truck was promptly raided by the young adults, where the insignia and chop were found.
The bags of dynamite that the Japanese had placed that morning throughout the sleeping quarters of Santo Tomas were also abandoned.
The bombs continued to shatter the air throughout Manilla until a new sound was heard. On February 3, 1945, at 8:40pm, a low rumble became louder and louder until BOOM! The first of five US tanks burst through the ornate main gate of Santo Tomas Internment Camp.
There was no greater sight for sore eyes than the words GEORGIA PEACH written on the side of the 1st Cavalry Division’s tank.
10 years later, I went looking for the packet again. Mom’s cancer had returned. She had decided that it was time–this wasn’t quality of life. As we all stood around her bed during her last hour, I kept wondering, HOW? How could I help her make the crossing more peaceful?
She had survived the camp, she had shared these stories with countless groups, and she was many a person’s hero for never complaining about her experiences, but rather being grateful for the gift of 68 years of freedom.
While standing vigil with my family, I jumped up. The envelope. Scurrying around, I found my mother’s precious envelope of memories, and in it her poetry book — the same one that had kept her company through all of her trials as a young adult. The book that was her comfort as she stood in lines for endless hours, the book she had read under the singular, hanging light in the hallway in Santo Tomas Internment Camp.
I opened the book and started to read.
Margy Gordon Weinberg’s love of life and a good story is bolstered by her Leo astrology sign, which translates to the urge to teach and perform. Margy volunteers as a tutor with young children in reading, organic gardening and Hebrew. She herself is consummate student: studying metaphysics, shamanism, spirituality in Judaism, watercolors and pottery. She is active in Greater Cleveland Congregations, a values based organization to help empower Clevelanders. As a trainer at the Cleveland Clinic or manager of a postdoctoral training program at CWRU, Margy learned that it is all about listening deeply, caring a lot and supporting people. Her future stories might include being part of the Cleveland Cuddle Collective, or how did a nice Jewish girl end up studying Shamanism.