January 5, 1942

January, the 5th! We could never forget that date, for it would have been our wedding day! Instead of a wedding, the large iron gates of our prison slammed shut on Catesy, my fiancé, and me with a finality that chilled our hearts.

What a nightmare we had lived in since Pearl Harbor! Yet there was always that one small hope that help and reinforcements would arrive before the enemy reached us.

But we waited in vain.

Bombings! Fires! Death and Destruction! Nursing the wounded! Panic and Invasion. This had been our life for the last month. Now imprisonment!

Strangely enough, Catesy and I had never given up hope that help would arrive — not until two weeks ago. That was the time we realized that escape had been cut off by land and sea.

We had driven to the piers to take a last look at our bombed ships which lay like useless driftwood in Manila Bay. The enemy had done a thorough job, as most of the ships were half-submerged, and their masts were leaning tipsily, parallel to the water.

As we gazed, sadly, at all this destruction, we recognized one of the destroyed vessels. Once it had been a sleek and beautiful freighter, and the accommodations for twelve passengers had been luxurious. Now it was a useless piece of junk.

This was the freighter that would have taken us on our honeymoon trip to Europe! But what was the use of thinking about that?

Our immediate problem was to dislodge ourselves from the crowded passenger car which had conveyed us from our homes to the prison that loomed before us.

Prisoners of the Japs! Just to repeat the phrase made one shudder.

There were six of us in the tightly packed car, and we had bundles, suitcases, and bulging pillowcases around us, between us, and on our laps. Because the Japs had instructed us to bring food for three days, we were surrounded by small and large bundles of canned food and other edibles, and our suitcases contained clothing, additional food, and some bedding.

The bulging pillowcase filled with a ten-pound wedge of rat cheese, two huge boxes of crackers, and other food items, on my lap, was in danger of splitting.

I had to stretch my short neck to see above the mound on my lap. I turned and smiled at Catesy, and he squeezed my hand in a reassuring manner. Thank God, we were together!

Catesy was dark-haired and handsome, but of course I would be prejudiced. His most outstanding traits were congeniality and kindness, and like most people with an Irish and Welsh background he had a sly and droll wit. He had his faults, too, like anyone else. He had a hot temper which flared up as suddenly as summer thunder and disappeared just as quickly. After one of these temper flare-ups, he was as meek and contrite as a small boy who had been caught red-handed stealing apples.

For the past eight years he had been employed by one of the largest Manila wholesale-and-retail drug firms in the entire Orient.

Henry, a bachelor of forty, with sandy hair and baby-blue eyes, was the second man in our little group of six. His perpetual grin and good humor helped to lessen some of the tension of the last month. Slightly built and of medium height, he walked on his tiptoes with a bouncing gait.

For many years he had been stationed in one of the southern provinces as an employee of one of the major oil companies in the States. To him fell the job of setting fire to several million dollars’ worth of oil prior to the Japanese entry into Manila.

As we had watched the huge conflagration caused by this oil destruction from my sixth-floor apartment only a week ago, we had listened to ear-shattering explosions all day. Giant flames and mountains of dense smoke had hung over the city for days.

“I dare the Nips to find a jiggerful of gas when they reach the city!” Henry’s voice, though tense and nervous, had been filled with complete satisfaction. He had followed the army’s orders.

Sophie, a slender girl of twenty-five with brown hair and unusually large gray eyes, was one of the four women in our group. She was the wife of a mining engineer and, like so many others, had come to Manila to do her Christmas shopping; but because of the rapidly approaching enemy she had been unable to join her husband in the provinces. Nor had she been able to communicate with him. To add to her depression and worries, a favorite young cousin of hers, a flyer, had been killed at Clark Field about ten days before.

The other two women were mother and grown daughter, Belle and Toinette. Both were attractive, dark-haired and extremely vivacious. They had lived in the same apartment house I had, and the mother, like me, had been employed as a civilian nurse at the Sternberg General Army Hospital in Manila.

Usually they bubbled over with gaiety, but now they sat quietly in the car, staring straight ahead.

I was short and on the plump side, with light-brown hair and dark-brown eyes, and my complexion was fair. I was born in Hungary, and my parents came to the United States when I was only five. But I might add that I was as American as pumpkin pie.

Seven months after I had finished my nurse’s training, I had saved enough money on private duty to see five countries in Europe. The fact that I had exactly forty-five cents in my purse when I reached home base in Pittsburgh never bothered me. My wonderful trip to Europe had given me a stronger urge to see more of the world, especially the Orient.

I scrimped, saved, and dreamed about China, Japan, India, Siam, and the Philippines. Finally, a few years later, with money in my purse, I left for California, and then Hawaii, Japan, China, and eventually the Philippines. When my funds became alarmingly low, I nursed, while in between times I went sightseeing and shopping. I saw all the famous tourist spots in Japan, Peiping, Nanking, Tientsin, Hongkong, and Shanghai. I would have been content to stay in Shanghai for a year or more, as the private nursing was plentiful and each day brought new faces, sights, and adventures.

My rickshaw and taxi fares were paid by my patients, and my living quarters, all for the princely sum of twenty-five dollars a month, were luxurious. If I was tired after a twelve-hour stint at a hospital or at a patient’s home, if I wished, I’d have late tea or dinner served to me in bed at my quarters without extra charge.

With the exchange in my favor, what a happy time I had buying souvenirs, curios and brocades in Shanghai’s fabulous shops! For one gold dollar I received enough Shanghai Mex to stuff a knitting bag. There had been so much to do, see, and learn! Jai-alai! Horse racing! Dinner parties, tea and garden parties! Sightseeing and night clubbing and eating strange and exotic foods! And always there had been an abundance of escorts.

But like all good things which had a way of ending, my exciting and happy life in Shanghai terminated almost overnight.

It was in the late summer of 1937 that the Japanese shelled Shanghai, and it was only a question of a few days before they would be in command of the city.

American and British nationals were evacuated to Manila and Hongkong, and because I was single I was one of the last to leave on the luxurious President liner, the ill-fated Hoover.

That was the time I escaped the Japs, but now, four years later, they had caught up with mel!

Quietly and dejectedly, we sat in the car that was parked in front of a large four-story gray stone building. This was the Big House, the largest of the buildings on the Santo Tomas University campus.

The Santo Tomas University was considered the oldest university under the American flag, having been founded in 1587 by the Dominican Order, or Order of Preachers, as a secondary school. Later in 1611, the first university in the Orient was started by the Spaniards in the walled City of Manila.

If this was to be our home, I was grateful that the present site and structure were modern.

To the right of the Big House was a rambling, one-story administration building. To the right of the latter was another large building, used for classes and for housing nuns.

To the left of the Big House, separated by a wire fence and the Father’s garden, was another large gray stone structure. It was the Seminary building, quarters for the Spanish priests who formerly taught at the university. The building also contained the Santo Tomas chapel.

About two city blocks beyond the Seminary building was a large gym. The spacious grounds in front of it and the Seminary building had been used for collegiate sports of all types.

Everywhere I looked I saw Allied nationals strolling about the grounds, and I recognized many familiar faces. Some appeared utterly bewildered and depressed, while others strolled about as though they didn’t have a care in the world.

Several men recognized Catesy, and as they waved to him cheerfully I decided that things weren’t so bad after all.

I was quickly jerked back to reality when Japanese soldiers surrounded our car and made guttural sounds and rapid motions with their hands.

“Everybody out of the car!” shouted an American who seemed to act as interpreter.

Grabbing our bundles and bags, we squeezed ourselves out of the car and walked toward the Big House. The hot sun felt good on my head and back. It was a beautiful day, and everything should have been peaceful and in order.

We walked into the large lobby and were met with bedlam.

Japanese officers, soldiers, and civilians, with the customary waving of hands and arms, were all shouting in Japanese, while men, women, and children of Allied countries were pushing forward to get near the officers in charge. All of them were asking for beds for their women and children, while many others were trying to get releases because of illness.

With difficulty, we inched our way through the tightly packed crowd in the direction of the wide staircase which led to the upper floors.

At the first landing, which branched off in two stairways, we were met by an American who instructed us that the men were to take the right staircase, while the women were to go left.

“Sheep to the right, and goats to the left!” I said flippantly.

“Well, don’t forget, we are in Japanese custody, and in their opinion women are this low.” With black eyes flashing, Belle demonstrated by placing her shapely hands a few inches apart.

We four women climbed the few short stairs and found ourselves in a long corridor.

To the left of us we passed many classrooms that were already jammed with women and children, benches, chairs, school desks, and mountains of luggage.

To the right of us we saw an old acquaintance of ours sitting on a window ledge that faced the west patio. We spoke to him, and though his staring eyes looked straight at us we received no acknowledgment. We passed on, worried and wondering. What was the matter with him?

Having turned the corner, we found ourselves in another long corridor with more classrooms filled with women and children with their belongings. Here, too, there were long windows on the opposite side, and when we looked down we saw the same patio. The building was U-shaped around the patio. On the other side of the building there was another U built around a second patio.

After walking past a dozen or more rooms, we came to an empty corner room. It was completely bare. It was a large room with tall windows on both sides and two doors leading to small balconies.

We dropped our bundles and bags, and for a long time we stood in the doorway. We picked up our luggage and walked over to the far side of the room and noticed that the room boasted a sink.

“And the bathroom is right next door!” remarked Sophie practically.

Since all the windows and balcony doors were closed, the air was stifling and the stench of urine was overpowering.

While Sophie and I opened all the large windows, Belle and Toinette went in search of brooms and dust rags. They returned in a short time with two brooms and several dust rags.

For more than an hour we kicked the dust around. We dusted, swept, and chose the far side of the room for our own. To insure squatters’ rights, we spread out our belongings so that later arrivals would not jump our claim.

“But what about beds, tables, and chairs?” asked Toinette.

It was a good question.

“Let’s go on a reconnaissance tour of the buildings! Surely, in a huge university like this, there must be furniture. Let’s go, girls!” My voice sounded more confident than I felt.

In a room three doors from ours we found a bench and a chair, which we immediately dragged to our room.

Halfway down the corridor to the left of our room, we opened large double doors and found ourselves in a museum. The three sides of the enormous room, were lined with glass cases filled with reptiles, birds, and animals, large and small, native to the Philippines and the Orient.

“Just what we’re looking for! Stuffed and repulsive-looking iguanas and a friendly looking python!” exclaimed Toinette facetiously.

Just then my eyes spied an old Victorian marble-top table and I shrieked with delight. Like vultures, we pounced on it, and despite its weight we swiftly carried it to our new home.

Our search for beds took us much longer. We searched all of the rooms on the second and third floors of the Big House. We went outside and looked in the administration building, but there were no beds.

In the rear of the Big House there was a large, rambling frame dwelling. We combed every inch of this building, but we found nothing but large and heavy machinery. Apparently, the building had been a classroom for engineers.

Directly across from this building was another long frame dwelling, to the left of the Big House. Here we saw stoves, refrigerators, tables, chairs, and an abundance of cooking utensils. But there were no beds!

Next to one of the refrigerators was an extremely narrow door. I looked inside, and when my eyes alighted on the three native beds I yelled like a cheer leader.

“Look what I’ve found!”

The girls crowded around me to admire the beds, that were narrow and probably infested with bedbugs.

What a windfall! Though we had comfortable innerspring mattresses at home, yet now we went into ecstasies over narrow bejuca (native straw) beds which had probably belonged to servants.

While Belle and Toinette stayed to guard our prizes, Sophie and I went in search of the boys to help carry the beds. We found them on the third floor in a room directly above ours, and they were overjoyed to hear that we had found three beds.

After the men carried the beds to our room, they set them up. We found that between the four of us we had three sheets and three mosquito bars.

How would four white women squeeze into three single native beds that were less than thirty inches wide? It would take a Solomon to figure that one out.

While the boys went in search of beds for themselves, we hustled around to make our new home habitable. We removed the dirty mosquito nettings from the beds and attached our own clean ones to the crossbars. Since we had no mattresses, pads, or extra sheets to place over the straw matting, we placed half of a sheet over each
bed, while the other half we planned to use as a covering.

A short time later the boys returned with the sad news that there were no more beds to be found. For days to come, they slept on the hard cement floor.

For supper that night I had only to thrust my arm into my fat pillowslip to produce cheese, crackers, and tea. From the well-supplied kitchen in which we had found our beds, the boys made tea in a saucepan they had pinched.

The marble-topped table gave our simple meal a certain elegance, and though we tried to be gay we did not succeed too well.

However, the hot tea and sugar revived us, and we felt that the future looked less dark and hopeless than a few hours before.

By nightfall it seemed that every cubic inch of space had been taken in our room, but people continued to pour in. All the women and children, ages ranging from eleven months to seventy-nine years, were tired and nervous, and I, who had been a want-to-be-alone Garbo from the time I could toddle, was in the midst of all this confusion and noise.

It was past bedtime, and the problem of accommodating four women in three single beds still remained unsolved. Finally, Belle suggested that she and Toinette would double up in one bed, and Sophie and I readily agreed. For once in my life I was grateful for my generous adipose surplus as my body hit the hard and resisting bejuca matting.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin