The War Was Finally
Over for Nelly
by Jon von Kessel (JonvK@att.net)
(A true story based upon a personal interview with my loving wife)
interview was held on Tuesday, 16 May 1995, in our living room shortly
after having dinner. Nelly was wearing a housedress and relaxing on the
couch. I was in my easy chair. Nelly and I had met in 1965 while I was
assigned to her island of Batanes. The island is located between Taiwan
and Luzon, the main island of the Philippines. I first met Nelly one night
at an elementary school where she was singing with a small combo. She
was also a sixth-grade teacher at the school. Her island has only about
seven thousand people. The entire province has about ten thousand people.
At one time, many years ago, the province had about twenty thousand people.
Just about everyone there speaks Ivatan, a unique language, as well as
English and Tagalog. Some of the elders also speak Spanish and some Japanese.
Over the years I have been able to get Nelly to share many of her childhood
experiences, but usually she tells them when we are in the company of
others. Her story is as follows:
We girls had gone to bed late that night, having helped my mother and
grandmother to prepare many foods and make other preparations for the
"Feast of the Immaculate Conception" that was to take place
the next day. "Nardo, Nardo, wake up and come out!" my grandmother
screamed to my father as she approached our little house. She usually
went out very early to go to the nearby seashore to enjoy the fresh air
and to smoke one of her freshly made cigars -- yes a cigar. My three sisters
and I were awakened at 4:00 a.m. by my grandmother's calls to my father
and mother. "Why is the ocean so black?" she asked my father.
She got my father to join her at the seashore to see what was going on.
My father shortly came back to get us four girls and my mother to join
them at the seashore to see what was going on. The ocean appeared littered
with big ships; there were maybe twelve ships near our little island.
We went to the beach, and soon there were many other townspeople that
joined us along the seashore. The weather was cold, and damp, it had been
raining and there was no moon out, so it was dark.
At first, we thought that they were American ships training. Two big ships
came close to the shore with their cannons pointed towards us. We became
very scared. Then, about 7:00 a.m., the bells of the church, the municipal
building, and soon thereafter bells at the school, started to ring to
warn us that something was very wrong. It was not another typhoon since
the season for them was now over. The town crier started to shout to everyone
that we should leave the shore and prepare to evacuate to the hills because
the ships might be our enemies. We girls ran back home and found my mother
running in circles around the house-like a chicken with its head cut off.
She was very scared. She didn't know what to do, nor did we, but we knew
we had to go up to the hills for our safety.
We soon heard several airplanes flying not far away, followed by loud
noises from machine-gun fire. We later learned the airstrip in our capital
town of Basco, about two miles away by air, was strafed. We were now very
scared. My grandmother Babil- even with her poor eyesight she was a brave
and strong person, not weak like my mother. Babil and my mother, along
with my two older sisters, went in a different direction than we did.
My Uncle Memong grabbed my three-year-old sister, Mar, along with my uncle
Jose, who was about 19 years old; then, Jose grabbed me, and us all to
stay with him and to run to the hills. With us was uncle Jose's seven-year-old
brother Francisco, his younger brothers, Artemio and Rosendo, along with
his eldest sister Remedios and her husband Eulogio.
the panic I could see townspeople running up the hills in all directions.
Our island is very hilly, very rugged, and is about the size of Lanai.
There is a three-thousand-foot volcano at the northern end of the island
that last erupted six hundred years ago (Nelly raised her hands to show
the size of the volcano. I noticed she also had some tears in her eyes;
she then continued). After running about two miles, I became very tired,
my uncle Jose then picked me up and carried me on his back. We climbed
the steep hills, but they were so steep that we had to kiss the heels
of the person ahead of us. I then asked, "Uncle, where are we headed?"
Uncle Jose said, "There is a secret cave way up the hill that we
can use for shelter, and nobody will be able to find us." By now,
there were about twenty people climbing with us. Eleven of us were kids.
Due to the steepness, we had to climb vines that were hanging down the
slope from the ground and trees. We were like monkeys in our climb.
After about an hour into our quest to escape, several planes flew overhead
and we all hit the ground. The planes started to strafe us. Bullets
from the strafing hit nearby my uncle and myself; luckily we were not
hit. We didn't hear the planes again until many days later. Shortly
after we continued our climb my uncle and I slipped and we fell down
the hill, but lucky for us we were not seriously hurt. My uncle picked
me up, and we started again to climb towards the hidden cave. You can
imagine how slippery the ground and hills were due to the recent rains.
Our climb was not easy. Finally we reached the cave, which is known
as Sida'h; but because of all the trees and shrubbery that surrounded
the cave and its entrance, you could not see from the distance that
there was anything there out of the ordinary. Once we reached the cave
we found about fifteen others already in the cave, half were children.
I was the second oldest child there-I was only seven years old then.
The cave was very damp inside. There was running water in the middle
of the cave; the water was so sweet, but very cold. Also, there were
some rocks that nature shaped like four tables that could hold four
people. At night the children would sleep on these tables and on other
rocks so as not to be on the cold and damp ground.
Other than what was on our backs, we did not have any warm clothing
with us. Fortunately, we were able to gather leaves to cover us from
the cold. We made coats out of banana and native palm leaves so that
we could keep ourselves warm. The temperature was much colder in the
cave than in town, which usually was about fifty to sixty degrees in
the winter months. We also did not have any food with us. At first we
could not build a fire because no one had a match. We were afraid that
someone might see the smoke. From outside the cave we could see the
bay of my town of Mahatao. We noticed much activity in the water along
with many ships. Small landing crafts were off-loading people to the
shore. It was not until several days later when my father and mother
were able to join us in the cave; my father had some food with him that
had been prepared for the festival we were not able to enjoy. When my
father joined us he had many stories to tell us. My father also said
my grandmother was in another cave.
The festival that I mentioned at the beginning of this story was to
be held on December 8, 1941. Due to the international dateline, it would
have been 1:00 p.m., Hawaii time, on December 7, 1941, that's when our
island was invaded by the Japanese. The planes we heard, in the first
wave, were strafing our 3,000-foot grass runway that had served the
island for an occasional plane. World War II had come to the Batan Islands
in the Philippines as it had done so with many other islands in the
Pacific shortly thereafter. We later learned that our island was the
first island occupied by the Japanese during the war; they stayed there
until after the war ended. We stayed in that cave for about three weeks
before relocating to another cave several miles away and we were again
reunited with my grandmother. We only went out at night to gather leaves
and something from the trees or under the ground to eat.
For several years my father and some others would go into town late
at night, sneaking under the cover of darkness to gather some things
from our houses. The women usually wore men's clothing and covered their
hair for fear that they would be identified as women and maybe get raped,
or killed. Finally, after two years or so of living in the hills, we
were informed by our friends and our old mayor that we should come down
to town to live again. Again in town, we were required to attend Japanese
classes that included language, history and such other subjects that
suited their purpose. They wanted to make sure that their new "subjects"
were able to conform to the needs of Japan. We were also required to
provide certain amounts of food, etc., for the soldiers so that they
could subsist and live comfortably.
About nine months after we came down from the hills, the first American
planes flew overhead and dropped leaflets with notice that the Allies
were winning the war and we should be liberated shortly. A month later,
leaflets with pictures of Emperor Hirohito and General MacArthur carried
word that the Emperor had surrendered. Two weeks later, a U.S. Navy
ship arrived to accept the surrender of the troops on our island. Life
in Batanes slowly returned to normalcy after the Japanese and American
left. We did not have supplies and schools did not open until early
1946. Nearly anything that was left behind by the Japanese was destroyed
by the townspeople. We wanted little to remind us of the war.
Then, in 1971, twenty-six years after the war, Nelly and I were married
in Manila. We then moved to Hawaii. Upon Nelly's arrival, her former
hatred for the Japanese was rekindled -- there were so many of them
in Honolulu. Nelly was especially fearful in Waikiki, where we lived.
However, six months later, she became less fearful and more accustomed
to the Japanese, maybe because there was such a mix of Asian and Polynesian
people here. In 1975 we moved to Yokohama, Japan, for a three year assignment.
Nelly's concerns were again renewed, however, she became friendly with
most of our neighbors and my business associates.
In 1977, we attended the birthday celebration for Emperor Hirohito at
the Imperial Palace. There were thousands of people jammed into the
courtyard at the Palace. To get a better view of the Emperor and the
ceremonies, Nelly climbed upon my shoulders. When the crowd started
to sing the Japanese National Anthem, Nelly started to sing the anthem
with them. Soon the nearby crowd started to look towards her, maybe
in amazement due to her unique singing voice, or maybe due to her non-Japanese
accent. The people nearby applauded and bowed towards Nelly once the
anthem was over. Immediately, Nelly and I got tears in our eyes and
at that moment I realized that the war was finally over for Nelly. She
no longer feared the Japanese.
reviewed "The Batanes Islands," by P. Julio Gonzalez, O.P.,
University of Santo Tomas Press, Manila, Philippines (1966), to obtain
added information about Batanes. I knew Father Julio from when I lived
on Batan Island. He was the priest in Mahatao; Nelly was a member of
his church. Father Julio's book states that the Philippines is an archipelago
made up of 7,083 islands extending from Formosa (now Taiwan) to Northern
Borneo. The Batanes Islands are a few scattered islands that form the
northernmost part of the country. They are closer to Formosa than to
Luzon. The islands were incorporated into the Philippines in 1783, during
the incumbency of Captain General D. Jose Basco y Vargas. Of the ten
or more volcanic islands that make up the Batanes group, only three
are inhabited: Batan, Sabtang, and Itbayat. A fourth island, Ibujos,
lies about a mile east of Sabtang, bears only traces of human habitation
consisting of a few men tending cattle. The rest are small waterless
islets, obviously unsuitable for human life. The ranking position held
by Batan, from which the whole group derives its name, is due mainly
to its geographical conditions and that it is the seat of the provincial
capital, Santo Domingo de Basco. The entire province only occupies a
little over 30 square miles of land. The rugged coastline is broken
here and there by a few beaches and anchorages for small craft, but
none that would offer safety for large vessels.
Imagine these islands as a series of stepping stones across a pond,
leading from Luzon to Taiwan. The waters around the islands have powerful
currents that cause navigation near the islands to be extremely difficult
and rough. For example, there is no pier on the island of Itbayat to
land a boat due to the roughness of the coastline and the depth of the
water. The Itbayat coastline is somewhat similar to what you might see
around the Blowhole on O'ahu. People have to jump from or to a boat
to get onto the island. Many have died trying to get off the boat. Also,
many have perished in the small boats when trying to cross the channel,
some of which were our friends. Life in Batanes is still peaceful. The
spiny lobsters are a joy to eat, especially when caught by one of my
nephews. The only problem is that there are frequent typhoons (but never
a lost life) and much rain half the year. Come visit the island; Philippine
Airlines makes two flights a week to the island when weather permits.
I promise you will have a new adventure and a great time. Try it, you'll