Sunday, March 10, 2013

Like sheep led


EVEN crack troops of the Japanese Imperial Army were never known to be dead shots. Imperial foot soldiers relied on the bolt-action Arisaka rifle— dubbed in derision as “pakbung’ by wartime elders who survived the dark days of the Occupation. Weighing about four kilos, it was not too hefty to lug around or do fancy rifle drills with. In the heat of gun battle, the Arisaka was, to weapons experts, more of a laughing stock than an assault tool meant for mayhem. 

Why, last hold-outs Bataan and Corregidor in 1942 were overran by heavy artillery and aerial bombardment— it was sheer superiority in numbers of marauding Japanese infantrymen that mauled the dying, sick or starving Filipinos and Americans too ill-equipped, too famished or too drained of resolve to put up a fight. The Arisaka that spat out corn kernel-size .25 slugs didn’t strike fear among Filipinos; pakbung was seen as strictly for finishing off a fallen guerrilla or helpless civilian at close quarters.

Fitted with a 20-inch bayonet of tempered steel, the Arisaka, about four feet from butt to business end, turns into the Grim Reaper’s scythe.

The puny weapon transforms into an implement to carry out carnage. The wielder attains a semblance of the Taoist god of war Kuan Ti brandishing a halberd—broadsword fitted to a heavy iron staff— sharp and ready to halt trampling rush of cavalry steeds with brutal swish of metal.

Like flock of sheep on descent to a valley with the looming shadow of death, the faithful of Calamba must have looked forward to a simultaneous celebration of Valentine’s and Ash Wednesday that was to fall both on February 14, 1945.

But the occupation forces had something infernal smouldering in their minds as panic was sinking in like burning splinter… as of February 3, 1945, battle hordes and horses of the US 1st and 8th Cavalry Divisions were on a northern surge through the fringe parts of Manila, poised to retake the city while the battle to liberate strategic outposts Bataan and Corregidor was taking inevitable shape. Indeed, a reckoning was at hand.

And desperation swelled in the air like miasma of doom.

February 10, 1945. Calamba occupation forces set charges and blew up all bridges—the bridges of San Cristobal, Italiano, Viga-- that link the town to Manila and Batangas. It was a bid to stall the wave of guerrilla troops and American forces hungry for retaking the birthplace of the national hero.

At dawn of February 12, 1945, the bowlegged troops descended upon the town church where the faithful congregated for mass. Orders were barked. The men folk had to stay. They would be sent off somewhere to toil at tasks unspecified. The usual arrogance of conquerors on the conquered forced to do their bidding.

As the faithful huddled in obedience, two Japanese trucks growled their way to the churchyard, each crammed with civilians wrenched off their homes, roused from sleep at gunpoint.  They were from the far-flung barrios-- Linga, San Juan, San Jose… as the day dragged into noon the captives-- roasting under a cruel sun, looking askance at a nearby sun-smacked flag-- swelled to about 500.

It will likely dawn on the keen-eyed cartographer—a maker of maps—that the cluster of villages and barrios that make up Calamba resembles a heart. A heart shrivelled out of shape by the clamping fringe areas of other Laguna towns on the north and Batangas on the south, an imaginary aorta jutting out into Laguna de Bay. A barrio whose confines appear like an arrowhead lies buried in such an outline.

At about one o’clock, the 500 captives were taken by truck to this village a shot off the sprawling Laguna de Bay and beneath the dark green rise of Mount Makiling. Arrowhead-shaped Barrio Real was to be a setting for a bloodbath.

As the hostages debarked, the troops rounded up some more men and women residents of Real where 13 houses emptied of occupants awaited the herded. Into the doors of these houses the captives were pummelled into to be kept as the day dragged on into dusk. At five o’clock, the women captives were released.

War historians frown down upon foot soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army whose organization, infantry combat tactics, and standard issue .25 caliber Arisaka rifles didn’t muster equal firepower to the small arms weaponry of, say, the Soviet or American infantry.

But the Japanese Imperial Army more than compensated for the poorly made Arisaka its troops were equipped with. The lynx-eyed, bowlegged soldier was drilled to a cutting edge in bayonet fighting, instilled in such drills that he was the best bayonet fighter in the world.

War historians would agree that these soldiers had tons and tons of muscle memory from training in the use of the bayonet and close quarters battle techniques than troops of other nations. Too, with the samurai warrior’s code—Bushido—ingrained among its officials, the Imperial Army held that close combat would dominate land operations. Thus, the Japanese placed emphasis on close quarter fighting techniques in their training—a typical rifle company “spent almost half of its time at bayonet practice.”

And the occupation troops in Calamba would be merely refreshing their lethal skills to stand up to the razor surge of allied forces at their throats.

As women captives were thrown out leaving the men folk behind, orders were growled from would-be-slaughterhouse to slaughterhouse—13 in all, those who recall would say in shudder at how unlucky that number is—for the soldiers to fix bayonets.

As the women scampered cowering, the butchery commenced.

Howls of the helpless, hopeless, hapless hacked the humid air…. Dusk was falling. So were the bodies of the unwitting captives-- stabbed, skewered, or shot at.

As darkness crept through Real, the troops torched the 13 houses, the wind-fanned flames hurtling out and setting more houses nearby on fire. The stench of blood running in rivulets on the ground and the reek of human flesh consumed in funeral pyres wafted to where the winds blew.

About 400 natives of Calamba fell to either blade or bullet in that bloodbath.

Somehow, the occupation troops were proven to be dead-wrong. The allied forces that retook Calamba didn’t include cavalry nor did they engage the Japanese in battle with bayonets, those who were blessed with luck to escape from that abattoir would reminisce decades later.

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