Starweek Magazine

Lost And Found

- John L. Silva -

What an incredible year this has been! I liken it to looking up to the night sky and seeing millions of glittering stars. They were all just beautiful stars until October last, when it turned out, one of those stars actually belonged to me.

A woman alights from the hotel van with her two daughters. They’re Australian and it’s their first visit to the Philippines. My sister Marie and I look at the older woman intently. She flashes a smile and says “Finally.” We hug her tightly and cry.

Before October and the sixty other Octobers past, she was an Australian working and living in Brisbane. Today, thanks to my sister Marie’s persistent research and the Internet, we are hugging our newly found half-sister named Isabel Castner and her daughters Angie and Jacqui.

World War II is the starting point of this story. General Douglas MacArthur, retreating in April 1942 from the Philippines to Australia, said to a reporter upon arrival that he was organizing a counter-offensive against Japan, “the primary objective of which is the relief of the Philippines. I came through and I shall return.”

Three months later, MacArthur set up the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) with headquarters in Brisbane, a combined Australian and American team intercepting and decoding all Japanese radio transmission in the Pacific. A Philippine Regional Section of the AIB was also established to train and send soldiers to the Philippines to collect intelligence, transmit Japanese troop movements and support the resistance.

At the outbreak of the war, our dad, Saturnino (Tony) Ramos Silva, a graduate of San Francisco State College, was one of 7,000 Filipinos in the United States that immediately enlisted in the US Army to help in the liberation of their homeland. After extensive interviews, he, along with 500 volunteer Filipinos, were chosen and flown to Australia to undergo the AIB’s commando and reconnaissance training for secret missions in the Philippines.     

Dad arrived in Australia in May 1943 and was brought to Camp X (Camp Tabragalba) in Beaudesert outside of Brisbane. They shuttled between that camp and the Canungara Jungle Warfare School where they trained for the next 10 months in infiltrating enemy lines, demolition techniques, sniper fire, and hand-to-hand combat.  They also learned to track troop and transport movements and later, radio the information to AIB headquarters, a two-story mansion on 21 Henry Street in Brisbane.

Military historians would say the very demanding espionage course and physical training in Canungra prefigured the CIA and Green Berets training after the war.

Like many soldiers and especially one sent on a secret mission, Dad recounted little about the horror of his war experiences to his children. But on rare nights, after dinner, when it was storytelling time, he talked about his training. They were marched into a jungle with just a knife, a matchbox, and a compass. The challenge was to keep oneself alive. Tempers flared between the Filipinos and the American soldiers and racial slurs erupted. Being called monkeys made Dad furious. In our living room, he’d relive that moment in the jungle, and crouching, assumed a boxing stance. His eyes flared and his mouth tightened as his fists pounded the air knocking down a phantom twice his size. He’d always laugh loud in the end, with his arms akimbo and his chest pushed forward. He’d recall his bloodied face and those of his fellow Filipinos, but the moral to his story was never accept prejudice from anyone, intoning this over and over again.

Dad never let on to us children that there was more to the jungle training in Australia.  Given the secrecy of their assignment, Filipino privates could not leave camp. As an officer though, Dad was allowed weekend furloughs and, with other officers, made their way to downtown Brisbane. It was in a Chinese restaurant that Lt. Tony Silva first met Private Priscilla Conanan of the Australian Women’s Auxiliary Service (A.W.A.S.) and fell in love. From photos of that period, Priscilla was a very beautiful Filipino-Australian.

It was a surprise enough to know we had additional kin, but even more remarkable that they would be Filipino-Australian. How and when did the Conanans get to Australia?  How did they wind up in Brisbane? That’s another remarkable story.

Native men of the Spanish Philippine colony were recruited as deck hands as early as the 16th century for the Spanish fleet that made incursions throughout Asia and for the galleons that plied the profitable trade between Manila, Acapulco, and on to the rest of the Americas and Spain. Small Filipino communities were recorded in the ports of Barcelona and Louisiana by the mid-19th century. By the late 19th century, revolts and uprisings occurred in the colony and, if they were not executed, many Filipino revolutionaries were exiled or fled to Guam, the Marianas, Hong Kong and Singapore. There were also Filipinos, given the economic hardships in the colony, who decided to leave and settle in places where their skills could be of use.

The Queensland Australian Filipino Chamber of Commerce cites the first Filipino settlers arriving in the Torres Strait, in Northern Australia in 1880. They bore surnames like Cruz, Cunanan, Caballo, Escobar, Pere, Alfonso, Segovia, Belfonte, Cesar and Tolentino, all residing on Thursday Island. 

Around 1880, Tolentino Conanan, a pearl diver, settled on Thursday Island around the time pearl, trochus and beche-de-mer industries were being developed in northern Australia. Conanan may have been successful in his occupation for he sailed to Hong Kong in 1890 and married a Portuguese woman named Emelia Constantina Da Souza, bringing her back to Thursday Island to raise five children, two girls and three boys. After the required ten years of residence, Conanan was naturalized a British subject in 1892. By 1902 the family had moved to Darwin and one of the boys, Elias, married Lorenza Ceasar whose Filipino father also settled in the Northern Territories the same time as Conanan.

Elias and Lorenza had ten children, one of them Priscilla, Isabel’s mother. When Darwin was bombed in 1942 by Japanese fighter planes, a brother of Elias died in the bombing and the family evacuated to Brisbane. A year later, in a Chinese restaurant in Brisbane, the fateful meeting between Priscilla and Tony occurred.

Several people were unhappy about their love affair. Priscilla recounted that both her parents were opposed to Lt. Silva because they had such a brief courtship and he was 15 years older than her. Priscilla’s friends were not pleased with her choice because of a rule banning Australian privates fraternizing with American officers. And even Supreme Pacific Commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur disapproved of the liaison and engagement. After all, Lt. Silva was on temporary training in Australia and being readied for a dangerous assignment in the Philippines.

Nothing stopped the couple and with a marriage request order approved by the camp’s commander while MacArthur was away, Priscilla and Tony were married on January 8, 1944 at Canungara Base Camp with reluctant family members and soldier friends in attendance. A camp newsletter described the bride, dressed in white organdy, looking “gorgeous and lovely.”  The camp commander gave the bride away since the disapproving parents threatened not to appear, but relented and showed up late.

The marriage was brief. Three days into their honeymoon, Lt. Silva was called and ordered to proceed with his mission. With four other Filipino soldiers under him, they boarded the submarine Narwhal on February 14, 1944 at Port Darwin with 70 tons of supplies, ammunitions and guns, for the underwater journey through the Celebes Sea, skirting Borneo and eluding Japanese ships, crossing the Sulu Sea to reach the shores of Mindanao. Their order stated “an indefinite return date” and their secret assignment “…will not be attached to any recognized military unit while in station.” The Allied Intelligence Bureau would disavow their connection to them if they were caught. He left Priscilla in Australia pregnant with Isabel. She didn’t know where he was going and would not hear from him until three years later.

Tony sent three letters to Priscilla from the Philippines but these came to her after the war was over. Army censors delayed or confiscated letters and were much more severe with secret missions. The absence of letters, a mission with no guarantee of survival, and the lengthy days took its toll on their tenuous marriage. Less than a year after arriving in Mindanao, Tony met a young nurse named Ester Peralta. They fell in love, had their union blessed by a guerrilla priest, and lived together.

From all accounts, Lt. Silva distinguished himself in the 15 months of spying, radio reporting and, as an infantry advisor, training a local guerrilla force in Davao. He became a hero in a May 1945 major encounter called the Battle of Ising, named after a river in Davao where Silva led the 130th Infantry Regiment, a combined army of civilians and guerrillas, in stopping retreating Japanese forces from entering Davao’s northern unoccupied territories. He was wounded in the leg during this battle and swiftly brought to an army hospital and flown back to the United States for extensive surgery.

He left a pregnant Ester who later gave birth to a son named Saturnino Silva Jr.

By 1947, Tony had been in and out of various hospitals and while recovering called Priscilla. It was the first time they would talk since he left Australia three years ago. He told her to come to the United States with baby Isabel. But traveling in a military transport in those days was tedious and baby Isabel’s frail health wouldn’t allow it. Besides, Australian wives of U.S. servicemen had to draw lots in order to travel and the wait was interminable.  

Tony demanded unreasonably that Priscilla and baby Isabel travel to his bedside in three months. The distance, the inadequacies in phone calls in ascertaining feelings and commitment, worked against them. In the interim Dad had a family in Davao that needed to be resolved. In the interim too, Priscilla had lived and taken care of baby Isabel by herself for three years, not knowing if Tony was alive or dead or even the same man she married if they ever met again.

Tony filed for a divorce that same year.  By that time, he had met Elena Ledesma who had recently arrived in the United States from the Philippines to go to college. Dad and Mom were married within a year in a civil ceremony in Arizona.

Dad never revealed his past lives to us four children. But one day, my oldest sister Marie, then ten years old, was snooping in Dad’s briefcase and found a letter with a reference to a girl named Isabel Conanan in Australia. Later, Marie as a teenager would stumble onto a picture of a young boy in Dad’s drawer with the name Saturnino Jr. Fifty years later, we reunited with our half-brother Saturnino Jr., living in Davao and have since visited his family many times.

But Isabel was more daunting to track down.  In 1990, while traveling in Australia, Marie pored over telephone books and called every Cunanan listed.  She was not successful because Isabel’s family spelled their surname with an “o” (Conanan) rather than the prevalent Filipino spelling of Cunanan.

In October 2006, Marie, living in Manila, and being computer savvy, decided to track Isabel in cyberspace. In the past 15 years, she tried this route many times and had no luck after hundreds of hours of searching.  But in the past few years, there have been a host of genealogy websites on the Internet. In Ancestry.com, searching for Saturnino Ramos Silva, she learned she was the second person to inquire about that name. Several more clicks and Marie found the name Isabel Castner who posted a search for that name. Marie was worried though, for the posting was five years old. More clicks and Marie found the name Angie Castner, Isabel’s daughter with a more recent posting of Saturnino’s name. Marie quickly contacted Angie who gave Isabel’s e-mail.  At around two in the morning, when Marie e-mailed Isabel telling her that she might be a sister and Isabel replying yes, she was, Marie let out a shout, waking her husband to proclaim “I Found Her!”

Six months later, there we were at a hotel entrance in Manila tearfully embracing each other, noting the undeniable proof that we all looked so alike. Our rounded dark eyes, the skin tone, the prominent front teeth and that smile were all Dad’s. The resemblances were not faint and as we hugged each other in disbelief, Isabel looked at us intently and declaimed softy, “Now I have a sister and a brother!”

For a week Marie and I showed Isabel, Angie and Jacqui the city sites, the best dining and shopping. They were touristy activities but were preludes to a belated bonding that couldn’t be rushed. The getting to know one another, the filling in of unknown years, had to be drawn gradually from each other, in between selecting a souvenir, savoring a local dish, or gazing at a painting. As Priscilla’s and Tony’s lives together and apart became clearer, our kinship strengthened. Isabel told us that for many years, two colored photo portraits hung side by side in their dining room: Priscilla in her AWAS uniform, Tony in his US Army uniform. It was love in a time of war and the portraits were Priscilla’s proof while she waited.

A highlight of their Philippine trip was an afternoon visit to the American Military cemetery in the suburbs of Manila where 17,000 American and Filipino soldiers who fought and died in World War II are buried. Huge rectangular slabs of granite etched with the names of the war dead jut outward and form a circle. Beyond the circle, on gentle slopes, are the crosses and markers in neat exact rows. There are galleries in the memorial with large mosaic murals showing the Pacific War operations with arrows representing the Allied forces, traversing through the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, heading north for the Philippines and onwards to Japan.

One particular gallery contained a mural devoted to submarine operations. My sister and I had seen this mural many times before but in the company of our newly found sister and her daughters, it had deeper significance. With pointed markers representing submarines, we followed one, the USS Narwhal’s route, leaving Port Darwin, bearing our father and other Filipino soldiers, headed for Mindanao.

We are having a reunion in a restaurant. Seated across me is my half-brother Tony who flew in from Davao. Beside him is Isabel, holding his hand and whispering how wonderful to have yet another brother.  Isabel’s daughters are talking to Tony’s daughters, their new-found cousins. Marie and I are surveying the scene.

As I look at Isabel and Tony, who never saw our Dad, Marie and I have taken on Dad’s guilt for abandoning them. In the first few weeks of having found Isabel, there were e-mails between Australia and the Philippines. One I sent with a picture was Dad holding me less than a year old. I am fond of this picture because despite the stern military man that he was which pervaded family life, there were many moments of tenderness he gave to us children.

Isabel e-mailed back to share her reaction.

“I loved the photos you sent, John. I rather think that my early baby photos look more like you than Marie. My mother thinks so too.

“While I was looking at your photos (I received them at work), a feeling, oh so fleetingly, rippled over my consciousness but then I was back again caught up with the tasks of my ever present work day at the office.

“But then this morning sitting patiently on the bus on the way to work, it was back, suddenly flooding me with many, many memories. Memories that evoked that same feeling that I had hidden away deep inside me: looking at other children getting hugs from their Dads; other children being swung up on their Dad’s shoulders; being helped with their homework; other girls being eagerly photographed by their Dads at play, at special times; other girls having secrets with their Dads, getting special treats from them, dancing with them, having their hands squeezed with pride at graduation, being walked down the aisle, holding their first child...  And I realized that as time went on I had steeled myself from this longing, this envy, behind a façade of spirited independence or the old Aussie saying,

‘I’m alright, Jack!’

But one little photo of our Dad holding you shattered that façade, leaving the poor people in the bus wondering why the little brown lady in the seat behind the driver has tears streaming down her face.”

Dad, who passed away in 1987 without telling us his long-held secret, has now given Marie, myself, and our two other sisters the task of sharing his life with Isabel, Tony Jr., their children and grandchildren. If and when they want to.  There’s much sensitivity to be employed here, presenting a man who was father to some and not to others.  Sharing a dad’s life can satisfy a long-held curiosity or exacerbate a hurt.

Uncovering Dad’s life opened perhaps some childhood pain for Isabel and Tony. But in our week together and now middle-aged, we were able to cast kinder glances on Dad’s relationships with Priscilla, Ester, Elena (my mother) and Letty, the last woman he married after my parents divorced. As for these women’s own lives and feelings towards Dad, that should be their story. Priscilla still lives in Brisbane and Letty lives in Fresno, California.

I’ve rationalized this tangled saga with a war that altered my father’s career, brought him to Australia, later to the Philippines and, injured, back to the United States. Each part of the trip didn’t lend well to love and obligations. It’s hard to think of Dad as totally heartless but then I write this privileged with having known him. Our family pictures, him doting on us, partially vindicate him.

I visited Dad regularly at his Fresno fruit farm in the last ten yeas of his retired life. There were many late afternoons seated on his veranda looking at his pear trees and recalling the good times we had. I was never stingy telling him how he had molded us children to be upright, fair, and hate prejudice. Looking back now, my tributes may have only deterred him from ever telling us his past. He lived in a society where male privilege was unquestioned and hearts broken in the course of bravery and courage were intertwined.

When I was young and war stories abounded, there was an oft repeated phrase “Hanggang pier lamang” (Only until the pier) describing numerous Filipinas weeping at pier side as their American soldier-lovers boarded their ships homeward bound. The women were always portrayed as loose, as naive if not stupid for falling in love. But were they? What about those who did love and promises by soldiers were made?

Important events in World War II are often centered on the day of the battle, the victorious Allied forces appearing from out of the blue and just at the nick of time. The long awaited date of the American liberation of the Philippines often overshadows the years of preparation leading up to it.

In Australia, there were thousands of Australian military and civilians working in the AIB headquarters deciphering enemy codes, thwarting planned attacks and helping the Allied Forces mount counter-offensives. There were bands of radio operators operating mostly in Mindanao sending troop movement reports to Brisbane and tens of thousands of Filipino guerrillas operating around the Philippines sabotaging enemy operations. The combined groundwork efforts of countless people, many laying their lives on the line, directed Gen. MacArthur to decide a major naval battle and landing in Leyte instead of Mindanao as originally intended. This was to be a wise decision in the retaking of the Philippines.

On October 24, 1944 a combined Australian and United States force composed of over 200,000 men and women, 200 battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers along with 1,500 planes waged the largest and most decisive Allied offensive of World War II. In three days of relentless sea battles off Leyte, the Japanese forces were defeated and their oil supply lifeline cut off from Southeast Asia. Japan’s defeat was imminent. Dad’s own efforts in this victory earned him the Purple Heart received for injuries, the Bronze Medal for valor, and the Philippine Congressional Medal of Honor.    

Dad retired with the rank of Lt. Colonel, got a job in the post office and we lived in San Francisco, California. Dad knew this city from way back in the thirties, where he and other farm workers spent their week’s wages in Chinatown, on pool halls and girls. Before college, he was one of over 120,000 single Filipinos who left the Philippines in the twenties to come to America and work the sugar fields in Hawaii, the canneries in Alaska and the fruit and vegetable farms in California.

Dad liked driving his green and white Dodge all over the city and on weekends drove to the fruit farms in Fresno to meet up with buddies that he roamed with years back. They were the unlucky ones who didn’t marry and continued to live in barracks with other Filipinos. His eyes lit up and he’d laugh with his friends remembering those times in Seattle when they’d run from the vigilantes out to kill them for dating white women. Or down in Los Angeles, after harvesting and having a great time with the Mexicanas. Filipino men developed a wandering spirit, depending on the season and where the jobs would be. This might explain partially why Dad, like many of his compatriots, couldn’t and didn’t settle down.

When we’d drive home, he loved singing this American folk song. We sang it with him. For us children it was a cheery song.  For Dad, it may have been his life story.

“Freight train, freight train

Going on so fast

Freight train, freight train

Going on so fast

I don’t care what train I’m on

As long as it keeps going on.”

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