Visiting a war memorial for the 143 World War 2 American POW who were burned alive in Plaza Cuartel, Puerto Princesa, Palawan Island, Philippines was among the most significant of the heritage tours cum battlefield tours that this history buff have had undertaken so far.
I was busy scouring the net prior to my visit to Puerto Princesa City, Palawan for a study tour with cooperative leaders in Mindanao Island in search for natural and man-made attractions of the city in a forest worthy of a visit. In the course of my research, I stumbled upon the story of a war memorial erected at a former site of a Japanese garrison in Plaza Cuartel where American prisoners of war were burned alive inside a tunnel in the concluding days of World War II. Candidly, I was horrified with the accounts about an estimated 150 men in the Army, Navy and Marines who were interned at Palawan at the time of the massacre, wherein, only 11 are thought to have escaped.
The most vivid story about the Palawan Massacre that sent shivers down my spine was told by a survivor Eugene Nielsen of Ogden, Utah in an interview with Bruce Lieberman, Staff Writer of The San Diego Union-Tribune dated Monday, August 30, 1989 as posted in the website of another survivor Don Schloat:
. . .By late 1944, half the men at Palawan had been transferred to other camps, leaving 150 POWs to complete the airfield in December. American bombers were attacking the island, sending the Americans and their Japanese guards running into crude air-raid shelters.
On the morning of December 14, Nielsen said, the Japanese guards were unusually quiet, standing idly as the Americans filled bomb craters on the runway.
At about noon, the Americans were taken back to camp. Nielsen remembers seeing two American P-38 fighter planes circle overhead and fly on. The Japanese yelled at the men to get into the shelters.
About 30 inches wide, 40 inches deep and 50 feet long, the earthen shelters were covered with planks of wood, and each had one entryway and one exit. Only one man could enter or leave at a time. Each shelter held about 50 men.
Nielsen worked his way toward the far end of one shelter and peered outside. He saw guards carrying 5-gallon cans of gasoline toward the shelters and Japanese officers holding rifles. Pandemonium followed as the Japanese poured gasoline into the shelters and lit an inferno. They then tossed grenades inside, following the explosions with machine-gun fire. Most of the men who escaped the shelters immediately were shot or impaled with bayonets. . .
Luckily, then 27-year-old private first class Eugene Nielsen of the US Army 59th Coast Artillery was able to survive the massacre by jumping over the barbed-wire fence and dived through, tumbling down the cliff that dropped 40 feet to the beach breaking his fall by grabbing a tree branch, hiding in the small cove, swimming frantically for 8 miles in the night amidst the pain and agony caused by his bullet wounds in the leg, ribs and temple until he reached the other side of Honda Bay where he, together with other survivors, was shepherded by Filipino guerillas until they were picked and flown to freedom by American troops.
When the day of our Puerto Princesa City Tour came, I was insisting to the tour guide that we must have to drop by the war memorial at Plaza Cuartel. Nevertheless,the guide refused to budge in as it was not included in the itinerary. Candidly, I got mad at the staff who arranged the tour for the blatant lack of interest in history but I preferred to just kept my cool. Hence, while I enjoyed the other sites that we visited which would be the subject of my future posts, a visit to the said war memorial myself was really my target before I and my fellow cooperative leaders would head back to our respective home provinces.
While my companions were still sleeping soundly courtesy of the exhaustive whole-day Palawan Tour, I sneaked out of the hotel room as early as 4:30 in the morning to materialize my travel plan. I headed towards the bay walk to savor the beauty and take pictures of the place. Afterwards, I walked towards the direction of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. Across the street, this site had greeted my eyes…
I really waxed nostalgic as I was reading this historical marker at the gate side . . .
Compounded by the fact that I was the only person in the place during that early morning, an inexplicable feeling of uneasiness engulfed in me that sent a chill up my spine and caused the shrinkage of my hair follicles as I passed through the gate and slogged on this concrete pathway…
Amidst an eerie atmosphere, I slogged on and on until I reached this war memorial . . .
Standing in front of the war memorial, a scene had flashed in my mind depicting the ignition of the tunnel, a swoosh filled with agonizing wails of despair and piteous pleas for help as well as the rush of flames that consumed and ended the youth of the soldiers. I then said to myself. . .What a brutal act of war indeed!
As my senses returned to normal, I made a close look at the first marker . . .
And then turned my attention to the second marker . . .
I then focused my sight at the two sides of the war memorial . . .
Not only that I appreciated the act of erecting a war memorial at Plaza Cuartel but I really admire the artistic prowess of survivor Don Schloat as shown in his creation of a man in flames striving to break the chains standing on top of the Palawan Massacre Monument. . .
I left the war memorial harboring a bitter feeling of war atrocities. Nevertheless, thanks to the soothing effect of this tiny man-made waterfall and fountain within the vicinity of a miniature bridge at a corner of Plaza Cuartel compound that my composure quickly went back to normal. . .
As children and teens started to arrive at Plaza Cuartel, I decided to take a video shoot of the whole compound so you can fully appreciate the site as it still wanting the historical recognition it so deserves . . .
War Memorial – Final Thoughts
A war memorial is built not to glorify war, but to honor those who have died. It may also serve as focal point of increasing understanding between the former protagonists. In Plaza Cuartel at Palawan, the war memorial is standing proud, eager to welcome visiting history buffs like you. It is my fervent hope that the Palawan war memorial would serve as a grim reminder for mankind not to forget the past to ensure that we would not be condemned to repeat it.