Posts Tagged ‘Manuel L. Quezon’

Crusade for Liberty

UP debaters Pedro Camus, Deogracias Puyat, Teodoro Evangelista, and Jacinto C. Borja, with their coach, Professor Romulo, and an official from the University of Wisconsin. Later in the evening, before an audience of 450 that included the local governor, the team won by a vote of 173 to 73.

UP debaters Pedro Camus, Deogracias Puyat, Teodoro Evangelista, and Jacinto C. Borja, with their coach, Professor Romulo, and an official from the University of Wisconsin. Later in the evening, before an audience of 450 that included the local governor, the team won by a vote of 173 to 73.

When in 1927 the University of Oregon’s three-man debate team came to the Philippines to argue that we weren’t quite ready for self-government, they were—to use the American vernacular—really asking for it.

Walter E. Hempstead was a senior at Oregon, and general forensic manager. He recalled how his team went head-to-head with the University of the Philippines in what was “the most dramatic evening of [his] life.”1

Having been colonized by foreign powers for more than four centuries, and–even more stinging–having been double-crossed by Americans posing as allies against Spain just thirty years before, no topic incited Filipino passion more than a nation’s right to sovreignty. It is not surprising, then, that no less than ten thousand people descended on the Opera House that night, and two radio stations broadcasted the event across Asia. According to Hempstead, the police came, too, not just to keep an eye on the jampacked theater but also to control the people outside fighting to buy tickets off scalpers.

The Philippine question elicited intense debate even among Americans, many of whom felt they had no business annexing seven thousand islands on the opposite side of the globe in the first place. “There must be two Americas,” Mark Twain said sardonically in 1924, “one that sets the captives free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.”

But those who favored colonial rule—among them some Filipinos—argued that we were incapable of self-government. They also feared that if the U.S. didn’t take control, another power, like Japan, might.

My grandfather, Carlos P. Romulo, was the UP team’s coach in the debate against the University of Oregon. Twenty-nine years old and already an outspoken anti-imperialist, he was probably as shocked as everybody else was as spectators erupted into “cat calls, boos, hisses, thunderous applause,” and even fist fights in the gallery.

The “verbal battle of the century,” as the Philippine press called it, ended with the Oregon team losing, predictably, by unanimous audience decision. The American debaters went on to China, leaving the UP team energized, inspired, and wanting to travel around the world to continue the debate.

Lolo had already traveled to the U.S. several times before, and he knew all too well that most “regular” Americans had no idea what a Filipino was; or, worse, they thought we were half-naked savages living in trees (no thanks, in part, to the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, which featured a sprawling human zoo of Filipino tribal people). In 1919 he traveled to New York to get his master’s at Columbia University. He went again with the Philippine Parliamentary Mission. Led by Senate President Manuel L. Quezon, for whom Lolo served as private secretary, the 1922 mission was the second of what would be a series of eight independence missions.

In addition to assisting Quezon at this point in time, Lolo was working his way up the editorial ladder at The Philippines Herald. He was also an associate professor in the English department of UP, which eventually led him to teach a course in public speaking and coach the debate team.

By the end of 1927, Lolo was sending letters out to universities in the United States, with a request for “immediate action.”

“The youth of the Philippine Islands covet the friendship and goodwill of the youth of the United States,” he wrote, explaining the purpose of the trip. “It is by the interchange of ideas between their representatives and by contact with the national institutions of both countries that the American and Filipino students will learn to know each other, and knowing each other, understand the ideals of each nation. . . .”

Lolo hoped to tour the U.S. with the same three men who had out-debated the University of Oregon on the question of Philippine independence. I am not sure how he managed to pull it off, as the historic debate in Manila had “provoked so much discussion that [U.S.] Secretary of War Davis frowned on the affair and notified Henry L. Stimson, governor-general of the Philippines, that no more debates on that subject could be tolerated by the government.”2

Somehow Lolo managed to organize a team of the three men plus one alternate. All four–Pedro Camus, Deogracias Puyat, Teodoro Evangelista, and Jacinto C. Borja–were law students; each had an impressive record of successful debates. By March 3, 1928, they were aboard the S.S. President McKinley, bound for Seattle, on a fifteen-university tour sanctioned by the U.S. Bureau of Insular Affairs.

Berkeley Daily Gazette, April 6, 1928

On April 4, 1928, dressed in tuxedo, as was the custom for forensic events held in the evening, the UP debaters faced their first opponent, the Varsity Debate Quad of Stanford University, and won by audience vote 178 to 52. The main contention of the team was that the Philippines had a stable government, and was capable of maintaining this government if granted independence.

From California the team traversed the country by train, crushing opponents at the Nevada Bar Association, Universities of California, Minnesota, Utah, and Michigan, Colorado, Illinois, as well as George Washington University and Indiana University. Their eighth debate was against the University of Wisconsin, where acclaimed writer and Philippine national artist Carlos Quirino was an eighteen-year-old journalism student covering the event. On April 24 he wrote that the debate tour offered audiences the opportunity of finally “hearing the Philippine question debated on a basis of first-hand information.” 3 Three days later he wrote another story with the headline, “Philippine Team Wins in Stirring Plea for Liberty.”

The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin), April 26, 1928

When the team arrived at Miami University, Ohio, they discovered that their reputation had preceded them—and they were allowed to give speeches but not to engage in debate. Since the contest was not being sponsored by the public speaking department, the university authorities expressed concern that “any group of students [would] be outclassed by the gifted Filipinos.”

The student newspaper hinted that the real reason was that the “political gentlemen” who had control over the state university’s annual budget might be annoyed by the topic of the debate. After all, the newspaper pointed out, US Republican President Coolidge had categorically stated that the Philippines would not be independent “for an indefinite term of years.”4

By the time they reached home at the end of July, the UP team had drawn a combined audience of a few thousand. They had threatened no less than the Secretary of War and, indirectly, the president of the United States. They had challenged–and defeated–six of the Big Ten schools, along with several southern and eastern universities, including Bates College, Cornell and Harvard.

“We were given a dazzling reception at the pier,” Lolo recalled in his memoirs. “The entire student body from the university turned out along with students of other schools, and we were cheered as heroes and draped with floral necklaces. . . .”

In his 1929 report to the UP Board of Regents, Lolo wrote, “Our mission was purely educational and we consistently kept out of the forbidden ground of politics.” It seems all he wanted was to drive home the point that the Philippines’ right to sovereignty was not about nationality or politics but, rather, justice and truth.


1 Hempstead, Walter E. (November 27, 1927). “Manila Engagement Heated for Oregon Debate Squad: Ticket Scalpers Get Cash.” World Debate Tour Collection, Division of Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon: Eugene, Oregon.

2 “Oregon-Philippine Debate Draws Ire of United States Secretary of War.” World Debate Tour Collection, Division of Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon: Eugene, Oregon.

3 The Daily Cardinal (the campus paper of University of Wisconsin). April 24, 1928.

4 From the column “Slants before the Walk” by Milton L. Farber. The Miami Student, Feb. 7, 1950.


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.

Laughter in a Funeral Parlor, Part 2 of 2

The horrors at home and the anxiety he felt for his family surely elicited feelings of doubt. With babies tossed in the air and skewered by the enemy just for sport, with women raped and men tortured and exterminated as a matter of course, my grandfather feared the worst for his family. Retaliation by capturing his family was a real threat, given that there was a price on his head for the series of anti-Japanese articles he had written earlier in the year (these later won him the 1942 Pulitzer Prize). Not only that, his radio broadcasts during battle, intended to lift the troops’ morale and urge them to keep fighting, added to the ire of the enemy, making the Romulos—who had discarded their name for protection—all the more “wanted.”

Lolo knew firsthand the nightmare and desperation of war, and once on US soil the indifference of Americans shocked him as much as the cheerful jitterbugging in nightclubs jolted him. Having just arrived from the battlefield, bloodied friends and mangled bodies still fresh in his mind, such gaiety and seeming ingratitude made him lose faith in the America that twenty-one thousand Philippine youths had died defending. To him it was like “laughter in a funeral parlor.”6

The ignorance and complacence he encountered infuriated him, but he refrained from berating his audiences and instead went out of his way to make them feel at ease. Being an expert in PR, Lolo knew full well that scolding would get him nowhere in terms of garnering public support. The Philippines still needed to be liberated. Perhaps mindful also of the rehabilitation funds his nation would eventually need from the US, as well as the veterans’ benefits that would be due to Filipino soldiers, he was careful to position himself as a friend; not a critic. Getting people to like him was an important first step in convincing them to care about the Philippines, after all, and it would serve Filipinos well, both at present and in the long run.

Liberation finally began on October 20, 1944, when my grandfather—now a brigadier general—joined President Osmeña and General MacArthur on their triumphant return to the Philippines. Sailing for seven days from Hollandia toward Leyte aboard the 140-meter troopship John Land with 1,800 young American soldiers, tensions were high. But Lolo must have been filled with the hope of reuniting with his family, and cruising at a speed of 17 knots (or 31.5 kilometers) per hour must have felt interminably slow.

In November he received a cryptic message from guerilla leader Yay Panlilio that gave him reason to believe that his wife and children were still alive. It had been almost three years since he’d had contact with them.

Photo dated February 28, 1945, from Leocadio De Asis’s book Crusade of Service: “In a hut on the grounds of Santo Tomas University, Brig. Gen. Carlos P. Romulo addresses the first ‘Rotary meeting’ held in Manila since 1941. Most of the internees in his audience had spent 3 years of enemy occupation here and had been released just 25 days before.”7

But the reunion did not come for several more months. My grandmother was trapped in enemy-held territory with my dad and my uncle; the other two sons, already teenagers, had joined the resistance as guerillas. Before they could be located and rescued, General MacArthur sent Lolo on a new mission. As the new Resident Commissioner to the US Congress, he was to report to Washington about the landing in Leyte.

“It is the story of these men on Leyte beach that I have returned to tell you today,” he said before the House on December 7, 1944, his heart aching for his family, “but it is also the story of other men who fought—in the beginning without uniforms or shoes or guns or food or hope. Their courage helped us on A-Day on Leyte. They are the Filipino guerrillas whose story can at last be told.”

As he spoke these words he could not have known that a terrifying bloodbath was still to come. The battle of Manila, which ended the Japanese Occupation, resulted in the total destruction of what was then considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Having been “seized by the Spanish in the 16th century, attacked by the Chinese in the 17th, occupied by the British in the 18th, and taken by the Americans at the end of the 19th,” Manila had had its share conflict. “But even this tumultuous history could not have prepared the Filipinos for what happened in 1945, when Manila was utterly destroyed in a single month” and more than a hundred thousand civilians were slaughtered.8 General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe who, prior to the war, had spent four years in Manila as MacArthur’s special assistant, has been often quoted as saying, “Of all the cities I have visited, Manila is the most devastated, next to Warsaw.”

On March 3, 1945, the same day the battle of Manila finally came to an end, my grandfather kissed his boys and held his wife in his arms once again.

To the men who fought
In defense of the Philippines
In the 1941-1942 campaign
The ill-trained, ill-armed recruits
In straw helmets and rubbers shoes
The pilots without planes
The sailors without ships
The men on horseback
Fighting tanks with sabers
The gunners short of shells
The soldiers with obsolete rifles
Hungry in the foxholes of Bataan
And the batteries of Corregidor
Racked by dysentery, malaria, beriberi
Surviving on false hopes
Defeated at long last by their bodies
Sent to die in their faceless thousands
In the long cruel march to Capas
And in the concentration camps
This memorial is dedicated
By their grateful countrymen
Who will not forget
That their defeat was weakness of the flesh
But victory of faith loyalty and love.

~ Carlos P. Romulo9

6 Al Lesmez, Notre Dame Scholastic, March 17, 1944, p. 6.
7 Leocadio De Asis, Crusade of Service, (Manila: Rex Book Store, 1994), p. 81.

9 These lines are written on the back of what appears to be a memento in memory of soldier Philippine Sergeant Antonio N. Fenix. Though it is not clear when General Romulo wrote the lines, or even for what purpose, it is implied that it is the text inscribed on the Bataan Monument. The date reads April 9, 1975. (This still needs to be verified.)