Thirteen-year-old Rodolfo Balao was in church listening to a solemn Mass when Japanese planes flew over his town in the Philippines and bombed the airfield. Just days after Rodolfo and his family evacuated to a farm high above Tuguegarao, the Japanese took over their town, razing and killing until nothing remained except memories. Rodolfo’s family would not return home for six months.
In his fascinating memoir, Rodolfo tells the striking, true story of his experiences in the Philippines during World War II. Through compelling vignettes, Rodolfo details how his family managed to survive despite their loss of freedom, the brutality of the Japanese officers, and the constant fear of execution. In the face of the chaos of war that enveloped their town, Rodolfo also shares joy-filled moments as he learned to dance and fell in love. After his family escapes once again, Rodolfo finds happiness in caring for his new horse, Pandy. But it is not long before a guerrilla officer demands the horse, forcing Rodolfo to bargain with his life, join the guerrilla group, and change his future forever.
The deeply personal journey through war and its subsequent effects shared in My World War II Story is a worthy tribute and memorial for Rodolfo and all of those whose lives unwittingly became intertwined with the onset of an unforgettable war.
I just turned 13 years old and a high school freshman when the World War II broke out. It was about 9 o’clock in the morning of Monday, December 8, 1941, when without any warning a number of Japanese planes flew over our town of Tuguegarao and bombed our local airfield. Tuguegarao is the capital of the province of Cagayan which is located in the northern most part of the big island of Luzon in the Philippines. It was the feast of the Immaculate Conception so I was at church with classmates listening to a solemn mass in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The sound of the exploding bombs were so loud that the priest saying the Holy Mass, which erstwhile would have taken over an hour to finish, hurriedly cut the celebration short so that the parishioners could go home and seek shelter. On our way out of the church, we saw gruesome sights of those who were either dead or wounded being rushed in animal drawn carts to a clinic near the church. The victims were mostly farmers who were tending to their farms near the airfield. For the first time in my life, I saw the mangled bodies of dead children, women and men; and heard the sound of the agonized cries of pain from the wounded and dying! The clinic was so ill equipped to handle the great number of victims that its doctors just flayed their arms in the air in sheer hopelessness to cope with the grave situation confronting them. Thus was my introduction to that horrible war.My father, Matias, decided that we should evacuate to a safe place lest the Japanese planes would return to bomb and strafe our town. Also, rumors were rife that the invading Japanese troops have already landed on the shores of Aparri, a town about 100 kilometers north of us. Rumors had it too that the Japanese were ruthless and that they would rape all women and raze our town to the ground. My father insisted that these rumors were groundless and he assured us that a regiment of Filipino and American troops were already deployed in Aparri to stop the landing of the Japanese. He further assured us that the Japanese were puny people with beady eyes and could not see very well. This comment of his made a few of us laugh. He further said the Japanese would be handily repulsed if not annihilated by our forces if ever they have the temerity to land on Philippine soil. The whole town was in a state of panic so everyone tried to pack and cram all their worldly possessions to take with them. But for us, we submitted to the decision of our father to take only our sweaters for the cold December nights and clothes enough for two days use only. He said we should be back to our house within a period of two days, he emphasized. We were fortunate to have hired the last bus that was still available at this crucial time and along with a few more families of our clan we drove up to our destination across the wide Cagayan River and up to the foot of the mountains of the town called Enrile, also in Cagayan Province and about fifteen kilometers from Tuguegarao. We disembarked from the bus at this point and on foot, trekked about ten kilometers with all our bundles through mountains and on to Liwan, a barrio of Enrile where a relative’s farm was located. It was dark when we reached the place. The makeshift house we arrived at was small and could not accommodate all of us. So, only the women and infants stayed inside while the rest of us camped outside. The moon was out so this first night out was sort of fun, except for the buzzing of mosquitoes and other insects that hovered over and tormented us through the night. Exhaustion just took us all into slumber.