"Somebody get that sonofabitch up there!" I yelled through the bamboo thickets that separated me from my men scattered throughout the coconut groove - either alive, dead or bleeding to death, and the Japanese sniper who had us pinned down to our eyebrows in this mixture of dirt, horse manure and water buffalo stools on the ground.
"Murphy!" I screamed for one of the platoon's expert shooters more out of impatience and exasperation than fear or anger as if it were my natural birthright to demand the destruction of that human life hidden up there in the treetops.
"Dead!" came the muffled reply from one of the men, I couldn't tell who, dug in behind a fallen mango tree twenty yards away.
"Goddammit," I mumbled to myself, thinking hard, suddenly filling with urgent desperation. Learning of the additional casualties we had sustained, now I felt it was my natural birthright to destroy the enemy human or not.
There's got to be more than one of them sitting up there in those clumps of coconut trees, I thought. I knew those two men were too far apart to be within accurate and effective range of one sniper. But worse than this, those two were two of my best shots in this advance-probe infantry, so the battalion commander called it, this group of foot-soldiers, experienced jungle fighters which I was leading south ahead of the rest of the main strike force of the battalion towards one of the last enemy strongholds in Southern Luzon - an ancient Spanish fort held by a full complement of a Japanese army regiment, now only four kilometers away.
We were part of the contingent of General MacArthur's returning forces which headed up north to Lingayen Gulf from Leyte and campaigned south to Manila.
The capital had already fallen, back to the American hands that is, but there were still plenty of fighting to be done in the neighboring provinces - Bulacan, Laguna, Batangas, and here in Cavite where Japanese forces were holding out in small towns expecting our arrival.
I surveyed the area momentarily and suddenly realized the vulnerability of my own personal position. The bamboo thickets and the dense tropical wildgrass around me did provide excellent visual cover but not protection against bullets. I'd be a sitting duck if they located my position and they probably had by now after I yelled my head off to my men.
I dropped to my belly in one vigorous hop with both legs from my squatting position to a lower spot on the ground behind a solid tree stump five feet away. Not a bad move although I could've done it a moment sooner and completely dodged the four bullets that suddenly ripped through the mass of hollow bamboo reeds, one of them catching the underside of my left arm and tearing clear through it without touching the bone, though, thank God.
The pain was instantaneous but I suppressed the scream of agony that started deep in my lungs and nearly made it through my throat. From the swath the shots had cut through the thickets and where the bullets hit the ground, I was able to approximate the height and direction where they came from. After I decided which of the coconut trees out of a half a dozen probable ones to single out first, I took a hand grenade and aimed it with my good right arm.
It was a good fifty-yard toss with some needed accuracy to clear the other trees and vegetation on its path, which it did. The grenade landed some ten feet from its target and rolled right to the foot of the tree. A second later, it exploded and sent the slender thirty-foot shaft and its crown of palm leaves with two Japanese snipers in it arching smoothly down in the air. Before they hit the ground, the snipers were as dead as could be imagined by any of us especially the men who poured bullets on the treetop as it fell and the hidden enemies became visible near them.
We toppled several more trees, killing four more snipers, and eventually securing the area which was part of a farm village, a barrio as it was called here, at the fringes of large rice farmlands to the east. To the west, a village road nearby ran north-south alongside a river which emptied with fresh water into the Manila Bay five kilometers up north and rose with saltwater from the bay during hightide. Four kilometers south, it bent east under an old heavy-masonry Spanish bridge which carried the road that led directly to the fort main gate and branched west into a main road leading into a highly populated town center.
Two kilometers behind us, the assault battalion with a column of M-4 Sherman tanks at its head began its final approach on the village road to the fort after we radioed the all-clear message. A few things remained for us to do and these were basically working the civilians: getting them out of hiding, giving them help with what they needed - food and medicine, and getting them to cooperate to help us defeat the enemy with what information they could give us.
Some of them came out on their own and welcomed us. Others remained in hiding in their homes and such other places as large holes the size of a bedroom they dug in the ground and covered with palm leaves and other natural debris supported by bamboo frames.
It was one of those large dugouts where Sergeant Mahoney and I fell into later while we were scouting for civilians near a house. In the dark of the ten-foot deep pit, we heard children and women scream until Sergeant Mahoney quickly struck a lighter to illuminate our faces and then said assuringly, "Americans! Americans! Everything okay! Okay!"
The group consisted of three generations from old toothless men and women in their late sixties or seventies, to children between five and eleven years old. They all spoke English, even the children, in varying proficiency. But in spite of this, they said very little to us. There was something unusual I felt about this. Throughout most of the campaign from up north, people greeted us, celebrated our coming and everybody was asking for General Douglas MacArthur.
Not here. I almost sensed as if they were hiding not only from the Japanese but from us too. Shortly after everybody climbed out of the air-raid shelter as I found out they called the dugout, I learned more about this feeling I got from them.
I learned first that we were in the property of the Fabian family who with its members accommodated a related family, the Websters, and another family, a neighbor, in their air-raid shelter.
The Websters? I thought to myself, at the same time noticing how some of them had very light complexions and reddish hair. I was about to ask a young middle-age man who could almost pass for a caucasian, probably one of the Websters, some background questions. But at that moment, I looked past Sergeant Mahoney and a couple of other GI's nearby and saw a Japanese soldier, an officer, as he appeared from behind a tree, unsheathe a Samurai sword and charge savagely towards us.
For one moment which would turn out to be one of the longest remembered moments of my experience of the war, I and my men were petrified at the sight and sound of this one fanatic act of a dedicated enemy; the culmination of all human aggression toward another, a sight of pure havoc.
The men recovered soon enough to get out of reach of the deadly blade except Sergeant Mahoney who stood his ground momentarily and managed to take two shots at the enemy with a pistol. The bullets which struck him directly in his midsection didn't seem to affect him at all as he kept advancing and caught the sergeant on the side of his helmet with one frightful swing of the sword. Sergeant Mahoney dropped away in the opposite direction, conscious but bleeding, and kept rolling on the ground as far away as he could.
It became clear to me when he left the sergeant alone that I was the one he was after. At this point, I also became aware of another part of the scene - an eleven-year-old boy, Ernie Fabian, who was struggling to come loose from the hold of his elders from a near distance.
"No! No! No! Captain Upo!" the boy was yelling at the top of his voice. "No! No!"
I had no time to react to this manifestation by Ernie Fabian until finally the Japanese officer, Captain Upo, laid on his back gazing lifelessly at the bright and cloudless Philippine sky after I put five or six more bullets into him. The boy was clearly in shock as he knelt down a moment later and shook at the shoulder of the dead Japanese.
I saw that there were a lot of words that wanted to come out of his mouth but all I heard him say in Tagalog was: "Kapitan... Kapitan..." And when he looked up at me with tears washing down his face, all the thought of victory and gallantry, all the sense of triumph that I've harbored inside me throughout the campaign from the landing beaches at Lingayen Gulf to here left me.
This is not fair, I thought. All that guts and glory emptied out of me with one tearful look from an innocent child.
"He was my friend," the boy said, confirming what I thought all along.
I was completely at a loss how to handle the position I found myself in. I took something out of this boy's life, something he values and I must now justify what I did. He saw clearly that the Captain came after me. Knowing this, I had only one thing to say to him.
"He was my enemy," I said persuasively.
"He was my friend," he said again.
I knelt down beside him, putting aside the samurai sword that lay between us. Then with all the sincerity I could put out from way down deep somewhere inside of me, I met his rueful eyes and with one hand softly on his shoulder said: "I am your friend too."
The four decades of American rule of the Philippines had done more, as far as the domination of one culture by another is concerned, than the three hundred years of Spanish rule. The people adapted to our way freely and willingly, starting with learning the language. And, over and above everything else I've experienced since the beginning of the campaign four months ago, they looked upon us Americans more as friends than masters, as partners more than exploiters.
But in this village, I learned of other ways some of them viewed us. No longer did the so-called colonial mentality go unscrutinized even among the peasants. The friendly and benevolent G.I. Joe image worked alright together with the Chesterfields, the chewing gums and the Hershey chocolate bars. But there was a spirit of nationalism rising in the consciousness of the Filipinos that yearned for independence, self-rule, freedom from foreign domination. Also, the Japanese ideological thrust which carried the message 'Asia for Asians' had gained favor in some segments of the population particularly those who fought and lived through the revolution against the former colonizers, the Spaniards.
It was among the Fabians and the Websters that I picked up more on these during the next two days we held out in the village before launching the bloody assault on the fort. Working to gain the confidence of the people, I soon realized I couldn't have started out better than with eleven-year old Ernie.
Two years before, he and his older sister were orphaned when their parents were killed in a Japanese air raid over an area near their home where guerrilla fighters had come down from the mountains to get supplies. An uncle had since taken care of them together with his own two children who were older. They were the Webster family we found hiding in the air-raid shelter together with the other Fabian family and their other relatives.
The two families were related through Ernie's grandfather who had a sister who married an American school teacher, one of many sent to the island country early at the turn of the century beginning with the Roosevelt and the Taft administrations. Among the generation of Ernie's parents, I gathered that there had been long discords between the two families, with the Websters taking much of the animosities for being part Americans not just from their cousins but from most of the village community.
Ernie's grandfather who fought in the revolution against the Spaniards and later against the Americans who simply took over from the other foreign power, understandably had discovered the seed of nationalism and developed an implacable loathing of all foreigners especially the puti (whites) or the Europeans. This he inculcated upon his children from the start of the American rule of the Philippines through the rest of his life.
I was told that he and his command was one of the last to hold out against the American forces long after the capture of President General Emilio Aguinaldo at the end of the Philippine-American war. He made accounts to his children of American military atrocities even upon non-combatant Filipinos, mass killings in the tens of thousands of people including innocent women and children. Filipinos were treated worse than animals and butchered by these other puti (Americans) as if they had no right to breathe the air upon their own native soil.
Ernie's grandfather thus hated the Americans, and the kastilas (Spaniards), I heard many times over from some of the Websters and other villagers, and certainly never forgave his sister for falling in love with and marrying her American school teacher. He died late in 1942, after the Japanese established absolute control and began their mostly unopposed occupation of the country. There were rumors after his death that he was actually killed for suspicion of collaborating with the Japanese.
Among Ernie's generation, the hostilities between the two families were not as strong. It was mostly their parents who refused to overlook their racial difference and encourage closer ties. Ernie was the closest of the Fabians to the Websters and it was he, after I had sufficiently won him over his sympathies and friendship for the Japanese, who took me to the Websters and to most of the village people.
The G.I. Joe image of the Americans, as I said, worked among the majority of the people and it did most especially with Ernie's generation. Many of them, children including Ernie himself and even young adults, had never been this close to an American from America in person. To them, every American was named Joe. And he was a soldier. A very friendly and magnanimous soldier who had big pockets full of chocolate bars, packs of cigarettes and chewing gums.
The American commercial and ideological propaganda was a machine uncontested by any other in this model illustration to dominate and possibly even replace one culture with another. It had been so effective in the Philippines that throughout the Japanese occupation of the country, the Japanese never put much hope in breaking the alliance between the Filipinos and the Americans, let alone winning over the hearts and minds of the population.
So, therefore, the first time, and the next, Ernie found it in himself to address me with a first name, he called me Joe.
Hey, Joe. Hello, Joe. Thank you, Joe.
I let this ride for a while.
Later, after we had buried the dead, listened to the Fabians and the Websters and made the rounds of the other villagers, I handed him a pack of gums and his second chocolate bar which he loved so much he only smelled and didn't eat this one until much later. He thanked me for it with all his heart and then asked:
"Hey, Joe, what is your name?"
"Why, I thought you'd never ask, my friend. My name is Charles," I said, now unable to help more feeling of closeness with the innocent. "Charles Harvester. See?" I pointed to my name tag. "My men call me Lieutenant Harvester. My friends in America call me Charles."
"Cha-als," Ernie repeated. "I can't say it. I don't like Cha-als."
"I'm also called Charlie. Same thing."
"Char-lie. Charlie," he repeated, rolling the r nicely. "I like Charlie better. Okay, Joe."
"No, no, Ernie. My name is Charlie, not Joe anymore."
"But you're Joe. How can you not be Joe anymore?"
"You know, you're right," I conceded after thinking a moment.
But Ernie said next: "Okay, Joe. From now on I call you Charlie Joe. Okay?"
My unit, what's left of it, finally got its well-deserved and long-awaited break from fighting the Japanese, chasing the often unseen enemy in dense jungles, getting ambushed, shot at by unseen snipers, walking mine fields and getting killed or wounded, when the battalion finally rolled in to the area. I myself was very lucky to have gotten this far and talk about it.
Another advance-probe unit was assigned to replace us to gather information on the remaining four-kilometer distance to the enemy fort, and the fort itself, as close as they can get to it. I briefed them quickly, transferring all the information I gathered from the village to the officer in command. Then they left soon after.
The rest of the day, and part of the next, I spent with Ernie.
We were sitting in a bamboo-framed nipa shed not far from the edge of the ricefields late in the afternoon. The day was beginning to cool off as the blazing sun descended to the horizon. Behind us were over six hundred men and numerous armored transports, scattered throughout the fruit orchards, the coconut grooves and the road by the river.
Ernie's feeling for his late friend, Captain Upo, was still fresh in him as I saw in his inability to withdraw from it so soon in his effort to accept a new friendship I and my men offered. From a corner of the shed, he took a toy train that was broken in two pieces and tried to put it together.
"Where did you get that?" I asked.
"Kapitan Upo gave it to me last year. I broke it. He was going to fix it for me, he said, the next time he comes to visit us."
I could have bitten my tongue to bleeding as I gritted my teeth. I was wordless for a while. This war, any war, I thought, is really a war for the minds and the hearts of the people. It is winning the faith and the belief of the pure and the innocent - that's what all this shooting and destruction is really all about. That's what MacArthur has returned for, and that's what I am sitting here for with this one innocent child.
Ernie handed me the broken toy train when I asked a minute later if I could try to do it.
"Tell me," I said as I examined the pieces, "what did he say to you about us, Americans?"
"He said the Americans do not belong in the Philippines. He said the Japanese are better for us Filipinos." Ernie spoke slowly as he recalled his answers to my question from memory.
"Did he say... why the Japanese are better for the Filipinos?"
"Because... he said.. because the Filipinos and the Japanese are like one people. We are the same." He paused and looked down, deep in thought. "He was good to me, Charlie Joe. Like you are good to me now. Why do Americans and Japanese fight each other?"
I realized I had just been asked a question that hundreds of thousands, millions of people in different countries this half of the world would like to hear the true answer to. With my knowledge of the growing spirit of nationalism in the country and the courage and dedication of men like Ernie's grandfather who spent a lifetime fighting against foreign domination, I felt I had the true answer to the question.
First of all, I believe Ernie's grandfather sided with the Japanese whose overall aim it was to expel all western powers from this half of the world where 'they don't belong' starting with the Philippines and including Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Burma, Malaya and everywhere else they may be in Asia. This is what they mean by 'Asia for Asians' and, therefore, European (and American) presence in Asia should no longer be tolerated.
From the words of one who was obviously a very articulate Asiatic military mind and idealist, through the lips of an eleven-year old boy, I heard a message with much racial undertones: '...the Filipinos and the Japanese are one people (both Asians). We are the same.'
With these knowledge and beliefs, I had the answer to why the Japanese are fighting the Americans, the British and their descendants in the land they call Australia and New Zealand, and their native allies - the pure and innocent Asian peoples whose minds and hearts these European foreigners had so callously harvested and exploited culturally and ideologically for centuries.
On the other hand, before I could answer why the Americans are fighting the Japanese, first I must find the answer to: why did the Americans not leave the Filipinos alone when the Filipinos established their own government after their successful revolution against their Spanish colonizers following three centuries of oppression, and why did we not support that government instead of simply taking over the Spaniards and continuing the period of foreign domination here and becoming another colonizer of the country?
I'm sure the merchants of power in Washington have many ready answers to these questions, then and now. But whatever those answers are - world recognition of the United States as a world power, greed, imperialism, subjugation of one race by another - I had no ready answer to give to Ernie; not one of a proportion that I knew he could accept. I had told him that Captain Upo was my enemy. But even this, I couldn't explain personally why. The man himself personally was not my enemy. I never saw him before in my life. It was what we represented to each other that put us in conflict with each other and made us enemies.
"I don't know either, Ernie," I replied as a way of putting us both in the same position of lacking. "I'm only a soldier. You see those men over there?" I pointed to our C.O., his adjutant and two of his company commanders, one of the four infantries and the special field artillery assigned to support this mission, huddled under a makeshift tent. "I follow their orders. I have to do what they tell me to do or else they can shoot me. Yes. Kill me."
The child stared at me wide-eyed with fright.
"No!" he protested. "Don't let them shoot you, Charlie Joe. You're my friend."
"No, they won't," I retracted. "But they might put me in jail in America when we get back there."
I succeeded in putting the toy train back together and rolled it over to him on the table. "There you are, my friend. All fixed."
The next day, I didn't see Ernie until late in the afternoon. Earlier in the day, one of the groups of Philippine Scouts, about a dozen men, that went with the advance-probe platoon came back and met with the mission high command. Soon after, orders were issued for each unit of combat platoons to take their assigned positions with an alert status.
The report was that the Japanese had taken advanced positions above the river banks outside the fort and might sneak a counterattack on us even before we fired our first shot. And the bridge, of course, was heavily fortified at both ends and certainly would be destroyed the minute we got close and they had to pull back. Which would mean crossing the river on tubes, at night, with the tanks and transports stuck on this side of the river.
Most of the rest of the day was spent packing up, breaking camp and coming to alert status. I went back to the nipa shed during a break late in the day and saw the toy train Ernie had put away in an open wooden trunk together with what looked like a grade-school geography book among other things.
I sat on a bench facing the acres and acres of ricefields that had sustained Ernie's families and their ancestors for generations. I could see as far south as a kilometer away some of the units that had taken their positions with their armored carriers out in the fields and in the wooded areas. The tank units had been dispatched a full kilometer ahead of everybody. The rest of us were now awaiting orders to move but nobody knew when yet, depending on the information that continued to be radioed back to command by the advance-probe.
Alone with my thoughts, it finally occurred to me to consider what lies ahead in the next day or two. There was a common feeling that getting into more fights and counting more casualties on both sides was utterly pointless at this stage of the war. Manila was flattened to the ground with hundreds of thousands of lives lost, many executed by the enemy as they fell back and their occupation came to an end. One would think surrender was the sane thing for them to do. But not this enemy. I fidgeted on the bench at the thought of what the Japanese might do to the townspeople when we pushed in. I felt glad for Ernie, his family and the entire village that they're out of enemy hands.
In a minute, I saw Ernie on the back of a carabao (water buffalo) leading the beast of burden to a hay pit under a mango tree. He looked so tiny on top of the long-horned bulky animal. His chore of grazing the animal in the field, the last of the day, was done. He tethered it to the tree in a hurry as soon as he saw me and came running to the shed.
He said he went looking for me several times during the day and couldn't find me. He looked so relieved to see me as he told me, after quickly taking the geography book from the wooden trunk, how afraid he was that I might have left already. I told him I wouldn't do that without seeing him first. He then eagerly took me by the hand to the table in the middle of the shed and opened the book to a colored map of the world.
"Show me where you live in America, Charlie Joe," he said. "And tell me where the tall buildings are."
I'm not sure which one of us had the most fun going over the book through the remainder of the day until I was summoned to a briefing. On a full page map of the United States, I pointed to San Diego where I told him I was born and grew up and still lived before I went to war and came to the Philippines. I found pictures of New York City and its skyscrapers on several pages and showed him where the city is on the map.
I found pictures of people and places, from the west coast to the east coast of North America, and described a culture, a way of life totally beyond the few kilometers his feet ever touched around his village. I could see his mind soaking in the image of America as he listened, marveling, wondering at every sentence I spoke.
I was wondering too, wondering what lies ahead of Ernie. What life ahead of him. When he said next that he wanted to see America, live in America, as I expected, I honestly wondered what chances were there that he might ever set foot in America.
Another side of me, on the other hand, argued that he, as many who dream of seeing America, should not set their sights on going there but rather on making their country one they'd be happier to live in and not want to leave for another. But so much of the American values had been imbued in them. We had impressed so much of our culture upon theirs and as a result, it was as if we had displaced these people in their own land, replaced their culture, suppressed it with ours.
We must undo what we have done if we wanted to be true to our words about 'liberating' them, by letting go of their hearts and minds, allowing them the liberty to shape their destiny with their own freedom of choice. I, personally, must undo what I had just done, as a matter of fact. I must tell Ernie, instead, more about the Philippines, and how it could become as good as America to live in.
I was aware of the 1934 Act of Congress which promised to grant independence to the Philippines soon. This I wanted to see happen as soon as the war was completely over. As soon as we're out of here. But first, we must get it over with, the war, and I personally must make it through this - what I hope would be our last, my last, battle.
Suddenly, this sense of weariness pervaded my being. It was brought on partly by a sharp pain I felt in my left arm from the wound I suffered in the shooting the day before. I felt tired; tired of the war and I just wanted to go home, to be in California.
A war photographer came to the shed to ask to take a picture of Ernie on the back of the carabao. The boy was more than happy to oblige. Then I asked him to take a picture of Ernie and me beside an armored troop carrier nearby. I told him to be sure to remember my name which he took down in his notebook so he'll know who to look for when the pictures were ready. I asked for two copies.
Then came Sergeant Mahoney in a jeep to fetch me for one of the last-hour briefings before the assault on the fort. I took a minute to say goodbye to Ernie, regretting deeply that I again had to deprive him of a friendship he valued, not knowing if we'd ever see each other again.
I gave him all the chocolate bars I had left with me and I told him I'll be back once the fighting is over. He made me promise, and I did.