Thursday, December 13, 2007
I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s a copy of the Philippines Free Press, yes, but it’s not like the one I readily see in the magazine section of any bookstore. It’s not a glossy-covered issue with the face picture of political personalities eternally pasted on it. In fact, the cover is brown-yellowish in color, a sign of ancient age. A glance at the characters revealed that it was published only days after the World War II reached this side of the Pacific. Taking off the Miller plastic that serves as its cover, I discovered the same brown-yellowish color of paper inside, brittle to the touch. Careful not to tear the pages asunder, I flipped through twenty pages of articles with accompanying photos with graphic details about the horrors of the war. Alongside the photos are news reports about the seven-day raging war, the sudden migration, among other war horrors. During this Commonwealth period of the American Occupation, the focus on granting the Philippines its independence abruptly shifted to talks about the war, terrifying experiences of the people, politics, army, and the looming invasaion of the Japanese imperial army. The Philippines Free Press—published on December 20, 1941, Saturday, no. 51, Volume XXXV, 15 centavos apiece—a momentous chapter of the Philippine history captured in a literature in a hurry.
Of the articles therein, I found the one featuring heroes in the air curious. For one, why are the heroes’ names not as household-sounding as, say, Bonifacio, Rizal, Douglas McArthur and the like, if ever they were indeed heroes? It is not as if popularity should matter more than one’s noble work in determining one’s heroism; it is just that most people who played roles in directing the country’s history to its current location are found in history books. Then again, even historiography can be pregnant with silences. That is why I took the effort of bringing this issue into the light once more, in order to show what heroic acts the subjects had performed and to what length recognizing them anew can bring them the credit they were due.
Written by staff member Leon Ty, the “Heroes of the Air” article found in page 20 of the abovementioned issue introduced the wartime pilot as “The most daring, most romantic warrior of our time…—the gallant hero of the air.” Why not, whereas during the crucial times the nation’s destiny lies on their courage, they were unafraid despite enemies’ eyes prying on them, wanting them killed in order to invade the helpless country? The warriors that they were, American and Filipino pilots alike, fought side by side in what turned out to be a collective heroic act that the enemies would have to fly over their dead bodies before the Philippines would be surrendered.
It figures that the following summarized account of these pilots’ heroism also appeared and is verifiable in another media known as the Tribune as well as in local history books. While the lack of considerable space tolerated the books in just mentioning in passing the air skirmish between Filipino and Nipponese aircrafts erupting above Camp Murphy on December 10, the magazine article detailed the actual air combat that exploded when the raiding Japanese pilots attacked Zablan Field at lunchtime. A captain named Jesus Villamor commandeered his men into going after the fighting planes. The pilots running toward their respective planes had to survive being riddled by bullets being shot by the Japanese raiders, just so they could provide reinforcement to squadron commander Villamor. Trading shots that could have sparked the noonday sky, the fighting planes took ceasefire when the Japanese pilots retreated after one of their planes crashed into the mountains. A few days later, the encounter would be repeated, widening in scope as one hundred and so Japanese planes hovered Luzon Island, bombing the local camps. While visibly outnumbered, the Filipino patriots were undaunted, and historically unheard-of names like Lt. Salvador Aclan, Lt. Antonio Mondigo, Lt. Godofredo Juliano, Lt. Salvador Manlunas, among other pilots engaged with the enemy planes and did their sheer best to counter the assaults of the attacking Japanese raiders. Some of them wounded, some dead, the local warriors fought hard in order not to give up the native land that entrusted its fate in their gallantry. The descriptions that landed spots in history textbooks like aircrafts dashing through the clouds, broken planes bursting to flames and somersaulting as it plummeted from the sky, the trade of missile shots resembling a fierce fireworks display in the air, the planes assuming V-formations or swooping or gliding from above—all of these are familiar facts hugging the pages of history, but not the names of those who participated in all these. It is through their very eyes that history unfolded, and they could be said to have unfolded history themselves, yet their very names could not be found in the books being read by the generations of people whose nation they had saved.
The real-life account of air fight during the war tells more stories that history books fail to mention due to space restriction, prerogative on historical highlights, or sensationalized trivia. However, it should not be lost on us readers that whenever our local heroes get ignored, the flaws are reproduced throughout generations and we do not have the opportunity to give our gratitude for their sacrifice that assured national survival. It did not have to amount to naming places in their honor the way Villamor got an airbase named after him, but shouldn’t we harbor a fresh way of seeing history after meeting in hurried literary texts these unheralded heroes of the air?