by Elizabeth Darling
Ann Depew, a 19-year-old American living in the Philippines, had been a civilian prisoner of the Japanese for three years when her liberators noisily arrived. Depew's eyes well up with tears at the memory of that morning more than 50 years ago. She was inside the grass shanty she shared with her parents in a Manila internment camp when she heard the sound of a plane overhead.
"An American plane flew over low and dropped a package into the patio," she said. The package contained a pair of binoculars and a note. "It said, 'Roll out the barrel, it's gonna be a hot time in the old town tonight.'"
Then three tanks crashed through the gate of the camp, which was on the campus of Santo Tomas University in Manila. "I went running out in my pajamas," she recalled. The tanks, part of an American platoon, fought the Battle of Manila from the university, she said.
"They burned Manila around us," she said. "It was living in the middle of hell. They shelled the buildings."
The battle went on for a month. There were 18 counterattacks, and blasts "blew holes in the back wall." Those holes became a blessing for people on the outside of the camp. "I can't bear to waste food," she said. "I took leftover food and handed it through the blown hole in the wall. I handed food to children."
The platoon brought a pile of "C rations" with them. Depew still has a scar on her left hand from opening C ration cans.
When victory was declared and the camp was liberated, Gen. Douglas MacArthur arrived to raise a flag on the main building. The former prisoners sang "God Bless America," she said.
Depew and her family boarded a troop transport boat bound for California. After a 40-day crossing, they landed in San Pedro near San Diego. "The Red Cross gave us $150," she said. "I bought a three-piece suit and a blue blouse, and had my hair washed."
The family's ordeal had begun 37 months earlier. Depew, born in the United States, had moved to the Philippines with her mother when she was 3 years old. Her mother had decided to come live with her brother on a sugar plantation on a Philippine island. Depew grew up there and was sent to a prestigious boarding school in the mountains north of Manila when she was teen-ager. Dwight Eisenhower's son also attended the school.
Depew was at the school two days after Christmas, 1941. Just 20 days earlier, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. She and all the other students and teachers knew the Japanese soldiers would be there soon. They just didn't know when.
"We decided the best thing to do would be if everyone could gather in one place," she said. "They came and took us in the middle of the night."
Some scouts saw the troops coming up the hill first. Inside, Depew said, "We heard their hobnail boots. They smelled terrible because they were covered with mud and camouflage.
"We were scared to death. They kept us up all night with (their) machine guns (pointed at us). We were really scared. We had heard they weren't going to take prisoners. They were going to kill us all."
This was the beginning of an ordeal for Depew and her parents and the thousands of other Americans in the Philippines who would be forced to leave their homes to live in a series of internment camps. Depew and her parents were separated for the first 18 months, and later reunited at the Santo Tomas University camp in Manila.
The night Depew was captured, the Japanese soldiers told the group "we could go back to our dorms and get whatever we could hold in one suitcase," Depew recalled. She took clothes, pictures of her family (her parents were on another Philippine island) and some candy.
The young and strong walked to Camp Jonhay, and the elderly were taken by truck. They stayed in barracks on the floor, "with mattresses if we could get them," she said. "There wasn't much room. We had no water for a day or so.
"They said we had been bad and we were imperialists," she said. Eventually, the group was taken to another camp, Camp Holmes.
Meanwhile, on a nearby island, Depew's parents also "knew (the Japanese) were coming. They took the most valuable things and buried them and fled to the mountains."
For more than a year, the family communicated only by letter, until finally the Japanese allowed Depew and the others to move to Santo Tomas. "When they sent us from (the camp) down to Manila, we came in a truck with an open back," she said. They drove inside the gate, and Depew saw her parents. "I couldn't stop crying."
"The Japanese who were guarding allowed the Americans to organize their own camp," she said. "Everyone had a job to do. I went to school. I learned Japanese. In the afternoons, I took care of little children."
Camp life involved lots of chores, and it got more difficult as time went on. "We spent an awful lot of time in chow lines." At the beginning, Filipinos came into camp and sold produce. "Then (that) got scarce and people got hungrier and hungrier.
"The last year was pretty bad," she said. "We were sent Red Cross packages, but the Japanese wouldn't let them in. We were eating bark. That made your mouth pucker," she said with a wry smile. Desperately hungry, Ann and the others ate anything, including "rice sweepings with maggots in it. It didn't taste like anything, and it was protein. Everything moving in Manila got eaten," she said.
Before they finally left the Philippines, Depew and her parents went back to their home and discovered that Japanese had lived there during the war. But not all was lost. "Dad found stuff buried in the ground," she said, referring to the valuables her parents had buried before they were taken to camp. She still has several items, including an ornately carved wooden trunk which had stood outside for more than three years.
Today, the Barron Park home Depew shares with her husband Herb is full of lovely carved Filipino artwork, including a wooden water buffalo, some wall hangings and furniture. The objects carry lots of pre-war memories for Depew--memories of the 12 years she lived with her mother and aunts and uncles on a sugar plantation.
Now a community volunteer involved in the Neighbors Abroad sister city program, Depew travels often with her husband to Africa, Europe, Asia as well as a recent trip to New Mexico. They also love to spend time with their four children, their grandchildren and their vegetable garden.
Today, Depew has been able to put even the worst wartime memories to rest.
"In a way, those hardships left me with a sense of what real freedom means and an appreciation of all the good and wonderful things there are to enjoy in this life," she said. "I want to cry when I encounter hungry or homeless people because I know how terrible it is."
In 1984, she went to Japan to make peace with what happened to her. "I just get so mad at governments for doing things," she said. "I was ambivalent about the Japanese until I went to Japan and saw a soldier sitting on the sidewalk with one leg gone. Any bitterness I had just went away."
"In a way, those hardships left me with a sense of what real freedom means and an appreciation of all the good and wonderful things there are to enjoy in this life."
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