It Happened One Day in Laur
I was five years old, when General Douglas MacArthur landed in Leyte, to liberate the Philippines from the Japanese occupation. But before he arrived in Luzon, the Japanese army went on a killing spree shooting every person they suspected of supporting the guerillas. My memory is still fresh on what I witnessed that day the Japanese soldiers herded the men from the small town of Laur, Nueva Ecija in the Philippines.
It was the first Monday in July, my cousin, Letty and I, holding hands, walked excitedly with her older brother, Kuyang Doming, to school. This was our first day to attend grade one.
The school was a one story building located on the only major street in Laur. Our house was at the opposite end of this street. After bowing before the guard at the station, situated at the front of the school, we quickly entered the school’s office where Kuyang Doming submitted our birth certificates, and gave our names to the school principal. Afterwards we walked to our classroom. Before leaving to work in the fields with his father, Kuyang Doming reminded us, “Do not forget to bow before the guard, as you walk home.”
At noon, for reasons I never understood, the teacher dismissed the class. Letty and I quickly picked up our school bags under our desk. We were surprised to notice that most of our classmates had disappeared quickly and we found ourselves walking on an almost empty street. We stopped in front of the guard, but what we saw created a problem for us—he appeared to be asleep, with his head resting on the desk. Afraid to leave without obeying the rule, Letty and I decided to stand still, and waited for him to wake up. There were stories about people who were shot by the guard for not bowing before him. We were afraid the guard might suddenly wake up and shoot us. We waited for what seemed to be a long time for two five years-olds, who, for the first time were walking home by themselves.
Heat from the sun and from the ground penetrated my wooden shoes into my feet, and it was burning from the scorching heat. I was soaked with perspiration; I could hardly open my eyes because of the salty sweat dripping on my face. As I licked the sweat dripping on my lips, Letty whispered to me, “Let’s run home, he’s asleep; he wouldn’t know we left.” I nodded as I bent to pick up my wooden shoes. She did the same. After placing our shoes in our school bags, we looked at each other, counted, isa, dalawa, tatlo, held hands, tiptoed until a little past the guard house, then we ran as fast as we could until we reached home.
Passing my parents, Letty’s mom, Nana Lucia, and the neighbors, pounding palay, we dashed through the stairs, headed into the bedroom and hid behind the tall chest of drawers. We stood there frozen, afraid that some Japanese soldiers might barge in anytime.
Soon our stomachs started to growl from hunger. We tiptoed to the kitchen and found some left-over rice and fish cooked in vinegar, patis, and ginger. Silently we ate. As I washed the dishes, Nana Lucia came upstairs carrying two year-old Emile, Letty’s younger brother. She told us to come down and watch him so she could do her chores.
Our fears now relieved by Nana Lucia, Letty and I went down and took Emile from her. We sat on the steps and watched the four men as they pound the palay with precision, avoiding hitting each other’s pestle. The women were at the other end of the yard, winnowing the husk out of the pounded rice. My father was putting the winnowed rice into the sacks.
I noticed that the group was unusually quiet, with tension and fear very apparent. They didn’t have the usual joy and laughter they shared at working parties like this.
Suddenly, the shrill sound of a whistle coming from the street startled all of us including Emile. A loud piercing angry voice came from a megaphone, “Surrender the murderer who killed the guard or all of your men will die.” Letty and I looked at each other, and realized what had happened to the guard at the guard house. Out of the blue, I saw my father dashed between us and ran up the bamboo steps.
In less than a minute, a group of Japanese soldiers swarmed the working area. Their bayonets were sticking out of their guns as I watched them poked at the men. A soldier was asking questions in Japanese. A Filipino with a paper bag over his head was translating what he was saying. I heard him uttered, “guerilla,” he was accusing them to be guerillas.Suddenly I saw the women placed their hands on their mouth to muffle their cries of fear—they started to poke the women with bayonets too. Nobody dared to move or say anything. Letty placed Emile’s head on her lap when she saw him about to cry.
When no one admitted to the crime, the soldiers ordered the men to join the long line of men they previously captured. I saw the priest, Father Pacis among them. Suddenly, one of the soldiers came toward the steps where we were sitting. I cried, because I thought he was going to stab us with his bayonet. But he just waved it motioning for us to get out of his way. It looked as if he was about to climb the stairs. We quickly grabbed Emile and ran to Nana Lucia. But before he could start his ascent, the Filipino interpreter stepped forward and said, “I’ll go up and look.” Letty and I looked at each other, and I held my breath. After what seemed like eternity he came down and said, “No one’s there.” I breathed a sigh of relief.
Although the soldiers had left with the long line of captives, it took sometime before anyone moved or talked. All of us were stunned and paralyzed. Slowly Nana Lucia and my mom came to their senses. Slowly and silently, they told the women to put away the rice they had finished pounding. After tidying up, the neighbors went home without saying anything.
My mother and I ran upstairs to check on my father. We found him, still hiding behind the door, shaking in fear. When we told him the soldiers were gone, he reluctantly came out of his hiding place. Then it dawned on us that he could have been captured too had he not ran upstairs. Until today, we still do not know whether the Filipino spy had saved my father’s life.
Nana Lucia came upstairs, with Emile and Letty. They were all crying for fear that Tata Sinong, Letty’s father and Kuyang Doming had been captured as well. That night, after supper, my mother and Nana Lucia, with rosaries on their hands, told us to kneel and join them in prayer.
After praying, we crawled toward the mats my mother had spread on the living room floor. But no one could sleep, because we were anxious and worried. My cousin and uncle had not come home. The adults squatted below the window whispering to each other. We heard them talking about the guerillas who were about to come. They whispered the name of a famous general, called Douglas MacArthur. It seemed everyone was anticipating for his arrival.
At midnight we heard foot steps on the yard. Trembling, Letty and I hugged each other and hid our heads under the blanket. “The soldiers have come back for my father,” I whispered. The footsteps kept coming closer and closer, until we heard muffled voices. “It’s us. Don’t light the lamps.” We breathed sighs of relief and I heard my mom and aunt whispered, “Thank God, they were not caught”—Tata Sinong and Kuyang Doming had come home. We got up to hear their story.
They heard what happened in Laur, so they hid behind the tall and thick tall reeds in the fields, to wait until dark. As they were waiting, they saw two men running towards where they were hiding. My uncle and cousin recognized them—they were our neighbors. As the men waited for darkness to come, they related their horrifying experience of what had happened.
“There were about 200 men captured by the bastards. Like animals, we were steered to an open field where they ordered us to form a big circle. The captain went to Father Pacis and told him, ‘you can leave.’ But Father Pacis responded, ‘I am not going to leave unless everyone comes home with me.’ That’s when they shot him. When we realized that they were going to kill all of us, therefore, we took our chances, and ran for our lives. There could be others who survived, but we don’t know where they went.”
Just before dawn, on the next day, my mother took Letty, Emile, and me to the cariton that was already loaded with food supplies. One by one, she lifted us on the cart already hitched to one of the carabaos. Kuyang Doming got on the back of the other animal, gave it a light whip and headed towards the river; my father and Tata Sinong started to walk and followed him. My mother and Nana Lucia sat on the front seat of the cariton, with my aunt holding the reins. She directed the carabao to follow the men. We were on our way to Bato Ferry, a remote village across the river to hide from the Japanese soldiers. And we waited there until the American soldiers liberated Laur.