He didn’t go to war. He never carried a gun. He never fired a single bullet.
It was the beginning of World War II in the Philippines when the enemy came to him. They invaded his country, took over his beloved town. They came with their rifles and bayonets. They came to kill – and they killed a lot of innocent people – many of them citizens he was duty-bound to protect as their elected mayor.
The Japanese invaders wanted him to become their puppet government’s head. With grace and courage under great pressure, he turned them down. Bayonet-wielding enemy soldiers in military trucks then came to his home one day while his wife, nine months pregnant with their fifth child, was taking a shower.
In front of his oldest child, a daughter who was barely 10 years old, the soldiers handcuffed him unceremoniously without even giving him a chance to say goodbye to his wife who was unaware of what was going on. The enemy soldiers were cruel. They did not even give the young mayor the dignity of walking down the short flight of steps at the front door to one of the waiting military trucks full of enemy soldiers outside. Instead, they kicked him from behind and simply watched as he fell and rolled down the stairs, handcuffed hands to his back and all. Once on the ground, they picked him up like a log then dumped him inside one of the military trucks that rumbled into town in a convoy with the intent to arrest the mayor.
They took him to a prison in the next town, the capital city of the province, where other prominent citizens were being kept as prisoners by the enemy. His wife and some relatives, unmindful of the risk to their lives, would ride in a horse-drawn carriage in front of the public building-turned-prison just to have a glimpse of him. And they did have few precious glimpses of him through a window grille. Each time, they saw him frantically gesturing with his hands ordering them to go home, his face full of concern for their safety. He had every reason to be concerned. The enemy guards, at every visit, chased them away.
This is where the story that I’ve heard since I was a child ended. No one in the family knew for sure what happened next to the young father and town mayor – at least, to the extent of what I was told or heard from whispered conversations. But there were many speculations. The enemy, recognizing the young father’s intelligence and skills as a lawyer educated in one of the best law schools in Manila where he taught in college while he pursued his law degree, had him brainwashed to help their cause and took him to Japan, according to one unsubstantiated story. There were also rumors that he had been tortured and then killed by the enemy. Some of these rumors that purportedly came from eyewitnesses were very graphic to my young mind. They forced him to drink gallons and gallons of water and then stomped on his full belly, according to one gory story.
The rest of the story discovered in California decades later
This mystery-filled story never escaped my mind. I’m not a fan of the mystery genre of novels, but nonetheless, this story always fascinated me. What actually happened to the brave young father, lawyer and two-time mayor after he was captured by the enemy?
The answers that eluded me in the Philippines came to light here in California two years ago, thanks to Francisco Lorde of San Jose who gave me an account of the sad and tragic final chapter of the story.
Soon after the young mayor was imprisoned, a group of Filipino guerrillas ambushed and killed a high-ranking Japanese military official along with other Japanese soldiers who were with him. In retaliation, the enemy picked six of the prisoners being kept in the capital city of Laoag in the province of Ilocos Norte in Luzon. The six were herded to another town. In a vacant lot next to a 17th-century church built during the Spanish regime, the half-dozen men were ordered by the Japanese soldiers to dig a hole in the ground. Finishing the task, the soldiers then ordered the men to stand side by side at the edge of the yawning hole, facing the ground that they just dug. Then from behind them came the volley of gun shots from the Japanese soldiers, sending the men into the pit that became their mass grave.
Lorde is the owner of the land where the six men were martyred during World War II. He inherited the property after his parents passed away. When he came to California, he had a small house built on the vacant lot where an old man who is a family friend lives in exchange for taking care of the property. It was the old man, who witnessed the execution of the six men, who told the story to Lorde.
Martyred that day, along with the young father and mayor, were two young Catholic priests and other prominent citizens of the province, according to Lorde.
The young father, lawyer and mayor whose life ended while he was in his early 30s, was Leon Acierto, the brother of my maternal grandmother. He was the person who inspired my mother to go to college and become a teacher. The town that he served as a two-time elected mayor was Bacarra, the sister city of Lathrop, California.
After his death, his beautiful young wife never remarried. She single-handedly raised their five children – four daughters and one son – who are now living in Chicago. Her name was Paz – the Spanish word for peace – and was well past her 90s when she passed away in Chicago several years ago. The daughter that Ama Leon (Grandfather Leon, as the entire extended family always called the brave war hero) never saw – she was born a few days after her father was taken by the Japanese soldiers – became a medical doctor. Her mother aptly named her Victoria.