My grandmother, Leonor or Norie, was 15 and the youngest of the five orphaned Brual sisters of Lipa City when World War II broke out.
All of them, except the second sister, Evelina or Belen, who lived with her husband in neighboring Bauan, Batangas, were under the care of Beatrice or Betty, the eldest sister, and her husband who was a schoolteacher.
The third girl, Celerina or Nena, attractive and statuesque, was the artist, a talented piano player.
The fourth sister, Purita or Purit, had tuberculosis, the same ailment that killed their parents and orphaned the girls.
My grandmother recalled that, even after the Japanese started to occupy Lipa, she and her sisters continued to go to church although they had to pass a Japanese checkpoint and bow deeply to the guards if they did not want to be punished.
There was talk that Japanese soldiers were raping women. So on Sundays, when the guards were off duty and drunk, the sisters would lock themselves inside their house, refusing to even peek through the windows.
Music and friendship
Nena, however, stuck to her daily routine of practicing on the piano at their grandparents’ house a short distance away.
One day, a soldier on patrol near their grandparents’ house heard her playing. As if in a trance, he followed the music and saw Lola Nena.
When she sensed the soldier’s presence, she jumped and almost fell off her seat, shaking in fear.
The soldier, in broken English, tried to explain that he was simply drawn to the music. “No afraid, no afraid. Good man, good man, good soldier, no afraid.”
The soldier escorted her back to the house where she and her siblings lived, telling her that her music reminded him of his sister in Japan, who also loved to play the piano.
That incident started a friendship, which was cut short when, in one of his short visits, the soldier advised the family to leave the city as Japanese officials had ordered that all civilians were to be killed.
A few weeks later, my grandmother and her sisters left for Bolbok, a nearby barrio where their brother-in-law’s family lived.
Lipa would later be subjected to continuous bombing and would be one of the most devastated cities in Southeast Asia.
After some time in Bolbok, they heard that Japanese soldiers were killing men and kidnapping women around the area, so they fled to Malagonlong, another rural area. But danger was never far away. Every night, Japanese soldiers raided the neighborhood.
After the Japanese established an occupation government, they issued Japanese military money (gumpyo) as currency and declared possession of all other currencies as a crime. People caught with so-called guerrilla or Philippine money were sentenced to death.
As the family walked from Bolbok to Malagonlong, my grandmother had a piece of cloth with Philippine money strapped to her chest under her loose dress. When they reached a relative’s house in Malagonlong, my grandmother’s eldest sister, Betty, stuffed the money with some pieces of jewelry into a pillow.
At dawn the next day, a shot warned them of the presence of Japanese soldiers—around 10 of them. Everyone in the house was made to stand in line in the living room while the soldiers searched each person for valuables. My grandmother was frisked but the soldiers found nothing.
The neighing of a beautiful white horse tied under the house caught the attention of the Japanese officer, who seemed to fancy it. My grandmother, noticing this, told them to go ahead and take it, with the little Japanese she knew.
The soldiers gladly took the horse while my grandmother joyously said, “Domo arigato,” grateful their lives were spared. Unfortunately, the old man who owned the house where they stayed was not spared. He was dragged from the kitchen and killed, his stomach slashed with a bayonet.
Later that morning, the sisters moved out again, walking 17 kilometers. They decided to spend the night in a house in Cahigan, Rosario. They set off again the next day and along the way met a friend who convinced them to go to Batangas.
At noon, they took a break under a mango tree and cooked lunch, hanging their pots from a tree branch and trying not to make a lot of smoke so as not to draw the attention of Japanese soldiers.
Grandmother and her Ate Betty constantly searched for food in distant barrios. With Philippine money declared illegal and “Mickey Mouse money” worthless, bartering was the way to go.
By some stroke of luck, Lola Betty managed to bring along a stack of bond paper (or typewriting paper, as my grandmother called it), which proved a worthy commodity that they could trade for beef, rice and duck eggs.
By the time they reached El Conde in Batangas, the liberation had begun.
The Japanese were losing to the Americans. My grandmother recalled people saying “Gintong Pilipino ang makakakita ng Amerikano” (Golden is the Filipino who sees an American). She knew that the Japanese planned that no Filipino would be spared.
Certainly, my grandmother and her siblings felt like gold upon seeing the American soldiers with their boxes of chocolates and rations and knowing that they were safe at last.
In Batangas, my grandmother and her siblings were reunited with second sister Lola Belen. They all moved to nearby Bauan where Lola Belen and her husband lived. Although Lola Purit, the fourth sister, survived the war, TB claimed her life less than 10 years later.
When they returned to Lipa, what they saw was a city in ruins, bombed repeatedly by American war planes to drive away the Japanese.
They were able to rent a house near the old marketplace where their properties were located.
With the Philippine money and jewelry they had hidden in a pillow in Malagonlong, they built a small house. My grandmother would continue her studies at the Mabini Academy.
The sisters were truly blessed to have each other, looking after one another in a time of uncertainty and extreme danger.
(Third prize winner Julio Rodrigo M. Lopez, 10th grader, is homeschooled by his mom, Desiree A. M. Lopez, who also mentored him for this entry.)