I was seven going on eight years old when World War II broke out and the Japanese military occupied the Philippines. In 1941, while I was a student at the Cubao Elementary School in Quezon City, I met and was befriended by an officer of the Japanese Imperial Army who was stationed at a post near Camp Murphy in Quezon City, north of Manila.
My dad – an American citizen and US Army veteran – was in hiding at a farm in Cubao that was owned by my sister Rosalia (Rosie) and her husband, Joseph. My dad declined to report to a concentration camp for American citizens at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila as he was instructed by the US Embassy. My dad believed that the war would last “just a few days . . . maybe a month at most.”
My dad – with my stepmother Antonina and me in tow – made the long trip from our home in Baclaran, Parañaque (south of Manila) to Cubao (north of Manila) where my dad believed he would be safe for the “duration” of the war. My younger siblings – Hattie, Thomas, Roscoe, and Emma – were sent to the town of Agoo, in the province of La Union, where they stayed with my stepmother Antonina’s family – for the “duration” of the war.
To shield my identity and protect my dad, I was enrolled at the Cubao Elementary School under the name Julian Velez. The school was about three miles from our home on Natib Road. I would walk to and from the school for classes and other school activities.
I was in the third grade (I was in the third grade at the American Central School on Taft Avenue in Manila when the war broke out). In school, we were assigned books in which pages that had the American flag or any images or text relating to the United States or to America were pasted over with blank sheets of paper to conceal their content (curiosity, of course, led most of us to take peaks into the hidden text or pictures). We were taught Japanese – and did calisthenics daily while singing a song that started with “Odoro asahi no . . .”
On one of our school days, a short man wearing the uniform of the Japanese Imperial Army came to our classroom. Speaking in fluent English, the officer spoke about his role in the community. He must have given his name and rank, or wrote them down on the blackboard, but I didn’t notice. At the time, I considered his appearance a distraction.
Several days later, during a recess, the Japanese officer sought me out at the school yard. He told me he had something to tell me and took me to one side of the school building, away from the other kids.
“I lived most of my life in America,” the Japanese officer said. “And I went to college at Yale University,” he added. He then pulled out a wallet from which he showed me a picture of his “girlfriend” who he said was in America. I remember saying “really” and “how nice” but not much more.
About a week later, during a class recess, my Japanese officer friend came to the school yard looking for me, and when he found me, handed me a bag of Japanese food that he asked me to take home. I ate most of the food while I walked home that afternoon and discarded the bag in a ditch on Arayat Street.
About two months later, again during a class recess, my Japanese officer friend sought me out at the school yard. He took me aside – out of hearing distance from other kids. He sat on a bench while I stood in front of him. He held a twig which he used to gesture, and, looking me in the eye, told me he was going on a mission “tonight” to “kill an American.” I felt uneasy and concerned. He used the twig to sketch on the ground the location of the American’s “hiding place,” explaining that the “hiding place” was on Natib Road, off Arayat Street. As he spoke those words, I began to panic. I realized it was my sister Rosie’s house that he identified. Without saying a word, I turned away from him and started running home as fast as I could.
My Japanese officer friend came after me, calling out to me and yelling for me to stop – but I kept running until I lost him.
I got home scared and screaming. The first person I met at home was my sister Rosie. I yelled to her, half-crazed and excited, “sister, sister – the Japanese are coming – they’re going kill dad!” My sister Rosie grabbed me by my shoulders and, shaking me, told me to calm down. I explained to everyone who had surrounded me by then – my nephews Rafael, Frankie, and niece Teresita – what the Japanese officer had said to me at school.
Sister Rosie’s husband, Joseph, and his two sons Rafael and Frankie, took my dad out of the house through the back yard and into the corn fields on their way somewhere I never got to know. That very same night we heard there was some Japanese military activity around the area where we lived – but no Japanese soldiers came to our house.
My dad returned to the house two days later. My dad never spoke to me about the incident or asked me any questions about it.
I did not attend classes for the next two school days – I would walk out of the house dressed for school, but would just walk around town and hang out at the rotunda until it was time to return home. On the third day, I decided that I would go to school. My classmates asked me questions, but I dismissed them all. I was hoping the Japanese officer would not ever again come to the school.
But he did. The Japanese officer came over to the school yard while we were in recess. I tried to avoid him, but he picked me out and took me aside. I was nervous and worried. And then he spoke.
“I know your father is American. But I would not hurt him.” He said that he only wanted me to know that he knew.
I said nothing. I don’t think I even looked at him while he spoke the words.
I felt relieved when he turned and walked away.
I kept silent about what happened at the school when I got home that afternoon. As in the last two days, when I was asked if I had seen the Japanese officer again, I said no – and not much more.
I did not return to Cubao Elementary for the following school year, in 1943. The war had intensified.
And I never got to see my Japanese Imperial Army officer friend again.
I will forever remember my Japanese Imperial Army officer friend whose name or rank I regret to not know. I often wonder what his fate was after the war. I have a feeling that he survived the war – and that he remembers a little odd-looking boy he met in the Philippines whose father was an American hiding from the enemy.
- My sister Rosie was my dad’s daughter from his first wife, Demetria Osorio. My dad and Demetria had three children: Rosalia (sister Rosie), Vicenta, and Elena. After Demetria’s death in 1930, my dad married my mother, Soledad Ramos, with whom he had three kids: myself, Thomas Henry, and Hattie Florence. After my mother died in 1936, my dad married Antonina Ventura, with whom he likewise had three children: Roscoe Konklin, Emma Jane, and Walker Ernest. At seven years of age, I had nephews who were adults (children of my sisters Rosie, Vicenta, and Elena).
- My sister Rosie’s house was on #15 Natib Road. Sister Rosie and her husband Joseph Thomas Casey Jr. owned land on both sides of Natib Road. On the west side (#15 Natib Road) sister Rosie raised poultry (duck, turkey, and chicken), planted crop (corn, sugar cane, and pineapple), and had a handful of fruit trees. Across the street from the house, my sister Rosie had a piggery – about 50 pigs in a row of sties. Sister Rosie stopped farming when the Japanese military began to commandeer her produce (around the beginning of 1943); her piggery ran empty because Japanese soldiers would come over and take pigs away until they ran out. As their provisions were no longer arriving from Japan, the Japanese military began to commandeer all available food products from the population.
- Also on Natib Road (north of sister Rosie’s house) was the home of a family of Swiss nationals with whom we had very little interface.
- North of the Swiss home on Natib Road was the home of the Paz family. Jaime “Jimmy” Paz was my friend and classmate at the Cubao Elementary School. Jimmy would scare the wits out of our teachers by drawing war planes with the American star on their wings. On weekends, Jimmy and I hung out at the huge Cubao rotunda. Jimmy later became an executive at the Development Bank of the Philippines.
- Also on Natib Road (next to my sister Rosie’s piggery) lived the family of a retired Spaniard whom my dad befriended. In some ways, the Spaniard protected my dad who passed himself off as Spanish (my dad had a decent Spanish vocabulary that helped).
- At the southernmost end of Natib Road lived the family of an American Air Force pilot (who perished at the start of the war) and his Japanese widow. They had three wonderful children who were all under the age of five in 1941.
- Sister Rosie’s husband, Joseph Thomas Casey Jr., owned a shoe store in Ermita, Manila; he shut down the store when war broke out. Joseph was also the chief of police of Quezon City. His position as chief of police protected us – the Japanese troops respected the huge sign on the gate to our home which read: “HOME OF CHIEF OF POLICE.” And my sister Rosie’s oldest son, Rafael, was a member of the Quezon City police force.
- Sister Rosie and her husband Joseph had five children: Rafael, Frankie, Joseph Jr., Teresita, and Dorothy – all of them my nephews and nieces. They called me Uncle Sunny. Dorothy – the youngest – and I were of the same age.