World War II, no doubt, was the most overwhelming event we experienced as a nation. It changed our mentality, culture, and history. It did not only bring trauma, but also destroyed our cultural heritage and architecture, and incinerated a lot of our historical documents—which is now being blamed to why many Filipinos have little appreciation of the past and its lessons.
I was invited to check on some World War II memorabilia at Leon Gallery last February 3, on the very day of the 56th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle for Manila. The items consist of three big folders that show the triumph and tragedies of that war, windows to the contending narratives and perspectives of the people’s experience.
The first folder was neatly arranged by the present owner, and the very first items I saw fascinated me—five rare colored propaganda postcards of the various battles and scenes from the point-of-view of the Japanese, including one showing the 100-kilometer Death March after they won the Battle of Bataan in 1942. I saw these reprinted in books before, but I never realized how smaller they are in comparison with other postcards. We often see war photographs from embedded lensmen in books published by the Americans but rarely do we see images made celebrating Japan.
There were five envelopes from the period, one was stamped with a seal showing two mountains, between them a rising sun that says: “Bureau of Communications Manila, Commemorating Fall of Bataan – Corregidor. First Day Sale May 18, 1942.”
There were stamps from the Commonwealth of the Philippines which were overprinted to half their value (for example a PHP 4.00 stamp became a PHP 2.00) by the occupier with the words, “Congratulation Fall of Bataan and Corregidor 1942.” In the old days, overprints were made to old stamps to avoid wastage denoting a new era, or a new president with a new program. Seeing these stamps felt weird because we always think of those events as a tragedy to Filipinos and here I was seeing a stamp that celebrated it.
There were also stamps from the occupation on several envelopes and some in a commemorative pamphlet entitled “Postal Issues of the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines, 1942-1944.” Some envelopes were also stamped with either “Open by the censors, passed inspection” or “Passed by Censor Japanese Military Police.” It tells you how intrusive the state was at that time on the private lives and thoughts of people.
Related to these were old photographs on the surrender negotiations between American General Jonathan Wainwright and Japanese Imperial Army General Masaharu Homma, Commander of the 14th Army, in Cabcaben, Bataan on 6 May 1942. The pictures include two actual “Homma Medals” (including a rare trial piece struck in bronze) which were issued to Wainwright’s men to commemorate their victory.
We are used to seeing Homma’s portraits in books looking fierce, but what do you expect of a war criminal who was responsible for the Death March? (He will be executed for it after the war in Los Baños in 1946) But there is a photo showing him relaxing with Jorge Vargas of the Executive Committee, and a close-up picture of him looking nice and harmless, and showing a faint smile.
There are plenty more items in the folder to humanize this war criminal. After Homma’s retirement in August 15, 1942, he wrote a letter to Commissioner of the Interior José P. Laurel. Having been in England for eight years and even receiving the military cross of the British Empire, he wrote the letter with his own handwriting and in English which reads in full:
“Dear Mr. Laurel, Five months have elapsed since I left Manila. Several happening and various changes must have occurred in the country, I presume. How are you getting on? I learned that you have been transferred to another portfolio. I feel cold after Philippine (sic) those few months. Hope you are well and working strenuously for the good of your country. I appreciate very much your gift on the eve of my departure. Yours sincerely, (signed) M. Homma.”
The letter reflects how warm and cordial the Japanese official felt about Laurel. It comes with an envelope in Homma’s handwriting of Laurel’s name and designation postmarked 3 April 1943.
We did not have to guess what Laurel replied because the folder also has a copy of the typewritten response dated 12 April 1943, albeit not signed (In the time when there were no photocopiers, Secretaries make file copies either by repeating the entire letter or using carbon paper, hence carbon copy).
In the reply, Laurel tells Homma pleasantries about his and Japan’s benevolence, and reports on the improving situation of peace and order. He talks about how he hopes the new order will lead Japan to cooperate in rehabilitating and reconstructing the country so it can become a “worthy member” of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
By reading the letter, one may think Laurel too patronizing and overtly Pro-Japanese. But, you see, Laurel was only fulfilling the very mission President Manuel Quezon gave after leaving him behind to meet the Japanese invaders when the war started—which is to, pardon my French, bullshit the Japanese to minimize the negative impact of the war on the civilian population.
Eventually, Laurel will be elected by the National Assembly to be President of the “independent” Philippine Republic, but under Japanese protection. This republic was inaugurated on 14 October 1943 at the Legislative Building (now the National Museum). In the folder were the actual souvenir program; a commemorative picture book of the inauguration entitled “Souvenir Pictorial of the Birth of the Philippine Republic”; a Philippine flag ribbon worn by those who attended the event with the red side on the left denoting a state of war; three first day philatelic covers; two medals commemorating the inauguration; and another medal commemorating its first anniversary. All these bear the likeness of Laurel.
Laurel’s government would be known as the Second Philippine Republic or the “Puppet Republic” yet historians now agree almost unanimously that he was by no means a “puppet.” Aside from insisting on Philippine sovereignty and saving many lives from executions from the Japanese, Laurel, in effect saved the future of the Philippines. When the Japanese Prime Minister ordered him to declare a State of War against the United States with his powers as President of the Philippines in order to make the Filipinos be conscripted and fight on the side of the Japanese, Laurel only proclaimed that a State of War already existed and did not need to conscript Filipinos, saving many of our grandparents who will give birth to our parents.
So, the items on the Second Republic are important reminders of the national leadership of an important Filipino hero in a time of crisis. Quezon was right in leaving Laurel behind and putting trust in him that he will not sell us to the Japanese like other Southeast Asian leaders did.
Yet during the war, not so many Filipinos understood Laurel’s predicament and that he was representing a Republic under alien influence. In one of the folders was a propaganda pamphlet entitled “Laurel’s Historic Betrayal of the Philippines to the Japs” which shows a drawing of Japanese atrocities and an image of Rizal as conscience. I believe this was intended against Laurel’s political aspirations in the elections of 1949.
There were also other items, windows to everyday life under occupation: a residence certificate for Araceli de Pascual, dated January 1942; an invitation to Constabulary Day, May 4, 1944; a POW mail envelope, addressed to Col. James W. Duckworth, Medical Corps, POW, Tokyo, Japan after the war; and paper money from the occupation which, because of inflation, became almost worthless and was dubbed as “Mickey Mouse Money.”
The denominations include: 1 centavo, 5 centavo, 10 centavo, 50 centavo, PHP 1.00 (two pieces), PHP 5.00 (two pieces), PHP 10.00 (two pieces), PHP 100.00, PHP 500.00 (2 pieces), PHP 1,000.00. There were additional three notes overprinted by the American and Filipino liberators with the words “Co-Prosperity Sphere: What Is It Worth?” to discredit the Japanese Occupation, implying it as worthless as these paper bills.
The two other big folders consisted of 29 actual large prints of photos from the Associated Press and the U.S. Coastal Service depicting horrible events and important battles of the war, from the famous and not so seen photos of the Death March to the Landing at Lingayen, and also, the Battle for Manila and its aftermath.
I believe that these photos came from a newspaper company that were supplied upon by the news agencies and covered the war on the side of the Americans. The indication would be that some of the photos were overdrawn with the mother headline drawn from hand with blank ink on white paint, with which a printed final copy were placed at the back of some of the photos. Eighteen of the 29 photos were accompanied by the final equivalent in newspaper clippings describing the events.
Actual memorabilia are important to tell history better. They do not only contain trivia but are vessels of contested narratives of the war which continue to affect our national psyche.
[All images courtesy of Leon Gallery. For more information, email email@example.com or contact +632.8856.2781].