Thursday, July 15, 2010

Palawan: beauty and tragic stories

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 07:22:00 07/15/2010

Filed Under: War, history, Massacre

WE WENT to Palawan for the fish and forests and a look at the world as we would like it to be. We found a great deal of that with the help of Bishop Pedro Arigo and Fr. Robert Reyes. I even met, at the end of a long day of snorkeling, a green fish with the Irish flag’s colors on its sides.

We also found the world as it actually is. The island hasn’t escaped the reach of human greed. There are 534 applications pending for mining projects in Palawan. We were told at least 80 of these will be granted. Eighty open pit mines will go a long way to polluting the waters of the island, the forests and beaches. Also Malaysian ships stop illegally in southern Palawan, load up with valuable logs and bring them back home, all with the concurrence of local officials.

We thought there might be less violence in a place so beautiful, but we found that isn’t so. During World War II, for example, Americans, Filipinos and Japanese committed terrible crimes, some of which were so gruesome people are reluctant to talk about them. The stories of these events seem to be connected with one another. Some are clearly historical; others may be not.

The story began for us when Bishop Arigo told us of the massacre of American prisoners of war by the Japanese army in 1944. He told us of the monument to the dead soldiers in downtown Puerto Princesa.

In December 1944 Japanese soldiers, fearing Gen. Mac Arthur’s troops were coming closer, decided to kill the prisoners they kept. They herded the soldiers into air raid shelters, poured gasoline on them, then set them afire. The soldiers who tried to escape were machine gunned, bayoneted or simply clubbed to death. Eleven managed to escape, one at least by diving into the bay.

The site of the massacre is now in the middle of a lovely park, shaded by old acacia and mahogany trees where children play and older students do their homework. In the center of the park, where the air raid shelters were located, there is a monument to the dead: a stone platform holds a statue of an emaciated, bearded prisoner of war struggling to free himself of the barbed wire that coils around him like a snake. The sculptor, Don T. Schloat, was one of the survivors.

For some unknown reason, there has been almost no mention of this massacre in the American or Filipino media, though it is said that what happened there was the massacre of the largest number of American soldiers ever at one time.

Bishop Arigo and the citizens of Puerto Princesa celebrate Mass each year at the monument to pray for the dead soldiers and all who suffered during the war. A person sitting in that park today, listening to the birds and children, cannot imagine the men on fire racing from the air raid shelter to the safety of the bay.

The story continued, according to other narrators, after liberation when Filipino guerrilla fighters and American soldiers rounded up some 300 Japanese sympathizers and dependents (Macabebe) and the few Japanese still left in the city and took them one night to a spot on the highway about 35 kms. to the north of the city and slaughtered them all.

Drivers, including the bishop’s, still blow their horns when they pass that spot. Others throw coins. When we asked the bishop’s driver, Norman, why he blew his horn, he said he didn’t want to meet the woman in white who is sometimes seen at that spot.

We went out along the road to the 35-km mark to see what that area was like. The highway makes big sweeping turns there high above Honda Bay. A driver coming fast downhill might easily misjudge the distance and break through the retaining wall. The ground falls off sharply from the roadside. The tops of tall trees are even with the road. Below is thick underbrush. It is a place the Mafia might pick to get rid of bodies.

We found a group of women, old and young, selling vegetables. Yes, they said, Japanese soldiers were killed near here after the war. Sometimes headless Japanese soldiers block the road, so people cannot pass.

Not everyone in Puerto Princesa believes this story, and yet the drivers still show respect for the dead and seek to appease their ghosts. A lady in white is seen. A laborer who stole a box from that area is said to have brought on many accidents.

On our last day, we saw in a history of the war one final part of the story. Shortly after the war started, 16 Japanese living in Palawan were arrested. They were sent south to a camp near Puerto Princesa in the custody of the police. On the way, they disappeared at Km 37 and were never seen again. Older people in Palawan are reluctant to discuss the role of Filipinos in these stories.

There is unrivalled beauty in Palawan, but be ready for old horror tales, blowing of horns in strange places and women in white.

(Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

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