By Ben Cal
MANILA, Feb. 1 (PNA) — Retired Army Col. Armando Gatmaitan was only 13 years old when American forces, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur liberated Manila from Japanese occupation following a month-long battle 71 years ago.
To this day, Gatmaitan now 83 still vividly remembers every detail of his harrowing experience when Manila fell into the hands of the Japanese Imperial Forces in 1942 and during the next three years that followed.
In an exclusive interview with this writer, Gatmaitan said that despite the Japanese occupation of Manila, he and his family and some neighbors in Sta. Ana did not leave the their houses, though they were cowering in fear for their lives.
He said that it was in January 1942 when Japanese forces entered Manila and immediately seized two big companies – AG & P and a foundry firm in Punta, Sta. Ana.
For three long years, the civilians had lived in fear under the watchful eyes of Japanese forces.
But the most terrifying experience he and his parents had experienced was when their house in Sta. Ana was raided by the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret military police about three months before the American liberation forces arrived in Manila.
My father, Marciano Sr. hid himself behind a big “aparador” or closet when the Kempeitai searched our house. The Japanese failed to search the area, sparing my father from being captured, and we thanked God for His protection,” he said.
“My elder sister, Priscilla, though in panic was able to escape by jumping into the window before the Kempeitai entered our house which was a bungalow,” Gatmaitan recalled.
“Unfortunately, my two elder brothers, Marciano Jr., 23, and Mariano, 19, were arrested, and that was the last time we saw them alive,” Gatmaitan lamented.
“We believed my two brothers were brought to Fort Santiago in Intramuros where they were executed,” he said.
During those agonizing war years, Gatmaitan said “I prayed every day and God heard my prayers” that he was able to survive the war.
“Then on Feb. 3, 1945, a Saturday at about 7 p.m., the Filipino community in Punta, Sta. Ana heard rumbling sound of trucks outside. All the houses were closed as our habit. I peeped through a small opening and I saw Japanese soldiers boarding the trucks,” Gatmaitan said.
“We had a sleepless night as we observed the activities outside,” he added.
“The following day, Feb. 4 all Japanese forces in Sta. Ana had left, except a detachment in Lambingan Bridge guarding the area up to Kalentong in Mandaluyong,” Gatmaitan said.
He said that “we, the civilians had to avoid the bridge because of the presence of Japanese troops.”
“Every time we traveled to Sta. Ana, we crossed the Pasig River nearby using a banca,” he said.
“That same day I was asked by my mother to escort children in going to Sta. Ana Church, but upon reaching the river there was no banca available except a small boat that was cut half in the middle. Still, we took the risk and crossed the river safely with the use of a paddle,” Gatmaitan said.
At the height of the fighting during the liberation of Manila on Feb. 4, 1945, Japanese forces set afire the AG&P building.
“But when I saw the fire, my four playmates and I rushed to the area and doused the fire with water. Then we ran away. The Japanese went back and set on fire the building anew. Again we doused it with water and the fire was out.
This went on four times in row before the Japanese soldiers abandoned the area for good unable to burn the building,” Gatmaitan said.
On the third day of fighting, American forces were gaining ground, forcing the Japanese to retreat.
“The Americans were at the University of Sto. Tomas (UST) in Sampaloc. My father and I went there walking from Sta. Ana passing our way to Bacood, then to Sta. Mesa where we took cover because of the fighting before we reached our destination,” Gatmaitan recalled.
“There we saw people dancing and eating as there were plenty of food brought by the Americans,” he added.
But in Intramuros and nearby Ermita District, Gatmaitan and his father heard staccato of gunfire as fighting between American troops and Japanese soldiers continued.
On Feb. 9, heavy fighting continued this time in the town of San Juan. After crushing the Japanese resistance, US forces entered the nearby town of Mandaluyong, where they forced the Japanese to retreat farther.
During the second week of fighting in Manila, the Americans fired their artillery guns at remnants of Japanese positions in Sta. Ana. An observation plane was directing the artillery bombardment.
Refugees trickled their way to safe places in Ermita and Sta. Ana as Manila was virtually a battlefield. However, it was only a matter of time before the Americans would crush the last defense of the Japanese Imperial Forces.
On March 3, 1945, Japanese forces fled Manila and went northward, particularly in Bessang Pass in Ilocos Sur to make their final stance during the Second World War in the Pacific.
Meanwhile, Filipinos in Manila and nearby areas were high in spirit after the Japanese had left.
“One cannot forget the happiness and mixed emotions in the faces of many Filipinos when Manila was liberated by the Americans from the clutches of Japanese occupation,” Gatmaitan said.
After the war, Gatmaitan continued his studies and entered the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) and graduated in 1955.
He retired in 1984 with the rank of colonel in the Philippine Army. (PNA)