Private Ryan, Manila, 1945 (Nov. 18, 1998)

I’ve decided that the very least I can do is put you wise on how us warriors are making out in the far reaches of the Pacific. To cover over the preliminaries quickly, I left for Manila on the 3rd of August, 1945, proceeding in the usual direct Army line from San Francisco to Los Angeles to New Orleans to Greensboro, NC, to Kansas City to San Francisco and thence via a northern route that took us near the Aleutians, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Japan to Leyte where, after an indecisive 20-minute stay, we proceeded on to Luzon and Manila Bay. This journey ended on the 5th of October to my intense relief since, after weeks of Pullman berths and transport holds, I was about ready to stretch my legs.

Through sheer good luck I was stationed at Nichols Field, on Manila’s outskirts, the biggest AAF installation around Luzon; also the only one that does not look like it was erected half an hour ago in the midst of a typhoon. We enjoy the incomparable luxury of concrete barracks (somewhat shell-pocked) with outdoor showers and running water. There is even grass outside, a few banana trees and a turgid tropic stream called the Paranaque which wends its way past our windows. I’m in Special Services, as in the States, and spend most of my time just fiddling around with the irritating non-essentials which make up so large a part of Army administration.

The climate is not exactly salubrious. There are two seasons: wet and hot, and dry and hot, and the weather itself is pretty confused as to which is supposed to be which at any given time. It rains during the dry season and gets blistering hot during the rainy season. And it always goes to incredible extremes. When it is humid (all the time) it is so humid that you nearly melt away with sweat. When it rains it comes down in such torrential fashion that you are always in imminent danger of being flooded out of your office. When it is dry the dust is so thick you can’t see as you drive along the roads, and when the same dust is wet it becomes mud so thick and deep that it mires trucks for miles around.

The insect life is an entomologist’s dream and a layman’s nightmare. We have everything you’ll find in the States, but on a larger scale. Moths are apt to have eight-inch wingspreads, ants are huge, grasshoppers run about four inches long, a sort of june bug comes zooming in at night with a whine like a P-38 and runs around four inches long by two and a half wide. Just as I was starting this letter one of those king-sized grasshoppers arrived and I killed him by dropping a cylinder head on him from a four-foot height. They crack like a pistol shot under the impact. The only small insects seem to be the mosquitoes, but they make up for lack of size by voraciousness of appetite, and a swarm of them usually circle your head waiting for an opening whenever you sit around at night as I am now. You have to keep your arms gently rotating in the air to discourage them. This is a little difficult though when you are trying to type at the same time.

We sleep under mosquito bars at night because, while there is relatively little malaria around here, the mosquitoes we have are of the Anopheles variety and so are potential carriers. Everyone eats Atabrine religiously and as a man gradually turns yellow from the dye he takes on the startling aspect of a hairy banana. As a further weapon in our relentless war against the insect world we carry Aerosol bombs which, with the aid of freon gas, spray pyrethrum. This insecticide does a good job, but it’s like trying to murder the Chinese nation with a ball bat. The Army regularly sends C-46s hedge-hopping over the military areas here spraying DDT in large clouds. This discourages the insects for awhile, but not for long.

Unfortunately, less aerosol bombs are used in killing bugs than for a more humanitarian purpose. Freon, as you know, is a refrigerant, and ingenious GIs in Hollandia discovered that you could ice a few cans of beer quite adequately by placing them in a gasoline tin and dropping in an Aerosol bomb. The spray soon cools the interior of the can to a point where any moisture the freon turns to ice. In about five minutes or so your beer is ready to drink. You can see now why we won the war.

We are rationed 24 cans of beer a month and there is no way to ice them except that narrated above, so most of it is drunk warm since the supply of Aerosol bombs is not unlimited. You can get used to anything in time but our reaction to warm beer is about the same as Al Jolson’s. When he was interviewed over the radio and asked how he liked the warm English beer he said, “As far as I’m concerned they can pour it back into the horse.” Cigarettes are rationed at a carton a week and you may or may not be lucky enough to get your own brand. I’m subsisting on a diet of Chesterfields and Camels myself.

Rationed items are occasionally handled in haphazard fashion. AFPAC (Dugout Doug) recently said the beer ration could be increased to 36 cans. AFWES-PAC (Lt. Gen. Styer here in Manila) endorsed the letter but said the ration would be 30 cans. My command, VASAC (Vth Air Service Area Command) pegged the ration at the usual 24 since that’s all they could get despite the directives.

Physically, Manila is the Stalingrad of the Pacific. Between the destructive retreat of the Japanese and the destructive advance of the Americans, the city took an incredible beating. Whole residential areas were burned to the ground and nothing but the concrete bases of the homes remain; others were apparently untouched. Coming into the city from the sea you have the queer illusion that Manila survived the battle very well because you see so many tall buildings. But when you get up to the buildings you see that the roof is gone, the windows are gone and the entire insides have been gutted by fire.

Progressing into the heart of the city, each successive block of wreckage staggers you a little more. A seven-story office building sagging drunkenly over at a 45° angle with its walls gone, its insides burned out and only a little concrete and the girders holding it together in its grotesque shape. The great bridges, the Quezon, Ayala, Santa Cruz and Jones, which span the Pasig, all with their arches blown up and now spanned by Bailey Bridges; the government buildings of the Commonwealth smashed and batted in frightful fashion. I have the impression that these buildings look a great deal worse just because they were not totally demolished. There is enough left to show you what they once looked like, and the contrast, therefore, is that much more shocking.

The Philippine Supreme Court building was rather a small version of the Lincoln Memorial. Imagine that edifice with the colonnades smashed and the whole ornamental front sagging away from the body of the building like a ripped piece of cardboard. Some of these huge, very solid buildings have a whole half, or quarter, or corner or front ripped away with the shreds of steel framework hanging out in raveled fashion as if God came by on the dead run and just gave them a mighty clout in passing. Many of them stink in unholy fashion from the corpses that still lie buried in the rubble. In one I went into there was a Japanese who apparently had an argument with a hand grenade. The grenade won. Half the Japanese was in one corner of a room, half in another.

After surveying the city for several weeks I don’t believe I saw one building of any size that had not suffered bomb damage to some degree. Many of them stood up quite well under it but most of the foundations have been so badly shaken that probably the only safe thing to do is tear them the rest of the way down and rebuild from the ground up. I would say that goes for most of the big government buildings, all very ornate and probably very expensive. The Filipinos are going to need plenty of money if they expect to put Manila back on its feet.

Amid this frightful wreckage Filipino businessmen carry on in whatever fashion they can. Between cheap lumber and galvanized tin they have slapped together a lot of makeshift shops in which they do a thriving business with souvenir-hunting GIs. I hear the rents for these shacks are just as high as they were for the former concrete buildings, the ruins of which they squat on. I can believe it when I think of  the prices being asked. Inflation has really come to the Philippines, induced as much by the spendthrift ways of soldiers as by the lack of consumer goods.

A meal poor in quality and from which you may well get food poisoning will cost you about $7.50. What the Filipinos laughingly call a banana split, made of poisonous ice cream, is $1.50. A piece of moldy pie is 75¢ or $1. Bananas which used to sell for a centavo are now seven for a peso. (The peso being worth 50¢ US). You have to go out to the barrios to get food you can trust at prices which you can reasonably afford.

The liquor is nearly as bad as that of Shanghai where a few GIs have already been killed by it. A bunch have died or been seriously ill here but they don’t publicize it as they do in Shanghai. The Filipinos sell and serve what they are pleased to call bourbon, scotch, gin and rum, all made in Manila and all but the gin bearing no resemblance in appearance or flavor to what you usually associate with those types of liquor. They invent brand names which approximate Stateside brand names on the assumption that it will entice GIs to buy; we have Four Feathers, Ancient Barrel, White House, Three Roses, Four Crown, Giblet’s, London Dry, etc. All of them, without exception, taste about like ethyl gasoline and are capable of taking the top of your head off if you don’t die.

The Army analyzed the local brands, then posted a list of those found lethal or definitely impure. Among the contents of some were found methyl alcohol (a strong poison), human urine, parts of desiccated insects, and a few other choice items. One of the most deadly brands was called “Golden Gate,” so now a cafe of the same name boasts a large sign saying, “We are proud and happy to inform our customers that the Golden Gate Cafe has no connection in any way with the makers of Golden Gate whisky.” This rotgut sells for from 8 to 20 pesos a bottle, too. The soft drinks peddled in the streets are equally suspect as to purity, and it is tough to look at those bottles’ icing and be afraid to drink them. Those who do have regretted it so most soldiers keep their money in their wallets. I’m sorry to say that they do this because of the danger of poison rather than because they object to the outrageous prices demanded.

The Filipinos themselves are a very pleasant people and easy to get along with. All of them profess unshaken faith throughout the occupation that we would eventually return to drive out the Japanese. They seem to like Americans despite our loose ways with Filipino women and our general rudeness to Filipino men. Partly this is because we spend our money and they get some of it and partly it is because of such things as the presentation of three and a half years back pay to all the civilian employees of the army installations which were here at the time of Pearl Harbor. They are very respectful, very generous, very polite, and very sincere and naive. The men grow their hair long and grease it as they do Stateside; the women disdain brassieres which is apt to lead to a pendulous quality to their figures as they age.

Manila is surrounded by literally hundreds of army units of every possible type, most of them housed in tents located in the middle of either dust bowls or seas of gumbo mud. The highways, streets and alleys of the city have been pounded to powder by the GI vehicular traffic and are constantly undergoing repair. According to the Provost Marshal’s official figures, there are 138,000 military vehicles in Manila besides 8,000 civilian cars, busses and taxis. Filipino busses are usually Stateside cars which had reached their last stages of decrepitude before being sold to the Japanese for scrap iron. Somehow, instead of being melted down as scrap, they seemed to turn up in Manila where the Filipinos proceed to put another 75,000 miles on their sagging frames.

Standard equipment on a Filipino bus is at least one flat, sprung frame, a crystallized axle and the inevitable plume of steam rising from the ever-boiling radiator. The one new thing about many of them is the tires, which I will discuss shortly, when I get to the black market. These busses are always so overloaded that the conductor climbs around the outside of the vehicle grabbing a handhold where he can and always in imminent danger of slipping off and being crushed by the oncoming traffic.

It is the GI traffic that is the problem in Manila, however. It fills the streets nearly bumper to bumper all day and all night. Every type of wheeled vehicle the army has is present here in large number; in fact one night I hitched a ride down Taft Avenue, one of the main streets, on a caterpillar tractor. When these thousands of vehicles are not choking the traffic arteries on official business, they are choking them on after-duty recreational trips. For it is standard practice here to assign the vehicles out at night to any GI who can get one for recreational use. He is given a full gas tank, authorized to go where he will and also permitted to carry a civilian female with him. As a result, at night 10,000 vehicles will pass you with joyriding GIs and their Filipino girlfriends. No man can get a girl who hasn’t got a vehicle, but then practically all of them have one so it works out satisfactorily.

Naturally, since nearly every officer is assigned his own jeep, they tend to pick up the cream of the women. The WACs, the Army nurses, the Red Cross girls and the prettiest Filipinos are pretty much monopolized by the brass. Women being practical here as well as elsewhere in the world go for more money and better transportation. Also only officers are usually dumb enough to pay $1.50 for a questionable Tom Collins and $1 a shot for rotgut whisky. (As a passing thought, I have discovered that all Filipinos were guerrillas during the late unpleasantness just like all Irishmen are descended from the kings of Ireland.)

This is one place where, if the Army wanted to, it could crack down on the black market 100%. There is no problem of proving that a Filipino came by an article illegally: if he has it in his possession he had to come by it through the black market because there have been no civilian sources of supply here for years and a few civilian consumer goods are only now beginning to trickle in on freighters from the US. All those tires I mentioned above are obviously stolen from quartermaster stores by the GIs and sold to the Filipinos, but apparently the Army prefers to wink at it and keep Filipino transportation rolling.

The black market provides civilian entrepreneurs with camera film, canned beer, coca cola, parachute silk for dresses, GI clothing of all kinds, blankets, cigarettes, canned rations, all types of canned foods, GI shoes and boots, watches, lighters, fountain pens, gasoline, auto parts, radios, furniture and probably hundreds of other items. These items are all purchased at high prices from GI thieves and then re-sold at much higher prices to honest but gullible soldiers, or Filipinos who need food and clothing. It is my impression that the Filipinos by and large are individually very honest and not given to stealing, but they need so many things that they are eager to buy regardless of source.  And the average enterprising American soldier considers an army supply warehouse just a god-given opportunity to demonstrate his business acumen.

Soldier entertainment here is something that is carried on in relentless fashion. On any given night there are dozens of stage shows, movies, dances, quiz contests, bingo games, sports events and discussion groups going on simultaneously at installations all over the Manila area. The multiplicity of these determined attempts to entertain the bored soldier is so confusing and the choice among them so difficult to arrive at that I usually solve the problem by creeping into my sack and ignoring the whole thing. I suspect Special Service’s motto is “Entertain the Hell Out of Them.”

The American Red Cross, which, so far as soldiers are concerned, has usually been a jerk outfit in the States, is doing a very good job over here. They operate several large clubs (one of them formerly Manila’s swankiest nightclub, the Jai Alai, now called the Roosevelt Club, doubtless in honor of the late Theodore Roosevelt). Besides offering free sandwiches, cookies, doughnuts, coffee and soft drinks to all comers, these clubs have game rooms, music rooms, lecture rooms, reading rooms, party rooms, and of course men’s rooms, which are very handy, especially in downtown Manila where gas stations are not to be found on every corner.

Between the bars, the pom-pom houses (kitty, to you), the night clubs (with their $3 cover charges), the enormous service clubs, the heavy vehicular traffic and the heavy pedestrian traffic, every night is carnival night in Manila. When you add to this a humidity which keeps you bathed in your own sweat most of the time you can see why sometimes the city is just a little too tough to face and a man stays home and relaxes on a nice quiet airbase with nothing but C-45s an C-54s buzzing the barracks roof to break the quiet of the night.

Manila supports a quite respectable symphony conducted by an Austrian refugee named Herbert Zipper, an autocratic, Rathbone-ish type who compels good music from his players on the threat of impaling them upon his baton. He was an undercover agent for the guerrillas during the occupation. It is fascinating to watch his athletic conducting on a really hot night when the sweat, at regular intervals, courses down his aquiline nose, pauses on the sharp tip then splashes onto the podium. Each concert is repeated eight times in two weeks so that all who wish to may attend, so you can see that there are plenty of GI music lovers around; in fact, a dozen or so of the symphony orchestra’s musicians are GIs.

Everyone smokes at Dr. Zipper’s concerts, why I don’t know, but it seems to be the custom. The concerts are given in a Chinese theater in the heart of Chinatown which was the only legitimate theater not demolished by the war. Its walls are hung with heavy black crepe so that it looks like a shroud factory and noisy, ancient electric fans whir constantly throughout the performances. Chinese boys trot up and down the aisles peddling poisonous soft drinks and water ices. Despite all this, Dr. Zipper perseveres and produces a quite acceptable product from his musicians who range from middle-aged Chinese to Filipino boys in knee pants. Frankenstein would love to see a symphony so well supported; at the end of this week the orchestra will give its 80th performance of the current series.

The shipping snafu at the Manila port has been pretty awful but is improving now. When we arrived the harbor was clogged with shipping, both on the surface and on the bottom. There were, conservatively, about 150 ships riding at anchor. The pier facilities had been thoroughly smashed so that they were unusable. The Seabees supplied several of those floating docks to which incoming ships are now moored. Some ships get in after a few days, others lay over for weeks awaiting their turn. It depends naturally on their cargoes, and many are just used as floating warehouses. But it irks prospective returnees who are told there is no shipping to take them home to see a harborful of it gathering barnacles. 

At the moment, high point men are moving out fairly fast and most of the 75-85 pointers have embarked. You have to keep in mind that the 60 point level for discharge which prevails in the States means nothing over here, where everything is dependent upon shipping and your points might as well be potted plants.

Evidences of the infrastructure remain, aside from the practically complete ruin of the city. The electric system is wrecked so that the city is without lights, and the trolley poles and wires have been destroyed along with the cars so that it would be without streetcars even if it had juice. The water system has been so wrecked that water is rationed part of the time by the simple expedient of turning it off occasionally. This usually happens in the middle of a shave in cold water or rather tepid water, because a drink of cold water is something when you happen to have some clean ice.

The outskirts of the city are speckled with shattered Japanese Zeroes, many with the meatball still showing on the crumpled wings, but most of them have been badly hacked up by souvenir hunters and artisans who make metal gadgets out of the plane parts. A few mines are still scattered about and it is unwise to wander off beaten paths too far; a few are detonated every day or so by cautious engineers and a few by careless Filipinos who seldom survive the experience. Just a week ago a Japanese soldier wandered in out of a cave in the hills a few miles away and was happy to surrender upon hearing the war was over.

General Yamashita (accent heavily on the second syllable, I’ve learned) continues to sit blandly in court day after day as his trial continues and indignant Filipino witnesses shriek curses at him from the stand. Between sessions he stands and poses, smiling broadly, for camera-carrying GIs who attend the sessions. The courtroom doors open about 10 and wise folk arrive at about 6am to be sure of a seat.

The thermometer registering traffic deaths in Manila from GI accidents continues to rise:  190 since May. Thousands of traffic violators are hauled in by the MPs each day and given quick trials in Bilibid prison. But for the most part the MPs give you no trouble. No passes are required here to get on or off a post, and no uniform regulations are enforced so that men wander around in just about any costume including fatigues, most of them hatless because of the heat. The mud continues incredible when it rains and I have been sitting in a jeep on the edge of a road when the shoulder just gave way and the jeep and I slowly oozed into the ditch. Thunder and vivid displays of big, big lightning are nightly occurrences, as is the clatter of empty beer cans which the men hurl the length of the barracks after draining them.

The arrival of a batch of Stateside magazines excites the men as they begin the eager search for late copies of their favorite comic books, the most widely read literature in the army. You carefully unroll and tuck in the mosquito netting at night, and as carefully roll it up in the morning. You methodically dip your mess kit in boiling water each time you use it, to ward off attacks of diarrhea. The wise man, ever prepared against the evening when some passionate wench may twist his arm and bend him to her will, carries a pro-kit. We now have Saturday afternoons off. I have not saluted a single officer since leaving Camp Stoneman on the 18th of September, and no one says “Sir” to anyone under the rank of full colonel and sometimes not even to them. Every man does as little as possible, goofs off as much as possible, keeps out of the sun, dries carefully between his toes to defeat fungi, gets plenty of sack time and dreams about getting back home to the old job. We included. 


(Gordon Pates was born in San Francisco, raised in Alameda and graduated from the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1939. In that same year he started as a copy boy for the San Francisco Chronicle. From July 1942 until February of 1946, he was with the Special Services Branch of the US Army, staying in the Philippines until he was discharged in 1946. He returned to the Chronicle and was actively responsible for the exciting paper that was mandatory reading for so many people in the Bay Area during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. 38 years after he started as copy boy he found himself Editor. Pates retired in February 1979. The Chronicle has gone downhill ever since.)

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