Sofia G. Tidon was a 14-year-old freshman at the University of the Philippines Rural High School when World War II broke out. The school was located on the UP Los Baños (UPLB) campus.
At the marketplace where she helped her mother sell kakanin (sticky rice snacks), she met several guerrillas and eventually enlisted as a member of one guerrilla unit. Aside from distributing leaflets, she carried messages for members in rolled up pieces of paper.
Thousands of civilian prisoners from nine different countries, mainly the United States, were transferred by the Japanese from the overflowing prison camp at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila to the UPLB campus.
In all, 2,122 internees were assigned to barracks surrounded by barbed wire. As the war started to turn in the Allies’ favor, the maltreatment of the internees worsened.
The camp overseer, whom Sofia remembered only as Konishi, was strict and notorious. He cut the food rations, which were not much to begin with and were hardly edible. People who tried to sneak out to find food were shot when caught. Konishi made some internees dig their own graves before they were shot on the spot.
Since Sofia’s school was on the campus, she was aware of the abuse and maltreatment of the internees. During class breaks, she and her friends would run to the camp near UPLB’s Baker Hall. They secretly brought in food wrapped in banana leaves consisting of cooked rice with a little corn mixed into it and boiled bananas.
Despite being extra careful, Sofia and two of her friends were once caught in the act by the Japanese. They were held in a small room without food and water for one whole day.
Afterwards, they were separated. Sofia was tied to a tree and later repeatedly submerged in a drum of water, as the Japanese tried to force her to reveal the names of the guerrilla officers in the area.
Sofia endured the torture and was eventually released although she was told to report regularly to the Japanese. She complied only for a few months. Fortunately, the Japanese did not seek her out after.
Despite the traumatic experience, Sofia continued with her schooling and guerrilla activities. In one of her journals, she wrote that she was assigned as the “Mata Hari” of the 25th Red Lions Unit of PQOG [President Quezon’s Own Guerrillas], spying on the military movements and allied activities of the Japanese, Sakdalistas and Makapilis.
“While doing all this, I continuously attended classes,” she wrote.
On Feb. 21, 1945, Sofia attended the final meeting for the rescue of the UPLB internees.
The entry in her journal said: “The Hukbalahap (Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon) was assigned to secure the jump site in the vicinity of the railroad crossing and Pili Drive. The 25th Red Lions PQOG under the command of Colonel Price [nom de guerre of Gen. Romeo Espino who would later become General Mayundon] would secure the landing [site] of the amphibians in Mayundon and set up blocking forces. Different guerrilla units were deployed to help the US Air Force and amphibian tanks.”
The following day, Feb. 22, Sofia and her father went to where her mother and siblings were hiding in Kabaritan but found no one there. It turned out that everyone had been brought to Barrio Maahas where they were killed and burned by the Japanese, including Sofia’s family.
In the evening, some of Sofia’s relatives and fellow guerrillas brought her and her father to Mt. Makiling. They were told the US military was on its way to rescue the internees.
But the Japanese were also killing people on sight. Sofia and the others found a hiding place in the mountains from where they could see what was going on below.
Sofia cried the whole night, devastated by the death of her mother and siblings. She could not sleep. Early on Feb. 23, at about
6 a.m., Sofia and the others saw white smoke coming from Baker Hall.
Later, Sofia saw “white umbrellas” in the sky. They were the parachutes of the members of the US 11th Airborne Division. Their landing where the smoke was coming from signaled the start of the rescue of the internees.
The Americans struck from the air, land and sea. Airplanes dropped paratroopers while amphibious trucks crossed Laguna de Bay. Over land came the rest of the army, together with the Filipino guerrillas.
The attack began at 7 a.m. when the Japanese were having their morning exercise—unarmed, unsuspecting and most vulnerable. Most of the Japanese soldiers were killed although Konishi escaped with six or seven others.
Not long after, the UPLB internment camp was liberated from the Japanese.
Despite the jubilation over the rescue, there was fear that Japanese reinforcements might arrive. The barracks were set on fire and the paratroopers brought the internees to the other side of the lake in tanks.
After all the internees had been rescued and the Americans had returned to their camp, the Japanese came back.
Since the Americans and the internees were no longer there, the Japanese vented their anger on the townspeople. Konishi instigated the massacre of thousands of Filipinos.
Seeking a safe place, many people went to the chapel of
St. Therese. But the Japanese forced their way into the chapel and the people who had sought shelter there were massacred.
Most of the Los Baños residents, including Sofia, felt betrayed by the Americans for leaving them behind after the rescue. But Sofia later learned to forgive the Americans for what they did.
The Americans may have left the townspeople after rescuing the internees, but they did not forget the heroism of those who contributed to the successful liberation.
To give something back to the town, the 11th Airborne Division sponsors the Los Baños Liberation Foundation that, since 2003, has been giving scholarships to 12 students every year at the UP Rural High School, Sofia’s alma mater.
(Danielle Elisha F. Ching, a consolation prize winner, was a fourth year student at the University of the Philippines Rural High School at the time of this writing. She was mentored by teacher Aprhodite Macale.)