Standoff at Santo Tomas | HistoryNet MENU

Standoff at Santo Tomas

By Rupert Wilkinson
2/16/2017 • World War II Magazine

With the Allied noose tightening on Manila, a young prisoner of the Japanese witnessed a last, desperate gambit.

AT 5 P.M. ON SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 3, 1945, American dive-bombers roared across the northern reaches of Japanese-occupied Manila and over the old Dominican University of Santo Tomas, north of the Pasig River. The Marine Corps pilots were reconnoitering the campus, where the Japanese had interned nearly 4,000 civilians from Allied nations after taking over the city in 1942. The internees were aware American troops had come ashore nearly a month earlier at Luzon, 120 miles north, but life at camp remained unchanged. Now, as one camera-equipped SBD flew by, a Marine gunner whose brother was among those imprisoned below dropped airman’s goggles with a note reading, “Roll out the barrel. Santa Claus is coming Sunday or Monday.” The news zipped through the camp: help really was on the way.

I was eight, and knew every inch of Santo Tomas’s 60 acres; I had lived there for more than two years along with my mother, Lorna Wilkinson, and my sister, Mary June, 11. We inhabited a shack on the campus, but every night I slept at the Boys Club, on the third floor of the former Education Building, along with about 200 men and boys. One of them was my best friend, Nick Balfour, whose two siblings stayed with their mother. The two lower floors of the Education Building housed the camp’s 68-man garrison, mostly Chinese nationals drafted as guards and bossed by Imperial Army officers and NCOs. The rest of the prisoners slept in the massive Main Building, other smaller buildings, or homemade shanties.

We had grown accustomed to nighttime gunfire, but the shooting that evening seemed louder and nearer. I tried not to hope too much, but when we heard cheering erupt in other rooms, I and the other boys on the third floor rushed to the windows, joining men shouting, “They’re here!” As we watched, headlights crept onto campus. A flare went up, illuminating American tanks with GIs walking alongside.

We saw prisoners streaming out of the Main Building, but the two floors of guards between us and the ground kept us where we were. An American voice yelled through a megaphone for everyone in the building to get down. Machine guns began firing. I told myself I would not die. When the shooting stopped, guards came into our room to peer out windows and grab our mattresses, which they used to barricade the stairs. They also commandeered our beds, leaving us to sleep on the floor. When Nick opened his eyes at daybreak he was startled to look up and see, dangling from the bed above, a soldier’s hand holding a grenade.

What followed in the next few frantic days was among the Pacific War’s most amazing episodes—one in which we internees played an accidental and unwilling role. Facing the choice between a fight to the death and surrender—the supreme disgrace for any Japanese officer—the commandant of Santo Tomas, Lieutenant Colonel Toshio Hayashi, found a third way. In effect he held us hostage while trying to negotiate safe conduct for him and his men out of the enemy’s grasp.


THE DOMINICAN CAMPUS AT SANTO TOMAS, home to the oldest university in the Philippines, held more American civilians than any other Japanese camp, along with many nationals from other Allied countries. They included my British family, which had lived in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila. My father, Gerald Wilkinson, ran a Manila-based sugar company, Theo H. Davies Far East, while spying on Japanese movements for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. On the eve of the Japanese invasion, Dad joined General Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, as British liaison on the fortress island of Corregidor. Like MacArthur, Dad escaped to Australia; the rest of the family had to move into makeshift housing on the grounds at Santo Tomas.

At first, camp life was not that bad. Our daytime shanty home was cozy, if crude. Resembling a one-room Filipino peasant hut on stilts, it had as furnishings a table, a cupboard, and a few chairs. Friends on the outside could send food and other aid. Money circulated; little shops flourished. The Japanese greatly feared tuberculosis; they were willing to issue passes to internees with lung and breathing ailments, allowing them to live off campus in their actual homes. Santo Tomas had two hospitals of its own and access to others for the seriously ill.

All that changed as events turned against Japan. In February 1944, the Imperial Army sealed off Santo Tomas, canceling home residence passes and banning private food deliveries. Again and again the Japanese army cut our rations. Guards and soldiers pilfered camp stores. By January 1945, each of us was living on 900 calories or less a day, and every day at least one resident—usually an older man—died. The dead got a quick prayer before burial in a mass grave outside the grounds. Colonel Hayashi ordered the camp’s American head doctor into solitary confinement for refusing to take “malnutrition” off death certificates he was issuing.

Hayashi had run the camp since August 1944. Like his predecessors, he allowed us to govern ourselves. His Chinese-national guards—who hailed from Formosa, now Taiwan—and their Japanese overseers mostly let us be. An exception was their hated commander, Lieutenant Nanakazu Abiko, who enjoyed humiliating us. At roll call Abiko would force residents of a dormitory to practice bowing for half an hour or more. On top of that, the secret police, the Kempeitai, would raid Santo Tomas to grab and torture internees suspected of contact with Filipino guerrillas and ransack dorms and shanties in search of illicit radios, which they never were able to find.

In December 1944, the commander of Japanese occupation forces, General Tomayuki Yamashita, started shifting his men in Manila to the mountains north and east of Lingayen Gulf, where he expected the Americans to land. On January 6, Commandant Hayashi told camp leaders that he was going to lead his garrison into the hills as well, to steer violence away from the camp. But before he could do so, his superiors ordered Hayashi to stay put.

When soldiers of the U.S. Sixth Army landed on January 9, 1945, they found that Yamashita’s repositioned troops had complicated the approach to Manila. Invasion commander MacArthur wanted to reach the Philippine capital, his former home, by January 26— his birthday. More important, he feared guards at Santo Tomas would treat the internees as the Japanese had treated POWs on Palawan Island in December 1944 when American warships steamed close: burn them alive. But Sixth Army commander Lieutenant General Walter Krueger worried that sending too small a rescue force to Manila could lead Yamashita to counterattack from the hills. Krueger ordered most of his army into the highlands to pursue the main Japanese force.

At the end of January, the Japanese still held Manila. Guerrillas were telling the impatient MacArthur that a massacre might be in the works at Santo Tomas. On January 30, he drove to Guimba, 20 miles south of Lingayen, where the lst Cavalry Division had just arrived after intense fighting on Leyte. There he buttonholed its commander, Major General Verne Mudge. “Go to Manila,” MacArthur said, according to Mudge’s subordinate, Brigadier General William Chase, who witnessed the exchange. “Go round the Nips, bounce off the Nips, but go to Manila. Free the internees at Santo Tomas. Take Malacañang Palace [the government headquarters] and the Legislative Building.”

Within 36 hours, Mudge had assembled his main rescue force: 1,900 men in two columns, one from the 5th Cavalry Regiment, and the other from the 8th Cavalry. Each would travel in armed jeeps and trucks, accompanied by 16 Sherman tanks, mobile medical units, artillery squads, and engineers with bulldozers.

The rescue columns were headed into a sprawling, dense metropolis defended by more than 20,000 Japanese, mainly naval troops trained to fight to the death. Rescuers could expect many blown bridges and enemy strongpoints, requiring that they zig and zag to find intact crossings and avoid confrontations that would delay their progress.

But the operation had sheer bravado in its favor, along with a distracted enemy plagued by poor communications. The Allies controlled the air: Japanese planes in the Philippines had been shot down or destroyed in kamikaze attacks. Marine dive-bombers and U.S. Army spotter planes would be overhead, guiding the columns by radio.

The hundred miles from Guimba to Manila—barely a day’s drive in peacetime—would take the columns nearly 70 hours to cover. The troops set off on dirt roads early on February 1, with detachments departing every 10 minutes. Soon vehicles were strung out for miles. The peppery Mudge seemed to be everywhere, landing by spotter plane at firefights and leading troops onto a booby-trapped bridge; his soldiers saved the span by throwing the explosive charges into the water.

That evening Mudge delegated command to General Chase. With his trim moustache Chase looked the aristocrat, but the cavalryman had a strong democratic streak. “What would Private Kucinich say about this?” he would ask rhetorically, invoking an imaginary GI so often that subordinates nicknamed him “PK.” Like Mudge, Chase prided himself on leading from the front, usually in a radio jeep with the 5th Cavalry column.

Those of us at Santo Tomas knew rescue was coming, but not how or when. Some said our boys would be arriving any moment. Others wondered if we could hang on. What if food ran out or the Japanese decided to kill us? Four more old men died. Filipino boys carted their bodies to the cemetery. Again, Hayashi prepared to head for the hills, ordering soldiers to butcher the garrison’s livestock—two hogs and two water buffalo. He ordered some soldiers ahead; before leaving they stripped the camp’s meager vegetable garden.


SOME COLUMN UNITS GOT THROUGH EASILY. For Private George Fisher, gun loader in the Sherman tank Georgia Peach, the main holdup came in Bulacan Province. At the Angat River, trucks and jeeps had to be winched across by tank. Elsewhere, ambushes bloodied two detachments, but reinforcements collected the dead and wounded and found alternate routes. The run from Guimba to Manila cost 30 Americans, and many more Japanese, their lives.

At dusk on February 3, the columns entered Manila, the 8th Cavalry leading. After years of island and jungle combat, the men were wary of fighting in a city. As the force swept through the northern precincts and past the ancient Chinese cemetery, snipers fired from behind tombstones. Small convoys of Japanese blundered into the columns, which shot them to pieces. When an 8th Cavalry unit peeled off with five Shermans to take Malacañang Palace, the Japanese there fled, then counterattacked without success.

In his office on the Education Building’s ground floor, Hayashi could hear the enemy tanks. He summoned camp leaders, along with two Japanese-speaking internees, Frank Cary and Ernest Stanley. Hayashi told the Westerners he wanted them to persuade the Americans to stay outside the university gate and let his garrison depart. But by the time the emissaries left on that mission, Uncle Sam had already arrived in camp.

The first 200 Americans to reach Santo Tomas were in a cavalry squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Haskett Conner, who also had six Shermans. The blacked-out campus seemed deserted until the Americans saw a grenade sail from a guardhouse. GIs shot the Japanese who had thrown it, but the grenade’s blast mortally wounded a guerrilla guide and left Conner with a bad leg wound. He ceded command to his number two, Major James Gearhart, as the tanks pushed through Santo Tomas’s arched gateway. The first Sherman, Battlin’ Basic, scraped the arch, showering the infantrymen alongside with bits of masonry. From inside Georgia Peach, Private Fisher could hear cheers, and then American voices singing “God Bless America.”

“I’ve never heard it sung better,” he said.

Two Japanese civilians appeared in front of the Main Building and surrendered. From behind them a Japanese officer emerged, smartly dressed down to a sword in a scabbard. He put a hand into his shoulder bag. Guessing correctly that the Japanese was reaching for a grenade, Gearhart shot from the hip. The officer, hit in the stomach, fell to the ground. As he did, a group of camp inmates rushed from the Main Building. In the tank’s headlights, they had recognized the fallen Japanese as the hated guard chief, Abiko. They kicked him and spat on him, and two women burned him with cigarettes. Others tried to use Abiko’s own sword to slice off his ear before soldiers muscled him into the Main Building. The camp doctor, recently released from solitary confinement, cared for the dying man while tending wounded GIs.

In the dark, with ever more prisoners crowding around, Gearhart hadn’t yet realized how few Japanese soldiers had shown themselves. Then Hayashi’s two Western emissaries appeared. When Cary and Stanley conveyed the camp commander’s message, Gearhart realized Hayashi and his men were holed up only 50 yards away. Apparently unaware that more than 200 civilian prisoners were in the Education Building too, Gearhart wheeled his tanks into firing position. A British woman whose son was among the civilians upstairs raced from the Main Building. “Don’t you know our boys are there?” she yelled at the tankers. An inmate shouted a similar warning from the Education Building’s third floor.

Gearhart sent Frank Cary to find Hayashi and tell him to give up. The frightened Cary walked into the Education Building, hands outstretched, shouting in Japanese, “Cary coming in as messenger, unarmed!” He told the commandant that unless he surrendered in 10 minutes the tankers would open fire. Hayashi refused. Cary relayed that message to Gearhart, who sent him back. The 10 minutes stretched to 12, but still Hayashi balked. That was when Gearhart shouted a warning through a megaphone and his men blasted the first floor. By then, Hayashi and his troops had fled to the second floor. After another megaphone alert from Gearhart, the tankers raked that floor as well.

Again the Japanese garrison remained a jump ahead, crowding a third-floor corridor behind the dorm rooms where Nick and I and the other hostages were huddling. American machine-gun fire killed one guard and wounded another, and stray slugs and splinters struck several of our companions. When one elderly internee’s bedding caught fire, the man dropped dead, apparently of a heart attack.

The Japanese soldiers shot back sporadically, killing one GI and wounding several others before all firing stopped. Cary and Stanley shuttled messages between the American commander and his Japanese foe. Cary feared that Hayashi’s stubbornness was sentencing the guards to death and pleaded with the camp commandant to relent. Hayashi refused to give up, but said he would not harm the internees he was holding.

During the overnight stalemate, General Chase arrived. At 9 a.m., he received a note from Hayashi proposing to accept “safe conduct” for the garrison in return for releasing the civilians he was holding prisoner. Chase bristled but saw no alternative: his first duty was to save civilians. But he did not want Japanese outside the camp learning how small and vulnerable his force was. Playing for time, he told Hayashi his superiors had to approve the deal.


WE AWOKE ON FEBRUARY 4 to an informal truce. There was nothing for breakfast, but at least the machine gunners were standing down, and we could lean out windows to talk with friends and family below. When Nick saw his mother, he burst into tears. That afternoon, GIs sent in canisters of hot corned beef and soybean stew, which were divided among captives and captors. Another meal came that evening.

Security upstairs was lax. Using ropes and knotted sheets, more than a dozen men and boys escaped. Two fell; one broke both legs. Japanese civilian officials slipped out to surrender. In the corridor where the surviving Chinese-national and Japanese members of the garrison were hunkering, a soldier who refused to fight but did not want to surrender died of a gunshot. Japanese officers claimed an American sniper had killed him. Chase sent a qualified apology, admitting that not all his men might have gotten the word to stop shooting. Hayashi allowed a wounded hostage to leave; he also sent out the elderly man’s body.

With the arrival that day of the 37th Infantry Division, Chase’s force had grown so large that he decided he had enough troops to fend off the Japanese, and so could let Hayashi and his men go. Chase sent his executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Todd Brady, into the Education Building with interpreter Ernest Stanley. Hayashi treated the moment theatrically, greeting the negotiators with his hands on the butts of twin holstered pistols. After that flourish Hayashi and Brady came to terms: early the next morning the men of the Santo Tomas garrison would set down their grenades and machine guns and, keeping their swords, pistols, and rifles, accept an escort by 1st Cavalry soldiers out of the camp.

Just before 7 a.m. on Monday, February 5, the 60-plus Japanese and Taiwanese camp garrison descended the Education Building stairs. One man carried a wounded comrade. Outside, armed GIs lined up on both sides of the departing enemy. Accompanied by Stanley, they all marched to the gate. Some Santo Tomas residents jeered, but GIs shushed them. Our old jailers maintained order for a few blocks, but once their American escorts turned back toward the campus the former guards broke ranks and scattered, as a mortified Hayashi angrily tried to rein them in.

By the time most of most of us on the third floor of the Education Building awoke, our captors had left, but we could not do so until GIs checked the floors below for booby-traps. While that search went on, an American lieutenant came upstairs—a big, friendly god who quickly found himself surrounded by excited boys. We were fascinated by his deep, German-looking helmet, his shiny yellow face (due, we later learned, to an anti-malaria drug), and, above all, his immense pistol. In the Boys’ Club we had sketched guns over and over, and here was the real thing. Finally word came that the building was safe, and we were free. Nick and I and our companions raced downstairs, laughing and yelling, to join our families.

But the war was not done with Santo Tomas. The Battle of Manila had already begun. Within days, Japanese artillerymen were shelling the university campus; the Americans had used the Main Building tower as an observation post. Counterfire stilled the enemy guns, but not before they killed more than 20 people and hideously wounded many others.

From then on, with so many American troops on campus, Santo Tomas became one of the safest places in a city that was dying around it. The block-by-block fighting and shelling that devastated Manila killed 1,000 Americans and more than 100,000 Filipinos—many in Japanese massacres. More than 16,000 Japanese died, most of the escaped garrison likely included. Hayashi’s body was later discovered in the hills.

GIs did capture eight or so of our former guards and return them as POWs to Santo Tomas. The Marine gunner who had dropped the goggles that let us know the cavalry was on the way was able to find his brother, and another brother held at a second camp. The outcome was not so happy for Nick and his family. News came that husband and father Stephen Balfour, a British colonial official interned by the Japanese in Hong Kong, had been killed by a stray American bomb just after his liberation.

After two months of waiting for berths on ships, my family and Nick’s joined an exodus across the Pacific. Like the Balfours, we stayed with friends in the United States before sailing to England, where home was our grandparents’ big house in Hampshire. During my postwar years in English boarding schools—another sort of imprisonment—America meant glamour and liberation. It still does, an association that began with those columns of GIs, who drove and fought for three days to set us free.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

, , , ,

Sponsored Content: