The first stop on our City of Tour of Puerto Princesa was Plaza Cuartel. I must admit, that what we saw there wasn’t what I was expecting as I pictured a plaza full where major town events would take place.
But instead of a festive place, our tour group was greeted with the somber silence of the memory of the 143 American soldiers who were tortured and executed. And while it was a surprise, the visit provided us an opportunity to pay our respects to the men who sacrificed their lives for us during World War Two.
Based on my hazy recollection from school, Manila was the second most damaged city in World War Two. As the occupational forces retreated during the end of the war, Manila was declared an open city and was practically leveled to the ground during the bombing.
[Just in case you are wondering what the first is, Warsaw suffered the most damage.]
The five years of occupation was the worst in Philippine history. Torture, rape, and murder stories still abound today. And some of the worst stories took place as the occupational forces were retreating from Manila. I have heard stories of babies being thrown up in the air then speared with bayonets as they came back down.
This war was probably the worst and the Philippines suffered a lot at the hands of the Japanese. And while the actions taken at Plaza Cuartel were not as infamous as that of the Bataan Death March, perhaps because of the smaller number of deaths, it was no less horrifying.
Prisoners of War
Our tour guide informed us that Plaza Cuartel was used as a prisoner camp which counted about 150 American Prisoners of War, or POWs.
On December 14, 1944, the guards stationed here herded the American POWs in to air raid shelters. Once inside, the prisoners were doused in gasoline and set afire. In their panicked attempts to stay alive, several of the burning POWs were able to break out.
But instead of freedom, they were greeted by guards who showered them with machine gun fire, stuck them with bayonets, or clubbed them. Of the 150 POWs, only 11 were fortunate enough to escape.
In 1952, the remains of the 143 POWs, who were later known as the Palawan Massacre victims, were finally laid to rest at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri.
Before even entering the gate of Plaza Cuartel, you will find a smaller gate to left. And as you peer through it, you will see a small tunnel leading about ten feet in to the ground.
This tunnel was dug by POWs and used as a means to escape at one point. Details on how many POWs were able to escape through this tunnel are sketchy, but our guide did say that a very small number got out.
Unfortunately, the tunnel has been closed to visitors as several children who were playing underground did not make it out. The closure is to prevent and further tragedies.
A Taint of Sadness
As our guide related the story of the massacre victims, she expressed her sadness that of the 11 survivors, only one was able to return for the unveiling of the marker.
I guess this emotion stems from the country’s culture wherein Filipinos honor their dead. And for the people living in Puerto Pricesa, it was sad that only one was able to return to remember.
Perhaps the person was the last remaining survivor, they don’t know. But for some of the people who are now living in Puerto Princesa feel that it is their duty to keep the memory of these POWs alive.
Some may wonder why our tour started out with something considered less on the happy side, but I felt that it was an apt way start to our tour.
Our men and women in uniform don’t get much appreciation for what they do. In this country, they are paid very little but are asked to give so much. And the only reason I see them still doing what they do is because of their deep love for the country.
Thanks to the men and women that fought for the country during World War Two, whether Filipinos, Americans, or otherwise, we still have places like Puerto Pincesa. Paying our respects to those that have made the ultimate sacrifice is the least we could do.
Well, that’s it for me. Please join me as I share the rest or our visit to Puerto Princesa in coming articles.
- Say a short prayer for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the country