War Years

In March 1946, three sisters arrived at Ravenhill from Manila, Philippines- Sisters Marie Milagro, Marie Santiago and Mary Ethelburga.

The bonds between the American and Philippine Assumption communities had been strong since the foundation of Ravenhill and what must have been their chagrin when this telegram arrived on May 22, 1945:

“Assumption Sisters and building at Iloilo all safe. Manila buildings burned by Japanese. Sister Philomena killed instantly bullet. Sisters Demetria, Eulogia and Alfred died shrapnel. Sisters Gerard, Macaria and Marta Maria died effects of siege.” 

The three new arrivals became members of the growing Assumption in America. But before that, they had suffered greatly with the Filipino people during the war. In particular, Sr. Milagro who had taken refuge in the mountains until she was brought out on the back of an American soldier (she arrived at Ravenhill in GI boots) and Sr. Ethelburga, a British subject, who was incarcerated in the concentration camp at Los Baños, the site of one of the most daring prison camp rescue raids of World War II.

These sisters left testimonials of their experiences and we delve into telling their fascinating but little known stories.


Sister Ethelburga's Story: Japanese Occupation

Sr. Ethelburga was English. Educated at the Assumption School in London, she entered the Assumption in 1886 and made her novitiate at Auteuil, Paris, the Motherhouse of the Congregation. Somewhere after 1904 she was sent to Manila, Philippines where the Assumption school had just been re-opened following the Spanish-American War. In 1910, she was part of the foundation of the second Assumption community and school at Iloilo, on the island of Panay, where she served as principal and teacher of history, English and art. The photo shows the Iloilo community in 1912. Sr. Ethelburga is probably seated in the middle.  

Nine hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Clark Field in the Philippines. In the following days Japanese troops landed in Northern and Southern Luzon. After a few weeks of futile fighting to drive back the invaders, the American and Filipino forces retreated and on January 2, 1942 the Japanese took possession of the country. Like everybody else, the Religious of the Assumption were swept along by the course of events. There are many stories to tell. We have chosen to tell that of Sr. Ethelburga, who after living under house arrest from 1942, was interned at the Los Baños concentration camp in July 1944 when Japanese Military Police rounded up all enemy aliens, from the Allied Nations. Among them were 250 Catholic priests, seminarians, scholastics, and Sisters and an equal number of Protestant missioners and their families. After her liberation, Sr. Ethelburga came to the American Province in 1946 and died there in 1950. She left a written account of her experiences, excerpts of which we are posting here. It is to be noted that Sr. Ethelburga was 77 years old when she was interned at Los Baños. Here is her story in her own words.

"A few days after the arrival of the Japanese, an officer came to take the names of all the sisters living in the convent. He remarked that Sr. Maxima and I were British subjects. The Japanese officer said we might remain at the convent for the present and for a time we were allowed to remain as prisoners. Twice, we were called to present ourselves at a Japanese office in town. We went and came back in a closed automobile. At last however our fears were realized when on July 8th 1944 at seven o’clock in the morning (we were still in the chapel) a Japanese officer arrived with orders to take Sr. M. Maxima and myself away. Mother Teresa (superior) was very grieved and I felt her sorrow and distress much more than my own on leaving her, the sisters and the Convent. We learned later, that it was a general order. All the sisters, religious, Jesuits, priests, including the two bishops, Mgr. Jürgen of Tuguagarao and the Bishop of Surigao were taken from their residences and put under custody on that same day July 8th in the morning.

We were imprisoned in a small house at the end of our street, this was I may say, the military section, for the Japanese occupied the houses near us. Our sisters were allowed to send us food every day, clothes and some things we asked for. The Japanese guards only gave us a little rice three times a day.

On July 18th 1944, Mother Teresa and two sisters were allowed to come and see us for ten minutes as we were to leave for Manila the next day. It was a consolation, though a sad one, to see the sisters again, but the parting, with its uncertainties, was a real grief for us all. In the evening two Japanese officers came to inspect our baggage. We were allowed one valise and a parcel of bedding each. The officer after inspecting our baggage said to me: “Are all those teeth you have in your mouth yours?” – “No, I said, they are almost all false teeth.” – “Are they put in with gold,” he asked again, – “No, I replied, they are put in with a special cement which dentists have.” He looked at me distrustfully but did not insist. And I kept my teeth! If my teeth had been set in gold, I think he would have taken them from me.

The next morning we were taken to the port in a police wagon. We were put in the hold of a small boat with six men prisoners. Four of them were the fathers of some of our own pupils, they had been condemned to hard labour for hiding a radio. They were very gentlemanly and respectful but the conditions in which we were placed were very painful for us all. We had to take off our shoes, and to sit on the floor night and day. I did not lie down once during those eight nights. In the day time we stood up from time to time to change our position. Our voyage to Manila was very long because the boat went slowly and we stayed three days and three nights at Cebu. Three times a day the Japanese guards gave us a little rice and some water. Sometimes at 12 o’clock, a little green vegetable was added.

We left this awful boat on July 27th, in the afternoon and we were left standing in the railway station which was near. There the Japanese soldiers brought us our plate of rice and then we were made to march across the city of Manila to Fort Santiago. The six men prisoners were tied two by two and a Japanese soldier held the rope. Sr. Maxima and I were not tied, but two Japanese guards walked behind us. We could not have escaped even if we had wished to do so, for we could hardly walk, our legs were so painful and we were very weak. When we reached Fort Santiago we had to stand for an hour, then at last a police wagon arrived which took us to the University of Santo Tomas, which was used as a concentration camp. There, we were separated from our companions in misfortune and put in a shed for the night. Soon after a gentleman came in with a tray of supper for us. He whispered: “I am a Catholic priest.” (He was Fr. Hurley S.J.) On hearing that my heart jumped with joy. We had not seen a priest, nor heard mass since we had left the convent. We asked if we could have mass the next morning. Fr. Hurley said we could not as we had to leave very early; but he added that there were many priests at Los Baños, a chapel and we would have daily mass.

The next morning Fr. Hurley kindly brought us some breakfast, gave us a blessing and we started for the railway station in an auto with two Japanese soldiers. We were taken to the train and four Japanese soldiers stepped into the carriage and sat opposite us. When we arrived at the railway station at Los Baños we were put into an automobile and one Japanese soldier only got in and sat by the driver. When we reached the concentration camp he handed us over to the Japanese guards at the gate and withdrew. The fathers and sisters already there had been warned of our arrival and gave us a kind welcome. We remained in this camp from July 28th 1944 to February 23rd 1945.”


Sister Ethelburga's Story: Internment and Liberation at Los Baños 

Arrested by the Japanese along with other clergy, religious and lay people of Allied nationalities, Sr. Ethelburga was interned in the Los Baños concentration camp for eight months until the famous rescue operation of February 23, 1945 liberated over 2,100 civilians. Sister Ethelburga continues her personal first-hand account.

"Los Baños is in a valley surrounded by mountains. When we arrived there the camp was divided into two sections. The upper one occupied by priests and nuns, and the lower one by lay people. A few months later the Japanese took the lower section for their army and sent the lay people into our part. The barracks we lived in had nipa (dried grass) roofs and walls upheld by posts and beams of wood. One of these was arranged as a chapel. There were nearly 100 priests (and as many nuns), so we had many masses every day and the Blessed Sacrament always with us. We had exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on feast days, first Fridays, also on the first Sunday of every month when all the sisters made their monthly retreat. On those days the fathers gave conferences to the sisters, divided into different groups and we had the devotion of the Holy Hour in the evening presided over by the bishop of Tuguegarao, Msg. Jurgens who had been named by the apostolic delegate Bishop of the concentration camp with full jurisdiction. 

Sr. M. Maxima and myself were the only Assumption sisters, there were also one or two solitary members of different communities, but the greater number of religious had been arrested in groups. The bishop of Tuguegarao (Northern Luçon) and the bishop of Surigarao (Mindanao) had each a community of Franciscans of Mary, and one of priests. The Maryknoll sisters were 47 in number. There was also a community of Good Shepherd nuns and some sisters of the Holy Cross, a Canadian Congregation. 

Beside the Sacraments, the fathers gave us examples of virtues which I could never forget. They were obliged to march out of the camp every morning and afternoon in rank, guarded by Japanese soldiers. They were taken to the mountains around us where they had to cut wood, which they brought back to the camp on their shoulders. When there was no wood to be cut they had to plant vegetables under the tropical sun. One week two fathers fell down unconscious, these two were taken to the hospital, but the other fathers had to go on working the same as before. They had also to clean the kitchens, prepare and cook the food, do all the work in the camp. The sisters also had vegetable gardens and these kind fathers, in their free time, would help the sisters. They dug up the ground and brought pails of water for them. With all this they had always a cheerful smile, a kind word or a little joke when you met them. The women of the camp also worked in one big common room at sewing and did all the mending for the fathers and others. I was not allowed, being too old, but Sr. Maxima went every day and did her share. 

The fathers were not satisfied with giving us spiritual aid, they organized concerts for our entertainment. The Dutch fathers were very musical, they had their instruments and formed a real band. The Japanese had provided a harmonium for our chapel, a piano for the Protestant Chapel, and an extra piano for entertainments.  (The Japanese were polite at first as long as they hoped to remain in the Philippine Islands). The Jesuit scholastics gave recitations, some very amusing, and sang choruses. Every one, clergy or laity, who could help to make the program interesting, did so. The sisters also had opened classes for the children, a good number of them, boys and girls. In the evening we took our recreation with one or other of the groups of sisters, as a rule with the Maryknoll sisters who were extremely kind to us. The beauty of the nuns’ lives was remarked by the seculars.

We had elections about the government of the camp, the Provincial of the Maryknoll sisters and the Superior of the Good Shepherd nuns, represented all the sisters of all the different nationalities. 

During the first few months, we went three times a day to the kitchen in the middle of the camp to get our meals. At first the food was good and plentiful, but after a month or two, the Japanese authorities, as I have said, changed their attitude towards us. The food was brought to each barrack in large tin cans, (carried by the fathers and scholastics). We received gradually less and less food and what was given was of an inferior quality. About this same time we were subjected to many other annoying regulations. We were no longer allowed to walk about the camp. In answer to complaints, the Japanese authorities allowed the internees to walk up and down one path from 7 to 7:30 every evening. The space was so limited that very few could profit of this permission.

About this time a few of the young men escaped from the camp, one of these came back a few days later to bring news but he was unfortunately caught by the Japanese guards and shot. In spite of the increasing severity of the Japanese, news of the approach of the American army did get into the camp, and the very attitude of the Japanese made us believe that the news was true.

On New Year’s Day, an American plane flew low over the camp, and cheered us. The fliers evidently wished to make us understand that help was coming. On January 7, the Japanese guards left the camp for Manila. We were advised not to leave the camp, so we remained hoping and expecting relief. On the 14th the Japanese guards came back saying they had come back “to protect us!”

At the end of January 1945 Monsignor Jurgens decided to make a novena to the Blessed Virgin for rapid and effectual relief. The novena was made with great fervor by everybody, many Protestants came to the chapel and took part. It ended February 11th the Feast of our Lady of Lourdes. We did not know at the time, but we learned afterwards, that the American General who rescued us, received the order to do so on that very day. He spent that whole day making the plans which resulted in our deliverance. As relief did not come immediately some people were disappointed, so the bishop asked us to make a triduum. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (February 20-22), many Protestants soon joined us.   

The roll-call took place every morning at 7 o’clock and again in the evening, at 6 o’clock. That hour had been fixed for our execution of Thursday February 22nd. We were to be shot down as we stood on the road to be counted. (We were told this, but I do not know on what authority the news rested). As we came out of the barracks for the roll-call, two American planes circled over the road and flew down so low that the Japanese were afraid and put off their sinister design till the next morning. When the roll-call rang the next morning, (Friday, February 23rd) the American troops rushed into the camp and the Japanese began to escape in every direction. The Blessed Virgin had saved us.”

Here Sr. Ethelburga cites a newspaper article of February 27, 1945, and then continues…
“I will add a few details which the press does not give: We heard Mass as usual on the 23rd and after I returned to our room and just as I arrived I saw two Japanese soldiers run past the window and jump over the palisade. At the same moment I heard the planes. I looked out and saw the parachute troops dropping from the planes. At the same moment I heard the shouts of applause of the sisters at the end of our barrack. I ran out to join them, fortunately I did so for as I left our room someone fired through our window and wounded a young girl in the room opposite. Then the firing began on both sides and Mother de Chantal O.P. told us to seize what we could carry and escape from the camp. The Japanese seeing themselves outnumbered and defeated were setting fire to the barracks. The dried thatch walls and roofs burnt like paper. Nothing could stop the flames. So we took what we could carry and escaped to the gate. As we ran we felt the heat of the flaming buildings at some 10 yards each side of the road, on our faces. We were safe but most of us lost all except what they had on them. Priests and laymen, Catholics and Protestants devoted themselves to carry the sick out of the two hospitals on mattresses, planks, anything they could lay hold of. Every one gave proof of calm, courage, good sense and forgetfulness of self. Each one helped others. I did not hear anyone scream or cry or lament.

Outside the gate a number of big military wagons were waiting for us. The one I got into had two machine guns on it, one on each side, a soldier was seated at each gun. From time to time along the road we heard shots, our soldiers fired back, then all was quiet again and no one was hurt. Some cartridges fell in our wagon, I picked up 3 but three Maryknoll sisters begged me for them for souvenirs and I could not refuse. These wagons we were in were called amphibian tanks, because they could travel on land or on water, so when we reached the Laguna de Bay (a large lake) they plunged into the water and paddled across like ducks. When we came out of the water we took the road to Muntinlupa where we arrived at about 3:30 in the afternoon. The building which was put at our disposition by the government was the new prison. Sr. M. Maxima and I stayed there from February 23rd to March 5th. There were four large buildings in cement; windows with iron bars on each side… In different places in the enclosure, there were tents for the American soldiers who guarded us night and day, and other tents for the refugees who came in large numbers from different places. We went in line to the kitchen to fetch our food three times a day as we had done in Los Baños during the first months, and we ate it under tents prepared for us. As we were entirely under American rule the food was of very good quality and abundant. Everyone began to pick up strength again. There were no more nice concerts as at Los Baños, and I missed them, but the camp provided a movie for those who wanted to go to it. 

Since our arrival in Muntinlupa we had been made to understand that we would not remain there long, many American sisters were to be sent back to the United States and others to their own country as soon as possible. Fr. John F. Hurley S.J., who had recently formed the Catholic Welfare Organization to guide and help Catholics, especially religious, in these difficult times, sent for us to join some of our sisters from Manila who had taken refuge at Santiago Hospital, near St. Pedro Makati, a village not very far from Manila.

We were so glad to join our sisters, but I did feel very much leaving the Maryknoll Sisters, and the fathers and other sisters who had been so kind and generous to us. I will always retain a happy remembrance of these eight months spent with these different sisters. I will never forget the many examples they gave us. Their fervor, cheerfulness, patience, their fidelity to their rule, their religious spirit have left a lasting and most edifying impression.” 

For further reading:


“The Los Baños Raid: the 11th Airborne jumps at dawn” by Lt. General Edward Flanagan (1986)
“Rescue at Los Baños” by Bruce Henderson (2015)

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