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Death of a young hero: the full story revealed

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POSTED May 26, 2009 1:24 a.m.
The date: January 30, 1942 during World War 2, nearly two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
The place: The back of a circa 16th-17th-century church built during the Spanish regime in Banna, a town in the province of Ilocos Norte on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
The scene: Japanese soldiers with bayonetted rifles stand guard as seven Filipino men - two priests and five high-ranking local government officials - dig a large hole in the ground. Time of the day: unknown.
As soon as the men finish digging, the soldiers order them to line up along the side of the yawning pit. Then the Japanese soldiers raise their rifles and shoot the men in a fusillade of bullets. The bullet-riddled bodies of the seven men fall into the pit that they just dug with their own bare hands. Now, it's their common grave.
A historic marker today reminds everyone that this hallowed ground is the site where seven brave Filipino men were martyred by the Japanese and became heroes of  World War 2.
One of the five government officials killed was from the municipality of Bacarra, Lathrop's sister city. He was 39 years old - he would have turned 40 on July 30 that year - and was just re-elected by a clear mandate from the people as mayor of the town. By all accounts, he was a successful lawyer who was educated in one of the best law schools in Manila at that time. He was also a self-made man. While finishing his law studies, he supported himself by teaching at a private college in Manila.
At the time of his martyrdom, he was the father of four young children with a fifth one on the way. He never saw his youngest child. On Jan. 12, two weeks before he was killed, his youngest daughter was born.
This hero's name was Leon Acierto.
His oldest daughter, Eden, was barely nine years old when Japanese soldiers came and dragged him out of their house roughly two weeks before he was executed with the other six men. This is how she recalled that day.
Her father was playing host to the members of his municipal council and other government leaders. They were all gathered at the house because they were expecting to meet with representatives of the Japanese militia reportedly to inform the invaders that they were all resigning their posts. The Japanese reportedly wanted the sitting town officials, headed by the young and popular mayor, to serve under the Japanese government.
The day before, someone in the know sent word to the mayor that he better take his family and hide because the Japanese were after his head for refusing to cooperate with the enemy. He steadfastly refused to do so.
The following day, expecting to act as the perfect hostess for the visiting Japanese, Leon's very pregnant wife, Paz, who was due to give birth any day, got into the shower to get ready for the visitors. While the mayor and his officials were waiting in the home's well-appointed Spanish-style living room, a lookout at the entrance to the town came running, scared and breathless.
"Mayor! Mayor! Madi daytoyen! (This does not look good.)," he said, panting.
He told the mayor he saw two truck-loads of Japanese soldiers making their way to his house, and they were all armed with bayonets mounted on their rifles. With their bayonet-mounted rifles, it didn't look like they were coming to have peaceful talks and told the gathered officials to better run and hide.
The city officials quickly made themselves scarce. The mayor then called the maid to gather all the kids and ordered told her to take the children to the neighbors' and hide. But he told his oldest daughter, 9-year-old Eden, to stay put in the house so that she could be there "to console Mama" when she got out of the shower.
Sure enough, when the truckloads of Japanese arrived, it was fully evident they were not interested in diplomatic talks.
"They ransacked the house, confiscated everything" and handcuffed her father, Eden recalled.
Frightened, she began to cry.
"They gave me a candy because they saw me crying," she said. She does not recall exactly if it was a candy that they gave her, or "some kind of bread."
When her mother came out into the living room, her father said to her mother as he was being led to the door, "Paz, they are taking me to Laoag. Don't worry."
The soldiers did not like her father talking to her mother, Eden said, so "they kicked him. He lost his balance and he fell down the stairs," his hands still in handcuffs.
On the ground, "somebody picked him up and put him in one of the trucks."
He was taken, along with other prisoners, to the Japanese garrison in Laoag, the capital city of the province.
Eden remembers riding in a calesa (a horse-drawn carriage) with her very pregnant mother to the garrison in Laoag hoping to get a glimpse of her father, and hoping against hope they would be able to persuade the Japanese guards to let them talk to him, however briefly. No such luck. Instead, they were threatened by the Japanese soldiers with their bayonetted rifles, yelling at them in Japanese words they could not understand.
Japanese invaders
execute mayor
But Eden said they were rewarded when "we saw him in the (garrison) window" frantically signaling them to "go, go go!"
While her father was in prison, Eden said that somehow her Papa was able to smuggle a note to his wife, telling her to take the children including their newly born baby and "go to Tambidao to rest." He also reassured his family, "I'm OK."
Tambidao (tum-bee-dow) is one of the town's far-flung barrios where the family had farm lands. The farm caretaker had a house there where he lived with his family, and that's where they fled during the war. Eden remembers they had an underground hideout where they hid from the Japanese.
Eden said her father was killed by the Japanese because "he was sympathizing with the (Filipino) guerillas" who were waging a war against the invaders. The then-governor of the province was already "hiding in the mountains" along with the guerillas, she said.
Her family learned of her father's fate from someone who witnessed the execution, she added.
After her father was executed, the Japanese installed as the town mayor her father's political opponent whom he defeated in the last election.
After the war, the Japanese-sympathizer mayor met a gruesome death in the hands of the guerillas who crucified his mutilated body upside down in the town plaza for all to see.
To spare her mother from further emotional and mental agony following the news of her father's killing, she was simply told that the Japanese had taken her husband away to an unknown destination. And so that story became a legend long after the war.
How do I know all these facts? Originally, from bits and pieces gathered from family members and other people.Then at the recent 65th wedding anniversary celebration for my parents in Fremont, I had an opportunity to interview Eden Acierto Guzman, now a retired teacher living in Chicago where the rest of her siblings also live, along with their mother Paz until her death several ago in her nineties.
Leon Acierto also happens to be my grand-uncle, the brother of my late maternal grandmother. But he was more than an uncle, my mother says. He was like a father to her and her older sister especially when their own father twice went to Hawaii to work on the pineapple and sugar cane plantations and was gone for years at a time long before the war. It was this grand-uncle who convinced my Mom that no amount of bling - my mom, like any other woman, loves her jewelry - can ever be as valuable as an education. He also encouraged my Mom to become a teacher, for no profession can be as noble as that of a teacher, he believed. He further believed that my Mom should pursue her education in one of the best schools for teachers in the country at that time. That's how my Mom ended up graduating from the National Teachers College in Manila.
My mom will never
forget that
frightening scene
Tragically, my Mom was also there when the Japanese took her uncle away and saw him being handcuffed, kicked and unceremoniously thrown into the Japanese truck.
My Mom never forgot that frightening scene. But more than that, she has never forgotten the brave young man who defied the enemy - the lawyer, father and husband who also happened to be her uncle.
Some postscript: Paz never remarried. She managed to single-handedly raise her five children on her own with the help of war benefits that she worked hard to get for her children's education. Not only that, she extended her hand and helped other victims of the war obtain those benefits for their families. Daughter Zenaida later became a registered nurse, graduating from the pontifical University of Santo Tomas in Manila. Daughter Alicia just retired from working in the accounting department of a real estate firm in Chicago. Only son, Leon Jr., graduated from college with a chemical engineering degree and is currently working as a regional manager for the Environmental Protection Agency in Chicago. His wife, Trixie, is a professor at St. Paul's University. And the daughter whom their father never saw? Her mother named her Victoria. She became a medical doctor, also graduating from the University of Santo Tomas. She retired a few years ago as a family practitioner in Chicago. She and her husband, Demetrio, who is also now retired as an accountant, today spend most of their time satisfying their wanderlust.
 
To contact Rose Albano Risso, e-mail ralbanorisso@mantecabulletin.com, or call (209) 249-3536.

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