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Moving Target

By Steven Trent Smith
7/26/2017 • World War II Magazine

After the Japanese occupied the Philippines, one American family found themselves on a run for their lives.

Coming from most adolescent boys, this statement might be dismissed as idle prattle. But 14- year-old Clifford Schuring knew it to be true. He knew that in July and September of 1943, the Japanese army had conducted “punitive expeditions” on the Philippine island of Panay, killing thousands of people—Filipinos and foreigners alike. And he knew that the same fate awaited his family and their American friends, all hiding in a remote part of the same island. If they got caught. Cliff and his parents, Henry and Laura Schuring, were among the hundreds of American citizens—engineers, missionaries, and commercial agents—who had found themselves stranded in the Philippines at the outbreak of World War II. Before the war, Henry Schuring had been the mill superintendent for Masbate Consolidated Mining on Masbate, part of the central Philippines island group known as the Visayas. There, the Schurings had lived in a comfortable house, with servants and a company car. There had been a one-room schoolhouse, attended by Cliff and nine other children, with an American teacher. It was a good life— that is, until the morning of Monday, December 8, 1941, when news came over the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Not long after, they found out that the Philippines were under attack, too.

At first, everyone thought it would be a short war. But as the weeks ticked by it began to dawn on people that victory might take a while. As Cliff recalls, “We had faith in America, but we started wondering if help would ever come.” The Japanese didn’t occupy Masbate until mid-February 1942; by then, the Schurings had evacuated across the Visayan Sea to Panay, where the Philippine Army’s 61st Division was still carrying on the fight. Bataan fell that April, followed a month later by the island stronghold Corregidor; consequently, all American forces in the Philippines surrendered. Many American civilians allowed themselves to be interned for the war’s duration; others, like the Schurings, sought what they believed to be the safety of the jungle. What the Schurings had not counted on, however, was a murderous Japanese general determined to make good on the threat to hunt and kill those who had escaped internment—or the bravery and determination of the people, American and Filipino, who worked to help their family escape.

 

CLIFF AND HIS FAMILY found a home in the foothills of western Panay, not far from the Panay River, at an evacuation camp organized by 11 American Baptist missionaries who had run the Central Philippine College and its hospital. There were about two dozen people in the camp they named Hopevale. Among the missionaries was the college director, Dr. Francis Howard Rose, and his wife Gertrude; from the hospital, Dr. Frederic Willer Meyer and his wife Ruth; Earle and Louise Rounds, with their 9-year-old son Douglas; and Jimmy and Charma Covell, who were fluent in Japanese after spending numerous years working in Japan for the Baptist church before coming to the Philippines in 1939. Besides the Schurings, the mining contingent included Homer Mann; Claude Fertig and his wife Laverne; Cyril Spencer and his Canadian wife Louise; and Mark and Fern Clardy with their two sons, 6-year-old Johnny and 8-year-old Terry.

Life in Hopevale was primitive, but by no means awful. The miners constructed improvements for the community like running water, piped through hollowed bamboo. Local farmers supplied the residents with food: fruit, vegetables, eggs, rice, and the occasional pig. A special treat was to open a tin of something like canned cream from the meager pantry of prewar goods. Before long, life at the camp settled into a humdrum routine. The mothers spent their days schooling the four boys or working in the garden; evenings brought rounds of bridge and cribbage.

Cliff was the oldest boy at the camp, and to his delight Dr. Rose taught him mathematics. “He was my mentor; he guided my education. Though I couldn’t spell worth a Dewey darn, he kept my math way up. He even baptized me.” Eagerly assisted by Cliff, Rose also undertook building a church. Over the course of several months they transformed a narrow rocky fissure into what Louise Spencer described as “something so beautiful that we caught our breath when we came to it.” Rose built a fine altar, a pair of lecterns, benches for the congregation, and an organ loft—all from stone that he and Cliff carried and stacked themselves. Services were held each Sunday in what came to be called the Cathedral in the Glen.

Peace and quiet reigned in Hopevale for months, though the war was never far from their minds. Throughout Panay— indeed, throughout the Philippines—a resistance movement was blossoming. In fact, during the latter half of 1942, the guerrillas practically ran roughshod over the island’s Japanese presence. Eventually, all the men in the miners’ group joined in. Henry Schuring went back to making arms, Cyril Spencer taught military mapping to rebel officers, and Homer Mann gave instruction in demolition.

But in February 1943, life on Panay changed abruptly when guerrillas ambushed a convoy carrying Major General Takeshi Kono, commander of the occupied Visayas. Though the general escaped unharmed, his chief of staff, Colonel Hidemi Watanabe, argued for retaliation against the rebels. Colonel Watanabe conceived a plan he called the Great Punitive Campaign—a strategy that would impact the Schuring family and the other residents of Hopevale in a direct and terrifying way.

The Japanese plan was simple: several hundred soldiers would march cross-country, burning towns and villages as they went. In the words of a war crimes investigator, writing after the war, “No living creatures, man or beast, were spared. No distinctions between soldiers and civilians, man or woman, old or young were respected. All that lived were killed. In its wake lay scenes of terror, inhuman torture, mass murder and wanton destruction.” The first expedition took to the field that July, led by 39-year-old Captain Kengo Watanabe (no relation to Hidemi), who came to personify brutality in the eyes of the Panayans. The captain would make his prisoners kneel on the ground, hands tied behind their backs. Using a twohanded samurai sword, he would move methodically down the line, beheading each person in turn. It didn’t take long for Captain Watanabe to earn the name the Butcher of Panay.

News of these atrocities soon reached the Schurings and their fellow Hopevale residents. The missionaries, though horrified, believed the Japanese would not harm them because they were noncombatants and people of God. The miners took a more pragmatic view: the Japanese meant business, their lives were at risk, and they needed to make a plan. The guerrillas, aware that the Japanese knew Americans were hiding in the hills, urged the camp residents to scatter into small groups. The Schurings left Hopevale in late October 1943, moving to a house about a mile across and up the Panay River.

The new location, in a wide clearing atop a hill, may have seemed like an odd choice for a refuge, but the Schurings believed it offered greater security than the ravine they left behind. As visible as it was, getting to it was another matter entirely. On one side was a sheer drop of several hundred feet down to the river, and, as Laura later wrote, “the site commanded a good view of all the trails. The river had to be crossed and the steep hill climbed before reaching our house, giving us an hour’s head start on any drive” by the Japanese. “We had all the geographic advantages.”

Life at the new site was lonely. The Schurings missed the companionship of their friends, and food and entertainment were harder to come by. But the family felt much safer.

On Sunday, December 19, a young Filipino guerrilla spotted some 300 Japanese soldiers moving across a ridge, heading toward Hopevale. He reported the news to Henry Schuring, who grabbed his binoculars and began a sweep of the trails. Shortly after 6 a.m. the Japanese came into view. “Their number and speed and the precision with which they were moving made the situation serious,” Laura wrote. Henry sent the Filipino to warn the Americans, then moved his family to a safer vantage point several hundred yards to the north, where they could still see Hopevale.

The enemy had encircled the camp. “My heart stopped,” Laura recalled, when she “saw Dr. Meyer, with his hands behind his back, as though they might be tied, being led down the hill.” Then she saw the Roses, then the Covells. “Heartsick, I was ready and anxious to move on.” The Schurings sought refuge in the forest with a family of friendly Bukidnons, members of a mountain tribe, and hoped their message had reached at least a few of their friends.

 

THE JAPANESE SOLDIERS seen by the Schurings were indeed under Captain Watanabe’s command, acting on a confession they had elicited from a lone American they encountered near the Aklan River. Upon hearing that Americans might be hiding in the hills behind Tapaz, Watanabe immediately sent his entire force in search of the fugitives.

Thanks to the warning that Henry had sent, the Spencers and a very pregnant Laverne Fertig were able to elude the Japanese. But the warning came too late for the rest. Though the Clardys and Roundses had managed to run into the woods, they were soon captured. Suspecting there were more Americans nearby, Watanabe dispatched a platoon to make a thorough search of the surrounding area.

At the camp, Jimmy Covell pled to Watanabe—in perfect Japanese—to spare their lives. The plea may have given him pause: it was one thing to indiscriminately kill Filipinos, but it was quite another to murder a large group of American citizens—especially when most were church people. On other islands, captured Americans were usually sent to the huge prison camp at Santo Tomas University in Manila. Watanabe wanted to be absolutely sure that the executions he was about to commit were approved at the highest level, so he radioed for clarification from the garrison headquarters on Cebu. At noon on Monday, Japanese high command confirmed: the prisoners must die.

If Covell made one more plea for mercy that afternoon, it fell on deaf ears. He did ask for time to pray, and Watanabe acceded. The group of 17 joined in a circle and began their prayers. After about an hour they finished with a hymn, then told their executioner they were ready. One by one, beginning with Charma Covell, the adults were led to a clearing in a bamboo thicket. Paterno Enano, a Filipino forced into service as an interpreter to the Japanese, was a reluctant witness to the massacre: “I heard Mrs. Covell beg Captain Watanabe for mercy. She said, in Japanese, ‘Captain Watanabe, why will you kill us? We are Christian missionaries.’ Captain Watanabe smiled, and said nothing. I saw Captain Watanabe draw his Samurai sword. Then I turned my head, I could not bear to watch it. Mrs. Covell screamed.”

The three children, Douglas Rounds, Johnny Clardy, and Terry Clardy, were spared beheading. Instead, they were bayoneted. Then most of the bodies were dragged into houses, which were set afire. Pillaged and burned, Hopevale was abandoned by Watanabe and his troops three days after their arrival.

 

UNAWARE OF THEIR FRIENDS’ fate, the Schurings spent their second night in the forest. The next evening news came that enemy troops were heading in their direction, using torches to find their way along the trails in the darkness. “We could see the lights bobbing through the trees and bushes,” Laura wrote. Over the next few days, patrols were constantly stalking the area. Sometimes the Japanese were so close the Schurings could hear their voices. At other times the family could see their pursuers in the far distance, perhaps a four-hour march behind them. They had to keep ahead.

The terrain was a constant obstacle. One day, after chopping their way through the jungle and wading about a mile up a small creek, the family came upon a rocky precipice, which their guides explained they must scale in order to continue their flight. As Laura recalled, it “was straight up, with only a root now and then to get hold of. I started bravely enough, but when I stopped near the top to get my breath and saw the sheer drop below I almost lost my balance. I was too petrified to do anything.” But she gathered the strength to scramble up the last few feet. Though it was getting dark, they pushed on—hearing occasional shots echoing through the forest, reminding them that their enemy was not far behind.

It was about this time, in the days around Christmas, that the Schurings finally learned of the massacre at Hopevale. Cliff’s fears—“If we got caught, we’d be killed”—had been realized. To their relief, the Spencers and Fertigs had successfully made their escape and were hiding in the woods not far away. The Filipinos also told the family that the guerrillas had ambushed the Japanese column as it marched out of the hills, killing dozens in retaliation for Watanabe’s brutality.

Not long after New Year’s Day 1944, the Schurings tried settling down under the protection of the well-organized rebel army. Time passed slowly until a runner from Panay’s guerrilla commander, Colonel Macario Peralta, arrived at the Schurings’ camp in early February. He told Henry Schuring that the colonel had an important message for his family; could Henry send someone trustworthy to pick it up? Cliff implored his dad to let him go, and was soon on the trail. Only after giving the letter to his father did the boy learn of its contents. News of the massacre had reached General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Australia. To the family’s surprise—and relief—the general was sending a submarine to evacuate the Schurings and all the other Americans on the island.

The rescue operation had been set into motion by a series of radio messages from Filipino guerrilla leaders to MacArthur’s general headquarters in Brisbane, Australia. Though the first message was sent as early as January 24, 1944, it wasn’t until February 5 that Colonel Peralta—who had been on the run for three months, and whose transmitter had been captured by the Japanese in October—was able to corroborate the deaths. “ALL KILLED WITHOUT MERCY,” he wrote, including the names of 13 victims. Peralta was alerted to track down as many Americans as he could find on Panay, and move them to the western coast for evacuation: “Navy has assured [us] that they will route an operational sub in at any time.” That sub was the USS Angler, which was cruising off the San Bernardino Strait in the Eastern Visayas when its crew received orders from the Brisbane headquarters to “effect the rescue on Panay.” The Angler was less than 300 miles, as the crow flies, from northwest Panay.

The Schurings now had yet another tough march ahead of them, at times literally hacking their trail through the island’s wildest terrain. “It was a rough trip. A really rough trip,” Cliff said. “It really sucked you right down. Every step was a fight.” This was especially true for Laura, who was by now very ill. The Filipinos built a hammock to carry her, which they hung from a pair of bamboo poles slung across their shoulders.

Sometime in early March, Henry, Laura, and Cliff arrived at a guerrilla camp in the northwest lowlands, near the small village of Pandan. There they rested for a week, joined by the Spencers. A few days later they moved nearer to the designated rendezvous site. Staying in the homes of loyal Filipinos, they awaited the hoped-for arrival of the submarine.

On March 18, 1944, Commander Robert Olsen, Angler’s skipper, received final orders directing him to “rescue ‘about fifty’ United States citizens from a signaled position on the north coast of Panay.” It was not welcome news. Twenty might be manageable. But 50? Angler already carried a crew of 85— and even then quarters were tight. Where would he put 50 more? How would he feed them? These questions became even more pressing the next day, when the Angler received confirmation that the rendezvous would take place at dusk on March 20. The message said firmly and clearly that the passengers must come aboard on the first attempt—there would be no second chance.

Just before dawn on the 20th, Olsen conned his boat into the broad expanse of Pandan Bay, submerging at 4:33 a.m. and moving silently toward the beach. When he was about two miles from the coastline he began an intense periscope reconnaissance of the area, looking for the prearranged signal— white cloth panels hung from palm trees.

A little after nine o’clock Olsen spotted a “large crowd of people walking behind the tree line on the beach near the rendezvous point.” Within the hour he saw the white panels being hoisted. Satisfied that things were going to plan, Olsen headed his boat out to sea to submerge until late afternoon.

On that beach, the Schurings and 55 other American citizens were anxiously awaiting sunset, the time the guerrillas had told them the sub—if there was a sub—would surface. “There seemed like there were an awful lot of us on that beach,” Cliff remembers. All eyes strained seaward, attempting to catch a glimpse of a periscope, but there was nothing there.

At 5:17 p.m., Commander Olsen sent his men to battle stations. Angler was now about 1,000 yards offshore. Through his scope he could see three beached sailboats, surrounded by a throng of people. At 6:01 p.m. the Klaxon horn wailed three times as the skipper ordered his boat to surface.

As the dark mass of the submarine began to loom out of the water, the crowd on the beach began to get excited. “Words can’t express the emotion when a unison of voices cried,‘There it is!’” Laura wrote. Cliff was overwhelmed and remembers thinking, “This is it! We’re going to get out of here!” First, the local rebel commander was paddled out in a native banca to confer with the captain. Could the sub take all 58 passengers? Olsen thought for a moment, then said it could. The guerrilla flashed a signal toward the beach, which instantly sprang to life. The Americans were loaded into the sailboats and were soon tacking across the bay toward Angler.

It took barely 40 minutes to get everyone aboard and below. The sub’s four big diesels roared to life and it began to make way. Destination: Darwin, Australia, a 2,000-mile voyage through enemy-held waters. But the 12-day voyage was mercifully uneventful, and the ship reached Port Darwin on April 1, 1944. The 58 civilians were taken to an oceanside resort in Brisbane that had been commandeered as a rest and rehabilitation center. Cliff was immediately admitted to the 42nd General Hospital to receive treatment for festering tropical boils. They kept him for six weeks; by then, it was time to go to San Jose, California, where the Schurings would try to resume a normal life.

 

HENRY AND LAURA SCHURING returned to the Philippines after the war. Cliff finished high school in San Jose, and had started college when the Korean War intervened. He joined the Marine Corps and rose through the ranks, retiring as a captain 24 years later. He is 82 years old.

The raid on Hopevale marked the end of the punitive campaigns on Panay and the beginning of a surge in the Filipino guerrilla movement. By the time MacArthur returned to the Philippines in October 1944, Colonel Peralta’s force numbered more than 22,000 men. Though Captain Kengo Watanabe was killed in action in 1945 and thus escaped the war crimes tribunals that were held in Manila after the war, his superiors and subordinates were tried. Seven Japanese officers were executed for their part in atrocities on Panay; six more received lengthy prison terms. Today, a simple white concrete cross marks the common grave of the missionaries murdered by the Japanese, honored by Baptists as the Hopevale Martyrs.

The Angler was one of 19 American submarines that conducted rescues in the Philippines during the war. In the course of 41 separate missions, these ships delivered to guerrillas 1,325 tons of supplies, from carbon paper and “I Shall Return” candy bars to sulfa drugs and heavy machine guns. In the process they extracted 472 people—mostly civilians, like the Schurings. Two boats, USS Narwhal and Nautilus, were specifically dedicated to this purpose. But most of the subs were, like Angler, diverted from their regular war patrols to carry out these special missions of mercy. This they accomplished without the loss of a single life.

 

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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