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(Published here with the permission of the author. Part of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Manila.)

The question is sometimes posed, most recently at a round-table at the Instituto Cervantes, “Who destroyed the historic walled city of Intramuros?”

Formulated thus, the scope is rather narrow and mechanistic, and invites a response in an equally mechanistic manner: so much by burning, so much by demolition, so much by artillery fire, etc. A statistical tug-of-war ensues as to how much the Japanese and Americans respectively destroyed.

This is an ultimately sterile speculation that can never be satisfactorily answered, since many of the protagonists and the victims died during the battle and the physical evidence was bulldozed soon after. We are left with the impressions of survivors
and observers, no two of which are exactly alike.

The mechanistic approach also courts the danger of giving moral equivalence to both sides. There can be no such equivalence between a brutal invader occupying a prostrate country and a liberating force that was anxiously and eagerly awaited by the citizens of that country. There can be no moral equivalence between those who massacred thousands of men, raped and bayoneted women, tossed babies onto the points of their bayonets, and demolished centuries-old cultural monuments, on the one hand, and those who gave succor, food and medical attention to the unfortunate victims, on the other.

One can avoid the pitfall of moral equivalence by reformulating the query: “Who was responsible for the destruction of Intramuros?”

Worded thus, the general answer is quite clear: responsibility rests with those who chose to turn a civilian city into a battleground. And not only a battleground but even more, a killing ground. These were, of course, none other than the Japanese.

A comparison with 1941 is instructive. When Japan unleashed the Pacific War on its peaceful neighbors and on an unprepared America, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was in a position similar to that of the occupying Japanese three years later. Invading armies had landed north and south of Manila and were rapidly converging on the capital. He had less than three weeks to decide what to do and how to do it.

He skillfully maneuvered the bulk of his army, composed largely of Filipinos, into Bataan (the famous side-slip) and declared Manila an open city. The warehouses in the Port Area were thrown open, and civilians helped themselves to the goods they found inside—goods accumulated for what would have been the biggest Christmas ever. Only the fuel tanks in Pandacan were blown up.

When the Japanese found themselves in the same predicament three years later, they could; have done the same thing—declare Manila an open city and get out. But they did not. Instead, they confiscated rice stocks from private homes, commandeered even the lowliest vehicles like bicycles and pushcarts, rounded up men on the streets for forced labor on military installations, and emplaced artillery, including naval cannons at numerous points. One can still see a naval cannon ensconced in the walls of Intramuros.

They had had ample time to prepare, months of actual war, such more time than MacArthur had been given in 1941. And they had three to four times as many troops. Obviously, they had no intention of sparing Manila and its hundreds of thousands of civilians from the ravages of war.

Their strategy called for making Intramuros the last bastion, whose approaches were defended by fortified concrete buildings—the Agriculture, Finance and Legislative buildings, and the Manila City Hall.

The head of the Manila Defense Force, Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi, was actually in Fort McKinley. Instead of getting his forces out, he came into Manila on February 11, eight days after the entry of American forces into the city. It was only the following day that the Americans closed the ring around the Japanese. They chose to make a fight of it, with Gen. Yokoyama’s Shimbu Group attempting a counter-attack from the east on February 16 to 17 to relieve Iwabuchi, but this failed.

By then, Intramuros was coming under artillery attack. The American ground commanders had called for aerial bombardment to raze the walled city, but MacArthur ruled this out as “unthinkable” in a city with a friendly population. Artillery was the most that could be tried.

A platoon of American soldiers moves into the Intramuros section of Manila.
A platoon of American soldiers moves into the Intramuros section of Manila.

If Iwabuchi had wanted to get his forces out, there is little doubt that the Americans would have struck a deal with him. They had already done so in escorting the guards at Santo Tomas Internment Camp to safe territory, and would have done so again to save the thousands of civilians in Intramuros.

But once combat is joined, destruction inevitably ensues, and it becomes difficult, if not irrelevant, to sort out who destroyed what. What is crystal clear is the ultimate responsibility: Japans.

What had the Japanese accomplished? They had killed 1,000 Americans and lost 16,000 of their own. And they had caused the deaths of 100,000 of their “brother Asians,” the Filipinos, and left a city in ruins—quite a showpiece for their Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.

An overflow audience attended the July 9th round-table discussion on the destruction of Intramuros at Instituto Cervantes. While the focus was on Intramuros’ death agony in February 1945, there were various insights on other factors.

One was voiced by Dr. Jaime Laya, former head of the Intramuros restoration project. He said that as part of a growing and progressive city, Intramuros was subject to the ravages of time and the vagaries of fashion. Even before the war, therefore, Intramuros was undergoing change, with some buildings going up in modern styles.

Intramuros had also been in danger early in the American period when there seemed to be a plan to raze the walls completely. But this was aborted by the daughters of an American Governor-General, who took an interest in historical conservation.

Map of Defense of Intramuros
Map of Defense of Intramuros

At the other end of the time spectrum, one speaker opined that after the battle, the walls of houses were still intact and could have been reconstructed. But the Americans bulldozed falls of the civilian houses, leaving only the religious structures standing, in order to clear a wide area for use as a supply depot in the projected invasion of Japan.

Still later, even the remaining churches came down, when the religious orders abandoned Intramuros and sold their properties there. Some churches could well have been rebuilt using still-standing walls and towers, particularly Recoletos. Only San Agustin, by some miracle, remained. The rationale was that the churches had lost their parishioners and could not afford to in there. But someone in the audience observed that even before the war, the parishioners no longer primarily the residents but people who came from outside, and they would have continued coming if the churches had been rebuilt.

The most riveting speaker was the last one that evening, Dr. Antonio Gisbert, one of the few men to survive the ordeal of Intramuros. He narrated how his family was told to leave their home, as were other Intramuros residents, and go to San Agustin. They had to share the patio with other families, using blankets as partitions. In the meantime, their homes were burned. This started February 7, 10 days before the Americans assaulted the walled city.

A U.S Army tank entering through the Fort Santiago arch
A U.S Army tank entering through the Fort Santiago arch

He was with the first group of men separated from the women and taken to Fort Santiago. They had no food or water in their crowded place of confinement, and finally, Gisbert secured permission to draw water from the well. There were no buckets, and he had to use shoes to scoop water and pass them through the windows to the prisoners. It was every man for himself, and the stronger ones got more than the weaker ones.

Dr. Antonio Gisbert, a physician who lived through the horrors of Intramuros in February 1945. (Photo courtesy of the Occupation: The Later Years by Dr. Benito J. Legarda Jr.)
Dr. Antonio Gisbert, a physician who lived through the horrors of Intramuros in February 1945. (Photo courtesy of the Occupation: The Later Years by Dr. Benito J. Legarda Jr.)

When the Japanese officer asked Spanish citizens to identify themselves, Gisbert and his father, who were fair-complexioned Filipinos, got up and were taken to another place. From there, they saw the Japanese train a cannon on the warehouse containing the prisoners and start shelling.

Amid the carnage, one shell opened a hole in the roof, and some men got out and jumped into the river, hiding among the water lilies to avoid fire from both the Japanese and the American sides. One managed to hide along the walls and luckily found a suitcase full of foodstuffs.

The Spanish citizens, mostly religious, were massacred later, but by then, Gisbert had established his credentials as a medical doctor, wearing a conspicuous red cross badge. He was all praise for the prostitutes of Intramuros whom he called heroines. They saved many young girls from being raped by the lust-ridden Japanese by offering themselves instead. They also carried out and buried the dead.

When Gisbert needed supplies, he would ask these women, and they would appear with the things needed. Once, he asked for gin, both as disinfectant and to ease the agonies of the dying, and they produced a plentiful supply.

They were apparently well-organized and even had their own special mass on Tuesdays at 11 a.m. at San Antonio (or the V.O.T.) church. After liberation, he saw them plying their profession along Calle Raon. They recognized him and greeted him, and he could do no less than greet them himself, having in mind their past heroism.

Gisbert also had high praise for the skill and bravery of the Filipino guerrillas who would infiltrate at night and tell them how the battle was going.

Towards the end, the remaining survivors were told by a Japanese officer, speaking with a perfect British accent, to file out and start walking. They did, until they reached the vicinity of Parian and Quezon Gates where they saw soldiers with rounded helmets—quite unlike the old USAFFE World War I helmets—whom they thought might be Germans, and therefore, allies of the Japanese. But these were the new-style U.S. helmets. The soldiers were Americans. They were saved.

(Many of Gisbert’s experiences are recorded in Bonifacio Escoda’s Warsaw of Asia: The Rape of Manila)

(Published in the July 19 & 26, 2003 issues of the Philippines Free Press. Part of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Manila.)