Laughter in a Funeral Parlor, Part 1 of 2

If you were between the ages fifteen and sixty-five anytime from July 1942 to July 1944, pretty much anywhere within the United States, then there’s a good chance you’ve witnessed my grandfather at the podium. These were the years he passionately campaigned for the liberation of our homeland, then occupied by the Japanese military, rallying the sympathy of scores of Americans along the way.

His backbreaking, voice-obliterating speaking tour took him across more than 143,000 kilometers, mostly by train, and to 466 cities.1 With faultless elocution and dramatic flair, he quickly became, as The New Yorker described him, “the hottest thing to hit the American lecture platforms.”2 He spoke everywhere, often accepting multiple engagements in a single day—from factories to college graduations and school assemblies; from medical societies to Rotary clubs and women’s clubs. He addressed Latin American students in Spanish, warmed up audiences with jokes, helped raise war bonds in several rallies—whatever it took to prick people’s ears and make them listen.

For two years Colonel Romulo tirelessly served as the voice of the Philippines, bringing the plight of his war-torn nation to the attention of regular Americans, the majority of who had barely heard about Bataan until two years after its fall. Photo from The Rotarian, June 1995.

For two years Colonel Romulo tirelessly served as the voice of the Philippines, bringing the plight of his war-torn nation to the attention of regular Americans, the majority of who had barely heard about Bataan until two years after its fall. Photo from The Rotarian, June 1995.

By the time I went to school in the United States, forty years had gone by, but people still remembered him. “You’re a Romulo,” they’d say upon meeting me. “Romulo from the Philippines?” I’d nod yes, and they’d go on, “A Colonel Romulo came to my school. . . . Are you related?”

Over the years I’ve come across countless individuals upon whom he’d made a lasting impression, a testament to his brilliance as an orator. “Several times the audience has carried him out of the auditorium on its shoulders,” reported The New Yorker, “and he has been kissed on the cheek by more clubwomen than he can remember.”

A champion debater since he was a teenager, Lolo also acted in school plays in high school and college. His experience on stage, along with his sincerity and passion, might have accounted for his ability to captivate audiences on an emotional level. So popular was he as a guest speaker during the war that he earned the unique distinction of having tripled his lecture fees in a single season.3

He spoke on behalf of the tens of thousands of soldiers—both Filipino and American—who fought for the American flag and now languished in internment camps as prisoners of war. His standard lectures “I Saw Bataan Fall” and “Last Man Off Bataan” vividly depicted wartime Philippines: the carnage, the months of pitch battles, and the dire lack of supplies.

Remember that during the battle for Bataan, water, food, medicine, and artillery had dwindled to nearly nothing, and outside reinforcements never came. Recall that President Roosevelt had decided to concentrate US power against Hitler, and that it was not until 1944 that the general public found out about Bataan, Corregidor, and the Death March, when the first reports were released by the US government. Recall that MacArthur had retreated, leaving behind his troops in the Philippines on Roosevelt’s orders, but had promised to return. It was therefore my grandfather’s mission to beat the drum, raise awareness, shake Americans out of complacency, and ensure that the Philippines would not be forgotten.

“Under General MacArthur’s instructions,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I was officially assigned by President Quezon and Secretary Stimson to give the Philippine side of the story.”4

Colonel Romulo with his boyhood hero President Manuel L. Quezon. According to Mrs. Beth Day Romulo, this photo was taken shortly before Quezon’s death in 1944, in Lake Saranac, New York, a vacation resort with a sanatorium for tuberculosis. Quezon made Romulo Secretary of Information and Public Relations in January of 1943. The following year President Osmeña gave him an additional job as the Philippines’ Resident Commissioner to the US Congress, a position he served until 1946.

In March 1944 he addressed the University of Notre Dame: “In these dark nights of danger, more men wait for help to come. And this help must come from the strength of people who believe in liberty. These young men, with many things for which to live, are waiting for our strength to be felt. I who come from the holes of Bataan, holes of sweat and tears, holes of death—I who have seen my fellow buddies torn apart and butchered, who stand on this spot by a miracle of God Who spared me, plead with you brothers to ask our compatriots not to abandon us in this terrible fight.”5

He spoke from the heart, urgently and with mounting fervor, as his mission went far beyond official duty; it was personal. His days were filled with constant dread as he remembered the loved ones he had abandoned back home, in particular his wife of twenty years. Virginia Llamas, my grandmother, had been living in terror since Japan’s surprise attack. She and their four sons had been running from the Japanese, hiding in the hills, almost since MacArthur had called my grandfather to active duty in mid-December 1941. Lolo had managed a short visit with them only once, on New Year’s Eve, at their home on Vermont Street, Malate (Manila), and—having no idea where they were and if they were still alive—he worried about them endlessly.

As he donned his US army uniform every morning, a Philippine army fourragère on his shoulder, he wondered perhaps if one’s duty to country should come before one’s duty to family. One might imagine that he felt regret in some of his darkest hours, especially given that the country requiring his duty belonged not to him but to a colonial master. Even though he’d been appointed as MacArthur’s personal aide just before coming to the US, a tremendous honor that entitled him (and only four other full-general’s aides in the world) to wear a special insignia on both lapels, were the honors enough to compensate for the personal sacrifices?

1 Robert van Gelder, The New York Times.
2 “The Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker, June 26, 1943, p. 12.
3 Ibid.
4 Carlos P. Romulo, I Walked with Heroes (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961), p. 226. Henry L. Stimson was US Secretary of War.
5 Al Lesmez, Notre Dame Scholastic, March 17, 1944, p. 6.

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