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OPINION | The rape of Manila

“The devastation of Manila was one of the great tragedies of World War II. 

“Seventy percent of the utilities, 72 percent of the factories, 80 percent of the southern residential district, and 100 percent of the business district were razed…Hospitals were set afire after their patients had been strapped to their beds.  The corpses of males were mutilated, females of all ages were raped before they were slain, and babies’ eyeballs gouged out and smeared on walls like jelly.”
— William Manchester

MANILA — Although the Japanese Occupation is not within my area of specialization, I gratefully accepted a review copy of James Scott’s “Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila” from Xandra Ramos of National Bookstore, on the strength of a positive review from the Financial Times. When the bulky package arrived, I was initially terrified by the thought of plodding through a hefty book of 634 pages. Too light to be a door-stopper, too heavy to cradle in bed.

Like most historians, I opened from the back of the book and found an impressive 120 pages of acknowledgements, notes, an index and, sadly, a select bibliography or listing, instead of a bibliographic essay that would explain why the author relied, referred to or used some historical sources over others.

But then this is not a doctoral dissertation. It did not read like a dissertation either, and turned out to be an engaging read from an author whose previous book was short-listed for a Pulitzer. I finished the book in one sitting, just as I do a Netflix binge, starting after dinner and ending at the crack of daylight breaking over Makati, Metro Manila.

Scott begins with Douglas MacArthur’s escape to Australia after leaving Manila and Corregidor defenseless against the Japanese invasion. MacArthur would not be seen running away with his tail between his legs, hence the famous promise: “I shall return.” A promise that those he abandoned in the Philippines held him to, a promise that took three years to fulfillment, a promise largely motivated to clear MacArthur’s name and reputation. So obsessed was MacArthur about liberating the Philippines that he crossed many people in the military establishment who had other ideas, including his commander in chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

At the other end of the narrative was Tomoyuki Yamashita, the so-called “Tiger of Malaya,” the man whose “Fool’s Gold” ruined many postwar lives in the futile search for his fabled treasure.

“Rampage” made me remember the late writer Carmen Guerrero Nakpil and socialite Elvira Manahan, who were widowed in the last days of the war, and who did not recall the return of the Americans as “liberation” but a nightmare of looting, rape, torture and murder of defenseless civilians by the desperate Japanese, who knew they were done for and took everyone else to death with them. As a matter of fact, the most powerful memories of this lost time comes from the firsthand accounts of Lourdes Montinola, in “Breaking the Silence” (1996); Pacita Pestaño Jacinto, in “Living with the Enemy: A diary of the Japanese Occupation” (1999); and Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, whose first in a trilogy of an autobiography, “Myself, Elsewhere” (2006), not cited by Scott, closes with the tragedy and loss over Ermita and an age of innocence.

The most disturbing pages of “Rampage” detail the horror that overrun half of Manila after the University of Santo Tomas internment camp was liberated. MacArthur was denied his wish to return as a hero and be heralded by a victory parade through what we know today as Roxas Boulevard—previously known as Dewey Boulevard under the Stars and Stripes, and Heiwa Boulevard under the Land of the Rising Sun. What textbook history has whitewashed as the “Liberation of Manila,” Nakpil, both as chair of the National Historical Commission and the Manila Historical Commission, insisted should be remembered as “The Battle for Manila.”

For almost a month after Americans liberated half of the city, the other half had to be taken at great cost in lives and property, as the Japanese holed up for a fight to the death. They burned houses and buildings, booby-trapped others with land mines, and went on a frenzy of rape, torture and murder with no regard for age or gender. It makes you wonder how such a civilized people could perform the worst atrocities possible: infants tossed in the air and skewered with bayonets, men burned alive while trapped, women brutalized and raped repeatedly even when already dead.

If the pages of the book make your stomach turn, try downloading the war crimes depositions online; the pictures alone will leave you weak at the knees.

“Rampage” should remind Filipinos and Americans about the pain we have forgotten. It points to a time when survival led Filipinos to throw away their morals and decency; it is a book that should make us angry enough to make sure this never happens again.

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