When I was a child, tatay, my grandfather, used to drop snippets of his time as a guerrilla soldier during World War II. I was too young, and uninterested to ever really hear.
He’s dead now, and though I still am largely uninterested in the details of war, I regret forgetting practically all his musings, for I am now largely interested in the history and culture of my country.
I’ve discovered a renewed passion, it seems, for home, thanks to my readings and travels.
If tatay were still alive, he will very likely wish to tell me about gun battles, ambushes, running for cover, comrades slain, and enemies killed. But I just read this book, Code Name High Pockets, which is about the true stories of ordinary and not-so-ordinary men and women involved in the resistance movement in the Philippines during WWII; under threat of torture, death, and worse from the Kempetai, interrogation officers of the Japanese army, they gave bread to starving prisoners of wars, delivered food, medicine, and messages to guerrillas hiding in the mountains, and helped friends and neighbors survive that hellish time.
Reading the book was also hellish for me; the author, Edna Bautista Binkowski, had this disconcerting ability to make those times real for this reader. She added names to dates, gave faces to participants, and made people out of historical figures. She told me their stories, pulled me into their lives, and kept me with them as they met horrific deaths, in the prison camps, during the Bataan Death March, or the foul dungeons of Fort Santiago.
One of those who played an important role in the war was Claire Phillips, an American who established an exclusive club in Manila for Japanese officers and affluent Japanese businessmen. She used her club to gather information and make money for the underground as well as guerrilla movement.
High Pockets is her story, but so is it also the stories of so many others: Filipinos, Americans, Spaniards, guerillas, nurses, businessmen, housewives, city folk, villagers… Most were leading quiet lives, until the war forced them to discover they were capable of great compassion, unimaginable hardships, and incredible heroism.
That there were so many of them was the highest and lowest point of the book, for I found it difficult to keep track of so many names across the pages. The pictures, black and white photographs that must have taken ages to find in the attics and trunks of these people’s sons and daughters, helped, but also gave me faces to dream about during the intense week reading from cover to cover.
Now, I’m thinking, if tatay were still alive, and if I were to listen, he would tell me about himself, his friends, his loved ones who lived and died, trying to make sense of the horror, or trying to do the best they could in the face of humanity’s worst.
Having read High Pockets, I am aware more than I care to of humanity’s best and worst, as it contains graphic accounts of the rape, mutilation, torture, and execution committed by the Japanese army on this land. It was war, for which demons and monsters had the right of might, and angels could only tread lightly.
On the title page, this is written: A legacy to the young ones, so that they may understand what the old ones had sacrificed.
I’m sorry I was too young, and tatay died before he found in his grandchildren the heart to know what he had sacrificed. But I’m glad that I have access to books such as High Pockets, and the willingness to read them, for though I know the value of forgiveness, I realize, upon reading this book, that it may not be such a good idea to forget—we may just repeat the unforgivable if we do.
I read High Pockets for my book club’s monthly reading challenge. The challenge in May was to read a book about Philippine history. I figure a book about an American Mata Hari in Manila would be an exciting read. I didn’t reckon that I would be stunned out of forgetfulness into awe, and sadness. ‘After the war, where did the heroes, who survived, go?’ we should ask ourselves, and try to find out. I bet stories of their struggles after the war are more tragic, and unrewarding, than their time fighting for freedom, in a time where everyone is busy forgetting.
Someday, not yet, I will read those stories. I am not as brave as Claire Phillips (alias High Pockets), Naomi Flores (alias Looter), or Nurse Josefa Hilado. I can only take hellish a bit at a time.
For now, I would like to suggest to the book’s author and publisher to invest in additional editing for the book. Though well written, it had numerous grammatical errors, and could do with some ruthless cutting of details.