Thursday, February 11, 2010


I just saw the other day the television trailer for HBO's new miniseries, The Pacific, which is a dramatization of the personal experiences of several U. S. Marines who took part in many of the pivotal battles of the war against Japan during World War II. Produced in part by Hollywood titans, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, the miniseries is also the brainchild of many of the same personalities behind the critically acclaimed series, Band of Brothers (2001), which chronicles the true to life stories of soldiers belonging to Easy Company, 506 Infantry Regiment of the U. S. 101st Airborne Division in the European Theater of Operations of the same war.

As in the first series, The Pacific is billed as as a starkly realistic attempt to recreate for the modern television audience many of the important and critical battles of the Pacific War through the memoirs and individual stories of the men who were actually there and who directly participated in the momentous and historical events and milestones in the savage island to island fighting against the then Empire of Japan. Thus, the trailer showed scenes from epic re-enactments of the desperate battles at Guadalcanal , Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

I had a very high opinion of Band of Brothers when it came out precisely because it was the kind of World War II presentation I favored, films and television programs that did not glorify war and the spectacle of senseless violence but focused on how war and its aftermath impacted on the lives of ordinary men who are at the front lines of all human conflicts. Thus little is said much less shown of the great personalities and military leaders of that war. It was, in the case of the 2001 miniseries, all about the ordinary GI's or American soldiers desperately trying to cope with the transition from civilian to military life, those who eventually had to survive the bloody slaughter on the beaches of Normandy and the perilous push through war-torn France and those who made it to the final battles that brought Nazi Germany to its knees.

I do hope that The Pacific will do justice to the rich history and monumental scope of the events it intends to portray just as it attempts to bring to life as realistically as possible, for the benefit of today's audience, the critical events of a more than 60 year old conflict, a war few of the present generation have a working knowledge of except through dusty history books and the dim memories of the few remaining old-timers who are now already in their 80's and 90's.

The only extensive firsthand accounts I had of what was life like here in the Lianga area during the Pacific War came from my paternal grandfather, Santiago, who was in his forties when the World War II broke out in December 7, 1941. The war had actually been raging in Europe since 1939 when the German invasion of Poland brought Great Britain and France (which with the United States later on formed the nucleus of the so called Allied Powers) rushing in to attempt a halt to Adolf Hitler's dream of territorial expansion. The bombing of the United State's naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii by Germany's ally, the Empire of Japan (which with Italy and Germany comprised the Axis Powers) in December of 1941 forced the Americans into the war and made the Philippines, then an American colony, a prime target for Japanese attack in what would ultimately to the start of the Pacific War.

My grandfather did not have then an inkling of the global scope of the war that was about to engulf his part of the world. Mindanao then was mostly unexplored wilderness and the the unified Surigao province in the northeastern edge of the island where he grew up was then just a scattering of small coastal towns linked only by sea and the most primitive of forest and mountain trails. The people here did not want to be involved and did not even know why they had to be. But the Philippines was too strategic a target for the Japanese and the war did come and turned his small world upside down.

Salvacion (now a barangay of the town of San Agustin), his small village just a short distance north of Lianga, was then (and even now) a small, peaceful agricultural community with no strategic or tactical military value unlike Lianga which was already a major town and thus was quickly occupied by Japanese garrison troops soon after the fall of Bataan and the surrender of American forces in the Philippines in April of 1942. A small detachment of Japanese soldiers did eventually land by sea in Salvacion only to be met by many curious villagers largely ignorant of news reports of Japanese atrocities in Luzon and elsewhere in the Asia.

The "warm" reception, according to my grandfather, made the Japanese forces well disposed to the many villagers who chose not to flee to the mountains when news of the landings broke out. According to him, there was a serious attempt by the invaders to maintain cordial relations with the local people, an attempt made untenable and difficult to sustain due to an active Filipino-American guerrilla movement and a local population still desperately trying to adjust to the change in the identity, personality and culture of their new colonial masters.

That the Japanese forces then could be capable of "drastic measures" was demonstrated to him many times during the years of the occupation. Failure to show respect to the new masters by Filipinos including forgetting to bow to sentries and persons of rank merited immediate arrest, beatings and even executions especially for those suspected of complicity with guerrilla forces. My grandmother's own brother was captured and tortured by Japanese soldiers who mistakenly suspected him of spying for their enemies. The poor man never recovered from his ordeal and eventually died.

For my grandfather and his family, the years of the Japanese occupation were tense ones. The local school was closed and the normal rhythms of life interrupted. The local economy suffered as agriculture, trade and commerce became restricted by the exigencies of the war. He once showed me a wad of Japanese occupation paper currency, the so called "Micky Mouse money" which was next to worthless then due to hyperinflation in the Philippine economy, that he still kept as a reminder of those years.

That the Americans would return as Gen. Douglas MacArthur had promised when he managed to escape Bataan and sneak his way to Australia in 1942 was something many local Filipinos believed in as an article of faith. He made good his promise in October of 1944 as American forces fresh from their island hopping successes in the South Pacific began preparing for the final assaults on the remaining Japanese occupied territories south of the Japanese homeland.

The invasion of Leyte Gulf which eventually led to the American reconquest of the Philippines is considered to be one of the largest naval battles in history. The American armada was so huge and covered so wide an area of the ocean that some of the sea and air battles in the south of the invasion area took place within sight and sound of the many coastal communities in Surigao del Sur.

My grandfather and his contemporaries had watched spellbound as the silhouettes of hundreds of ships belonging to the United States and her allies filled the horizon beyond Lianga Bay. In the air above, U. S. fighter planes wheeled back and forth while trying to shoot down Japanese aircraft and dive bomb enemy sea craft. In the days that followed, the distant clashes of thunder from the big guns of the battleships would echo throughout the nearby hills and mountains.

When the dust cleared, the ruined hulks of Japanese warships and sea transports littered the coast along the bay. My grandfather joined many locals who waded through the shallow coastal waters during low tide and then clambered aboard the sunk ships, salvaging anything they could find inside. Some superstitious elders warned him and his companions not to disturbed or touch the personal belongings attached to the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers and sailors, an admonition my grandfather followed to the letter.

He scavenged for still usable woolen blankets, tools and preserved food in tin cans. Others, he told me, ignored warnings and raided the dead bodies of watches, weapons, jewelry and even combat boots and articles of clothing they stripped off the corpses. Most of those looters he later recalled would later on die of strange and mysterious causes. As to whether they were victims of some arcane curse or just plain unlucky he could never be sure to this day. All that he knew was that he was among the few who did live long enough to tell the tale.

In the weeks that followed the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese quickly disappeared. What remained were the rotting bodies of their compatriots that clogged the fish pens and fishing grounds of the bay. Most people began to stop eating fresh fish and other seafood after morbidly speculating on what the marine animals have been feeding on.

The dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 followed soon after by the surrender of Japan meant little to my grandfather and his small community. All that mattered to them then was how to pick up their lives after the disruption of the war years. Millions had died in the conflict that raged for more than half a decade across continents and oceans but in my grandfather's small world, much of the horror and suffering of the war was soon quickly set aside and forgotten. The post war era and its many possibilities beckoned to him and he, like so many of his generation, found the courage to move on with their lives.

My grandfather died at the age of 92 in 1988. But in the decade or so before that, whenever I had to visit Lianga during school breaks I would spend hours sitting with him in the backyard of my parent's house patiently listening to his stories about the war. At that time he was already becoming senile and his accounts often had a wandering and meandering quality about them.

But his recollections remained largely accurate, factual and consistent, rich with the nuances and impressions of a contemplative man who had the luxury of having the time to reflect and meditate on the events and milestones of his long life. Through those reminiscences, the war became alive for me and through him I gained a deeper understanding of the life-changing impact the war had on the lives of the people who were caught in it and its aftermath.

In many ways I pity the new generation of the young today whose appreciation and sense of history is largely limited to the experiences they have had in their still short lives. In one instance, I once quizzed two of my young nephews about contemporary history and was taken aback by not only by their lack of knowledge and awareness of recent historical events but, more so, by their cavalier attitude towards my advice that they need to study more of the history of their country and the world if they were to understand where they are now and what the future may bring for them.

Like most of the young today, they are much too enamored by the present, beguiled by the limitless possibilities of the future and have little regard for the need to understand the past. In many ways, most of them are culturally and historically rootless, largely ignorant of their historical and cultural heritage and that of the world they live in. They are even supremely contemptuous of the need to immerse themselves in the serious study of such "boring" and "useless" things.

Through books, magazines, videos, movies, television and the Internet they have practically all of recorded human history at their fingertips yet they consider the study of the past irrelevant and useless. How, for example, can you expect the new generation to appreciate the importance and eventual consequences of a more than 60 year old conflict when they themselves have little inkling and no more than a superficial understanding of the bitter lessons of the Marcos martial law years and the spirit of renewal and peaceful change that gave birth to the EDSA People Power Revolt of 1986, events which occurred less than three decades ago.

If there is something that a sound grasp and sense of history gives us, it is the realization that most, if not all, of the successes as well as the failures of man today in his search for universal peace, happiness and prosperity have their echoes in his recorded past. He who tempers his view of the present and the future with a deep appreciation for the hard lessons of thousands of years of recorded human experience takes advantage of the accumulated wisdom of past generations. He who stands on the shoulders of those who have come before him can seldom be wrong.

To understand the present and accurately discern the future, we must look towards the lessons of the past. This is something that the next generation must realize and take to heart. History is not only as a dry record or chronology of facts and events. It is also, on a more personal and intimate level, a record of the life experiences, the fascinating life stories of the countless individuals who have come before us, many of whom were ordinary men and women, mere mortals just like us, living through momentous, interesting and sometimes dangerous times, all seeking and fighting, even dying, for what they thought was good and right for the world.

World War II was a global conflagration that changed the world forever. It took place more than sixty years ago but its effects and repercussions are still being felt today. This is why television presentations like Band of Brothers and The Pacific, and films like the 1981 classic, Das Boot (The Boat), which tells the story of World War II's battles for control of the North Atlantic sea lanes from the viewpoint and perspective of the crew of a German U-boat, are a must see. They make us experience and relive those turbulent years through the eyes of those who were caught in the cataclysm of the war.

They are essentially stories of how war (in the words of Spielberg) not only results in the "corruption of the human spirit" but, more importantly, documents how men traumatized by conflict and violence remain resilient and ultimately unbroken and are able to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and continue living when all the fighting is over.

There will probably be no movies or big-budgeted television programs about how ordinary Filipinos like my grandfather lived through and survived the World War II and the Pacific War. It would be nice if something like that would ever come to be. After all, as the producers of The Pacific had emphasized so many times in interviews, "truth is often better than fiction" and the best stories that ever came out of the was were the ones that really happened and involved ordinary men and women just trying to survive with dignity and honor in a world torn by the madness of war and seemingly poised on the edge of destruction.

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