He was born from large, wealthy family of prominent lawyers and judges, the second to the youngest of a large family in Cavite, Philippines. He grew up in a lavish, historical, Filipino mansion that still stands proudly to this day.
Though he was privileged, it was difficult for him to fit in with his family. Held back twice in high school, he was picked on and ridiculed as he struggled to meet his family’s standards. But that’s ok. Because if it wasn’t for that, he wouldn’t have met this one Filipina, a spunky Mestiza, the eldest of a family of six girls and three boys and the prettiest girl in town.
Like any typical Filipino courtship, of course, he faced nothing but constant rejection after rejection. She was, after all, the most sought-after girl at the time. Even after he got accepted and started attending law school in the distinguished, American-founded University of Philippines (through family connections and most likely exchanges of certain goods, like, ohhhh… cash), this feisty Filipina would still not give in.
Then on December 7, 1941, just nine hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese came.
Philippines was under the U.S. control at that time. Even with their combined efforts, the U.S. and the Philippines still couldn’t hold back the Japanese. After a devastating defeat in the Battle of Bataan and the final defeat in their last stronghold in the Battle of Corregidor, General Douglas MacArthur of the U.S. military left the island of Corregidor with a promise to return. Philippines fell under Japanese control.
It was the worst three years for Philippines. Death, fear and brutality reigned the streets of Manila. Stories of rape and beheading were constant. By then, the feisty Filipina had lost her beauty. She had deliberately made herself look hideous in order to avoid getting unwanted attention from the Japanese.
As for the young man who courted her, he was sent to the front lines in the Battle of Corregidor. Badly wounded and inflicted with malaria, a disease common in the islands at the time, he was just one step away from death. But somehow, he survived and was taken as a POW. At some point (not sure how long), he was released as sort of a goodwill gesture by the Japanese. He, however, did not come home to a hero’s welcome. Walking home still stricken with malaria, he, instead, faced hostility from other POWs doomed to trudge through the Bataan Death March.
“Why did you let them win?”
“How could you let them defeat us?”
“This is all your fault.”
Then, he came home to find some of his older brothers with self-inflicted injuries.
Once a trickle of soldiers had began to return home, his brothers deliberately bruised and beaten themselves under the pretense that they too had just came home from battle, when in truth, they had avoided enlisting for the war by hiding in their mansion’s basement.
Difficult as all these may have been, none of it stopped him from continuing his pursuit of the lovely Mestiza, who, of course, in typical Filipino tradition, continued to reject him. Eventually, though, he got her to marry him. (He had her sign what she didn’t realize was an official marriage certificate. Go figure.)
The war didn’t end for him then. He trained with the U.S. military and was sent off to Texas to to become a fighter pilot. He was intended to fly a bomber plane over Japan, but that mission was aborted. Instead, the Americans decided to detonate a powerful bomb over Hiroshima and then Nagasaki.
He never went back to law school after the war. He became a commercial pilot instead, traveling constantly all over the world. With his Mestiza wife, he built a home with seven obnoxiously good-looking children. He got into photography, building himself a darkroom in his backyard. Then he filled his home with trinkets from his travels: a Don Quixote figurine, Dutch dolls, American whiskey, everything. The ceiling were rows and rows of model airplanes hanging on strings. On the walls were replicas of paintings by Van Gogh and Rembrandt. By the staircase, a row of blue and white porcelain Dutch houses lined the wall. He had trained with KLM, so the Netherlands had a special meaning to him (even after KLM placed him in a hotel right in the center of the Red Light District where he was given a good view of the neighborhood’s “goods”).
As his children grew up, left home and got married, his house soon filled with toys for his grandchildren. And dang, did he had a ton of those.
Yesterday was his 100th birthday. Today is Veteran’s Day. He never once spoke of the war. He was always so happy and silly around his grandchildren. But once in a blue moon, he would open up to his eldest daughter, my mother, and tell her stories of the battlefront, of that moment in Corregidor when death was close at hand. I wish I could’ve known all these while he was still alive. I wish I had the chance to talk to him, ask him all these questions. But considering how he rarely talked about it, maybe it was for the best.
On a side note, Lola (grandma) still forces me to read every single thing before signing anything, even birthday cards. Like, seriously-angrily-yells-at-me-if-I-don’t-read-what-I’m-signing forces it. Thanks a lot, Lolo.