Santo Tomás Liberation, by Martin Meadows

Originally published in the AMCHAM Philippines Business Journal, February 2022, Vol. XCVII No. 2

It has been 77 years since the liberation of Santo Tomas Internment Camp (STIC), but most of the details of the eventful night of 3 February 1945 remain forever etched in my memory.

During the afternoon and evening of that Saturday, we heard distant gunfire and explosions of various kinds, and we could see evidence of conflagrations in the form of heavy smoke in the distance. Of course there were always internees ready, willing and able to concoct alleged “explanations” of those events; but in such a notorious rumor mill as STIC, we had long ago learned to pay no attention to such talk.

Regardless, that evening there seemed to be a different kind of feeling in the air, as the blackout-enforced darkness enveloped the camp’s buildings. An indefinable premonition, a feeling that something out of the ordinary might soon happen, was intensified by two things. One was the famous episode — knowledge of which quickly spread throughout the camp — of the U.S. aircraft pilot who had flown low over the camp and dropped goggles with an attached note, whose message “Roll out the barrel” hinted at impending liberation. On the other hand, it was widely feared (with good reason, as it turned out) that the Japanese planned to “terminate” the residents of STIC before they could be rescued. Thus there was a sensation of combined foreboding and anticipation in the air.

As a result of the feelings aroused by these conflicting possibilities, after the nightly roll call I did not follow my usual routine of hanging out with fellow teen-agers for a couple of hours or so before going to bed. Instead, at around 8 p.m. I was sitting and talking with my parents at our “dining room” — folding chairs at a card table placed next to the hallway’s inner wall (that is, the wall next to the Main Building’s west patio), across the corridor from my mother’s room. Her room was on the first floor (whereas my father and I were in a room on the third floor); it was located at the front of the building, at the juncture of two long hallways.

One hallway, perhaps 30 or so yards long, led directly to the building’s large, high-ceilinged lobby, where the front entrance was located. Thus we could easily hear (but in the darkness we could not see) that there was a very large and very noisy crowd of internees (possibly imbued with the aforesaid sense of foreboding/anticipation) milling around in the lobby and spilling into the adjoining hallways. The other and much longer hallway, which was at least twice as long, led toward the rear of the building, where hardly anyone could be heard that night.

Suddenly, shortly before 9 p.m., we heard a loud roar coming from the lobby, and I could make out shouts such as “They’re here!” and “It’s our boys!” and “Look at those tanks!” Realizing that the building’s front doors somehow had been opened, I jumped up and, leaving my parents to follow, hurried toward the lobby. There I managed to squeeze myself into the unruly mob, whose surge through the front entrance carried me out onto the spacious plaza in front of the Main Building.

I then witnessed a scene that aroused what can be only inadequately described as a sensation of incredibly unbounded jubilation. That feeling is impossible to put into words, so I will not even attempt to do so; however, I can certainly describe the scene in front of me. What I saw were several tanks (later I learned there were five of them), which had smashed through the gates at the camp’s entrance and were coming up the driveway toward the plaza. They were flanked by soldiers on foot, and their spotlights were playing around the area. Those GIs looked like gods to this 14-year-old, and I sought to join the deliriously joyful internees ahead of me who were rushing to meet them.

But just at that point I heard authoritative shouts above the crowd’s uproar warning that the situation was extremely dangerous, that we were impeding the work of the GIs, and that we should get back into the building immediately. Not everyone obeyed, but I was among those who did.

Once back in the building, I excitedly paced on a euphoric high back and forth along the hallway between the lobby and my mother’s room. In the process, I tried to absorb the realization that at long last we had actually been liberated after more than three years of captivity. While doing that, I had to keep dodging in and out of the melee in the packed corridor; I assumed my parents also were embedded somewhere in the crowd — I do not recall having seen either of them since leaving our card table.

What I certainly do recall seeing, however, was an extremely sobering counterpoint to the events of the night, so much so that it actually dampened my sense of exultation over our liberation. That was the sight of a half-dozen or so dead Japanese and American soldiers, whose bodies were placed in single file along the hallway’s outer wall (that is, the wall closer to the front of the building).

Thereafter, I was perhaps subconsciously motivated to seek to at least partially compensate for that grim spectacle. In any event, in due course, after i had somehow managed to squeeze myself into the jam-packed lobby, I was able to receive a few of the candy bars and chewing gum sticks being passed out by the handful of GIs who were crammed in the midst of adoring, almost worshipful (ex-)internees.

Eventually, as the night wore on, at the insistence of my parents when we finally met up at my mother’s room, I very reluctantly went upstairs to get a few hours of sleep. I awoke early the next morning, fully prepared and anxious to savor the benefits of our newly-attained freedom, gastronomical and otherwise. Nor has my resulting heightened appreciation of those benefits been dimmed in the slightest by the passage of 77 years.