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The Japanese Come
It was December of the same year, 1941, with much to be completed before celebrating Christmas in Santa Cruz. To benefit the livestock, the men cleared several acres of tall grasses by setting it all ablaze. Through the thick smoke rising to the sky, Pablo Ramirez came riding a borrowed horse at top speed. The men immediately sensed new trouble on the rise and ran to meet him. The horse reared up on hind legs as the man halted and called out. “The Japanese are coming from Aparri!” Recent air strikes against US military bases to the south proved more than a threat since they were followed up by the Japanese’ invasion of Luzon from the North. Word continued to spread as fire through each province, and the sight of aircraft passing overhead fueled people’s mounting uncertainty. Residents of Santa Cruz decided it would be best to cancel upcoming
festivities so they could gather and plan for their escape instead. If an evacuation were necessary, they would make every effort to flee together. Ferociously barbaric Japanese soldiers were rumored to be driving down from the north and stripping the possessions from those fortunate enough to own material wealth. Any advance information for Santa Cruz came through Pablo, their volunteer spy runner. Lydia was the first to bury most available cash and the few treasured jewelry pieces she inherited from her mother. Once other villagers heard of it, they also added to the secret dig that she carefully marked at the edge of the forest. By mutual agreement all would carry on as usual with the exception that they would practice “blackout.” This called for lamps to be extinguished at night to prevent any overflying enemy bombers from using their light to guide them to any possible target. Six months elapsed into 1942 before the inevitable transpired. The Japanese arrived, some by horse and some on foot, at the mayor’s home outside the village. The heavy rains just let up as Mr. Castilio came from his field. He greeted the soldiers the only way he knew by the nod of his head.
These men spoke with foreign choppy tones and pointed to the house, but he stood in silence. That is, until they shoved their country’s flag into his hands. Their gestures only confused him until he realized they commanded him to hang the red and white symbol at his front door. Apparently they knew of his local political office and intended to use it to intimidate the people. The group left the mayor’s wife and four children to their work and took Mr. Castilio with them into Santa Cruz. Mr. English first spotted the army approaching and dashed along the rice fields to reach Lydia’s side. He growled fiercely, and after she appeared to recognize the distant military uniforms, he disappeared into hiding. Lydia felt somewhat relieved by his conduct since she had heard that guard dogs were being shot without hesitance throughout the island. Her initial expectation had been for him to attack, but the dog’s instinct proved otherwise. Now was obviously not the proper time. She looked about and collected her thoughts. Mr. English certainly would come through for protection if necessary. When the Japanese’ calls sounded, all the workers promptly dropped what they were doing to move toward the main house. It was not until
the soldiers began ransacking each building and home that they grouped together. “I assume they’re looking for Americans or Filipino resistance fighters,” the mayor risked to whisper. Lydia nodded. It would take all her courage to maintain a businesslike demeanor in the enemy’s presence. Soon after, an interpreter poorly instructed the women to create a Japanese flag in the loom house. They steadied their nerves and obediently set to work. Apparently, the banner was to be strung up at Lydia’s front door since she was the property owner. Smaller emblems were also sewn and pinned to the garment of each person’s breast. Somehow, this was meant to signify their agreement with the Japanese government. Lastly, the schoolhouse was emptied of its educational books and papers. All trace of English print was piled in a heap and destroyed by fire. When the intruders finally left, Lydia and the others gathered minimal necessities. One sheet and towel per person, spare clothing, two cooking pots, and their utensils were bound to each able body. They also bundled all the rice they could hand carry and fled northwest. The group arrived at the Siffu River at nightfall. There, they quickly
constructed a bamboo raft to cross to the opposite bank. This area appeared safe and everyone agreed to camp at the foot of the 57
Cordillera Central Mountains. From the dense woods, they chopped grass, vines, and rattan to build miniature huts. Each day, they watched for signs of the enemy’s approach. They spent much of their time foraging the jungle for eatables, and they fished the river for shrimps, snails, and clams. The uncultivated vegetables consumed in their diet consisted of early bamboo shoots and tender meat from the nipa palm tree. Wild pigs and chickens were also a rare catch that required a group effort to tackle. The men spent time busily chopping mature bamboo trunks to proper lengths. They left the lowest inner knuckle of each stem intact but punctured others along its length to create a hollow tube with a bottom in one end. The group was pleased with their success at creating tubular water containers. These containers could be easily strapped to their backs for further travel. Their children were busy all the while, too, playing deep in the jungle much as they did back home. They swung from vines as mountain monkeys, played hide-and-seek, or scrounged for wild fruits to snack on.
The women were the ones who often stayed nearer to camp but kept their youngsters in sight. They also had plenty of practice preparing their foods after dark over ingeniously hidden fires. Their fire pits were deep enough to camouflage the flames, and the smoke was undetectable at night. A month passed with the people in hiding, but they still had no information as to whether the Japanese returned to Santa Cruz or even occupied it. The men discussed their alternatives at length and then several left to make contact with Filipino guerrilla soldiers. They were not gone long before bringing word of no present danger, so they led their families back to the plantation. Lydia and her people cautiously approached and found nothing more than overripe crops and many chickens running loose. Some fences needed mending, but the cattle still grazed the pastures undisturbed. Florencia found a nest of field mice that had scratched their way into the rice and corn bins in the barn. She trapped them and set them free outside. After everyone worked to harvest the fields, Lydia rounded up spare carts and carabao from the others. They were a month behind on crop sales. An overabundance of pineapples, bananas, mangoes, tobacco, and eggs had to be hauled to Market. No one knew for sure, but that could
very well be the place they would meet more Japanese. 58
They realized that all the grain they had carried into hiding was gone, so they gathered together to pound more. Then supplemental short-season rice was rooted in the dry fields, and new growths of longer-season rice seedlings were planted in the flooded rice paddies. Barely a few weeks passed by before Pablo brought disheartening news: the Japanese now fully occupied the island despite heroic Filipino resistance. It was also disappointing to learn that the enemy had bombed much of the island’s heavier equipment with rice threshers being on the list of demolished machinery. Rice threshers had been seasonally employed on the farm to save the labor of many men, but now the job would have to be done manually. Everyone put their hands to work together, for they knew exactly where to begin. Their parents had taught them the process years ago. They would have to begin by clearing an area and pressing it smooth with cow dung. On this smooth surface they would drive their carabao around to trample the rice. The weight of the beasts would slowly hull the grain. Afterwards, with pitchforks they would separate the hay and toss it
to nearby ground. Another day or two would be required for the rice to settle to the bottom of the heap. Then, with shallow baskets they would toss the grain into the air for the wind to blow away any remaining bits of hay. With that complete, the rice was stored in large baskets or burlap sacks in the barn. It could always be pounded later as needed to free the grain of its covering. They knew that rice eaten with its covering could kill the eater. Florencia and Carmen still served as altar girls through Sunday church services, but school was no longer in session. With formal education denied, the children played or worked the fields instead. The adults kept with chores but occasionally met to discuss survival techniques for any future evacuation. The best suggestion from the group was to store necessities just inside the front doorway of each home. Also, since a saltwater well was discovered eight miles away up a hill, they had a ready source of saline liquid that they boiled down to granules. This they stored by the gallon with two cooking pots and several gallons of rice. Spare clothing they bundled for quick retrieval. Lydia’s proposed that they slaughter a cow and preserve the best meat. This they did now and then and sliced the beef into strips to skewer on sticks. After the meats dried in a screened pavilion, they were wrapped tightly with banana leaves and placed in burlap sacks. These sacks were also to be hung inside the front doors of their homes.
Eventually it became apparent that the Japanese were winning the war they had instigated. It was evident by the soldiers’ periodic surprise visits at any time of day or evening. The people were then expected to bow subserviently. They could do nothing but wait in silence while the soldiers took all they desired from them. Often times the soldiers remained for days. They ate and drank all they pleased. They even robbed the tobacco pavilion of its contents before departing. To add terror to intimidation, the intruders sometimes displayed heartless deeds without cause. They burned out the plantation’s dry rice fields one afternoon before demanding a certain amount of grain be available upon their next inspection. The people inwardly anguished that their calloused hands had labored in vain. Florencia was heartsick when one group of soldiers chased after her pet pig. She ached to cover her ears from its squeals and shivered when it was finally captured. Lydia squeezed her daughter’s hand to keep her still since no one
knew what these men were capable of. The girl clamped her eyes shut and swallowed hard while the hog was butchered and roasted. Why are these people being cruel? she wondered, and why won’t they lust go away? > Just about the only thing Lydia’s people had to do for fun amidst war was to gather together some evenings. A three-foot high, hollowed tree stump was filled with a gallon of rice, and the women took turns to pound the grain within. In groups of four, they gripped six-foot long poles as pestles to rhythmically hull the rice clean. The children ran about while men played their guitars. Up and down the poles moved to the beat of guitars strumming until there was enough rice to feed everyone. These times were cherished since hardly anyone slept sound at night anymore. They were not quite sure what was happening far and away, but they believed that each day could very well be their last. Like it or not, they would have to make the best of it. With time, holiday celebrations resumed at the plantation, but Lydia long ceased handling business in Manila. She and her people still hauled what they could spare to Market, but it was much too dangerous to travel most main roads. She also did not dare send written word to
Manuel. Instead, she prayed for his safety and trusted he would safeguard her legal documents. 60
The Japanese’ aggression permeated everything, down to the money exchanged across the land. Lydia came home week after week with less Spanish currency and more Japanese notes than she was sure what to do with. She and Florencia carefully counted the bills and tallied it all in a ledger before piling in a massive travel trunk. Harvesting inevitably doubled everyone’s work hours, but they pulled together to supply their needs along with the enemy’s. So it was that Lydia was grateful when Mr. English trailed behind on her farm inspections. She learned that food supplies were dwindling about the islands since the Japanese were not being supplied by their country but lived off the land. This caused peasants to desperately turn to thievery after the Japanese seized their reserves. Unexpected visits increased as the soldiers’ growing needs brought them to Santa Cruz more often.
“Get to the fields,” Lydia often warned Florencia, “they’re coming!” She trusted her daughter to heed a warning brought by someone other than Pablo. A kind stranger from a distant village voluntarily risked his life to inform province families of the enemy’s mounting fancy. Japanese servicemen were far from home, far from their own women. Japanese military occupation policy included kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels for the soldier’s use. Florencia swiftly joined her friends in the rice fields where they hurriedly smeared mud across their faces, arms, and clothing. They knew the enemy would be unattracted to filthy youngsters. Lydia was grateful that her daughter’s physical development significantly trailed her age. That blessing from God in itself proved a safeguard against desperate soldiers. The Almighty knew the future, and she knew only to trust in Him to protect those dear to her. > An unexpected development riveted to the villagers’ attention. One morning they were summoned to the edge of the plantation, where they stood in fearful silence. The enemy soldiers purposely picked this spot close to the schoolhouse where almost everyone passed each day or attended Mass on Sundays.
Tuto was required to locate Mr. Castilio, the mayor, and shortly led him with his wife and children to the assembly. The mayor was immediately drilled. “Why isn’t your flag on display?” 61
Mr. Castilio looked to his wife with wide eyes. The woman bowed and explained her family’s neglect in the matter. She and her husband had removed it the previous morning to wash since it’d grown quite dirty. No disrespect was intended. Mr. Castilio apologized for being distracted with work and not promptly rehanging the flag. He then bowed several times. “The flag is clean and will be strung immediately.” The army captain stonily stared at length before he ordered Tuto to surrender his shovel. Villagers contained their loathing mixed with fear for the enemy as they watched Mr. Castilio being forced to dig his own family’s grave. On command they obediently knelt before the open pit.
When the leader dismounted his horse, he drew his sword. “If anyone so much as blinks or even flinches, they will be next!” Florencia felt faint at the slice of his blade. Mr. Castilio was first to be decapitated. His body fell into the hole with a dense thud. The people stood in horror. Blood pressures rose with their shallow breathing as they were forced to witness the wife and children fall into the grave, too. Any disrespect or insubordination, even assumed, would not be tolerated. These brutally vile men were here to enforce that fact. When the people were left to resume chores, there was nothing to say. They wept for the mayor’s family and wept for themselves. “Mamma, I don’t know what other people are like around the world,” said Florencia, “but I’ll never learn to like a Japanese ever.” Lydia drew her close. “Try not to hate them, sweetheart. We must pray for them. They’re only human as we are and following orders.” Florencia swiped the tears from her cheeks. “Yes, but we don’t go around hurting others. They’re horrible.” Lydia rocked her in her arms. “Calm down now,” she soothed. “Some day it will all be over, and we’ll try to make everything like it used to be. We don’t understand their motives, but believe me, one day they’ll be judged.”
> A girl in the next village was ready to marry the young man she favored and invited friends and relatives to be present. Her family prepared the simple wedding by calling in the priest and laying out various food dishes on an outdoor table. A pit was dug for a fire, and an abundance of meats for the celebration were already simmering over it in a metal tub. 62
Florencia stepped close to Lydia. The other witnesses also moved into a tight group to hear the couple exchange their vows. Florencia knew the bride to be quite young. Knowing that, she contemplated her own future wedding day. Even at fourteen, boys still did not interest her romantically, but Antonio seemed nice enough the time she met him. She wondered what year Lydia had in mind for the wedding but decided never to ask. It seemed better to let the subject rest since she was not eager to leave her home in Santa Cruz for the Pasqual’s ranch. Lydia occasionally assured her that when the time was right the celebration would be a grand affair. There would be no call for homesickness with the plantation open to the girl as often as she desired
to return. The woman also looked forward to being a proud grandmother to Florencia’s future children. As for today, no one was aware that an enemy informant observed from the woods and sent distorted details of the day’s event back to his base camp. No sooner was the ceremony over than a troop of Japanese soldiers arrived and interrogated the bride’s family. Strangely enough, the outfit was convinced that American soldiers were being hidden nearby. That would account for the large pit and its excess of meats. The family had not the chance to explain before a soldier wrenched their infant from their arms and tossed it into the air. The baby fell upon the point of a razor-sharp, upraised bayonet, and the villagers gasped. Once the Japanese commander lowered his weapon, the small quivering form slipped to the ground. Horrified cries chorused and he thrust the blade high to silence the people. The men drew their trembling families close, but they dared not reach for the lifeless child in the presence of these men. If so, their fate would be sealed, too.
Again, the enemy manifested their brutal training as vicious war dogs. Their paranoia was intense, and they sought only to subjugate the conquered to their country’s control. They themselves were abandoned with no alternative than to pilfer to eat, fight to overcome, and struggle to survive. Evidently, they would never return home defeated but would battle on to the death to save face for their nation. What would life be like when this was over? was the lingering question in the people’s minds. There was little else to be lost or taken. When the soldiers were gone from sight, they looked to the blue skies for renewed hope. Their God would surely end this war someday soon. 63
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