1945 Battle of Manila: What We Have Lost from the War

As the nation ends its commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Manila, it is time to look retrospectively at what we have lost. Many do not realize the intensity of that battle, that razed the capital of the Philippines to the ground. The battle was the fiercest of all the urban warfares in the Pacific theater of the Second World War. It was also the first urban fighting that the Americans have experienced. Moreover, around 100,000 men, women and children (many of whom were mercilessly murdered or indiscriminately killed by Imperial Japanese soldiers) perished as a result. After the battle, Manila became the second most destroyed Allied capital in World War II, next to Warsaw, Poland. William Manchester wrote:

“The destruction of Manila was one of the greatest tragedies of World War II. Of Allied capitals in those war years, only Warsaw suffered more. Seventy percent of the utilities, 75 percent of the factories, 80 percent of the southern residential district, and 100 percent of the business district was razed.”

Heritage advocates agree that the city, 70 years after, has never fully recovered. Even up to now, many of the buildings that survived that battle are in danger of being demolished, while some have already succumbed to the apathy of the city government and the greed of corporations. The scale of destruction brought about by the battle was so immense that it left a lasting mark in Filipino consciousness.

Let us look at the intangible things we have lost.


(from the research of Vernon Totanes, head librarian of the Rizal Library, Ateneo de Manila University):

Out of 300,000 volumes in the National Library, only 5,000 were saved. Around 500 were saved directly by Professor H. Otley Beyer at his house. In the University of the Philippines Library, out of 198,000 volumes, only 1,167 survived. In the famous Tabacalera Library, the finest collection of Filipiniana books, of the 4,623 titles, only 1,500 survived. Imagine tons and tons of materials on precolonial and Spanish Philippines, forever lost from human memory. 


Among all the films that was incinerated by the fires of the Battle of Manila, only five survived: Zamboanga (1936), Pakiusap (1938), Giliw ko (1938), Tunay na Ina (1938), Ibong Adarna (1941). The last one, Ibong Adarna, was discovered by film historian Nick Deocampo hidden in an archive in the United States in 2004. What makes the said film special was that it used matte painting as part of its visual effects—one of the first films in the world that used the technique. The newly restored reel was relaunched and shown in the the UP Film Center Theater on April 2005, renaming the theater Cine Adarna, in honor of the recovered film. I was privileged to have seen the showing myself as an undergraduate student. 

Paintings and other artifacts

The National Museum lost around 2,500 paintings, sculptures and other art pieces, including artifacts such as the original musical notes of Julian Felipe’s Marcha Nacional Filipina (our national anthem), and the supposed bones of Andres Bonifacio. Now we would never really get to the bottom of that mystery of whether or not those remains were really Bonifacio’s. 


(Photo of the Tranvia at Escolta, from John Tewell)

Before the jeepney, there was the tranvia. Similar to San Francisco Cable Car System, the Manila tranvia was installed by the Americans in 1903, and has been the popular public utility vehicle in the city from 1905 to 1944. When the high officials of the Japanese sponsored Second Philippine Republic moved from Manila to Baguio in December 1944, the tranvia partially operated until its ceasing of operations just before the Battle of Manila. After the war, there was a resolve to revive the tranvia lines but because of the surplus of American Jeeps in the country, these were used as the city’s new public utility vehicle eventually leading to the abandonment of the tranvia and the proliferation of the Philippine jeepneys. 

Architectural Wonders

We have many beautiful buildings and heritage houses in Manila lost forever due to the battle. Many of them have never been rebuilt. Even the walls of Intramuros, surviving the Spanish and American periods, never survived the Battle of Manila. Of all the seven Catholic churches in Intramuros, only San Agustin Church survived. After the war, only the San Agustin and the Manila Cathedral was restored. The Insular Life Building at Plaza Moraga, Binondo, once the tallest skyscraper in the city (7 floors) was burned to the ground by the Japanese forces and was never rebuilt. The Crystal Arcade in Escolta, one of the finest examples of Philippine Art Deco, was one of the first buildings to be burned by the Japanese in early February 1945. After the war, there was an attempt to renovate it but it succumb into neglect and has never been completely rebuilt. Another beautiful building was the Hotel de Oriente, which was also heavily damaged by the Battle of Manila. It fell into disuse and was eventually demolished. The beautiful Protestant church, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Mary and St. John, was also one of the casualties of the battle. Destroyed by shelling, the church edifice was also never rebuilt. On its site rose the Manila Pavilion Hotel. 


Out of the approximately 1 million population of the City of Manila, approximately 100,000 civilians perished, many of whom died from mass murders implemented by the Imperial Japanese forces. Women, men, children, even infants were not spared by the Imperial Japanese forces. Some died of indiscriminate American shelling, and hunger. 

Amidst the great loss, we are left with what we have now. But there is one thing we have gained amidst this great loss. Marcial Lichauco, former Philippine ambassador who survived the Battle of Manila wrote in his diary dated February 24, 1945:

To our country as a whole, this war may prove to be a blessing in disguise after all. For although prior to the outbreak of hostilities we were already assured of independence in 1946, a large section of our populace awaited with dread and fear the advent of that great day. Even our leaders seemed to feel that we were not mentally ready and economically prepared for the serious responsibilities which lay ahead of us. A generation of easy living had made us soft. We were adhering to standards of living far beyond our means and enjoying luxuries which we could never hope to have after the loss of the American market. We were beginning to be afraid of independence and the sacrifices that it would require from all of us…

Now the situation is different. 

We have suffered and we have bled. We have learned that material comforts are nothing and that freedom is everything… Before the war few nations knew much about the Philippines and the Filipino people. Today the whole world knows us and every man and woman living in the Islands is proud to be a Filipino. The future, of course, is by no means alluring. There are still many hardships and difficulties ahead of us. We may stumble and we may fall, but we shall rise again with courage and renewed hope. And we will win in the end for we are no longer afraid. 

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the 1945 Battle of Manila, the gruelling battle for the liberation of the city that lasted from February 3 to March 3, 1945.

Photo above: Artistic rendition of “The Battle over Southern Manila” by Rodolfo Y. Ragodon as featured in The Sunday Times Magazine dated April 23, 1967. From the photo collection of the Presidential Museum and Library

Marine F4U Corsairs in the SW Pacific.  This photo brings back some memories of the Black Sheep Squadron TV show.  I know the show was not accurate in representing the squadron, but the flying sequences were always very nice.

Twitter: @thomasguettler

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