WW2 survivors: Retelling, forgiving but not forgetting

WW2 survivors: Retelling, forgiving but not forgetting

/ 05:38 AM February 25, 2024

forum with World War II survivors

A GENERATION SPEAKS Desiree Benipayo (top photo, left), secretary of Memorare Manila 1945, leads a forum with World War II survivors Regina Paterno, Sylvia Roces Montilla and Albert Montilla who recounted their families’ ordeal and painful loss during the 1945 Battle for Manila in World War II. —PHOTO BY RICHARD A. REYES

Amid current world conflicts, in a nation that seems to have a “collective amnesia for things unpleasant,” you better listen when warnings about being blindsided, about history repeating itself, are coming from World War II survivors.

Sylvia Roces Montilla was only 6 years old when her family was forced to evacuate Manila after her father, Rafael “Liling” Roces Jr., was taken by the Japanese militia.


Sylvia and her cousin Regina Paterno, along with 13 other family members, were squeezed into a canvas-covered truck that brought them to Batangas province, where they took refuge for months, “moving from house to house to shake off any pursuers.”


Liling, founder of the secret society called Free Philippines Movement, was brutally killed by the Japanese, and for many years after his death Sylvia opted to protect herself by being in denial—or as she put it, living “in a shell.”

“I never wanted to know more about what happened to my father and even when other people would tell this, I just don’t wanna hear it,” said Sylvia, now 86, one of the three speakers during a Feb. 17 event commemorating the 1945 battle for the liberation of Manila.

On the same panel, it was her cousin, Paterno, who recounted the painful story of how her Uncle Liling was tormented and eventually beheaded.

Paterno read excerpts from the book “Looking for Liling” by Alfredo Roces, Liling’s younger brother, particularly recalling how they found his sibling’s skull after digging a trench at Chinese Cemetery in Manila. The skull had a misaligned tooth, the jawbone bearing marks suggesting that the executioner’s saber savagely scraped part of the face instead of making a clean strike at the neck.

“Uncle Liling was awarded the US Medal of Freedom and the Philippine Legion of Honor Medal among others for his supreme patriotic sacrifice. And yet these posthumous accolades do little to salve and heal the wounds left behind on his family,” Paterno said.

Rites marking the 79th anniversary of the city’s liberation from Japanese occupation

Rites marking the 79th anniversary of the city’s liberation from Japanese occupation were held Feb. 17 at the Memorare memorial in Intramuros. —PHOTO BY RICHARD A. REYES

‘So sorry, so sorry’

Even as she tried to block off the past, Sylvia seemed to have found the capacity to forgive many years later, after going to Japan where she attended a Mass that “moved” her like never before.


Some time before that “strangely touching” Church service, Sylvia gave a copy of the book “Looking for Liling” to a Japanese friend. She later learned that her friend had lent it out to friends who could read in English.

“After the Mass, I saw lined up in the hallway all the Japanese men, women, children, and all of them lined up to say ‘so sorry, so sorry’—and I felt that that was it. I got really, really touched by the younger generations who just had to be the ones to say sorry,” Sylvia said.

For Paterno, whose maternal grandparents were burned alive by the Japanese, the “hellish” atrocities committed against her family left no other trace but “just ashes—and the pain and agony left for our imaginations to contemplate.”

The resentment and hatred lingered for many years, but now at 85, Paterno said she eventually learned to forgive; “no more bad feelings” toward the Japanese.

The third speaker at the event, Albert Montilla, was just 10 years old when the war reached the Philippines. In the postwar years, from late 1940s to early 1950s, “no Japanese would be walking around [in the city] because they would have been smacked and may even get killed,” he recalled.

The monthlong Battle of Manila—which raged from Feb. 3, 1945, to March 3, 1945—left more than 100,000 people dead as Japanese troops, losing ground to advancing US forces, went on a murderous rampage targeting civilians.

Jin’s ‘responsibility’

During the rites for its 79th anniversary at Plazuela de Santa Isabel in Intramuros, a young child screamed and covered his ears when the honor guard from the Philippine Navy performed a 21-gun salute in memory of those massacred and raped.

The boy was the 10-year-old son of Naoko Jin, a Japanese national who took part in the program as founder of the group Bridge for Peace.

“I feel so sorry that the Japanese Embassy is not here today and I cannot represent the Japanese government, but I would like to apologize to you as a Japanese who had invaded,” Jin said, before bowing to the crowd.

It was more than two decades ago when her professor in Tokyo brought her to the Philippines to be educated about World War II.

“My professor who took me here in the year 2000 passed away last year, so I feel like it’s my responsibility now to educate the next generation. Today, I brought my 10-year-old son. I hope he can remember this moment,” she said.

“I [also] brought some other members from the Bridge for Peace. So many young Japanese students are interested in our advocacy so there is hope,” Jin added.

War historian Ricardo Jose, who was also present at the event, stressed the importance of retelling the stories of the survivors like Sylvia, Paterno and Albert.

“There is almost no one who can speak about the Battle of Manila. So if you noticed, the ones who spoke [today] were still children 10 years old, 5 years old, 6 years old [when the war broke out]. The older people are gone,” Jose, a professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines, told the Inquirer.

He was visibly glad to see students from different universities attending the commemoration and taking keen interest in the survivors’ accounts. “Because I think partly, it is not taught in class [yet] it’s something that has to be known,” Jose said.

‘Comfort women’

But while there is forgiveness, forgetting is not an option, according to Teresita Ang See, president of Kaisa Para Sa Kaunlaran Inc.

“I think we can always forgive and we have forgiven. But we should not forget. The Philippines is the only country that succumbed to Japanese pressure and removed the only statue of the comfort women that we put up in Roxas Boulevard,” See said.

Working with the groups helping the remaining “comfort women” or wartime sex slaves in the country, she lamented how the government had failed to give them justice.

On March 8, 2023, the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women ruled that the Philippine government’s inaction “violated the rights” of the comfort women. The ruling was in response to a complaint filed by the group Malaya Lolas (Free Grandmothers).

In view of this legal victory, the UN women’s rights committee urged the Philippines to provide “full and effective redress and reparation, including compensation, satisfaction, official apologies, and rehabilitative services.”

But simply convening an interagency task force to implement the UN resolution had proven to be difficult after “all attempts failed,” said See, who spoke during the Intramuros program and later at an open forum.

“My calls for the [Department of Health], personal calls, personal email, personal text for them to support some of the comfort women when they are sick, fell on deaf ears. So they were dying one after another,” she said.

There are only about 30 Filipino comfort women still alive, their average age at 91, See added.

READ: WW2 veterans eye 80th anniversary of D-Day as Europe salutes war dead

“We can always forgive [the Japanese] but we can’t forget the lolas, many of their stories are as horrendous as what was shared this morning. They still remember the very traumatic experience. Some of them were as young as 12, they don’t have their periods yet, but they were repeatedly raped and used by the Japanese soldiers,” she said.

Paterno challenged the gathering: “Tell and retell the stories of [your] generation, whether it is about the Second World War or about the atrocities committed during martial law, or the recent fake war on drugs and extrajudicial killings.”

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“Let us continue to retell these stories so that our very weak collective memory as a people shall be strengthened,” she said.

TAGS: story, survivors, world war

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