Grace Triumphant - Chapter 17 - Homeward Bound!

Homeward Bound!

“Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee; according to the greatness of thy power preserve thou those that are appointed to die.” (Psa. 79:11)

The Lord indeed had heard our groans and had preserved us.  Now we were to spend six weeks in Bilibid waiting for repatriation.  The military authorities hadn’t been able to prepare adequately for us.  Anna and Rose slept on a hard cement floor for several nights before blankets were provided.  The boys and I were on those hard metal bunks.  Food was supplied, but it seemed to us somewhat limited.  Then we learned that in Santo Tomas Camp food had been abundant. The Red Cross even brought in coffee and donuts.  The hungry internees there gorged themselves and suffered for it.  Many were quite sick.  So at Bilibid they limited us at first for our own good.  But the interns found the garbage dump—bright shiny cans were still considered treasures.  Also in many of those cans some food remained!  The G.I.’s couldn’t understand their fellow Americans.  To us we couldn’t understand why they would complain about the food.  They turned up their noses at scrambled eggs made from canned powdered eggs—we thought it was gourmet.  After all we hadn’t tasted eggs for months.  One day the fragrant aroma of newly-baked bread assailed our nostrils—we hadn’t smelt anything like that in years!  To our dismay they wouldn’t let us have any until the next day.  At the first they needed to fly in food by parachute drops as the trucks couldn’t get through fast enough.

The second day an MK (missionary kid) told me some fellow was asking about “Plymouth Brethren” missionaries.  I soon located Homer Grob working with the hospital unit set up there.  Homer was from Cleveland and in later years came back to the Philippines as a missionary for a while.  Through him we met some other Christians and had some good fellowship together.  In the evenings we would spread a blanket on the ground and have a time sharing the Word together.  Sometimes we also shared some of the goodies they could obtain.  Those were refreshing times of spiritual uplift for all of us.

A number of wounded Filipino civilians were being cared for in the hospital, and we learned that our good friend Maria Calica was a patient there.  Mr. and Mrs. Calica and their family lived on the Canlubang Sugar Estate in Laguna.  We had come to know them through Mrs. Dayton and her family who also came from there.  In May 1941, the boys and I with a Filipino evangelist had made an evangelistic trip to a number of towns.  We spent a night in Canlubang then, had a gospel meeting, and stayed in the Calica home.

In the hospital in Bilibid she told me her story.  In the fighting around Canlubang, a shell had demolished their house and her son had been killed.  She and other members of the family had been injured, and they had lost all their earthly possessions.  She had saved her Tagalog Bible and showed me how many pages were stained with her blood.  What could I say to comfort this dear sister?  It was she who comforted me!  Through her tears she said, “But we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.”  She was a woman of much prayer and triumphant faith.  Up until the time she passed away some 35 years later she remained a faithful prayer partner.  There in the hospital she asked me to get her some Testaments or gospel portions from the chaplain if possible.  She was having a Bible class and witnessing to other patients as they gathered around her bed.  In the 1950’s it was in her home in Canlubang that we had a part in helping in the formation of a local church.

Naturally we were concerned about the believers in San Juan, the chapel, and our home.  Some news came to us through meeting Ismael Alfonso, one of the young fellows from San Juan.  He was driving a truck for the Americans.  Manila was still not safe as many Japanese snipers were holding out in big buildings and the Walled City.  With the help of the chaplain we got passes for the boys and me to ride into Manila with the chaplain in his jeep.  What a scene of ruin and destruction as we drove through the south side of the city!  For blocks and blocks there was nothing but ruins.  The retreating Japanese had gone on a rampage as they realized that only a small minority of Filipinos had been won over by their propaganda.  We heard many stories of the atrocities.  Some Spanish and better-class Filipinos took refuge in the chapel of the La Salle College; it was no safe sanctuary for most of them were brutally murdered there.

Most of the bridges across the Pasig had been blown up and replaced with temporary “Bailey” bridges.  The chaplain took us to Santo Tomas and warned us to be back there by five o’clock as there was a curfew from dusk to dawn.  Anyone on the street would be shot, either by Japanese snipers or by patrolling troops.  There were no kinds of transportation so we walked out to San Juan and called on some of the Christians.  Some were still in their homes for there had been little destruction in that area.  Others had fled to the provinces and generally had suffered loss.  One sister and her child had died from sickness while they were fleeing.  An American Bazooka bomb had exploded in front of the chapel.  The building was riddled with holes from the fragments, but we could not see any structural damage.  Our home was intact and empty with some damage to fixtures by previous occupants.

Returning to Santo Tomas, we spent the night there and met some of our friends who related their stories of God’s preserving care for them.  The next day we returned to Bilibid.  In our walking through the city there had been times when we hardly recognized where we were.  It was helpful to assess the situation there as we prayed for guidance from the Lord about our future.  Should we stay on and re-establish the work at San Juan?  Or should we go home for a badly needed and much delayed furlough?

There was an obvious need to help the Filipino believers through the time of re-gathering and rebuilding.  The chapel needed extensive repairs and the work needed to be reorganized.  Also, it was necessary to see about our home, involving legal matters and repairs.  On the other hand, we hadn’t been home for over seven years.  Our health had been seriously impaired by months of starvation diet.  The children needed to resume their education.  Our loved ones were anxious to see us.

The authorities gave us a choice.  They would take us home then by troopship or we could stay on.  If we stayed, it would be months, perhaps years, before other shipping would be available.  Also, it was uncertain how soon normal mail service and banking facilities would be available.  As we prayed about this matter with a sense of urgency because we had to sign up for one or the other, we felt led to decide that if our home could be disposed of that would be an indication we should go home.

We were able to make another trip into Manila.  Len’s Spanish friends had been living in the home of other American friends.  The latter was an electrical contractor and on his release from Los Banos foresaw big business opportunities in the rebuilding ahead.  He wanted his house back, and the Spanish friends were therefore looking for another place to live.  Naturally there was a housing shortage, so they asked Len if I would sell to them.  The offer they made was not excessive, and it would probably have been possible to ask for more; but it was reasonable and later I calculated it covered all I had ever put into that house.  Also the arrangements were made for them to assume the remaining small mortgage, pay off loans owed to Chinese who had befriended us in our need, and deposit some in the bank for a future home.  All of this added up to a clear indication that we should return home.

What about the work in San Juan?  God provided for that also.  Homer Grob was transferred to a medical unit close to San Juan.  With other fellows they helped repair the chapel and encourage the believers.  Regular services were resumed and the testimony continued.  Some of the older Christians still remember with affection the friendship and loving service of these servicemen.  This happened in a number of places.  Christian G.I.’s fellowshipped with the small groups of Filipino believers and helped rebuild their chapels and homes.  This was much more obvious with Protestants than with Roman Catholics.  It was one factor that paved the way for times of blessing and outreach with the gospel in the post-war years, but it did not benefit the Filipinos alone.  Many of those servicemen saw the spiritual need and the opportunity for missionary work.  Some years later I estimated that more than half of the new missionaries were ex-chaplains and ex-servicemen.

On April 9 it was our turn to leave Bilibid by truck.  We had been given some Red Cross kits with toothbrushes and toothpaste, safety razors for men, and toiletries for women.  Also, we had been issued some army fatigues and boots.  Prior to that, we had one pair of shoes left.  It wasn’t a case of “Can I have the car this evening?”

On the way, we marveled at the huge stocks of supplies piled high on vacant lots.  There were no warehouses to hold them.  To Filipinos who had been deprived of so much for years, these supplies presented a big temptation.  Many of those items were being sold in the black market.  Hundreds of jeeps were stolen and converted into the famous Manila jeepney.  The U.S. Navy traced one jeep to a body shop where it was being converted.  As soon as the work was completed they confiscated it.  Shortly after they were presented with a bill for the work done!  Whether it was ever paid, I don’t know.

In the Manila North harbor we boarded a large troopship, S.S. Admiral Eberle.  The women were segregated in the forepart and men towards the stern.  We were in canvas bunks four deep, so if we drew up our knees we bumped the fellow above.  The air conditioners didn’t cool it but did keep the air fresh.  The ship was clean but hot.  No one was allowed on deck after dark, so we lay on our bunks with the perspiration running off us.

After a couple of days we pulled into anchorage in Leyte Gulf.  Flags were half-mast and we learned President Roosevelt was dead.  Then who succeeded him?  Some of the crew said, “Harry Truman.”  “Who’s he, never heard of him.”  We had been completely out of touch with what had been going one.  We left Leyte in convoy with destroyer escorts.  Each morning one member of the family stood ready with a blanket when the hatches opened, then dashed to claim a spot on the deck for that day.  With 3000 internees, rotating troops and crew, there were over 5000 on that ship.  Deck space was not for promenading but for sitting, as there was no room for anything else.  Woe betide the hapless individual caught by the Marine guards without a life belt around his or her waist.  Those belts would have been good for reducing except we didn’t have anything to reduce.

We ran through a storm and felt sorry for the crews of the destroyer escorts as they wallowed through the waves.  That night the ship rolled and pitched and we had to hold on to stay in our bunks.  A fellow across from me had put his dentures in a tin plate under his bunk and with fascination we watched his dentures sliding back and forth across the deck.

One evening we pulled into the reef-bound island of Ulithi in the Caroline Islands.  We looked with amazement at the fleet of ships being assembled there for an assault on the mainland of Japan.  After replenishing supplies, we pushed on across the Pacific in beautiful weather.  Usually two meals a day were served on those ships, but because of the needs of the internees they served us three meals.  That meant the chow lines were almost continuous.  After our years of deprivation it hurt us to see so much food wasted and left on the trays.  To this day the customary waster of food in the average American home or restaurant is still most deplorable.  In boyhood days we couldn’t leave the table until our plates were clean.  With millions around the world starving to death it is high time Americans awoke to the sin of waste.

A Coast Guard combo played what is called “music” on deck each day to the delight of some and boredom of others.  Some years later in Manila, we met Redd Harper or “Mr. Texas” of one of the early Billy Graham films.  We learned then that he was in that combo but not yet saved.  After he was saved he would not play any of the worldly music.  His talents were devoted to the Lord to sing his praises.

One Sunday evening a chaplain held a service in one of the dining halls.  He announced his text was Acts 16:31 so we really expected a good gospel message.  After all, how can one preach on that verse and not proclaim the way of salvation?  That chaplain managed to do just that.  Never once did he tell his audience what it meant to believe in Christ.  I was just wishing he would give me five minutes!

One day the ship pulled into the bay off Honolulu, just long enough to pick up a number of customs, immigration, and FBI officials.  They were to process the civilians for landing in Los Angeles.  The original destination was San Francisco but was changed because of the conference for the formation of the United Nations organization then being held in San Francisco.  Ken saw the officials in suits, white shirts, and ties and came to us, “Did you see those fellows?  They sure look spiffy!”  Quite a contrast to our shabby apparel.  We realized we were facing a cultural gap even though we were coming home.

Between Honolulu and Los Angeles we were screened by those officials.  We still had our British passport.  Our original Canadian passport had been cancelled because we had lost our Canadian status by being out of that country for more than five years on our first term.  Holding a British passport, it was presumed that we would be proceeding to Britain.  Although I had my brother George in England, I had no intention of going there under war conditions.  The FBI men showed considerable interest about the U.S. dollars in my possession and that was quite natural.  They seemed satisfied with my explanation.  Some dollars were given to us by the British authorities in Manila for travel expenses to be repaid on demand.  There had never been any such demand.  Then the rest were U.S. dollars given as a down payment on our house.  I had no idea where the Spanish buyers obtained dollars.  We were questioned again about this on our arrival in Los Angeles where again they accepted my explanation.

Because of the crowded conditions and strict discipline on the ship there were no opportunities to gather together for services or Bible study.  There was no privacy even for family devotions.  So our spiritual exercises were mostly limited to our own private devotions and Bible reading.  But it was also a restful time to review all the way in which the Lord had led us.  Not only to review the past but also consider what the future would hold for us.  Of one thing we were very sure: the Lord would not fail us.  For three years we had been cut off entirely from contacts with the homelands.  There had been many trials, many dangers seen and unseen, many testings of faith.  The Lord was faithful through it all.  So we could face the future with confidence in Him.

When we got home, that absence of news about folks at home proved very embarrassing at times.  With older friends we were embarrassed to ask about their partners for fear they might have gone home to be with the Lord.  On one occasion I was greeting a lady who had graciously entertained us in her home some years before.  Then she and her husband had a delightful little boy.  Innocently, I inquired about her son and the dear sister burst into tears.  Then I learned that this only son had passed away some time previously.  It was most embarrassing for her and for me, but I thought I could safely inquire about a young boy.

It was on May 2, Anna’s birthday, that our ship docked at Long Beach.  What a birthday present—also for Ken whose birthday was the previous day.  Excited troops and internees lined the rails.  Not many relatives would be there because our arrival was not announced until we had safely arrived.  As soon as the gangplank was in place, one G.I. rushed down to kiss the soil of the good U.S.A.  No doubt many times he had wondered if he would ever see it again.

It didn’t take long to clear customs, for none of us were weighed down with baggage.  That morning Anna had turned her ankle so was somewhat crippled.  When the Red Cross ladies noticed this they took special care of us.  We should not go on the buses to Los Angeles; they would provide a car and driver for us.  This took a bit of time and then on the way we had a flat tire.  We helped fix this and finally arrived at the Elks Club, where we were to be processed, in the early evening.

Perhaps the most impressive sight as we drove along were the stalls of fruit in apparent abundance—how different from what we had left behind.  Yet people grumbled about shortages and rationing of some items.  Many evidently hadn’t faced up yet to the realities of war.  The Red Cross had taken over the Elks Club facilities to care for the needs of internees.  They were ready to provide hotel accommodations, travel arrangements, communications with loved ones, and even ration books were on hand.  While I took care of such business, Anna was taken upstairs to a lounge where she could rest.  Rose came along with a big orange which someone had given her.  I asked her why she hadn’t eaten it.  She was waiting until we could all get together so she could divide it equally.  For months everything we had had been divided that way, but those days were over!  She could go ahead and eat it all herself.  We would get ours in due time.  We were home at last!

“And though by storms assailed, And though by trials pressed,
Himself our Life, He bears us up, Right onward to the rest.”