Over the past summer I set foot in a place I never thought I would go, the Philippines. Specifically, I went to the city of Manila. My grandfather thought that it would be a unique experience for his family. Little did I know, the story behind the Philippines ultimately shaped my grandfather into who he is today.
We boarded the plane and I was already dreading the 15-hour flight into the city. After two movies and some homework, we were in the Philippines. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Poverty was everywhere you looked, and the houses were built with trash and anything else that people could salvage. Most of the people looked so poor, but they were happy and friendly. I couldn’t believe that my grandpa brought my uncle, my cousins Ben and Jack, my dad and I to this country.
The next day we woke up, ate breakfast and hopped on a bus to go site seeing. The first stop was the University of Santo Tomas. When we arrived at the University we all got out of the bus and walked to the front gate. My grandpa looked at the gate, and with a croak in his throat he said, “Matthew, this is where I grew up.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My grandpa growing up in the Philippines was the last thing that I thought this trip would be about. After walking through the University a little longer the stories of his time here started and grew more interesting and happy along the way.
His story began at the young age of two, he and his parents left the United States to find a new life in Manila, Philippines. While in the new city, the Barnett Family was blessed with Grandpa’s younger brother, David. Life for the two boys was blissful. They went to school, played in open fields, had many other kids around, and they lived together in harmony. In late 1941, this all changed when the Japanese started their invasion of the Philippines. The bombs caused the earth to shake and displaced his family from their home. During the invasion, the Japanese were relentlessly bombing Manila and surrounding cities. Nichols Field, an American base near Grandpa’s home, was constantly targeted.
The Barnett family stood on the streets of Manila as they watched thousands of Japanese soldiers parade into the city. At first, it seemed as though everything was going to be somewhat normal with the new occupiers of the Philippines. However, this quickly changed after a few weeks and it was apparent that life would never be the same. The Japanese soldiers were everywhere; taking over homes, hotels, and businesses while displacing Philippinos, Americans, and any other foreign civilians who lived or worked in Manila. The soldiers occupied the air, the streets, and took over every aspect of their daily lives. Grandpa was forced to live in several abandoned houses with his mother, and brother David. His father, Stuart Barnett, was taken from the family and forced to live in a holding cell at what would become the place they would all live together for three and half years.
Shortly after the invasion, Japanese soldiers began rounding all the foreign civilians up, including the Barnett family, and forced them to the University of Santo Tomas. The university was converted to a civilian prisoner camp for mostly the Americans who were caught in Manila during the invasion. The terror rushing through Grandpa’s body when he and his family entered the camp was too much to bear. The small, four-year old boy was confused of his whereabouts and what was happening around him.
Soon, every American and foreign civilian was interned in the prisoner camp at the university, which not equipped to meet the needs of over three thousand people forced to live in the confines of the university. Nothing was sanitary, from the restrooms, showers and eating corridors. Eventually, Grandpa and many other people began to acquire the common sicknesses of measles, mumps, chickenpox, and the whooping cough. After a few months, some of the wealthy civilians were allowed to live outside the main building of the university and build their own shanties so they could be together with their families. Grandpa’s family was lucky enough to be afforded this luxury as he was allowed to live with his mother and brother. Stuart was not allowed to live in the shanty but they were able to see him often. Grandpa felt alone at four years of age but was one of the lucky ones to be able to be with his mother, brother, and regularly see his father.
The Barnett’s were now officially in a prison, with two young children. While his mother and brother were agonizing, getting sick, and working around the shanty, Grandpa’s father, Stuart, had the job of a drug procurer for the civilians in the camp. This allowed him to go outside the camp and into Manila to secure medicines the civilians in the camp needed. He would gather medicines, with armed Japanese guards by his side.
However, Stuart was getting more than medicines. Grandpa discovered his father was somehow able to smuggled in news transcripts about the war into the prison camp. Eventually, the Japanese discovered who was smuggling the news into the camp and came looking for Stuart. One night, Japanese soldiers came to their shanty knocking down the door of the Barnett’s family shanty. They ripped the place apart and discovered news transcripts about the war. Grandpa saw the soldiers taking Stuart away and placing him in the interrogation room of the prisoner camp in the main building. Grandpa could not stand the thought racing through his head of what the soldiers were going to do to his father.
Later that evening, Grandpa left the shanty and snuck into the main building standing outside the interrogating room. Grandpa whispered, “Dad . . . are you in there.” His father replied, “Yeah Larry, I’m here. Everything is going to be fine. Now go home and tell your mother everything is going to be fine.”
“Ok Dad,” Grandpa said. Grandpa dutifully went back to the shanty and informed his mother that everything was going to be fine. Unfortunately, the next day Stuart was gone. For the rest of the war Grandpa was without a father. The news around the camp was that Stuart was taken to another prison where the Japanese soldiers murdered him as punishment for him distributing news about the war inside the prisoner camp. Grandpa was devastated as he had to continue to endure the horror of the prisoner camp without his father. Now being the oldest male of the family, he felt a responsibility to care for his mother and brother the best he could despite only being six years old. The war continued on for many more months but the prisoners always had hope that one day they would be rescued.
As the Americans started to show they would return to Manila, life in the prisoner camp became even more difficult. Prisoners were regularly dying from disease and malnourishment. The supplies afforded to the prisoners were significantly reduced. But American planes were starting to be seen more often as time went on.
In early 1945, an American B-17 bomber came flying over the camp and was hit by flak causing smoke to stream out the back of the plane. Grandpa sprinted towards his shanty to avoid being hit by the falling debris. Before the plane crashed, three people parachuted from the plane and where falling to the ground. Gunshots rang out, and all the prisoners took cover. The Japanese soldiers were going towards the three men, not worried about Grandpa, to kill the people from the plane. To this day, Grandpa still does not know if those men survived, but he was thankful for their efforts in trying to save the prisoners in the camp.
“ZEROS!,” Grandpa screamed after two other planes went overhead, almost hitting the heads of every prisoner in its path. The smoke out of those planes was different, Grandpa observed. Grandpa recognized the musty smog from the planes he was all too familiar with watching planes land and take off from Nichols field by his former home. To him, the planes appeared to be American and he noticed the planes having an American flag on them. At last, Grandpa started to believe he and his family might actually get out of the camp alive. Despite the horrible conditions and death all around them, the prisoners continued to have hope that one day they would be saved.
Finally, the day of February 3, 1945 arrived. Grandpa was seven years old at this point, and had lived inside the camp for over three years. Grandpa routinely spent some time during the day near what used to be the softball fields of the university, but this day felt different. He remained near his shanty. All of a sudden, the sky lit up with blue and green flares all around. He heard the engine of a monster behind him. He turned around facing the front gate of the camp to see what that sound could possibly be and saw the most exciting thing of his life. A tank tore through the wall surrounding the camp near the front gate. He saw soldiers followed behind the enormous tank as bullets ricocheted every which way. Grandpa, standing only thirty yards away and without hesitation, dove to the ground and buried himself in a ditch to avoid the bullets. After he found a window of safety, Grandpa ran to his shanty to get his mother and brother. When he arrived at the shanty, he was kept safe by his infuriated, but relieved mother.
The American soldiers had almost taken over the prisoner camp. However, the fighting continued for many hours. Eventually, the American soldiers were able to rid the camp of the Japanese soldiers and Grandpa and his family was free.
Unfortunately, the joy did not last very long. The Japanese began shooting mortar shells at the camp, which lasted for days on end. Grandpa and his family ran towards the main building, with the whistling of mortar shells and bullets in the background. One whistle was coming so close, Grandpa’s mother realized it would probably hit them. She pushed her kids into a ditch, jumped on top of Grandpa and his brother to protect them from the explosion. The mortar exploded but the shrapnel went over them because it did not land in the ditch. They were covered in dirt from the blast but survived. The shelling went on for days and the shelling despite being liberated killed some prisoners. Fortunately, the Barnett family survived.
After the liberation of prisoner camp and Manila, Grandpa continued to live in the camp with his brother and mother. The American soldiers made sure the civilians they rescued were well fed, clothed, and provided what they needed.
One day, Grandpa was walking out of the main building of the camp walking towards the front gate where the tank came through to liberate the camp. While looking at the damaged fence line, he saw a figure walking towards him. He could not tell who it was but the figure kept getting closer and closer to him. Soon, Grandpa realized the man walking towards him as someone he knew, “Dad?” he yelled. Sure enough it was Stuart. He ran to him and hugged him as hard as he could. Soon his mother and little brother joined him. Crying in happiness, they jumped into each-others’ arms demonstrating complete joy. The war was over and somehow all four of the Barnett’s survived.
I was speechless, from what I heard. The stories grandpa told, were the most vivid images I have ever created in my mind. I couldn’t believe that my kind and generous grandfather, was interned in this prison camp. I couldn’t believe that I was even alive, because if my grandpa didn’t survive that camp, the Barnett family would not exist. We are all forever in the debt of the four brave Barnett’s.
Photo Credit: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2012/05/26/article-0-13364FFB000005DC-963_964x601.jpg