Long before World War II broke out in the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941, Japan had already an elaborate preparation by posting an advance force of Fifth Columns embedded across the length of the archipelago. These Japanese spies disguised themselves as “traders” and “laborers” working hand-in-hand with unsuspecting Philippine society. It was a perfect cover which Japan had successfully used during their invasion of the Philippines.
While mingling with Filipinos from all walks of life, Japanese Fifth Columns developed friendship down to the grassroots that they even taught some of their Filipino friends martial arts, particularly judo which the Japanese are known for.
These had enabled the Japanese to gather first-hand intelligence information such as the locations of US and Filipino troops, military installations, including vital communications networks. They sent this information back to Japan through coded messages.
When the actual invasion came, these “traders” and “laborers” turned out to be ranking officers of the Japanese Imperial Army who proudly wore their uniforms in public. The Japanese seized town after town with little resistance from the American and Filipino forces who were virtually caught off guarded similar to what happened to Pearl Harbor when Japanese planes mounted a sneak attack on the American naval airbase in Hawaii that prompted the United States to declare war with Japan.
But even before the invasion, there had been endless and persistent reports that Japan was preparing to attack the Philippines. But the exact date was known. Nevertheless, American forces stationed in the Philippines and the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines responded through a mobilization program recruiting young able-bodid Filipinos to the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).
One of those who volunteered was Arnulfo D. Bañez, a 17-year-old first year college taking up Bachelor of Arts (AB-pre-medicine) at the University of the Philippines, Baguio.
In his war memoirs, Bañez detailed how he and his guerilla unit fought and survived the Japanese onslaught in the jungles of northern Luzon for over three years.
This writer was writing a book “Victory at Bessang Pass in 2011 for the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) headed by Lt. Gen. Ernesto G. Carolina (AFP, Ret.), when I had the rare privilege to interview Banez, who was 87 years old at that time. Banez passed away last year at age of 94.
Banez was a cadet of the Reserve Officers Training Command (ROTC) when World War II broke out in the Philippines on 8 December 1941.
He said he and his classmates were attending classes when they heard a flickering sound of planes that became louder and louder every second that passed. They knew the sound came from an aircraft’s engine since they heard it every day the sound of airplane reverberating from the sky.
“Thinking they were US warplanes conducting routine patrol after they took off from the nearby airbase, we abandoned our classes and went outside to view the planes. In fact, we cheered and jumped with joy as we waved our hands to the pilots,” Banez said.
“But suddenly we heard bomb explosions. For a moment we were stunned. I asked myself how come these planes, numbering five drop bombs on us? Then a second bomb hit the gate of the Camp John Hay, followed by another that hit one of the buildings inside.”
“This is it, this is war! The Japanese had invaded the Philippines!” Banez murmured. His heart was pounding fast. He looked around: “There was bedlam all over the place as people were hysterical and crying, running to various directions as they scampered to safety. Then the planes dropped two more bombs at Camp John Hay before winging southward. Sirens blared non-stop. I glanced at my watch, it was 9:10 in the morning.”
As the planes vanished into the clouds, ambulances crisscrossed the streets trying to take casualties to the hospitals.” Fear still overwhelmed the faces of our countrymen as they craned their necks to see where the planes had gone. People went to their homes to pack their things as they prepared for evacuation deep into the rugged mountain forests of Baguio and Banawe.”
After making sure the Japanese warplanes were gone, Banez and his classmates regrouped as an ROTC unit. They went to the armory and took the guns that were available like Springfield rifles, .22 caliber pistols, and some Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR). They also had some hand-grenades with them.
“I was armed with a Browning Automatic Rifle and a bandolier of bullets with me. I also had a .22 caliber pistol and a grenade,” Banez said. Dressed in black trousers with matching black polo shirts, they hastily formed as a ragtag fighters. Our first assignment was to secure the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) where there were some people inside, including PMA instructors and professors.
“We were only a handful of us but we went there as ordered by our superiors. We were all neophyte young soldiers with no combat experience whatsoever, but underwent a short summer camp combat training. However, we were eager to fight for our country. Even those ROTC evaders joined our group.
As I started to walk, many thoughts entered my mind such as would I survive the war? Whenn would the war end? What would be my future? But I have to face reality and entrusted all my life to God. There was nothing I could do at that point.”
As Banez and his comrades accompanied the PMA personnel out of the school premises, “we saw thousands of teeming civilians, young and old – many of them crying – were also evacuating to Bontoc to the east where they would hide out of harm’s way, they thought. It was a back-breaking long journey with most of the evacuees walking. A few were riding their vehicles.”
“But also on Dec. 8, 1941, the Japanese had also made a beachhead landing in Cervantes and Vigan, all in Ilocos Sur. The regional headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary was located in Vigan manned by a handful of soldiers, who put up a brief resistance. They were easily overrun by the Japanese. The small contingent of PC troopers were captured and brought to Formosa, making them the first
Filipinos to become prisoners of war (POW) in World War II.”
“When the war broke out, Filipino troops were issued special expense booklet vouchers by the government which they could use to purchase food and other items. The government had vouched for the booklets which were good as cash.
The expense booklet vouchers were similar to credit cards. We bought provisions in stores that we passed by along the way. Water was no problem. There were plenty of springs in the forests,” Banez said.
“As we continued our trek towards Bontoc, we saw troops from the Philippine Army blasting the road between Kiangan and Banawe to slowdown the advance of the Japanese. The long walk took us three days.”
“When we reached our destination we were dead tired. I found a grassy place where I placed my mat to sleep. I put my BAR and cartridges of 50 bullets beside me and slept soundly. But when I woke up the following morning, they were gone. Apparently my weapon, including the ammunition was carted away by our Igorot guide who took advantage of the situation. The only weapon I had was a .22 caliber revolver.”
After securing the safety of the PMA personnel, Banez planned to go to Manila to continue his study at the University of the Philippines, Padre Faura, in Manila.
“Manila at that time was already an open city under the Japanese occupation. I had the guts of enrolling at UP because I was not identified by the Japanese as Filipino guerilla. I rode a truck and arrived in Manila on Dec. 27, 1941. The city was burning following a deadly battle between the Japanese and the combined American-Filipino forces. The Manila Cathedral was ablaze. The whole city was in shambles as it was declared an open city.”
“As a guerrilla, Banez pursued his fight against the mighty Japanese forces until the Philippines was liberated on Oct. 20, 1944 with the landing of allied troops led by Gen. Douglas McArthur, who fulfilled his promise of “I shall return.”