Retracing their steps

Leanne Blinzler Noe, front, walks across a bridge to revisit her childhood home in Baguio with her friend Dorothy Mullaney Brooks, who was her roommate in a Manila prison camp. (Barbara Noe)

THE flight from San Francisco to Manila seemed endless, even though my mother had treated us to business class and its bedlike chairs, parade of meals and free-flowing champagne.

More than 60 years ago, my mother, Leanne Blinzler Noe, had traveled the same route by ship — taking 18 days instead of 13 hours. That realization was the first of many on a two-week tour last spring to my mother's childhood home in the Philippines, a place where she had run free across the Baguio Hills, learned to speak Tagalog, eaten the world's best mangos — and where she was a prisoner during World War II.

Her best friends in the prison camp, Dorothy Mullaney Brooks of Las Vegas and Connie Ford of Grass Valley, Calif., and a group of about 50 former soldiers and other Americans who had some connection to the Philippines during the war — had joined us on this trip. Because of them, this tour of battlefields and memorials on the 60th anniversary of their liberation became indelibly intertwined with their memories, creating for me a personal sketch of the war in the Philippines.

Before we left the U.S., Mom had said she was reluctant to return. "How was my childhood so different from others?" she had asked self-effacingly.

Manila before the war

FORESTS of high-rises and smog-clouded, car-clogged streets dominate Manila, a sprawling metropolis with a population of 10.9 million. Group members said the capital looked nothing like the one they had known before the war. Then, Manila was called the Pearl of the Orient, an elegant city with broad, tree-shaded boulevards. That city was largely destroyed in World War II, changing the lives of my grandfather, mother and aunt.

On Jan. 2, 1942, the first Japanese soldiers arrived here. Thousands of civilians — executives of U.S. companies, ship passengers, diplomats, journalists and my grandfather, a mining engineer — were rounded up, told to pack food and clothes for three days, then taken to the University of Santo Tomas in the heart of Manila, where they were imprisoned for the rest of the war. My grandmother had died several years earlier, and my mother, who was then 9, and her younger sister, Ginny, lived safely for a time in a Manila boarding school run by German nuns. But in March 1944, they too were taken to Santo Tomas, each carrying a suitcase containing their sparse belongings.

For the modern-day tourist, Santo Tomas yields little about its days as a prison, aside from a brass plaque at the front entrance and a temporary exhibit. Many buildings have been added to the original layout, but the main edifice, a three-story Gothic structure where my mother, her family and friends were interned, was as Mom remembered it. She and Ginny lived in a classroom with women and other children; my grandfather was in another room with men. During the day, they could visit one another and eat meals together.

We climbed creaky mahogany stairs to the third floor, strolled down a window-lined hallway and found 55-A, their turquoise prison room, now re-numbered and again a classroom. I tried to imagine 50-odd cots, draped with mosquito nets, crammed wall to wall.

As my mother and her friends surveyed the desk-filled room, they struggled to hold back tears just as they had learned to do as girls all those years ago.

Dorothy, Connie and Mom reminisced about the 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. roll calls; of having to bow to Japanese sentries; of the unsatisfactory meals of watery lugao, or rice porridge; and the rare joy of finding a piece of water buffalo hide hidden inside the gruel.

Comforts were few, but one day my mother found a little rubber doll in the trash. "It was a little softened, sticky," she said, "but I don't know why someone threw it away. I took it and nurtured it, sewed clothes for it out of scraps."

Where it all started

THE war in the Philippines began Dec. 8, 1941, at Clark Air Base, about 40 miles northwest of Manila, the main base of the Army Air Forces in the Pacific. Japanese pilots, approaching the archipelago only eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, found B-17 bombers parked wingtip to wingtip on the airfield.

Within minutes after Japan's attacks, the U.S. East Asian air forces were reduced by half, such an enormous blow that Gen. Douglas MacArthur was forced into defensive positions on Bataan and Corregidor just to the west.

Nothing at Clark today resembles its wartime appearance. Since its reversion to the Philippines in 1991, the base has been transformed into a civil aviation complex with industrial properties, a trade center and luxury hotels. But the Clark Museum provides a good historical retrospective with photos, dioramas and exhibits.

Perhaps its most telling artifact is out front, a burned, melted airplane part left from the Dec. 8 assault. Inside the museum, my mother pointed out Japanese wartime currency — they called it Mickey Mouse money — 75 Mickey Mouse pesos, or $35, could buy one duck egg, she said.

Tucked in one display was a black-and-white photograph of a Japanese kamikaze pilot. He looked like a kid, with an innocent smile. On a trip devoted to uncovering my mother's past, the photo also offered a window into the enemy side.

The world's first kamikaze pilot took off from nearby Mabalacat East Air Field in October 1944. Oddly, on this soil that suffered so much destruction at Japanese hands is a statue of a pilot standing tall and proud, paying tribute to the soldiers of the kamikaze, or "divine wind."