by Willie Lagarde
The year was 1947, the place Tacloban on the island of Leyte. I had been there two years before as a crewman on the carrier Yorktown then a part of a naval task force the likes of which the world had never seen. I hadn't set foot on land for nine months at the time and with four of my shipmates pulled an unauthorized liberty there with the help of the US Army. Now I’m in the crew of a Merchant Marine liberty ship stopping in the Philippines to begin loading copra.
On my previous visit there were many, many ships of all sizes and descriptions now there is only one. Where there had been thousands of Americans now there were only the thirty seven men in our crew plus four more we met in Tacloban. I was anxious to get ashore to see what changes had occurred the last two years and other than the absence of the American military there wasn’t much.The local population had made use of all the serviceable equipment left behind like jeeps, generators and even a couple of PT boats. They removed two of the three engines and used them as inter island foot ferries.
On my first day ashore sitting in an open air establishment with two of my shipmates we were approached by an American who I estimated to be in his thirties. He stood about 6 ft tall and 165lbs, had reddish blond hair, ruddy complexion and bad teeth. He brought a bottle of whiskey to our table asking if he could sit with us. He told us he had been in the Army, had taken his discharge in the Philippines and was operating one of the PT boat/ferries. After a drink he suddenly excused himself, told us we could have the bottle and left.
Shortly thereafter a jeep pulled up with a US Army major and two sergeants. They sat and chatted with us saying it was good to talk to Americans. They told us they were the only Americans there and were doing “graves registration” locating and marking spots where our dead soldiers had been buried during the fighting. Our government was in the process of returning the bodies of our men if the families requested it and they could be found. When I told the major it was too bad they had just missed seeing another American and related his story he just smiled and said the reason he left is because he saw them coming. “We know about him and have seen him, he is a deserter and our instructions are to leave any deserters alone since they are being punished more here than if we sent them home. He works for pennies a day in the rice fields. He is afraid of us but he need not be”. He warned us of machete attacks on Americans by the insurgents (Huks) of that time.
Our ship’s Steward was a Filipino who once told me; never approach a Filipino woman if she is with a man. If you do, you will have made a lifelong enemy who will not rest until he gets revenge for what he considers an unforgivable insult. I had this in mind a couple of nights later when three of us were in a place called the Legaspi Gardens drinking Budweiser. Freddie, an AB seaman on my watch was with us. He was a good sailor but naive with a not quite full seabag. We would find out when drunk he could be a deadly liability.
He went to a table with two local couples asking one of the girls for a dance. When she refused he went into a drunken tirade saying among other things “you ungrateful bitch we liberated you”. At the time there were about 15 or 20 locals in the place and they slowly started leaving until it was just us three there. I sensed trouble big time and suggested we try to get Freddie back to the ship about a quarter mile away. A short way down the road holding Freddie up between us we found our way blocked by three machete wielding barefoot men dressed in the traditional short pants and tank top undershirts. I turned around to see a group had fallen in behind us and in the dim light I could see several more behind the three in front of as well as on the hill to one side.
The road was almost at waters edge and I could see an outrigger canoe as a possible escape but knew it was impossible. It only meant we would be hacked to death in the water instead of the road. We were dead men with no hope and nothing else we could do but pray. I prayed looking at kamikazes coming in wondering if I would feel anything and if it was any consolation believing death would come quickly. This was different, death would be slow and horrible. I could see the muscles in one of the men’s arm tensing as if the first blow was coming. I watched that arm and decided when he swung I would go down fighting.
I prayed three times in my life where I feel my prayers were answered and this was one of them. I wasn’t asking to be spared I just asked for help. As I was making peace with God almighty my right hand slowly started moving toward my head. It wasn’t a wilful or conscious movement and one over which I seemed to have no control. With my index finger I started making a circular motion around my temple and then pointed at Freddie. The man in the middle who appeared to be the leader stepped back yelling something in whatever language they spoke and the crowd began to disperse. A warm feeling came over me like I had just been delivered from a horrible end. As they stepped aside the leader said; “you take crazy man back to ship, you come back have good time”.
Before we got to the ship Freddie started resisting but we finally got him aboard and because he was threatening to go back, with the help of his two foc'sle mates I handcuffed him to his bunk. I was ready for more beer, if nothing else to celebrate our deliverance. When my shipmate said under no circumstances would he go back I explained there were perhaps hundreds of them and thirty seven of us with only the captain’s pistol aboard. If they wanted us we have no defense and I wanted to show good faith by going back though I didn’t want to go alone. Finally Tito G, a wiper said, “I’ll go with you mate let me get my spoons.”
Good move! We went back and found all those that had left earlier were there but none of those we saw on the road. Tito sat by the juke box with his spoons and delighted everyone as he beat out the rhythm to the music. We never paid for another beer and girls came over offering to dance. All’s well that ends well, but the sight of those nervous men with the machetes is one I will never forget. Most of all I will never forget had my cry help not been answered, I wouldn’t be writing this story.
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