Manila American Cemetery is the largest American battle monument from World War II. There are more than 17,000 graves and the names of a further 36,000 missing in action are inscribed on the memorial. Despite its brutal origins the cemetery is one of the most peaceful places in the city stretching across over 150 acres of immaculately maintained land.
Today the cemetery is surrounded by the high rises of Bonifacio Global City, newly developed since 2000 on the grounds of an old army base. During our time in Manila we lived in one of these high rises that overlooks the cemetery. One of our neighbours was the representative of the American Battle Monuments Commission, responsible for the management of the cemetery.
Before arriving in Manila I never knew the extent of the destruction of the city during the war. In 1945 with Japanese defenders dug in and willing to fight to the death the U.S. Army and Filipino resistance fighters had to fight street by street to retake the city leading to the most intense urban warfare seen in the Pacific theatre.
The U.S. military initially tried to avoid the use of high explosive weapons with hundreds of thousands of Filipino civilians trapped in the city, many held hostage by the Japanese forces. But in the face of mounting casualties the U.S. eventually concluded there was no other option and started using heavy artillery against the Japanese.
In the month long battle over 1,000 American soldiers died, more than 16,000 of the 17,000 Japanese military personnel died and at least 100,000 Filipino civilians were killed, with some estimates suggesting up to 200,000 may have died. Of these civilians many were killed by the U.S. artillery fire, while tens of thousands were massacred by the Japanese, bayoneted or burned alive, often after being raped and tortured. The commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, was later tried for war crimes and executed.
Back in the 1980’s I knew a veteran of WWII who had served with the RAF. Towards the end of the war his unit had been deployed to Singapore and was there when British prisoners of war liberated from Japanese prisoner of war camps began their journey home. He never told me what they told him, but to the day he died Jimmy refused to have anything Japanese in his house. He had no issue buying German made products, yet it seemed the brutality of the Japanese military was of a different order.
Manila itself was razed to the ground, destroyed as completely as Berlin or Tokyo. Only a handful of buildings survived or were worth restoring. Manila was once renowned for its fine Spanish architecture, and under American rule neoclassical and art deco style dominated. Today, after the destruction of the war, the rapid rebuilding, and the chaotic expansion of the city, nobody could call Manila beautiful, and I speak as someone who loves the place.
Despite all that the country and the city suffered during the war I could detect no animosity towards Japanese people among the Filipinos I met. I think this is remarkable but this generosity of spirit seems to be a national trait. Coming from Northern Ireland, where we clutch our animosities tightly through generations, this is particular noticeable. Yes, Manila can be a violent place, and some of the conflicts in the country have been, and are, brutal, yet there is an openness, a willingness to accept and welcome former enemies that is quite remarkable.
- Manila American Cemetery at the American Battle Monuments Commission website.
- Philippines Government website on the Battle of Manila (not all the links work but there is a lot of good information here).
A Note on the Photographs
Normally I shoot in colour and decide afterwards whether to process particular shots in black and white but in this instance I decided from the outset to shoot in black and white and set the camera up accordingly. (I was shooting in RAW so technically they are not black and white but I had the viewfinder set to black and white). The weather was perfect, with the rain holding off but a beautifully textured and tonally diverse grey sky. Blue skies and direct sunlight are the worst possible conditions for shooting in the cemetery since the strong edges of the architecture generate harsh shadows. Add to that the very light coloured stone used and the end result is extreme dynamic range from the near black shadows to the highly reflective bright stonework. The grey skies eliminate the harsh shadows and allowed the texture and structure of the stonework to be displayed.