I will long remember my first night in Santo Tomas. Throughout the night, Japanese soldiers flashed lights on us as they barked restrictions and orders through an interpreter to late arrivals. Though we were already crowded, more people continued to join us. Frightened children screamed and cried in their sleep, and the eleven-month-old baby near my corner wailed most of the night.
On top of the noise, confusion, and glaring lights, we were chewed by bedbugs and mosquitoes.
At the first sign of dawn, just as my sixty or more roommates were beginning to settle down to sleep, I sat up in my torture bed, wide-wake and wild-eyed. I was wretchedly uncomfortable, and my body was peppered with mosquito and bedbug bites.
Since I couldn’t sleep, I thought I would record the events of the previous day’s happenings in my notebook. I had started to keep a diary a few hours after Pearl Harbor. It had given me something to do and think about, and if and when Catesy and I were free again, it would be something to read and remember—not that we would want to remember everything.
For over an hour I wrote, undisturbed by any noises or interruptions. The wailing baby had finally fallen asleep and so had our Nipponese friends. At any rate, they had probably run out of ideas on ways of disturbing us.
Like a stealthy savage bent on ambush, I quickly lifted my mosquito net and crawled out of the creaking bejuca bed. Carefully, I eased my way out of the room so as not to disturb my sleeping roommates. It was still very early, and I felt sure that there would be no long line at the bathroom.
I was never more wrong in my life! About fifty or sixty other women had had the same idea, and so I joined the end of the long line that stretched out to the corridor.
There were three washbowls, one shower, and three toilets for more than five hundred women and children on this end of the building. As I waited in the long line, my thoughts were anything but gay and cheerful.
A little old lady, frail and thin as a worn-out linen sheet, shuffled up to the long line in her shenalis [chinelas] ( grass slippers ). She was wrapped in an old-fashioned cotton kimono. In the harsh morning light, the hastily applied pancake make-up appeared ludicrous, and it emphasized the network of tiny wrinkles in her face. She paused when she saw the long line, and a puzzled look came over her face. “I guess I’ll come back next week,” she said to no one in particular.
I burst into uncontrollable laughter, and the women near me joined in. The women further up the line, who had missed the little episode, stared at us as though we had lost our minds.
When I finally returned to my room, the baby had started to cry again, and several of the older children were whimpering. One of them kept repeating, “Mom, when are we going home? I don’t like this placel”
After dressing quickly, I walked down the long corridor to the front of the building and down the wide staircase. When I passed the Japanese guards in the main lobby, I looked straight ahead until I reached the outside.
Catesy had been waiting for me for over an hour. How good it was to see him and to be in the open, away from the appalling congestion of my room!
He too had spent a sleepless night on the hard cement floor, but at least he had been free of bedbugs.
When the other four joined us, it was time to think of breakfast.
Our first breakfast was prepared by Catesy and me. We went to the kitchen where we had found our beds to prepare our coffee. With a little further reconnaissance, we found another saucepan, which was ideal for cooking the Cream of Wheat which I had thrown in my suitcase as an afterthought.
By the time we had prepared our simple breakfast, the kitchen was crammed with nervous people trying to get near the stoves. Talk about the Russian community kitchens! This was far worse. Surely, there wouldn’t be this congestion at every meal! How could four thousand people prepare meals in such a tiny place without losing their minds or developing bleeding ulcers?
It was a relief to get outside and join our party in front of the Big House, where we ate our breakfast, picnic fashion, on the ground.
We felt much better after the hot cereal and coffee. When Henry and the girls left to wash the dishes, Catesy and I were left alone.
“Well, honey, at least we are together. That’s something, isn’t it?” he asked as he squeezed my hands affectionately.
“I couldn’t stand this madhouse without you,” I answered firmly and a bit heatedly. Another comforting squeeze of his hand cooled me down, and I began to wonder what to give my gang for lunch.
Everyone we talked to had one thing in common — all were plainly bewildered by the noise, the confusion, and the lack of privacy.
To the can of oxtail soup contributed by Belle I added two cans of vegetable soup. This gave us a good lunch of soup and crackers. For supper we again had cheese, tea, and crackers.
The loveliest part of the day, sunset, was yet to come, and as long as we sat outside, away from the gloom and congestion of the buildings, we felt cheerful.
Suddenly we heard a shrill police whistle, and Japanese guards poured out of the buildings to shoo us into our quarters.
The most beautiful part of the day had to be spent in the boiler factory!
My room seemed noiser than ever, and no wonder! While we had been outside, more women and children had been squeezed into the room, and all of them seemed to be talking and crying at the same time. When one child began to cry, the rest of the children joined him.