In March, 2019, I, Tony's daughter, went to Leyte, Philippines, to see for myself the foreign places where my father had served in WWII. His letter of September 5, 1945 celebrated the lifting of censorship by identifying the island locations where he had been stationed. It was a blueprint for a quest.
I maintained a journal of my experiences and observations there, the entries of which follow:
I arrived in Leyte's capital city, Tacloban, on March 29 and checked into the most luxurious hotel in town. $50/ night, two lovely restaurants, rooftop bar, gym, and a world class spa.
Dad had written that he was billeted two blocks from MacArthur's headquarters in Tacloban, so off I went in search of it. The headquarters was two blocks from the hotel, so I walked a two block radius around it just to be sure I’d been wherever Dad had been. You can’t go into the building now, as it is privately owned.
On Saturday I took a trike (motorbike with sidecar) to the Santo Niño Heritage Museum. The ride took 10 minutes and cost nine pesos, 18 US cents. That gives you some idea of the level of poverty here.
This is a trike. I love to ride in them
The museum property was one of the 20 presidential rest houses that were built by the late former President Ferdinand Marcos for his wife Imelda (the shoe fanatic). After the guided tour I noticed a cluster of guides taking a break, so I approached them and asked if they knew of anyone who spoke English who could accompany me to Tigbao, a remote village that did not appear on most maps and there was not even a proper road leading to it. It was one of the places that Dad had been stationed and, judging from his letters, he was very happy there. But I could not expect that anyone in such a small isolated village would speak English. One of the guides, Evelyn, said that she lived not very far from there and that she had Tuesday off work, so if I returned to the museum Monday at 5:00, I could travel to her home with her, spend the night, and she would take me to Tigbao on Tuesday. Perfect.
The next day, Sunday (what would have been my dad's 98th birthday), I took an ersatz bus to Palo, another town where Dad had been stationed. These island buses are wonderful. You climb in the back and squeeze onto one of the benches running the length of the bus. If more seating is needed, stools are provided for sitting in the aisle. You hand your 10 pesos (20 cents US) to the driver through a hole in the wall of the cab beside his head, and when you want to get off you bang on the low metal ceiling to let the driver know.
Palo is now just a commercial hub, but it is where MacArthur is said to have come ashore, so I took a trike to the memorial at the coast. A family group asked me to take their picture and asked what brought me here. When I told them the story, they all wanted their pictures taken with me. Other people had overheard and wanted photos with me, too. To them, the daughter of a WWII American soldier was the daughter of a hero.
Returned to my hotel in Tacloban and was sitting in the lobby, having a snack and reading, when an American man approached and asked if he could join me. He was wearing a cap that said PALAWAN on the side of it. He seemed very surprised that I knew that Palawan is another island of the Philippine archipelago where terrible atrocities had occurred during the war, most notably the Palawan Massacre. In order to prevent the rescue of prisoners of war by the advancing allies, on December 14, 1944, units of the Japanese army herded 150 prisoners of war into three covered trenches which were then set on fire using barrels of gasoline. Prisoners who tried to escape the flames were shot. Only 11 men survived the slaughter.
Frank's father had been stationed on Palawan and, like me, he had gone there on a paternal pilgrimage. A retired pastor, Frank decided to remain and serve as a volunteer for an organization that feeds the poor, especially the children. I told him that I had gone for a walk to the shantytown nearby, and he suggested to me that if I were tempted to be useful to them I should give food as well as the toothbrushes that were provided in the hotel room.
During our conversation, he revealed much about the extent of the poverty here. The hotel staff were beautifully groomed so I was surprised to learn that they only earn 300-400 pesos per day - less than $8.00 US. Frank later sent me a newsletter in which he wrote:
Last weekend while in Tacloban visiting one of our two outreaches there, I stopped into a clothing shop. The young sales lady began to talk to me. She is a 19 year old pastors daughter with a two year old son. She works in the shop 12-1/2 hours per day, 7 days a week for 200php per day. At the average rate of 53php per $1, she earns $3.77 for the day or .30 per hour. She told me she does not make enough to even buy a snack for herself. Her money goes for diapers and milk for her son. I asked if she was hungry now. So after work we went across the street to MacDonald’s. She ordered and ate one hamburger, One piece of fried chicken, a plate of spaghetti, 2 cups of rice, an apple pie, a hot fudge sundae and pineapple juice. I was shocked. She weighs 85lbs soaking wet.
I tell you this story to give you insight into the poverty that exists here. Most of the children we serve are the children of single mothers. These moms are very young. 15, 16 and 17 years old. Once that happens, it is almost impossible to break free from the grips of poverty. Unlike the USA, young men and boys have no reason to help support their kids. They are kids also. They run and no one chases them. Mom is on her own. We encourage a local saying, “ no boyfriends, until I am finished with my studies”. But ultimately, It is only the gospel, and the love of Jesus and the hope that is in Him, that will make any difference here. Even with the boys who run off. Teaching them to be responsible young men. Connecting them to mentors.
The young girl I mentioned was 16 when she got pregnant. She only finished 9th grade because she needed to help support her extended family. I am happy to tell you that I arranged for this young girl to receive lunch every day through some Christian friends I have in the area.
Frank inspired me, so the following day, Monday , I went to the market and filled a big bag with as many oranges as I could carry and returned to the shantytown on the coast, just a few blocks away.
I handed out the oranges to the kids and toothbrushes to the moms. One boy, about 10-12 years old, asked me, "Why are you doing this?" I told him that my father had been an American soldier here during the war and had loved the Filipino people, so I wanted to do something to repay the kindness they had showed him. He looked shocked. "Your father was here with MacArthur????" He shouted this news out to the people nearby and they all came running over. I was a celebrity. What shocked me was that a young kid knew about MacArthur. I wonder how many of today's American college graduates have any idea who he was.
Returning to the hotel, I asked at the desk how I could contact Frank, who had already checked out. They sent him my email address and when he responded I was able to ask him the name of the organization he works with. I found it online (Pimissions.Org) and made a donation. In the comments section of the website I stated that that the donation was the result of a chance meeting with Frank, and was being made in the name of my father who had served here during the war, etc. And that was that. Or so I thought.
The following week, after having left Leyte, I got an email from Frank with photos attached. Here are a couple of them. I was overwhelmed.
I wrote back with profound thanks, but added that the money really should have gone for food. He told me not to worry, he had paid for the banner himself and it had only been 150 pesos - less than $3.
On the appointed Monday I found a shop that could print photographs, so got one of my dad in uniform and another of a sketch he had drawn immediately following a Japanese bombing attack.
Then I went shopping for a nice gift for Evelyn who would be my hostess tonight and my guide tomorrow. The hotel staff had suggested edibles, so I bought a huge assortment of chocolate confections and a big storage container to put them in. I thought the chocolates would be a fantastic treat for someone who could not afford such luxuries. But when I set it all out on her kitchen table that evening, she just shrugged and barely acknowledged it. I don’t think she understood what they were. And when I explained to her that heat would damage them, she heaved a sigh and reluctantly plugged in the refrigerator to put them in, so I caused her an electricity expense. Good intentions gone awry.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. On Monday I showed up at Evelyn's workplace at the end of her shift and we took a bus to the main bus station which was jam-packed with humanity. I bought the tickets to our destination, San Jose - a 90 minute ride - and we crammed ourselves onto the next departing mini van, me sitting on a jump seat and Evelyn balancing on a spare tire. San Jose was just a cluster of buildings on the side of the road, so the mini van dropped us right at her door. By the time we arrived it was pitch dark and light sources were scarce. WiFi, nonexistent.
Evelyn's house was a substantially built concrete structure. The kitchen was in a separate building and consisted of a raised fire pit. Evelyn fed me a nice dinner then graciously insisted on sleeping on the living room floor while I was given the spartan bedroom. Throughout the night, between bouts of torrential rain, I could hear unidentified animals making a racket outside.
In the morning, Evelyn asked me if I would like to bathe. Considering that there was no plumbed water available, I demurred. Here is Evelyn, bathing. The structure behind her is the kitchen.
The only way to get to Tigbao was by motorcycle. This motorcycle. I clung to the awning structure for dear life as we three (driver, Evelyn, and I) bounced along the rutted dirt 'road' and swerved to avoid the omnipresent potholes.
Evelyn indicated that protocol was first to find the Capitán (Mayor) of Tigbao, which we did. He didn’t speak English but Evelyn explained to him why we were there. I handed him the two photos, one of my Dad in uniform and one of the pencil sketch he had done after an aerial bombing on Jan 20, 1945. Evelyn translated their significance.
El Capitán examined them for a long minute, then spoke to Evelyn. He said that he was so moved by this that he would have them laminated and put on permanent display in the town's City Hall. So my dad's presence will be in Tigbao forever. I think that would have delighted him. He had written of the Filipino people, "The Filipinos are a very gracious people and every bit as civilized as you and I. Their homes were left a shambles and their clothes are rags, but the cleanest rags you can imagine. They are a people of innate pride, which was the one thing that three years under the Japanese could not break. I have been taken into their homes and have talked with them at length. They treat us like kings and we share everything we have with them without looking for any return. They are that fine."
I wanted to walk around the 'town' and surrounding environs which, considering that it was a very hot day, was not happy news to Evelyn, but she was a good sport. Besides, I sensed that I was her 'trophy' American, and that being with me afforded her status, so she milked that, with my blessing.
The town was so serene. I could live there. It was something out of a child's storybook.
One of two virtually identical village stores
The motorcycle pictured is the one we left the town on. Three of us on that thing! I'll bet the owner still has bruises on his shoulders from my grip on him.
Dad wrote in one letter that they could make anything out of the plentiful bamboo. ...And they still do
Laundry day is a social event
The vistas were exactly the same as those that Dad had photographed. Rice growing everywhere. My dad wrote, "I live in a rice paddy that has been fertilized for centuries with human manure so that every time you kick up a clod of dirt you want to heave."
Drying rice. Such cloths were spread out all over the town. The lady in the second photo couldn’t wait to see her image on my iPad - she was so excited!
What I would call water buffalo, but the locals call caribou.
When this pig ran out of the jungle I nearly jumped out of my skin. If he had been a wild boar I would have been in trouble, but no, just free range pork.
Goats. All animals were roaming free here
... except when they are being led down the road.
You may have noticed in a previous picture that the main road in town is paved for a short distance. I suspect that was an improvement left behind by the American soldiers.
The death-defying motorcycle trip back to the main road ended at Hill 120, Dulag, where Evelyn had directed the driver to take us. This was where the first Americans came ashore to liberate the island, and the battle with the occupying Japanese was fierce.
As well as tributes to the Americans, there was also remembrance of the Japanese who lost their lives. I loved this about the Filipinos, and had seen it on Corregidor and Bataan - they honor everyone who died in battle, be they friend or foe. The loss of human life is just as tragic no matter whose life it was.
From Hill 120 Evelyn and I hopped a bus into the town of Dulag, another place where Dad had been stationed, and mentioned in one of his letters as where he saw the worst fighting. I took her to lunch and against her protestations, slipped cash into her handbag. I expect that it was about a weeks pay for her, though a very modest house guest and tour guide fee from my perspective. From there we parted ways, she to shop and me to return to Tacloban.
I met this lady on the bus back to Tacloban and we had a lovely chat. She was 89 and had been a schoolgirl in Dulag during the war. Perhaps she crossed paths with the American soldier, Tony Zahn. Who knows?