The man who saved Makati in 1943

Buddy Gomez

Posted at Feb 10 2016 11:12 PM | Updated as of Mar 09 2016 09:20 PM

Of the most useful and strategic spoils of war for a successful conquering horde to partake of during World War II in the Philippines, there was San Pedro, Makati’s vast tract of open land that hosted the Nielson Airfield. This is today the very Central Business District and the surrounding residential communities. The Japanese Imperial Military had confiscated the entire property--aerodrome and facilities--for the use of its Air Force.

In the summer of 1943, the occupying authority summoned the owners of the estate. This time, the invaders were demanding that the property be turned over to them permanently by way of, very evidently, a coerced sale. Their offered price was set at the prevailing government’s assessed valuation, not to mention, looming overhead, the consequent reprisal if the offer were denied. A nerve-wracking vise hostaging the owners.

The patriarch of the owning family had just died a few months earlier. Elders recall, Don Enrique Zobel de Ayala (great grandfather of the current generation of Ayala business leaders, Jaime Augusto and Fernando Zobel de Ayala) passed on with a broken heart, lamenting that as a consequence of the war, the fortune that took generations to build was fast perishing. 

Hacienda San Pedro de Makati was next door to Manila. Although it was mostly marshland, its meager income was from horse feed (zacate) that grew abundantly in the vicinity and the rental from the lease of the Nielson airfield, civil/commercial aviation being at its infancy just before the war. It was already under the control and exclusive use of the vicious enemy.

The property had been owned by the Roxas-Zobel-Ayala clan since the 1850s. The spread was originally a mid-1700s land grant to a childless couple, Jose de Brito and wife, who bequeathed the hacienda to the Jesuits, only to be confiscated by the Spanish Crown following the expulsion of the Order from all Spanish domain in 1767. What I recall from having read archival material a long time ago was that there were three or four previous owners prior to its last purchase. There was a Marques de Villamediana, a Velez and even a Gomez! 

Portions that had already been sold for development were the early subdivisions of San Andres and Singalong. The Santa Ana racetrack, the Santa Ana Cabaret (world’s largest dance hall) and the Manila South Cemetery were all part of this estate. Apart from the material and the utilitarian, the sentimental value of this spread is sacred, cherished history. And the conquering tyrants wanted to take it away for a token pittance.

DON ALFONSO ZOBEL DE AYALA 

Don Alfonso Zobel de Ayala, now solely in-charge as Managing Partner after his father’s demise, took on the duress and pressure. He was a mild mannered, a genteel individual, not athletic, more of a moderating moral influence than swashbuckling in corporate affairs. Of course, the property was not for sale! But the pain and anguish was at a steep crescendo requiring him to summon all the strength godly possible to put up a courageous unflinching front which he knew deep inside him was being torn apart bit by bit. 

For weeks, summons after summons during which a one-sided negotiations-cum-coercion was being foisted. At one point, hopeless as the matter stood, he yielded with a counter-offer that may have been reasonably acceptable to the unwilling sellers, if only to save themselves from further interminable threats and harassment. It was a calculated counter-offer by Don Alfonso. 

But it was unacceptable to the Japanese. A painful decision to sell was arrived at but the price remained unachieved, for both sides.

I can almost picture him standing before a haughty and chauvinistic military officer talking him down, the grip of a vise tightening with every turn of the screw, Don Alfonso wilting defenselessly, close to surrendering and simply cry. What desperate thoughts must have run through his mind, what fervent prayers he may have offered….how can anybody else know. The strength to stall and to stall was all that was left. And Don Alfonso took the gamble at a profound cost to his already frail physical and emotional condition. And it paid off!

Weeks after, on October 14, 1943, the Philippines was granted independence by the conquering Empire of Japan. The Republic of the Philippines, a puppet government, was born with Jose P. Laurel as President. Japanese military plans and priorities had been altered. The summons to appear before the Military negotiator ceased. By a stroke of guts and painfully labored persistence, Hacienda San Pedro de Makati stayed a family heirloom. The man of that moment is Don Alfonso Zobel de Ayala. He single handedly saved Makati for its destiny.

Had Don Alfonso lost his grip and cool, almost completely drained and had he succumbed to the deathly pressures that hung over him and his family, there would be no Makati today. When Liberation came, Makati would have become Japanese property. As such, it would have been declared confiscated enemy property with government as custodian. And aren’t we only too familiar with our government’s capabilities! Col. Joseph R. McMicking would have had no vision and no creation. No Ayala as we know it today!

Don Alfonso and brother-in-law Col. McMicking worked swimmingly well together, in fact, a ‘mutual admiration’ duo, they merrily were.

READ: Would you believe: Hollywood, Bulosan and McMicking!

EPILOGUE 

Here is my personal epilogue. I was first presented to these two corporate elders, both baldpates (kalbo) during a sales conference in Baguio. 1962. This is an annual gathering for the Ayala Insurance Group senior executives and budding management trainees, with opportunities for best-foot-forward presentations. In a sense, it was also recruitment/scouting season for the elders to take pick and bet who might be worthy of executive development. 

On closing dinner, a Saturday evening, skits, songs and ‘palabas’ were de rigueur. I was called upon and I stood up saying that I had a short limerick dedicated to Don Alfonso and JRM. “Ang kalbo. Ang kalbo, hanggang batok ang no-o.” (The bald has a forehead up to his nape!). Such cheeky effrontery! But it brought the house down. 

A few weeks later, I was called to the Ayala offices in Makati (the Insurance companies were still in Binondo). I was informed that I was soon to be transferred to the parent company, Ayala y Compania. I logged 25 beautiful years with the Group. I guess my irreverent sense of humor and self-confidence had merit after all. But of course, I think I did much more!

The last time I had a chat with Don Alfonso was when he was already retired. He was visiting. We were looking out the window of the 5th floor of the Makati Stock Exchange building, facing the still vacant space of Salcedo Village, watching a two-seater Hughes 300 helicopter bobbing up and down in mid air about 80 feet from the ground. He said, shaking his head rather concernedly, “Look at him, almost sixty and wanting to fly another plane!” Col. McMicking was taking helicopter flying lessons a year before his own retirement.

Don Alfonso, a kindly gentle soul!

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