Posts Tagged ‘Washington DC’

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.
8 www.pbs.org

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.)

Places Called Home

Washington, District of Columbia. The men in the Romulo family have always reserved a special place in their hearts for this city. For seventeen years—during the administrations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy—the capital city was their home. My dad, Bobby, was just six years old when they reached DC after escaping the war in the Philippines. President Roosevelt died soon after their arrival, on April 12, 1945; my uncle Dick—twelve at the time—still remembers the funeral cortege crawling along Constitution Avenue, thousands of mourners lining the street.

While Lolo served as the chief Philippine emissary to the United States, all the way until 1962, Dad went through grade school, preparatory school, and college, finally graduating from Georgetown University in 1960. It was in DC that he forged friendships that survive until today, almost seventy years later.

1809 24th Street

The first residence the family lived in was 1809 24th Street, a three-story, six-bedroom townhouse built in 1910. Close by were the Dutch Embassy and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson’s house, and about a kilometer and a half away was the Old Chancery building, where Lolo held office as resident commissioner, at 1617 Massachusetts Avenue. He would later secure a second office at Room 304, 2516 Massachusetts Avenue, the office of the Far Eastern Commission, for which he served as representative from 1946 to 1951. (It was in this capacity that he signed the Japanese Peace Treaty.)

The present-day 1809 24th Street (photo courtesy of Google Earth).

President Manuel Roxas made Lolo the country’s permanent delegate to the newly formed United Nations in May 1946, just weeks before the United States relinquished sovereignty over the Philippines. Now with the rank of ambassador, Lolo split his time between New York City (home of the UN) and Washington, DC, commuting back and forth two times a week. His residence in Manhattan was at 277 Park Avenue, between 47th and 48th streets; and beginning in the fall he occupied an office on the 62nd floor of the Empire State Building (Room 6231).

1946 was a difficult year for the Romulos. Lolo’s long fight with recurring malaria (which he caught in Burma in 1941 and then again during the Battle of Bataan) came to a head in the spring, and he had to be hospitalized; but even malaria didn’t slow him down.

That summer, while Lolo was in London chairing the Conference on Devastated Areas, Lola Virginia began her quest for a suitable family home—one with a garden and a garage. It was no easy task, considering the postwar housing shortage; however, she eventually found a simple square-shaped house with a fireplace, and a front porch laced with spindles. Located in the Embassy Row neighborhood, the cross-gabled four-bedroom house, built in 1923, featured bits of ornamentation but was otherwise unadorned in typical Folk Victorian style.

3422 Garfield Street, NW, Washington, DC

“It is in a good residential area, and will not be difficult to sell again,” Lola wrote judiciously to her mother-in-law.1 “Pray to God that He will help us. I’m putting just about everything we have into this house, but I hope to make some profit from it.”2 After a period of minor repairs, and a rather frustrating search for quality furniture, she and the boys moved into the house at the end of October.

While Lola was out shopping for homes, so were the Elizaldes. Joaquin Miguel Elizalde, the Philippines’ first ambassador to the US, purchased 2253 R Street as his official residence around the same time. The Philippine government bought it from Elizalde three years later, although Elizalde stayed on until Lolo took over as ambassador in February 1952.

Despite long absences from the family home, as required by Lolo’s fast developing international career, 3422 Garfield Street would remain the Romulos primary address—their “home address”—until 1962.3 Even when Lolo took on the ambassador’s post and they moved into the R Street residence two kilometers away, they continued looking after the Garfield house, taking long evening walks just to check on it.4 They did, however, lease the property to Lieutenant General William Stratton, head of the British Army Staff in DC (and, afterward, Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong), beginning sometime in 1952. Lolo thus found himself without a home at the end of 1953, having returned to the Philippines for several months that year—first to run for president, and then, after withdrawing from the race, to manage Magsaysay’s campaign. Forced to find a temporary dwelling, he, Lola, and my uncle Dick lived in the Westchester Apartments on Cathedral Avenue while they waited for Lolo’s next assignment.

The Old Chancery located at 1617 Massachusetts Avenue, NW.

While they were back in the Philippines for the presidential race, my uncle–who was in his third year at Georgetown University–had been living alone at the Dupont Plaza Hotel. My dad had shifted from being a day student to a boarding-school student at Georgetown Prep, where he was in the tenth grade. Back in Manila, the two older boys, Greg and Carlos, Jr., were already building their own careers.

On February 23, 1954, President Magsaysay officially named Lolo his Special and Personal Envoy, although this was almost a formality. Lolo had already been serving, unsalaried, in this capacity since his arrival in Washington on November 15, 1953.

2253 R Street, NW, Washington, DC

My uncle graduated from Georgetown University in June 1955. As he began law school at Harvard up north, Lolo was serving as chairman of the Philippine delegation to the UN’s fall assembly not too far away, in New York City; at least, for part of the time. The rest of the time he was reporting to Washington, having been reappointed as ambassador to the US by Magsaysay in September.

With their youngest child almost out of high school, the Romulos moved back into the embassy, this time for the long haul, as Lolo served as the country’s ambassador for another seven years.

Looking back to when the Romulo family at last reached the safety of Washington, DC, having escaped Japanese capture in the Philippines, one can only imagine the enormous relief Lolo felt as a husband and as a father. Weak with malaria but with a fierce resolve to do all he could to help rebuild the Philippines, how fitting it was that he represented his constituency, for fifteen years, in what Charles Dickens famously called the “city of magnificent intentions.”

Print ad (1959) for the Lincoln Premiere Landau (1957 model).

1 Letter from Virginia Llamas Romulo to Lola Maria Peña Vda de Romulo, October 15, 1946.
2 “Ruega tu a Dios que nos ayude. Yo estoy poniendo casi todo lo que tenemos en esta casapeso espero ganar algo tambien despues.”
3
Lolo served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1950 to January 1952. Dad must have been “boarding” in school from 50 to 52, therefore.
4
Letter from lolo to Gregorio Romulo, July 24, 1952.