July 4 is not only Independence Day for Americans. The date also marks the 70th anniversary of Philippine independence in 1946. Today, the Pacific nation’s capital city is beautiful and modern, and Manila certainly deserves its traditional nickname as the Pearl of the Orient.
My memory goes back many, many years when I first saw a war-ravaged Manila. As the city was being recaptured by American GIs in March 1945, I was a 19-year-old sailor in a Navy advance team establishing a fleet landing facility.
Navy Construction Battalions (The Fighting Seebees) arrived, put down their rifles, took up hammers and saws, and built us a Quonset hut. With sleeping tents and outdoor shower/privy, it served as our HQ alongside the Pasig River. The Seebees also repaired the bomb-damaged pier, so that Navy boats and warships cruising in from Manila Bay could dock in the city.
It was heartbreaking for us to see how Japanese soldiers had wantonly devastated the once-beautiful city during the fighting, and their retreat from advancing American and Filipino troops. The widespread destruction was random cruelty, including burning homes, dynamiting government buildings and murdering thousands of people.
The saddest scenes as we rode along city streets were the many orphaned and homeless kids who wandered through the rubble looking for food and shelter. Whenever we stopped our trucks, hordes of them surrounded us, their thin faces turned up and hands outstretched, pleading for food.
We swiped food supplies from Army and Navy units, and whenever in the city we handed them out to the kids. However, as much as we could give, it was never nearly enough to feed more than a small percentage of the thousands of starving kids and families in what was once beautiful downtown Manila.
In addition to bringing free food, we operated a sort-of reverse black market. The Army allowed us to buy cigarette cartons of 10 packs at 50¢ each. As we rode through the city, we tossed cartons to the most ragged-looking little kids. They could earn $25 to $50 per carton, a fortune for that time, as well as by selling single American cigarettes on the streets for 25¢ or more each.
Other sad scenes were when we rode shotgun on convoys of Navy trucks to the city dump. There we deposited loads of trash and garbage. As we approached, crowds of civilians, including many street kids, were waiting. Then, as the loaded beds of the trucks tilted downward, the kids jumped on top and rode the smelly contents into the piles of dumped refuse.
There were frantic gatherings in the trash piles as people filled sacks to take to their families. Many hungry scavengers, standing knee deep in garbage, picked through to find edible bits of food to eat while continuing to dig for anything useful.
World War II ended a few months later, and of all the terrible wartime sights I’d seen, those I most remember happened on Manila streets and at the city dump.