Ateneo De Naga high school 1980

Those who do not remember history are bound to live through it again.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A father's flight stories

As a young child, I have been fascinated by planes and dreamt that one day I hope to pilot a plane myself. Though the open skies seemed to still wave its welcoming arms at me to come and experience how it is to fly amongst its clouds, my fear of heights has kept me grounded.

I have read warm stories narrated by flyers in the past. Recently, I spotted a story written by a Filipino flyer who wrote about the memories of his late father who used to be an airplane mechanic during World War 2 in Manila. Below is his memoir.

My father was a high school student when World War 2 broke out in the Philippines. He used to live in Paco, Manila. One day, the Japanese shanghaied my father into working at their airbase at Nielson airfield. The runway of Nielson airfield later became Paseo De Roxas Avenue. The large ramp became Ayala Avenue.

Nielson airfield was then a staging base for the Japanese war planes being ferried to the battlefields of South Pacific.

Dad was put to work helping overhaul Mitsubishi engines of the Japanese A6M Zero fighter aircraft. Whenever the big Japanese bombers would come in, my Dad would sneak into the airplanes and forage among the lunch boxes that the crew left behind. My dad would find lunch boxes containing pickled rice and fish.

Every morning, the Japanese would line up all the Filipino airplane maintenance personnel and they would be made to bow toward Tokyo where the emperor resides. They were also ordered to sing the official Japanese navy hymn. In spite of their displeasure, the Filipinos would just obediently go through the ritual with their fingers crossed behind them. Years later after the war, I would sometimes hear my father sing the Japanese navy hymn while taking a bath.

As a form of propaganda, local newspapers in Manila would print stories about Japanese victories all around the Pacific. It would feature scores of American ships and hundreds of American airplanes being destroyed by the mighty Japanese armed forces. But the Filipinos noticed that the locations where these “Victories” occurred were coming closer and closer to the Philippines. It mentioned places like Guadalcanal, New Guinea, then Marianas, then Palau…the location of where the battles were occuring seemed to be moving closer to the main islands of the Philippines.

When American forces headed by Gen. MacArthur landed in Leyte in 1944, my father began to notice that the Japanese soldiers who were on sentry duty at the Nielson airbase always looked fearful while scanning the sky above their airbase.

Shortly after the Leyte landing, the American air raids to Manila began. My father remembered that every time an air raid began, he would hear a deep thrum of many airplane engines. Then one airplane would appear out of the clouds, and before long there would be a swarm of them. The squadrons would circle Manila Bay while its flight leaders assigned targets. Then all of a sudden, all the planes would attack at the same time. They do this so that the anti-aircraft guns on the ground would not be able to concentrate their fire on a particular attacking plane.

During the attack, a few American airplanes were hit and fell like leaves, fluttering back and forth. The scene was not like the dramatic, flaming power dives in the movies, my Dad said. Whenever a plane is hit, “it fell like a dead leaf”.

During one of the air raids, my father was upstairs at their family home in Paco, located along San Marcelino street. My father was beside his dad (my grandfather) and both of them watched F4U Corsairs planes strafed the Paco railroad station near what is now Quirino Avenue and South Super Highway. His three sisters and his mother (my grandmother) were downstairs praying the rosary. My grandmother was seated on a rocking chair holding his baby brother, my Uncle Carlos, in her arms. All of a sudden my Dad heard a loud crash. He and his Dad went downstairs. An American 50 caliber bullet from a Corsair went through the wall of the house and killed our grandmother. Though my grandmother was killed, my Uncle Carlos was not hurt. The Corsair missed its target by more than a mile.

When the American forces landed at Lingayen and began the drive towards Manila, my grandfather evacuated his whole family to Pagbilao, Quezon. After the devastating Battle of Manila, my Dad and my grandfather hitchhiked on an American Army trucks back to Manila. Manila was almost totally destroyed! From San Marcelino street, they could see all the way to Manila Bay. Every building between our street to Manila bay was flattened by the bombs. Their house was hit by an artillery shell and neighbors tried to put the fire out but the house was doomed. The place where our house stood became a car repair shop for a while. I don’t know what it is now because I cannot locate its exact spot.

My Dad also told me stories about how he sneaked out of their house when everybody is asleep and he would buy a can of spicy Spanish sardine and a loaf of bread. He always shared the sardines but took all the spicy pickles for himself. He loved using the last pieces of the bread to mop up all the olive oil in the can because the oil mixed with the bread was very tasty.

One of my Dad’s best airplane stories was about a P-38 Lightning. He was walking along a rice field at Pagbilao, Quezon when he heard a deep rumbling sound which closely resembled the sound of several empty 55-gallon drums being rolled on the ground. Then he saw a P-38 lightening with its distinct twin engine and fork-tailed design. The P-38 was flying no more than 20 feet from the ground and was searching for Japanese soldiers. The pilot saw my father and waved as he passed above where my father stood.

I asked my father how low 20 feet was. He pointed to a Royal Tru-Orange billboard, which was then the only one on Highway 54 (now EDSA). “That low”, he said. I was astonished on how low the P-38 flew when my father saw it.

My Dad bought me a scale model of the P-38 Lightning. While playing with it, I would hold the P-38 model and let my imagination create a thrilling scene in my mind where my P-38 would skim above rice fields, making tight turns following river paths, constantly on the hunt for enemy soldiers.

In 1977, there was a drought and a severe shortage of water in Manila. My father spent an entire evening hauling water in drums by himself from my grandfather’s house to our house using his ancient 1948 Chevrolet car. After he was done, he decided to drive to Baguio to meet his sister, who is an American citizen and was then visiting the Philippines. When he reached Santo Tomas, Pampanga, he pulled over to park because he felt a terrible headache. While he was resting, he fell unconscious and never woke up. He had a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 50 years old.

I am now a pilot and I believe that my father would have gotten a tremendous kick from flying with me, if he were alive today. I could have showed to him what it was like flying 20 feet from the ground.

I certainly miss his airplane stories.


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