ON December 7, 1941, Japanese Planes attacked Pearl Harbor. In retaliation, the United States, which was up to that point ambivalent to the fight against the Axis, joined the Second World War the day afterwards. When that happened, the Philippines, still under American Colonial rule, was drawn into the global conflict, becoming one of Japan’s targets. Conrado San Pedro was but twelve years old.
Conrado “Ading” San Pedro lived in a simple wooden house on Ponciano Street, Davao City. His mother, Antoniette, was a housewife whose spouse, Sotero San Pedro, worked as an aviation chief ordnance man in the US Navy, along with being a military cook. Before moving to Davao, Ading and his family lived in Bataan, Luzon. In hindsight, they managed to evade the horror of Bataan’s fall, but the war was never too far away. With Japan but a sea away, there was no escaping it.
Davao City has had good relations with the Japanese before the advent of Word War 2. At that time, the abaca industry of the city was thriving thanks to the Japanese who settled there two or three decades prior. When Japanese migrants first landed in Davao, they were but workers, employees of other rich business owners. However, through their own hard work and tenacity, they eventually became successful and succeeded their former superiors. Businesses and plantations owned by Japanese nationals contributed to the growing economy of the region, and their part in its land development helped create a base for the coming urbanization of Davao. However, this did not stop the Japanese forces from bombing the city on December 8, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Warplanes attacked Davao’s harbor, its ships, and other parts of the city. The morning routines of Davao’s citizens were interrupted by the sight of Japanese bombers in the sky and the explosions of the bombs they deployed, some near, some far. Despite the terror of the air raid, it was only a taste of what was to come the days after the air raid, Ading witnessed a turnaround against the Japanese of Davao City. The spark of war sparked a distrust against local Japanese, who had no part in the atrocities committed by their home nation. Like the warplanes that bombed without discretion, the Filipino Volunteer Guards arrested the local Japanese wantonly, including their women and children. They were interred in concentration camps, where they were starved and abused, with some being raped by Filipino Soldiers.
The days after the air raids were full of unease, calm save the looming threat of Japanese invasion, and the further abuse directed against the local “hapones.” Far from Davao, the rest of the nation was steeling against the coming Imperial forces, with some places like Legaspi already feeling the full force of incursion. Sotero’s job in the US Navy meant that he was deployed elsewhere from Davao, and only Ading and Antoniette occupied the house on Ponciano street during that uneasy time. They did not know where he was, or how he was doing. What they did know was that the calm will not last forever.
On December 19, the Japanese struck.
For several hours Davao was hit by air strikes. At midnight, Japanese forces made landfall, while their destroyers attacked the harbor once again. Davao’s infantry army regiment was overwhelmed, and thus commenced the invasion.
The incursion was particularly bloody, as the Japanese soldiers employed a grotesque method called the Buwis de Kutsilyo, or the Tax of the Knife, on any Filipino they found running. When the soldiers found out what was done to the Japanese in the prison camps, they employed the Tax as vengeance for their wronged kin.
Ading and Antoniette fled their house on Ponciano street, as staying behind to surrender had no guarantee of receiving mercy. Anyone, from Filipino soldiers to civilians, was slaughtered. Ading and Antoniette headed for Bukidnon, alongside other surviving Davaoeños pursued by the Japanese soldiers. They were chased to the border of the Davao region, up into the steep mountains, before the soldiers ceased their pursuit: No Japanese chased them beyond the border. No longer harried, Ading and his mother continued their journey to safety, alongside other refugees not killed during the chase.
Freedom did not last long. Shortly after the Davaoeños’ arrival, the Japanese took over Bukidnon.
Ading, Antoniette, and the other refugees of Davao were captured by the Japanese forces. However, the group that took over Bukidnon was different from the ones that took over Davao. Vengeance was not in them, and they had no quarrel with civilians in their territory. What they did do, however, was subject the refugees to the new Japanese government.
When the Japanese took over Bukidnon, many houses were abandoned, deserted by their owners as they fled to other places. Ading and his mother resided in one such empty house, alongside other Davaoeños. Because of Japanese rule, most of them stayed in their houses, not unlike Martial Law.
To provide for his family, Ading sold rice in exchange for ulam. As he was a young boy, he could only carry 10 kilos each day, though this was not too much of a problem. There were plenty of cows in Bukidnon at that time. Every day, Ading would help slaughter a cow to eat with his fellow refugees, as made the best out of what was given to them. Life in Bukidnon was quiet, and unlike the fierceness of their pursuers the Japanese controlling the province were mild. As long as they followed the rules, they would not be disturbed. Ading and Antoniette carried on, and waited for the war to end.
Sometime after Davao’s fall, Sotero died in Japanese captivity. He did not see his family again.
By 1945, the Allies had retaken a good chunk of Mindanao, and were preparing to retake Davao City from the Japanese. To that end, the Japanese-occupied city was subject to months of air raids, warplanes flying overhead and subjecting the land to heavy bombardment. On May 3, the formal start to the liberation began, with the Allied forces engaging the Japanese for control of the city. Davao was liberated a month later.
When Mindanao was liberated, Ading, Antoniette, and the other refugees decided to return to Davao. Ading and Antoniette managed to hitchhike with an American soldier, on a jeep headed for Davao where a plane will take him home. Their deal was beneficial: the American would give them a ride, bypassing a long and arduous journey on foot, while Ading and Antoniette would cook for him. His personal translator allowed for this exchange to happen.
When Ading and Antoniette returned, their house in Ponciano was still intact. However, Sotero was gone, and Davao was still in ruins from the aftermath of its liberation.
World War Two left deep scars across the country. For Davao, one of its wounds was the rift between the Filipinos and Japanese, the atrocities of each side breaking apart a bond that made the city a prosperous place for both peoples. The city itself was set back by many years, the bombardment to “save” it crippling its economy and infrastructure, a wound that would take decades to heal. The signs of invasion and liberation never really went away; from time to time, undetonated bombs from this era of strife would be found buried near civilian areas, from roads to backyards. The legacy of the air raids could still be felt in the present day.
In time, Ading left the house in Ponciano, and settled in a wide house in Bajada. The city of Davao, after years of inner conflicts, had finally recovered, reconciling with its Japanese friends and becoming prosperous once more. War was thing of division and destruction, but what can be divided can be rejoined, and what can be destroyed can be remade, better than ever.
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