Love of country is an old-fashioned virtue, but one grounded in an important truth: those who love their country, work hardest for its betterment and sacrifice the most for its ideals. In 240-plus years of American history, love of country has inspired many to go beyond self, putting their lives on the line for their nation and its ideals. We owe a great deal to those heroes who “in liberating strife, more than self their country loved,” as Katherine Lee Bates described them in “America the Beautiful.” And every February, my own family has special reason to be grateful to those heroes, because, without them, none of us would be here.
Our special date is February third, because on that Saturday night in 1945, the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry Division and its 44th Tank Battalion crashed through the iron gates of Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. Hundreds of young GIs liberated nearly four thousand American and Allied civilians. Those men, women, and seven hundred children had experienced captivity, disease, squalor, cruelty, and unrelenting hunger for more than three years. Many were dying of starvation. My mother, sixteen-year-old Leonore (“Lee”) Iserson, was among the cheering throngs who greeted the GIs that night.
Lee and her family, along with thousands of U.S. nationals, had been living and doing business in the Philippines (American territory before the war). They were caught off guard on December 8, 1941. Just hours after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Rising Sun forces attacked Clark Air Base in Manila and the U.S. fleet at Subic Bay. By Christmas, American troops under Douglas MacArthur marched out of the city, and on January 2, 1942, the Japanese marched in. Within a month the Imperial Japanese Army had imprisoned thousands of American and Allied civilians at the University of Santo Tomas, where they were held in deteriorating conditions for thirty-seven months.
On the night that GIs liberated them, young Lee was five-foot-five inches tall and weighed 93 pounds. Her equally tall mother, Agnes, was down to 87 pounds. Lee remembered that night well. “We girls were dressed up because it was a Saturday night, and there were rumors.” At 9 PM, when tanks with terrifyingly long guns crashed through the camp gates, internees at first feared the worst. Was this the Japanese military come to finish them off? But huge uniformed men with submachine guns walked beside the tanks, and a burly mountain of a man with machine gun in hand surged from the well of one tank. He shot a Japanese guard in a watch tower, and another tank wheeled around to take out a Japanese machine-gun nest near the Main Building.
Shouts of “They’re ours! They’re Americans!” rang out, and delirious internees swarmed the liberators, cheering, blowing kisses, and yes, climbing on the tanks. One GI shouted to an effusive matron: “Get out of the way, lady. We gotta a war to fight here!” And another yelled, “Moms and Dads, hold the kids! Don’t let them on the tanks!” The ex-prisoners had the presence of mind to back off a bit, and within an hour tanks Battlin’ Basic, Georgia Peach, Ole Miss, and San Antone had secured the camp. Behind them came dozens of jeeps and the tanks Block Buster and Crusader.
That night a battle raged outside the gates of Santo Tomas, and even within, a stand-off took place between liberating troops and Japanese soldiers holding hostages in the camp’s Ed Building. But joyful delirium reigned on the university’s front lawn. One gunner in the tank Ole Miss surveyed the jubilant civilian crowd and drawled, “We been liberatin’ jungles and swamps. Now, women and children—this is more like it!”
GIs tossed candy bars and Lucky Strikes to the hungry crowds, and children again scrambled up on the tanks to kiss them. In one corner of the university’s front lawn, a small group of internees started singing God Bless America. Their voices swelled, and as the din subsided, more grateful internees took up the song. Land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her. My grandmother’s husky alto voice rose for the first time in three years, as strains of Kate Smith’s signature song welled everywhere around them.
Lee recalled: “At that moment pride in my country, so deep that it was almost painful, rushed through me.” Through the night with the light from above. A crescent moon gleamed overhead and one brilliant star of the Southern Cross seemed to wink right at her. From the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam. On the banks of Manila Bay, the entire camp sang, Brits and Aussies happily joining in. Lee sang as loudly as she could. God bless America, my home sweet home. God bless America, my home sweet home! In the stillness after the last note, one of the GIs on the San Antone choked out, “I ain’t never heard that sung better.” Tears streamed down his face, and a deafening chorus of cheers erupted from the internees.
Throughout her life, Lee would reflect on her family’s extraordinary thirty-seven-month ordeal at Santo Tomas, but also, on the internees' unwavering faith in their country. “We were sure our boys would be back for us. We never gave up.” And neither did the U.S. armed forces, those hero-boys from Montana, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Mississippi and Ohio, who were prepared to put their own lives on the line for the freedom of their countrymen. God bless America. And God bless those who more than self their country love. -Mary Beth Klee