The search for Maria Orosa and other victims of the 1945 bombing of Remedios Hospital

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 14 2020 05:40 AM | Updated as of Feb 14 2020 01:36 PM

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MANILA — An unsung hero of World War II, Filipino scientist Maria Orosa has become a beloved historical figure thanks to social media and efforts to educate the youth about her contributions to Philippine society.

Most Filipinos probably know her as the inventor of the widely beloved banana ketchup but her efforts went beyond food technology. 

After studying abroad, Orosa returned to the Philippines to help address malnutrition, eventually inventing hundreds of recipes that became useful provisions for Philippine forces during World War II. Orosa herself risked her life smuggling food to imprisoned Filipinos and American soldiers during the Japanese occupation.

So it was not surprising that posts about her supposed unearthed grave in Malate became viral on social media. It was shared thousands of times with posts about her work.

NO GRAVE

However, initial posts were not really accurate. What archaeologists found in Malate Catholic School was just a marker of Maria Orosa, stating her birth and death and the fact that she “died in line of duty.”

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that just because we have Maria Orosa’s grave marker there, that’s her,” said archaeologist Andrea Cosalan, who is heading the dig at the Malate Catholic School. “That still needs a lot of validation and verification because in the archives that were available to us at that time we don’t have records (that she was buried there).”

Cosalan said original photos of a memorial at the school, which was converted into Remedios Hospital during World War II, showed only 12 names that did not include Orosa’s.

“We know her remains are not there because when you got to the original picture, when this was built, there’s no Maria Orosa plaque here,” said Matthew Westfall, a writer and a descendant of one of the 12 people memorialized at the former Remedios Hospital. “She’s not in the names. They would have put her name there if she was here.”

Westfall, an American writer who has written about the Philippine-American war, said that archival material pointed to an abandoned lot beside the school and across Malate Church as the likely resting ground for Orosa and possibly hundreds others killed during the Battle of Manila. 

REMEDIOS HOSPITAL’S 12

The point of the archaeological dig, which commenced last February 6, was to unearth the bodies of the people who volunteered to keep Remedios Hospital running even after the Philippine Red Cross closed up its emergency hospitals at the peak of the fighting in 1942.

Among them were Fr. John Lalor, whose remains were eventually brought to Malate Church, Gloria Fernandez, Carlos Sabral, Jaime Picornell Marti, and Neils A.F. Hansen.

A couple of years after the war, a memorial was constructed at the site of Remedios Hospital - now Malate Catholic School - bearing the names of the volunteers and other war victims. Those who died at the hospital and were included in the memorial were Juanito Chico, Gustavo Basa, Nikolai Prokopoff (Westfall’s uncle), Allan Affzellius, Andres Cailles, and Francisco Massip.

On Thursday, Westfall and the relatives of the other people recognized in the memorial, gathered at Malate Catholic School for a wreath-laying ceremony and a mass to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Remedios Hospital.

Fr. Michael Martin, who used to be parish priest of Malate Church, said what happened during the Battle of Manila in 1945 was “something frightening, something terrible.”

“It was a horrific slaughter that took place,” he said. “100,000 people died between the Pasig River and Vito Cruz at that time.”

Pedro Picornell, brother of the 15-year-old Jaime Picornell Marti who died at the hospital, wrote about his experience as a volunteer at the hospital. 

In the book “The Remedios Hospital 1942-1945: The Saga of Malate,” he recalled how his family of Spanish descent and other civilians moved into the hospital during the first week of February 1945 as indiscriminate American bombing destroyed houses all over Manila.

Many died and bodies were buried in lots that are now part of the Malate Catholic School. “But it soon became too dangerous to do so as the Japanese shot at anybody who tried to move around in the streets,” Pedro wrote. On February 12, American shelling resumed, killing refugees by the hospital’s well and seriously wounding many people including Pedro’s mother who lost an arm and his father whose legs were “peppered with the small shell fragments.”

On February 13, Americans bombed the hospital, hitting its courtyard and operating room. The hospital’s priest and only doctor were killed by the impact.

“By then, night had fallen and we had no light. We also had no doctors, no instruments, no medicines, no bandages, no nothing,” he wrote. “When dawn finally came, I learned that my brother Jaime had died…his legs were badly mangled and he had bled to death.”

RELATIVES

Pedro and other volunteers tried their best to treat the wounded in the badly damaged hospital until US soldiers arrived on February 16.

It was a few days later when the bodies were finally laid to rest in the same lot. Pedro said the volunteers were buried in a mass grave in the garden at the corner of A. Mabini and San Andres Streets. It is there that the memorial was eventually built.

Santi Picornell, Pedro’s nephew, said he remembers visiting the marker of Remedios Hospital when he was a young boy in the 50s and the 60s.

He said he was “pretty sad” when he saw that the memorial was covered as the school was renovated. He said at that time, the families of the victims did not know each other yet. Now he is hopefully that the relatives would be able to do more and “make it more significant.”

It was initially through the efforts of Westfall that interest in the Remedios Hospital memorial was rekindle.

Westfall, who has eventually settled in the Philippines, got in touch with long lost relatives in the US six months ago. It was through them that he learned that he had a grand uncle who died in Manila during World War II.

“My grand uncle was a white Russian who escaped from St. Petersberg, the Russian Revolution, came here as a refugee,” Westfall told reporters. 

He said Nikolai Prokopoff, who was carrying his 3-year-old son George, was at Remedios Circle with other Russian refugees when he and another person were shot by a Japanese sniper.

Like many others who were attacked by the Japanese or wounded by American shelling, Prokopoff was brought to Remedios Hospital where he eventually died. 

MARIA OROSA 

Also in the hospital that day, according to historical accounts, was Maria Orosa.

Relatives of “Tia Mary” recalled how her nephews were sent to Manila to convince her to evacuate with them to their hometown in Batangas.

“We were trying to convince Maria Orosa to evacuate with us but she refused. She wanted to continue working in the Bureau of Plant Industry,” 93-year-old Apolinario Orosa recalled. Reports said Orosa was overseeing the packing of food as Manila was being bombed. “She was a very faithful government servant who did not want to leave her post.”

Apolinario said “Tia Mary” would bribe Japanese guards to allow her to bring food to prisoners of war — Filipinos and US soldiers — interred at the University of Santo Tomas. “

“Cookies, calamansi concentrate to keep them from being starved to death…she was the one who supplied so much food to the Americans who were incarcerated in the University of Santo Tomas," Apolinario said. “And it was an American shell that killed her. That was the irony of it,” he added, referring to indiscriminate bombing of Allied forces that devastated Manila.

Westfall said historical accounts narrated how Orosa was injured on her foot and was brought to Remedios Hospital. “During the aerial bombing campaign (on the hospital) she was struck by shrapnel again in the heart and she died,” he said.

Westfall pointed out that during that time, Orosa “was not known as she is now.”

“She was just one of many civilian victims. So they did not segregate her body in any special way, my guess. She just went into the morgue like everybody else,” he said, explaining why Orosa’s remains might have ended up in the bigger mass grave near Malate Church.

Westfall said the marker found near their relatives’ memorial was added years later, like the other names that were added to the memorial. 

Cosalan said the memorial could have become a “commemorative space.” That is why they were not even sure if they would find any bodies there.

But on Tuesday, the archaeological team found its first body. As the team works hard to remove obstructions to reveal the remains in its entirety, relatives of the victims hope to find more. 

“My guest is we’ll take it as far as we can go scientifically but then at some point we just have to accept that war is war and we can only find as much,” Westfall said, explaining that they plan to move the remains to a new memorial “that’s fitting for the sacrifice that the martyrs made.”

Currently, the project is privately funded by some of the families of the victims. The team of archaeologists from the University of the Philippines have three weeks or so to complete the dig. But with the discovery of Orosa’s memorial plaque, Westfall is hoping their group will receive more support from the government.

To push through with the dig, the group already got the approval of the National Museum and the City Government of Manila. But the Orosa family is hoping that another memorial is made on the lot of the other mass grave where their “Tia Mary” might be buried.

“It’s part of our history and there’s no denying it. I think it’s important that people know,” said Milette Orosa, niece of the scientist.

Like their relatives, Westfall said there is a large possibility that it would be impossible to find Orosa’s actual remains. “She may never be found. Assuming she’s in a mass grave with a hundred bodies. It’s gonna be very hard to extricate that.”

But he said what is important is to raise awareness. “We remember the sacrifices that all Filipinos made.”

While it is painful for the surviving relatives to recall what had happened during World War II, for the younger members of the family, learning about the past is just as important as finding a more fitting memorial for their war heroes.

“For me that’s the importance of the event…to understand the difficulties of war and pretty much work for world peace,” Santi Picornelli said.