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Days of infamy

The firestorm that flared in the Hawaiian mainland at 2:30 a.m. on December 8, 1941 crept eastward like unfolding dawn, leapt from island to island through the Pacific like a contagion. In Calamba over 8,000 kilometers away from Pearl Harbor, the faithful heeded the church bells tolling the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, calling the flock to celebrate the forthcoming birth of a Saviour.

In the next three years, Calamba townsfolk would writhe under the heel of the new invaders, cry unto the skies for succour-- the new conquerors would seek to hold an entire nation in thrall. It would be three bleak years under another alien horde that would be struck again and again by a people subjugated, vanquished. But, these people just wouldn’t be bowed—not even by a superior army who struck like lightning…

As the Calamba faithful bowed in prayer on that fateful day, fire and metal hurtling off Japanese incendiary bombs were bringing the cities of Baguio and Davao to their knees… Too, key targets in Paranaque, Cavite, and Pampanga that held military camps were being pounded to rubble.

As shock over the assault subsided, rage rose up in a welcome to arms. Incumbent commonwealth president Manuel L. Quezon called for volunteers to bolster Filipino-American forces to repulse the enemy, defend a beleaguered country. Calamba’s able-bodied obliged, joining the throng nationwide who trooped for conscription into combat duty.

No farewells were bid by the boys to those they would leave behind—school boys in Manila left their books to join the troops manning the frontlines. In Calamba, the plaza a sneeze off the town church where the faithful quailed in dread a few days back now thrummed with throngs of men willing to lay down their lives—even heads of families heeded the call to arms, among them local school teachers like Ignacio Pecana, Hilarion Dizon and Gregorio Cruz.

They were cheered, goaded on to a fate grim as the night as they went to the war front. Most of them would die in the battlefields, never to return, their remains enriching the land they sought to defend. The lucky few would have survived the 128-kilometer gauntlet of savagery after the surrender of Bataan on April 9, 1942—the so-called Death March to Camp O’Donnel in Tarlac. Most of the survivors would come home to Calamba to find final peace.

In December 1941, Santa Claus didn’t come to town; Satan’s claws did in a pincer movement that began on December 10 to seize the nation’s capital… bowlegged infantry men of the Japanese Imperial Army descended in key points of Ilocos and Pangasinan to take the north, simultaneously swooping down the southern parts of Luzon in Atimonan and Mauban, Quezon province before the rushing crush to take Manila, 53 kilometers away, about half a day’s horse ride from Calamba.

Carnage attended Christmas as the invaders stepped up their assault—a fleet of Japanese planes strafed churchgoers, dropped bombs on the market and church in San Pablo City about 35 kilometers east of Calamba. As they flew toward Calamba, the aerial fleet barely paused at Los Banos to unleash bombs and hellfire on a Pagsanjan-bound train crammed with passengers. Hundreds perished.

The planes flew on to Calamba, gifting fire and death on people on their way to church for the misa de aguinaldo.

Within the week, Japanese troops took San Pablo City, pedalled on bicycles to Batangas before entering Calamba as evening fell on December 30, 1941. The bombings on the previous days had instilled fear in the populace who kept to their homes. Later that evening, Enrique Go Shinyo, an erstwhile town councilor and father-in-law of would-be-town-mayor Taciano V. Rizal mustered the courage going to the municipio to speak to the commander of the occupation troops.

Shinyo’s gesture of goodwill was rewarded. The commander installed him as temporary head of the town. In such a simple stroke, a civilian arm for the military occupation of Calamba was thus entrenched— a makeshift civilian authority that merely served as conduit for whatever wish or whim the occupation forces would carry out.

Sun Tzu’s common sense was thrown out the window: “An army marches on its stomach.” Rather than boost food production to keep troops—and the civilian populace-- well-fed, farms were parlayed in churning out cotton and other produce that can keep the Japanese war engines humming. Such drastic shift proved disastrous.

Once a food producing town, the populace of Calamba were soon caught in a downspin: the whimsical production scheme fostered by Japanese military officials ushered mass starvation and run-amok price of food staples. By 1942, a sack of rice of 120 pounds had soared to P100 that went up to P2,000 a sack by August 1944. As years of occupation wore on, and imminent reckoning drew nigh, the price of the Filipino staple food shot to atrocious heights—P7,500 per sack by November 1944, and P12,500 in December 1944.

On the other hand, occupation forces resorted to taking whatever the civilians could produce—eggs, chicken, beef, and pork. Natives subsisted on whatever the troops neglected to seize, making do with root crops—sweet potatoes, wild yams, taro, and cassava—and substituting corn grits or coconut chips for rice. Even vegetables were hard to come by: white gourd (upo) and squash (kalabasa) fetched P1,000 each, thus, families relied heavily on swamp cabbage (kangkong) and sweet potato tops. Even the tender stems and tops of water hyacinth that teemed on the Laguna de Bay shoreline became food fare to stave off starvation.

Clothing materials went scarce such that thousands dressed in rags—even abaca cloth (sinamay), jute sacks (sako), and heavy canvass (trapal) were sewn up as articles of clothing.

Reduced to the depths of penury and misery, Calamba peace and order went to tatters that gave birth to rampant theft, robbery, and cattle rustling.

Three years to the day that Japanese aerial squadrons staged a treacherous raid on Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Army sent General Tomoyuki Yamashita to the Philippines for a last-ditch defense of conquered territory. On December 8, 1944, Yamashita organized the Makabayang Pilipino (the dreaded Makapili) to beef up some 262,000 troops under his command. Ten days after Yamashita’s arrival, US forces landed in Leyte. On January 6, 1945, the 200,000-strong Sixth US Army set up a beachhead in Lingayen, Pangasinan… to set a stage for the same pincer movement that will wrest the country off Japanese hands.

The three years of nightmare was giving way to a new dawn in Calamba.


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