Just about a month after we returned from Ft. McKinley to Bilibid the great day which we had been hoping, praying and living for arrived — like a thief in the night. A few hours before the first “man-mountain” Yanks broke into old Bilibid, all the guards and staff shoved-off to parts unknown — evidently in anticipation of such an imminent happening — and supposedly with the idea of trying to save their own hides. So, we were left alone to shift for ourselves — without any real military leadership of our own, since practically all of our “able-bodied” officers were medical men, while others were patients or semi-patients. If we had had any weapons, not many would have had the energy to use them if they had known how. So, for these few hours we were at the mercy of any stray American-hating guard who might have taken a notion to see how many Americans he could shoot. Fortunately for us this did not happen, but these few hours represented probably the most dangerous short period of our barbed- wire existence.
Perhaps this waiting for the coming of the “Yanks and tanks” could be likened to our waiting and wondering when (if ever) Christmas might come when we were youngsters. Now that we were adult youngsters, we, too, had looked so longingly toward that day when we would get what we wanted, and asked for so pleadingly, that when Santa Claus did come, we could hardly believe that the time was now, and that here were all the goodies to enjoy. I don’t remember what time of day it was, or just what I was doing at the time, when I heard the first report of our liberators having arrived within our prison walls, but I can still almost feel the’ exhilaration of that redeeming event which meant freedom at last! I wonder if some of these anarchists in our midst, who are always talking ‘about freedom (while practicing coercion) can possibly have the faintest notion of the meaning of the word. Perhaps I had better not pursue this subject, since I might become rather rabid!
I can certainly remember the first American combat soldiers whom I had seen in more than three years; they looked almost like men from Mars … not little ones, either! Some of them must not have been so big, but, by contrast they looked like (friendly) giants to us. Only a comparatively few came in (from several directions — they didn’t need gates) at first, but they were prepared to take on any number of Japanese guards. Although our liberators didn’t know but what some guards were still there, I’m sure they were prepared to handle any situation they might have found. The first American soldiers to crash the walls were elements of the First Cavalry or 37th Infantry — or both. Each claimed the distinction, which evidently meant a lot to them, but not to us, since Americans were Americans — regardless; all of them were heroes!
Before long there were plenty of our friends aboard, and we were in good hands. Although there was firing and bombing in different parts of Manila, including plenty of shells whizzing over Bilibid, we didn’t seem to be too frightened; in fact, we probably weren’t frightened enough, and were rather nonchalant about it all. Some of this attitude probably rubbed off from our soldiers, most of whom had fought their way up from the Southern Islands, and had become more or less hardened to the rigors of jungle warfare. No doubt, after all these hardships, which resulted in some defeats as well as victories, our people had now begun to smell ultimate victory, and they weren’t about to let their prize slip out of their grasp. So, they had one primary objective: to “kill Japs”. As excited, exhilarated and probably “wacky” as we were at our being liberated from the yoke of bondage, our comrades in arms seemed to be equally happy that they had had what they apparently considered a privilege: finding us alive. No introductions were needed, and no saluting was indicated we were all Americans involved in a common cause. So, there was plenty of fraternizing (over real coffee) between the duties these young men were expected and required to perform. Their main purpose was not to see that we were secure, and then spend all their time just visiting with us — as pleasant as that might have been for all concerned. These soldiers were members of combat units which had been sent to liberate the city from the enemy, whom they were to rout, or destroy in the process. They did both.
I have indicated how matter of fact many of these soldiers seemed to be about their dangerous mission. Of course, we didn’t know what was going on down deep inside some of these lads, and some of them may have been more sensitive and concerned than was obvious. However, I remember one lad who was having coffee with some of us one day. Suddenly, in the midst of the bull-session, he looked at his watch, gulped the rest of his coffee, and as he picked up his rifle, said, “Excuse me, but it’s time for me to go out and kill a few Japs!” Perhaps he did, but they got him, tob — not long after he had left us. Sherman was surely right when he said, “War is Hell”, and one of the many hellish things about it is that it destroys many of the finest and most promising young men of the countries involved, consequently limiting the leadership of the world for generations to come. Former Prime Minister of Britain, Mr. Harold McMillan, when he was asked to what he attributed his rise to such high office, is reported to have replied that he made it by default, since so much of the best potential leadership material was lost in World War I. This subject warrants much more space than I should try to give it here — even if I were qualified to do justice to it.
I have mentioned that I don’t remember all the exact details of initial events of our liberation; however, there were others that I have remembered quite vividly for the past quarter of a century. One of these is in connection with the mess-tent the soldiers put into commission not long after they arrived. The wonderful thrill of eating Teal American chow again can hardly be imagined by people who have not been hungry continuously for three years. Our combat soldier friends had a hard time understanding why we smacked our lips over spam, while they turned up their noses at even the thought of the stuff. Such things, as is the case with many experiences, are largely relative. Naturally, we could not be .prejudiced against spam, or anything else that came our way from the mess tent. By domestic standards this chow would have been considered quite plain, but it seemed plenty fancy to us. They didn’t spare the horses in feeding us, but most of us tolerated it very well and began to gain weight right away. In cruder terms, we were getting some wrinkles out of our bellies. We had been told, that after three years of starvation, our stomachs would be too shrunken to hold much, and that we would have to resume eating very gradually and cautiously in order to avoid trouble. Generally, however, this was not our experience; there were a few of the younger eager beavers who developed some G.I. runs, I knew of no other ill-effects.
The one specific incident that I remember in connection with the new food occurred a couple of days after our liberation. On this particular occasion I was sauntering (perhaps not accidentally) by the mess tent about mid-morning. I was not exactly looking away from this vital establishment; in fact, I was watching intently (and no doubt droolingly) while the mess sargeant was handling his freshly-baked loaves of bread. Noticing me, he hollered out, “Are you hungry, Chaplain?” It didn’t take me long to answer in the affirmative, so he said, “Nell, come and get it!” I gladly came in and took a beautiful hunk three OT four inches thick, and sat down and devoured this prize which tasted better than any angel food cake I have ever eaten — before or since! During this week we remained in Bilibid many of us must have gained at least ten pounds. Before we began our new diet, however, the average weight of the eight hundred of us in Bilibid was one hundred and thirteen pounds! This included staff, as well as patients; many were under one hundred pounds. I’m sure nobody in the whole place weighed as much as one hundred and fifty pounds. My weight at that time was about one hundred and thirty, which was, typically, about two-thirds of normal weight. On the average we had lost about one-third of our usual weight.
If you are wondering why we stayed in Manila a whole week before being evacuated, the answer in a few words is — it was just too hot! Now, I’m not giving a weather report; there was a war going on! Shelling and bombing were occurring in the midst of the city, and there we were!
Several people were killed just outside the gates of Bilibid. It’s a good thing that some of us didn’t have any better sense than we displayed, otherwise we would have become more scared than we seemed to be at the time. In spite of the danger involved in leaving the city (in addition to being in it) an even greater potential danger to us was found almost within our prison walls — in the form of a supply of high-powered aviation fuel, which the enemy had put there — perhaps to bum us up with. This hazard, together with getting rid of the stuff, was considered too explosive for us to remain there — until after this booby-trap was removed. So, we were trucked to the outskirts of the city, where we stayed overnight in a deserted shoe factory (no shoes). When we were brought back into Bilibid the next afternoon the lethal material had been removed, and the whole situation was much calmer, thanks to the good Lord, and our armed forces, which were rapidly getting rid of the enemy.
Some of our guards who had left our compound a few hours before our men (not boys) arrived, evidently didn’t get so very far before they waved the white flag and were brought back into Bilibid — in a reverse role. When our military command heard the threats that some of our POWs hurled at these fresh-caught prisoners, they were put in the farthest corner of the compound — with a double guard — just in case! Although we were now thinking primarily of other things, it is a good thing that temptation -was not placed in the path of some of our bitterest people, who had vowed vengeance — if and when there was a chance.
A few days after our liberation (February 5– to be exact) I was able to write my first real letter home in over three years. The Red Cross had made arrangements for forwarding these letters, and also furnished the stationery, which was welcome. Here is the letter — addressed to Rosie:
“Precious people: This is a great day — when I can write
as a free man — without censorship, except as to information
of a military nature. You no doubt know something of what is
happening out here. For the past few days I have been too excited
to light anywhere, and haven’t been able to express myself
adequately. That seems to apply to writing, as well as
speaking. I am so thrilled and thankful to realize how fortunate
I am in being able to see you soon — by Rosie’s birthday (March 22),
I hope, Of course, that depends on how we are handled …
and that remains to be seen. We saw a Red Cross representative
for the first time today, and he brought me
your letter of December 15th, as well as one from Allie
(my sister) of November 12. It was so good to hear from
home, since I had not received any mail for some time.
It’s great to hear such good reports from my big, old
boys, and to know that you are carrying on so beautifully …
as you would. I am already as proud of you as I can be,
but I know I’ll be even prouder when I see you.
Glad to hear that Mother and all are O. K. Give them my
love – until that great day when we can be reunited.
Well, I have about used up ary space for this time. I’ll
try to do better the next chance I get to write. I have
so much that I can only say—and say to you–only.
Among the things that I did forget was being included in a group picture with several members of our hospital staff, which had to have been taken during the first few days after the Yanks and tanks arrived. I do remember several correspondents and a photographer or two, but I didn’t remember this picture having been taken until a copy was sent to me several months after getting home. I have had a little fun asking several different people (including some relatives) to identify me. Most of them haven’t been able to do it very readily; of course, most of us change some in three or four years!
A rather unique incident, involving quite an unusual handshake (for me) was an occasion I have remembered. Several days after our liberation a visit to Bilibid by a very famous soldier was rumored. Sure enough General McArthur, who had some old Army buddies among us, spent a couple of hours in Bilibid. As I was sauntering along during this period, I found myself approaching a group of our people and noticed a familiar looking figure (including cap, but minus pipe) in their midst. As I slowed my pace the General noticed the cross on my collar, and as he stepped over to shake my hand (not giving me a chance to salute), said: “How are you, Chaplain?” As I “allowed” him to shake my hand, I replied something to the effect that I was feeling fine now — since his “return”, and that I was certainly glad to see him! I didn’t try to enter into any further conversation; I thought it best to quit while I was ahead. After all, a junior chaplain doesn’t have such a famous general reach out and shake his hand every day! I think I walked away from this gathering more briskly than I had approached it. I have continued to be glad that I “just happened” along at this particular time!