Archaeologists find mass grave of war volunteers in Malate

Published March 4, 2020, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin

By  Hanah Tabios 

More than seven decades after the Liberation of Manila in World War II, the remains of some notable war volunteers who helped ailing war victims at the historic Remedios Hospital have now been exhumed in an ongoing massive dig project in Malate, Manila.

Archaeologists from the University of the Philippines-Diliman were digging a potential human remains who died during the Liberation of Manila in World War II. (Hanah Tabios / MANILA BULLETIN)
Archaeologists from the University of the Philippines-Diliman were digging a potential human remains who died during the Liberation of Manila in World War II. (Hanah Tabios / MANILA BULLETIN)

This is the same private initiative that recently unearthed the memorial grave marker of notable Filipino scientist Maria Ylagan Orosa, who invented the banana ketchup recipe and was an unsung war hero known for her contributions to the field of food technology.

‘Fake news’

Early February, social media users were taken by storm after photos of Orosa’s grave surfaced online. The post, shared on a number of verified social media pages, said that after 75 years, her remains were found by a group of archaeologists involved in a dig project at Malate Catholic School in Manila.

While it was true that archaeologists from the University of the Philippines-Diliman were involved in the exhumation, the group, however, belied the initial claim and corrected what appeared to be false information.

“Along the way, we came across by accident, it was not expected but that’s again the nature of archaeology that we saw the grave marker of Maria Orosa,” archaeologist Andrea Cosalan, the project site director from the UP Archaeological Studies Program, said in an interview.

Cosalan is leading the nine-member team dig project privately funded by American writer and retired multinational bank executive Matthew Westfall, whose grand-uncle, Russian military officer Nikolai Procopoff, was among the victims of the infamous Remedios Hospital tragedy that occurred in February 1945.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean just because you have Maria Orosa’s grave marker there, that’s her. Kasi (Because) again, we know the original goal of the project was to see whether or not we can retrieve or we can find the remains of the original names of the deceased listed,” she added, referring to the original 12 people memorialized at the grounds of the former Remedios Hospital, where the Malate Catholic School is now.

“Wala siya sa (She’s not among the) original names na naka-inscribe doon sa memorial. Wala din siya sa (She’s not in the) photographs of the memorial, not to mention people who have been visiting the site in the ’50s and ’60s – wala silang (they have no) recollection na nandoon (that she’s there),” she said.

Orosa clan

But despite the misinformation, the commemorative event held last Feb. 13 did not stop the prominent Orosa clan from Bauan, Batangas from attending the occasion.

Among the attendees were the grandchildren of Maria Orosa, cousins Millete and Apolinario, whose parents were Maria’s siblings.

“My father was the younger brother of Maria Orosa. My father was Jose Ylagan Orosa.When she perished, when the hospital took a direct hit from a bomb, my grandmother send two of her grandsons—Augusto Orosa and Naring Orosa,” Millete said.

Now 93, Apolinario, who goes by the name ‘Naring,’ personally searched for Maria’s body after the allied bombing in Malate and Ermita, Manila.

Many years have passed and Apolinario found himself again in the same area where his beloved aunt was killed. But this time, his mission was different—to pay tribute to his ‘Tiya Mary.’

“Pumunta ako galing sa (I came from) Bauan, Batangas where we all stayed. We were trying to convince Maria Y. Orosa to evacuate with us, but she refused. She wanted to continue working in the Bureau of Plant Industry and with all the guer (guerrilla) that were there and take care of them. She was a very faithful government server, so she did not want to leave her post,” Apolinario recalled his ordeal. At the time, he was a 20-year-old lad.

“And then, the Americans came in Liberation. Ang balita namin namatay siya (We heard she was dead). Nabalitaan lang namin sa (We just heard about it in) Batangas, so I went to Manila. When I went from Bauan to Manila, I could not recognize Manila [because] everything was burned. There were no landmarks. I was in San Andres looking for the Bureau of Plant Industry [but] I could not find it because it was all sira (destroyed),” he added.

The situation of war-ravaged Manila was narrated by Pedro Picornell in his book “The Remedios Hospital 1942-1945: The Saga of Malate.” The author was one of the first volunteers of the Remedios Hospital. He was 21 years old at the time.

Pedro’s younger brother, 15-year-old Jimmy Picornell, also died at the hospital.

The Picornell family, including their four younger brothers, sisters, and a young maid all sought refuge in the hospital on Feb. 6, 1945. But some of them perished in the successive American shelling on Feb.12 and 13.

All their bodies, including Orosa’s, were interred in a mass grave.

Exhumed bones

On Tuesday (March 3), Westfall exclusively told the Manila Bulletin that the exhumation phase of the project has already unearthed around 24 co-mingled sets of human skeletal remains, including a femur embedded with a large piece of metal bomb shrapnel, skulls of infants recovered in a portion of a coffin-like metal box, a jawbone, and some human ribs.

He said one interesting aspect of the project is that it exceeded the team’s original estimate of 12 original war victims believed to be buried on the project site.

“Most were buried very recently after death, and were largely intact, while other sets of bones appearing to have been burned. This count closely tallies with one of the U.S. Army War Crimes transcripts of a Remedios Hospital worker who reported that he helped bury 19 people and burn 6 others, totaling 25 individuals, on 18 February 1945,” he said.

But Westfall said the exhumation might probably conclude in two days’ time to move on to the next phases of the project which are bone reconstruction and identification, and the exciting part which is the DNA analysis.

In fact, what only started as a private initiative for the purpose of giving honor to a family member who died in the war has now reconnected families of the deceased and seemingly lost war victims of the Remedios Hospital tragedy.

The Remedios Hospital

When the Second World War erupted, the Remedios Hospital became a symbol of hope for all civilian volunteers and even for those who were wounded in the war.

“The building of the Malate Catholic School had been converted into an emergency hospital by the Philippine Red Cross at the beginning of the war and had seen some activity in early in December when it handled some of the civilian casualties [from] the bombings of Cavite. The fact that it had been declared Red Cross Emergency Hospital No. 5 was probably the reason why this building was not taken over by the Japanese when they entered Manila,” Pedro narrated in his book.

In late 1943 until 1944, food and medicine supplies grew scarce and the donations from the residents of Malate and Ermita also started to decline.

But he said: “By this time, the Remedios Hospital had also become a center for sending supplies to various guerrilla groups operating around Manila and dividing what little we had among the American prisoners-of-war, internees, and local guerrilla groups.”

Maria Orosa was also a guerrilla captain at the time she was serving as the head of the government’s food preservation division. She joined Marking’s Guerillas founded by then-colonel Marcos V. Agustin to combat the Japanese forces. Orosa helped to smuggle preserved food to war prisoners, primarily at the Santo Tomas Interment Camp in the University of Sto. Tomas (UST).

However, during the American shelling, the prominent Filipino scientist was hit by shrapnel in her heart, ironically by those to whom she had extended help. She was brought to Remedios Hospital and was among the hundreds of people killed during the allied bombing.

“The situation became completely irrational. The Japanese started shooting at civilians, particularly as they left burning homes or tried to attend to the wounded. They also started burning houses with gasoline, shooting people, throwing hand grenades into crowded underground shelters, and if they could, gathering groups of civilians and shooting and bayoneting them where they stood. In many cases, women were raped before being shot or bayoneted,” Pedro wrote.

“As the intensity of American shelling increased, more and more refugees braved the Japanese marines to get into the Remedios Hospital, with the hope that the big red crosses painted on the roof would protect them.”

But as the war escalated, the hospital became completely devastated as it suffered major damage. The successive American bombardment also killed the then-prominent Irish priest Fr. John Lalor, the hospital’s director and chaplain.

His remains were first buried in front of the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in the hospital’s courtyard. But years later, they were transferred to a niche in the wall of the Malate Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, the mass grave of volunteers and those who died during the Liberation of Manila can be found at the hospital’s former entrance where Orosa’s memorial marker was found. But the experts believe her remains were buried somewhere at the north end of Malate Catholic Church’s courtyard.