The mind places markers along the road of memory for events that push us close to a cliff’s edge, and to which years later, we might be dragged back to relive. We can’t entirely shake dread, even after danger has passed.
Evelyn Ignacio, M.D., is a retired anesthesiologist in Encinitas. Now 84 and widowed, she spent three years of her childhood in Manila under the steel-tipped boot of Japanese occupiers during World War II.
It seems like a very long time ago. And yes, it was. Unless you were there.
She is a cheerful woman with a spontaneous and merry laugh who does not have to be coaxed to talk about those days, even though some of the memory ghosts moan and drag chains.
Evelyn’s family was Filipino blue-blood, tightly woven into the power structure. In the family’s ancestry was a rich Chinese merchant, from whom came the surname Limjap.
After the outbreak of war and during the occupation, the lifestyle changed to survival. The goal changed from what to wear to the next party to food on the table and staying inconspicuous to the Japanese. The good life was gone, but the Limjap family did not feel the enemy’s oppression as brutally as did the poorer population. Not until the end.
From the time the Japanese stomped into Manila after Pearl Harbor, Evelyn’s father, Pedro, turned adaptive, buying and selling on the black market. That which would have been beneath him before became a way to feed his family.
“(People) did whatever they could. It was all black market. Some of them would buy gasoline and then sell it to the Japanese for a profit, and then steal it back and resell it to them the next day. They would do that until they got caught. Of course, if they got caught, it was bad.”
Their dread was compounded by rumors (many true) of widespread rape, both on the street and of women forced into “serving” soldiers, what the Japanese called “comfort women.”
Evelyn’s mother, Neny, was careful to avoid the streets and keep Evelyn inside the gate of the family compound.
The war reshaped Evelyn’s mother. Evelyn remembers that in the flower-strewn prewar days, Neny was a beauty queen basking in privilege and not lacking in arrogance.
“She was pampered and spoiled. She was adored by society because she was very pretty.”
But events were to change. In the final days of the occupation, Neny became a rock. She was a mother bird, guarding the nest against the swooping hawk.
It was February 1945. The invading Americans were on Philippine soil and mile by mile coming closer to Manila. ...
It happened in the dead of night. A car drove up to the gate of the family compound. Inside were several Japanese soldiers and Filipino collaborators.
“My mother looked out and was scared because I was only 14 then. She was scared I was going to get raped.
“They raided our house and stole what they wanted. They took my father and whisked him off.
“We were all huddled together. My brother and sister — thank God — were at my grandmother’s house, so they weren’t picked up. It was my mother and me, our governess and the laundry woman and her young daughter.
“They put ropes around our waists. They put dirty, yucky towels around our eyes and led us out like cattle. They walked us to their headquarters. We stayed there for like three days. My mother was scared to death. We slept at night tied to a bench like dogs.
“Then they came for me.”
Evelyn was taken to a small, empty room where she sat against the wall and waited. Eventually, a Japanese soldier came in. She remembers first seeing his shiny brown leather boots. She anticipated all sorts of terrifying things happening, every one of them possible and at least one or two likely.
The interrogator told Evelyn that her father, Pedro, was active in the guerrilla movement, which she denied, although she knew nothing of it. He then reminded her that Pedro was brother-in-law to the president of the Philippines, Sergio Osmeña, who at that moment was with the American troops, coming closer.
He then threatened to put Evelyn in a notorious old fort where prisoners were known to be tortured and killed. He told her, “You know, I can put you there.” With quivering lip and shaky voice, she said, “I know you can, but I’m telling you the truth. I don’t know anything.”
(She later learned that her father was working with the guerrillas.)
“He took me back to my mother. All of a sudden, they said, ‘You’re free to go.’ ”
Evelyn, her mother and the servants returned to their home. A few days later, the Japanese showed up with her father. They searched for contraband radios, which they could not find. When they left, they took Evelyn’s father with them.
Pedro never returned. After the war, the family learned that with a high probability, he was burned to death in a building that housed many prisoners.
Adversity is the great divider of people. Some are defeated by it, some just manage to hang on, while others rise to do battle. Those early months of 1945 were the time Evelyn’s mother shrugged off her love of luxury and turned to family survival, and thus became a better person.
In the final battle of Manila, the Japanese loosed the dogs and turned the city into a funeral pyre, leaving 100,000 bodies among the embers.
Then one day toward the end of February, Evelyn saw her first American soldiers. “Oh, I thought they were saviors from heaven. The first Americans I saw were two soldiers standing there with rifles. I looked at them and I thought, ‘Oh my God, what took you so long?’ ”
On their way out, the Japanese had burned the family mansion down to smoking stucco and sticks. Neny managed to hitch a ride for the family and household staff on a truck that was used to haul dead bodies. She moved them to the “other side of town,” where she took occupancy of a tiny tenement she owned.
She got a job counting sulfa pills for the Red Cross. But that didn’t pay enough, so she acquired a demijohn container and trekked to a distillery where she would buy whiskey wholesale and then sell it by the glass out of her tenement.
Ensuring the family’s survival was the finest thing Neny ever did, Evelyn says. And she wasn’t done yet. She was determined to take her family to the U.S.
And she did. In 1948, Evelyn’s mother resettled in San Francisco with her three children, where they lived well on money gained from selling prime property in the Philippines.
“She also had tons of jewelry (to sell),” Evelyn said.
“When we first came out to this country, mother didn’t know how to boil water. However, she learned, and she taught us. Mother told us, ‘You have to learn how to clean the house.’ She bought a vacuum cleaner and said, ‘Here, learn to use this.’ ”
Looking back with the wisdom that years give, Evelyn says, “For years I thought my mother was a self-centered, selfish woman, but I eventually realized she did everything for us. She survived that whole thing and brought us out of there.”
Tuesday: The making of a female physician.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is email@example.com