Old documentary films show fierce Battle of Manila

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American troops retake Malacañan Palace.

 Editor's Note: The Philippines marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Manila, which took place from February 3 to March 3, 1945. The battle killed 100,000 people. That's 25,000 people short of the current strength of the Armed Forces of the Philippines – except that the 100,000 killed in battle were civilians. The military casualties were lower. Of the 17,000 Japanese troops, 16,665 were killed. Of the 38,000 Allied troops – 3,000 of which were Filipino guerrillas – 5,665 were wounded and 1,010 were killed.

(CNN Philippines) — In the 1960s, my childhood years, my grandparents, and to some extent my parents, still had vivid memories to share of World War II.

In my own head, though, I had only the faintest images of the death and destruction that the war left behind, particularly in Manila.

My only glimpses of the reality of that war came from a hodgepodge of sources – faded black-and-white photos in history books, movies like Tora! Tora! Tora!, and TV shows like Combat.

In those days, theaters would show old newsreels of the war during intermission and there was the occasional war documentary on TV. But those were few and far between – and not all of them were specifically about the Battle of Manila.

Traces of the war

In Manila itself, there were only few traces of the war that I could see. Even then, they gave me the impression that they were casualties of age, not aggression.

The most familiar to me were the gutted remains of the Metropolitan Theater and the Insular Ice Plant, both at the southern end of Quezon Bridge near the Manila City Hall.

The ice plant, built in 1902 at the start of American colonization, was torn down in the 1970s to make way for the LRT tracks.

The theater, an Art Deco building designed by Juan Arellano and inaugurated in 1931, was restored in 1978, during the Marcos administration. But for various political and economic reasons, it shut down in 1996, another cultural landmark left to rot.

There was also the University of Santo Tomas. We lived just behind it on Rosarito Street. As a boy in the Beatlemania years, I could see no signs of the war there. It was just an old school that my mother attended in the 50s, as a teenager in the Elvis Presley era.

Of course, I know now that UST was the first major landmark that American troops and Filipino guerrillas would liberate, under shell fire from retreating Japanese troops, marking the start of the battle for the recovery of the capital from the occupation forces.

For my second grade, I was then going to Letran and the school bus would pass by the ruins of the Ayuntamiento. Both buildings were – and still are – in Intramuros. They have since been restored.

During liberation, they were part of the rubble that the Spanish colonial core of the capital was reduced to by heavy artillery barrage.

Peace Time videos

As I would learn in high school, Manila was the second most devastated city, next to Warsaw, in World War II, because thousands of Japanese troops, mostly from the naval unit commanded by Rear Adm. Iwabuchi Sanji, chose to defend it to the death against the liberation troops of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

They would make their suicidal last stand in Intramuros.

Information about the Battle of Manila was easy enough to come by. But in those days even before Betamax, you could only wait for documentary films to be shown on TV.

It would take the Internet to make me feel the impact of the battle, first through videos on YouTube.

Now some technophobes might dismiss YouTube as a mere repository of the all the nonsense that people all over the world see fit to inflict on each other. It has many videos, though, that make learning easier.

It was on YouTube where I saw some videos showing what Manila looked like before the Japanese attacked the Philippines on December 8, 1941.

Two of them are travelogs: Manila: Queen of the Pacific, a film by André de la Varre for The Screen Traveler, and Manila: Castillian Memories, a film by William M. Pizor for the Port O'Call Series.

Both films were produced in the 1930s. I mention them as reference points. They show Manila and its residents during what old-timers called Peace Time, the years before before Gen. Masaharu Homma and his troops came marching into Manila.

As with old films of the era, many of the the voice-overs were done by English speakers using a Mid-Atlantic accent, which was common in films in those days. The clipped accent – which is not quite General American and not quite Received Pronunciation of the British – gives the videos a dated, authentic tone.

Among the memorable images in both films are those of Intramuros, much of it still in the condition the Spanish colonizers left it, and those of Downtown, as we used to call the business-commercial area composed of the districts of Binondo, Santa Cruz, and Quiapo.

Video sources

Now for the battle for liberation itself, there's Manila, Open City, a 1968 dramatization written and directed by Eddie Romero. Its cast includes Charito Solis, Ric Rodrigo, and Mario Montenegro. You can watch it on YouTube, as the film is in the public domain.

Over scenes of Manila in the 1960s, the film opens with a male voice-over narrator saying: "This the face of a modern city today – hardly, any trace of what it had gone through during the last world war. From its present appearance, you could not tell that it was once one of the most devastated cities in the world."

And it goes on to show scenes leading up to that devastation, as American troops, aided by Filipino guerrillas, closed in on the city coming from the north.

If you want to see the real McCoy, to use an old-fashioned phrase from those times, there are many newsreels and documentaries posted online, from sources like Universal Newsreel, which has a YouTube account, and British Pathé, which has a YouTube account as well as its own website.

Then there's Internet Archives, which also has audio recordings, articles, and documents – not only about the war but other topics as well.

Of course, for well-produced documentaries, there's the History Channel.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle, the Official Gazette also has a section devoted to it called Battle of Manila.

Mental montage

There's one site I found with more materials dedicated to this episode of the war. It's simply called Battle of Manila Online.

One vivid account I read here is "Reminiscences of the Battle of Manila: February 3 - March 3, 1945," in which James Litton writes about his personal experience of the war as an 11-year-old resident of Ermita, where his family had been living since 1936.

He starts of with a backdrop of the battle:

"The Battle of Manila was the only urban battle waged by the American Armed Forces in the Pacific during World War II.  In the evening of February 3, 1945, American motorized units, with the aid of Filipino guerillas, stormed the gates of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) to liberate American and other civilian allies interned there from around the start of the Japanese occupation of Manila on January 2, 1942. The first American air raid over Manila on September 21, 1944, was the prologue to the forthcoming battle that would bring about the destruction of the city that we all then fondly and proudly called the Pearl of the Orient."

Here are some online videos – now all in the public domain – showing how this happened:

The Big Picture: Battle of Manila

This is an episode in the 1950s TV show The Big Picture, which was produced by the US Army and hosted by Master Sgt. Stuart Queen.

Santo Tomas Prisoners Liberated

This an episode from Universal Newsreels dated March 1, 1945, narrated by Ed Herlihy.

First Pictures of Manila Conquest

This is another episode from Universal Newsreels, dated February 26, 1945, narrated by Ed Herlihy.

Manila Free From Japanese Domination

This is yet another episode from Universal Newsreels, dated March 22, 1945, narrated by Ed Herlihy.

Seeing all these graphic images, I couldn't help thinking that the entire city should be haunted by ghosts of the 100,000 civilians, not counting troops from both sides, who died in the month-long battle.

And yet, by the time I was born in 1961, just 16 years after its destruction, Manila had managed to rise from the ashes of war.