At the office this morning I made ready to dictate a report to stenographer. Suddenly the air-raid signal sounded. immediately, Justice Albert stepped out from his contiguous office and went to mine to tell me that we should go down to the Records Hall at the basement of the Court. Its stone walls might afford us some protection considering that the building lacked an air-raid shelter, properly speaking. I went down, therefore, followed by auxiliary personnel.
The hall was already filled with a conglomeration of justices, secretaries, clerks, and other employees. The old room, despite its measurements, appeared to me rather incapable of holding so many refugees. I managed to get quite into the interior of the hall. I could see Justice Albert serenely smoking a pipe while standing very close to the threshold of the entrance door. In the others I perceived some marked nervousness, which was sought to be overcome through raucous commentaries.
A few minutes hence we could hear the hoarse and monotonous rumbling of approaching planes. Immediately, an impressive silence fell upon us all. To alleviate the tension —so I imagine—a colleague of mine thought noi better than to comment loudly, “You know? It seems to me that the enemy’s target today is this very Court.”
Somebody was hardly able to censure him, “Quiet! Don’t be ominous!”
For, indeed, almost at the same time, we heard the unmistakable sound of planes that, drawing an arc,
rapidly descended. It may be said that the simultaneously piercing whistling of the bombs capped into a metallic clash, accompanied by a deafening explosion. Instinctively we all threw ourselves down to the floor. Before doing so, I managed to remove my eyeglasses and get hold of my rosary, whose whose beads I commenced to pass silently, I hid my head between two steel cabinets (Later, I would be told that to do so was most dangerous, because with the rattling caused by the bombs, the cabinets might hit each other, crashing my head in the process.)
Next, I noticed that two of the refugees had thrown themselves upon my back. They were an unpleasant burden, but I found comfort in the thought that they might afford me greater protection, as if I had two mattresses on me.
The bombs kept falling down rapidly and countlessly. Their explosions gave me the impression that the bombs were being hurled close to our place. I incremented my prayers, while I asked myself: “Must I die this way? Is there any sense that | should have reached my present age, only to die thus? And that anonymous pilot, who may drop the bomb that would snuff out my life, what has he against me, whom he does not even know, that he should do me this evil?”
But, notwithstanding its candidness or, perhaps, precisely due to it, I chose not to lose myself in further conjectures.
After some time, which seemed endless to me, the all-clear signal was on. We hastily stood up, although, I must confess, in my case I had to wait for the two on top of me to do so first. Upon standing up, I noticed the effect of the weight that had been on me, for I must remain still for some minutes before I could start to walk. Lost in commentaries and already recovered from the shock and the anxiety, not having to deplore any victim or damage, we all headed for the exit.
While we made ready to leave the place, unexpectedly we were confronted by two incoming individuals, who held in their arms a third one stripped from the waist up. His face was wet and he manifested clear symptoms of spasms. While they made their way in order to lay him down on the floor and help him recover his breath, the two repeatedly cried out, “Gas! Poison gas! The Japanese have dropped gas bombs!”
The disorder amassed by surprise and fear was simply indescribable. I found myself pressed upon by an avalanche of men and women struggling to get out and by others who, instead, preferred to return to the Records Hall in search of greater security. The floundering that ensued might well occasion victims regrettably. Then it occurred to me to make the following recommendations:
“Attention, please! The best thing is to wet your handkerchiefs or any piece of cloth and cover your nose with it as you leave this place.”
What made me say so? For instantly a big group of those present violently vied with each other to take hold of a jar of water spotted in a corner of the hall. Impatience and fear shared by all did not allow them to resort to the logical process of taking turns therefor. What they, at length, merely succeeded in doing was to let go of the jar
which fell into pieces. This made many of them rush to the floor seeking to dampen their handkerchiefs in the spilled water. More unexpected still was for me to catch sight of some of those present, who, with hardly any prudery, urinated on their handkerchiefs to make up for the lack of water.
Suddenly, one well-intentioned companion cried out, “Let us go to a higher place, because gas is heavier than air and, therefore, tends to remain at floor level.”
Once more there was a storm of running, stumbling and pushing. Everybody attempted to reach a superior place, be it window sills, tables, chairs, cabinets or any other furniture piece. What constituted a veritable sight was afforded by some serious-mien Justices, who, candidly, insisted upon taking turns to climb and stay at the top of a carpenter’s ladder found in the place.
“You have already been up there for quite some time. Come down and let me take my turn in climbing,” thus one of the Justices addressed a colleague, no matter how childish it appeared to be.
Incidentally, the colleague in question did not descend from the ladder. One of my companions—the secretary of the Presiding Justice of the Court—alone had a gas mask, which he put on with great complacency. We all certainly envied him.
At length, came the denial. There had been no such attack. No gas bomb had been dropped. Without bothering to check up the information, the same, however, made us recover our calmness. In more orderly fashion we all commenced to step out. The humorous was not wanting to cap the experience: We all discovered our lone colleague with the gas mask , whether due to lack of practice or out of sheer nervousness, had put on his mask the wrong way. He would have had, indeed, a bad jolt if the false threat had been true!
We were told that, in view of the bombing, we could take the afternoon off!
On my way to board a streetcar I met many people, still terror-stricken, fleeing to all directions. I sought to calm down as many as I could, telling them about the false alarm. Fortunately, quite a number of them recovered their composure. At the terminal station I had great difficulty in boarding a streetcar, for they all came replete with passengers, some of them clinging to the outer side of the windows. At last, I succeeded in boarding one, even as I had to travel standing up. Almost to a man all the passengers gave vent to their comments and reactions concerning this morning’s air raid. I heard that the bombing had centered upon the Port Area, some two hundred meters away from my office; hence the sense of nearness that the explosions provoked in me. It was feared that there had been many casualties.
When fortunately I arrived home safe and sound, | lost no time in recounting my odyssey. Everybody was glad to see that I had been spared any damage or injury. Not long after, my father arrived. For his part, he told us his own story. At the Hospital de San Juan de Dios, where he works, he had had to supervise and coordinate the transfer
of the patients to the Saint Paul’s Hospital nearby, which seemed to be a safer place. With much difficulty he had to exert every effort to avoid or suppress the hysterics of some of the patients. Fortunately, everything turned out satisfactorily, with no sign of any panic.
Shortly before sitting down for lunch, one of my uncles arrived, being held by two of his officemates. He limped; something that alarmed us. My father asked that he be taken to bed, where he examined him carefully. Some minutes later, he assured us comfortingly that there was nothing serious about his condition. He needed only to stay in bed for some days. Another casualty in the family. How many more?
When taking their leave, my uncle’s friends informed us that during the air raid at the Port Area this morning, where the Customs office is located, they had to abandon this workplace of theirs to escape from the bombing. Upon reaching the street they had had to face the maze of hundreds of cars feverishly crisscrossing the streets.
My uncle took a false step and could not avoid being hit by one of the speeding cars, which floored him down. Fortunately, they were able to rush to him and carry him away from the place in no time. We all thanked them for their kind deed and congratulated them, for having been spared themselves.
Once lunch was over, my father motored to Montalban. He told us, “I am fetching the family back. They have been insisting that they do not choose to remain there one more day. They cannot stand being safe over there, while we run every risk down here. I have been told that they would rather die with us together, should the case arise.” Besides, some days ago the owner of the house—my father’s patient—had passed away and it was embarrassing for them to continue in that place.
It was past seven in the evening when all returned from Montalban. We were highly pleased upon seeing us all together once more. Personally, | was doubly glad, for, at long last, I no longer needed to attend to the house tasks. Our returning family informed us of their own ordeal in Montalban: It seems that this morning, a local woman, while washing at the river, saw a pilot dropping himself with a parachute. Later, it was learned that he was a Japanese airman, whose plane had been downed. But, the good woman, eaten up by nerves, without bothering to ascertain the truth, simply rushed back to town, screaming wildly: “Parachutists! Japanese Parachutists!” The ensuing turmoil was simply chaotic. While the minuscule local force, with the aid of some peasants armed with boloes, picks, and spades, rushed to the place, a large number of the resjdents and evacuees fled away in their cars, even as others chose to remain in their houses, which they locked to the bolt. Our family members preferred to remain in the place, where they were staying, placing all their trust in prayer. How grateful they were to have been spared any dire outcome.
Some few minutes later, one other uncle of mine came back home. He brought also his own tale: “This morning’s attack found me at the Bay on board the coastguard under my command. Since we had no anti-aircraft guns, we had to defend ourselves through evasive maneuvers. In this manner, we were able to escape away from the nine bombs dropped against the ship. We emerged unhurt. It was horrible! It was sheer savagery, indeed!”
My father interrupted him: “Nothing of the sort! Such was to be expected. Remember that your coastguard has been attached to the American naval forces. Your boat is, therefore, a legitimate military objective. As such, the Japanese had to destroy it. Your great fortune, for which I am glad, is that the enemy has had no success this time.”
Tonight the radio announced that, for security reasons, the Christmas Midnight mass scheduled to be celebrated at the City Hall, under the sponsorship of the eldest daughter of President Quezon, had been suspended. On the other hand, the war communiques broadcast did not seem encouraging at all. We were told of the landing of Japanese troops brought in by eighty military transport vessels that had docked at the Lingayen Gulf. How had this been possible? We were also advised that such troops as of this moment, were heading for Manila. Will they. be checked in their march? I am afraid not. All this time, we were only told of the effective defenses pout up by our troops; but, not one word about any offensive movements.
Today was Christmas Eve. Not the slightest festive air was visible anywhere. But my father insisted on overcoming the situation. The observance must be respected. We, therefore held the traditional midnight repast. Under the unavoidable reigning straits, we partook of a tin of corned beef, instead of the usual sweetened smoked ham. There was, besides, some salad –not Russian– made up of some greens with boiled eggs. Our dessert consisted of plain bananas. True, we offered the established season’s toasts, but with red wine, instead of the sophisticated champagne of the recent past. Finally, we exchanged kisses and embraces, warm and tremulous with emotion. We wished each other “A Merry Christmas,” even as our inner souls wept silently.
I was reminded of the Spanish carol: “Christmas Eve Is Come…” I said to myself, instead: Christmas Eve is gone . . . if, in fact, it had come!