THAT WE MAY REMEMBER: February 7, 1974: The Jolo-caust

[This piece is a combination of chapters 19, 20 and 21 of “Bugs & Bytes in bigger print” published in 1999 by Said Sadain, Jr. editor of This piece was reprinted, with permission from the author, on 7 February 2004, the 30th anniversary of the burning of Jolo and in the February 2011 issue of OUR Mindanao newsmagazine. We are reprinting this on February 7, 2016, the 42nd anniversary of the burning of Jolo]

My Own Version Of The Jolo-Caust

I was in Jolo in 1974, in that conflagration, as a fifteen-year old high school senior expecting to receive, in another month, my graduation diploma from the provincial capitol school that was breathtakingly named: Dayang-Dayang Hadji Piandao Memorial High School, Boys Department.

The name was a hint of the other educational institutions that would shape my future. Shortly after that war, I got into the University of the Philippines, Diliman, College of Arts & Sciences, and later, the University of the Philippines, Diliman, College of Engineering. In a further evolution, I got involved with the school that started out as the Philippine School in Jeddah and, by the time I left it, had the elaborate name of International Philippine School in Jeddah, Science Section.

Why could not have Destiny just preordain me to languish in something more succinct like Harvard!, or Yale! ?

Moongate Restaurant after the February 7, 1974 burning of Jolo. Photo courtesy of the OMI Archives Moongate Restaurant after the February 7, 1974 burning of Jolo. Photo courtesy of the OMI Archives

As it was, in the dark dawn of February 7, 1974, before our graduating class could even start practicing for our graduation rites, the tranquility of the municipality of Jolo was shattered by a loud explosion that was clearly heard from one end of town to the other. For the next three, four days, Jolo became embroiled in a shooting war, house to house, door to door, with the Moro National Liberation Front rebels, ‘Lost Commands’ as some MNLF apologists would later claim, initially marching into town to lay siege on the government army encampment at the town’s airport.

My family stayed in our San Raymundo house during most of the first two days of fighting, except for some uncles who ventured out into the streets to get some drinking water.

It seemed that most of the fighting was happening elsewhere, like a television war movie that one was not particularly paying attention to. Of course, there were no TV sets in Jolo at that time. This kind of realization came much later along with other realizations, as these things normally do.

In the afternoon of the second day, everything else around the neighborhood broke loose, with mortars and gunfire screaming. From a high window at the back of the house, I watched the brittle nipa-thatch roofs of nearby houses caught the fireballs whooshing down from the sky.

When it was all over, the only thing that remained of our house was the front stairs leading up to a charred front door that opened up to clear, blue sky.

I did not get to see this skeletal sight until several days later when we made our way down from a government refuge hospital on our way to the dock of Jolo. We trudged through the center of town in the morning (although my sister Sang recalls this to be in the afternoon), through the smoking ashes of Jolo, passing by contorted, burnt shapes frozen in their final acts to reach for the sky from where they had fallen down at either side of the blackened asphalt roads.

My younger sister, Sang, who is now finishing her doctorate degree in Illinois, asked me then: “Is that a tree stump or a corpse?” The rotting odor of flesh mixed strongly with the burnt smell of logs, rags, paper and plastic that were wet with dew. The sharp scent burdened the air, all over town.

In such an atmosphere, give me the aliphatic air of the Jeddah Industrial Estate any time, and I will say my thanks to you.

I always gave Rear Admiral Espaldon the benefit of the doubt since it was his naval boats that mercifully plucked us out of the teeming pier of Jolo Island and transported us to Zamboanga City in mainland Mindanao. For most part of a night, we had to camp out at the open landings of the pier and wait there in the cold wind along with thousand others in a scene played straight out from a movie.

The moment my mother and us children boarded the deck of one naval boat, I spent most of my waking time standing against the starboard railing of the ship, looking out into the sea, constantly suppressing a violent urge to spit.

I would realize, years later, while watching the movie Titanic, that the urge to spit out into the sea is a very natural, healthy desire that will come to pass on anyone who stands long enough against the railing of any ship.

My Sister’s Version

I wanted to learn more about some details of the February war so I e-mailed my sister Sang in Illinois, inquiring about dates.

After a few days, she replied with several pages long of Internet research that she said she did about the topic using Yahoo and Lycos and Webcrawler. She was sorry she could not find any much material about the event itself, but here were some related literature about Sulu and about American wars in the Philippines in the early to middle 20th century:


Capital : Jolo
Area : 1,600 sq. km.
Population : 470,000
Cities : none
No. of Towns : 18

Sulu lies midway between Basilan and Tawi-Tawi in southern Mindanao. It is surrounded by the Sulu Sea on the north and west, the Mindanao Sea on the east, and the Celebes Sea on the south.

The province consists of four island groups – Jolo, Pangutaran, Tapul, and Samales – that cover 157 islands and islets. Jolo is the name of the capital town, the island on which the town is located ….

What a Way to Spend a War: Navy Nurse POWs in the Philippines
Dorothy Still Danner

Reviews and Commentary From The Publisher:
Nonfiction Large Print Edition

By the time Corregidor fell in 1942, prisoners of the Japanese in Manila included eleven U.S. Navy nurses. They endured deprivation …

They Were Expendable
William Lindsay White W.L. White

Reviews and Commentary From The Publisher:

A national bestseller when it was originally published in 1942 and the subject of a 1945 John Ford film featuring John Wayne, They Were Expendable offers an account of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three’s heroic actions during the disastrous Philippine campaign early in World War II….

I protested to Sang, “No, no, I do not need any Harrison Ford film for my book. And do not give me your scholarly doctoral dissertation piece about it either. Just tell me what it was like spending Valentine’s in a war with whatever details you can remember, especially the dates, sort of like a school ‘What I did last summer’ composition.

After a couple more days, she e-mailed me this school-composition account:

February 28, 1999

Dear Kah Jun,

Salaam. Sorry for the delayed response to your message. I was replaying the event in my mind which is both a frightening and exciting experience for a 12-year old kid during that time. I’m not really sure when the events started, probably the first week of Feb. (4?), however you can also ask Mamang and Papang. I can however remember our great grandmother’s death on Dec. 29 (Innocence Day), few months before the war. Then the rest of the kids were taken by Papang to Zamboanga City leaving you and me as the older kids and Amina and Yusra. We were left behind in Jolo because both of us were waiting for our graduation from elementary and high school and the 2 small kids were just too young to be separated from Mamang.

If I recall it correctly, a loud boom at the airport followed by a barrage of gunfire were heard in the early morning. We stayed in the house for one day and one night (without electricity) before it got burned down the following day in late afternoon. Most of the time during the day we hid under the dining table in the first floor. Little Yus was fond of hiding under the bed while singing “Mabuhay ang Pilipino”. Pah Asmala came to the house to get his children and he was inviting Mamang to take us all with them to the mountains. Fortunately, Mamang made a good decision for us not to go.

When the fire finally came to our house, we threw some of our ready-packed sacks to the other side of the fence where there was a marshy area while some were just slid down the front stairs. I think we were able to save most of our belongings because the fire stopped at the balcony of the stairs and the covered bridge at the front was not touched by the fire.

I think I was only carrying with me the milk of Yus and Amy during the entire moving around. I remember Nur-aina, our cousin, complaining about her bleeding shoulder from carrying heavy things when we were back safe in ZC. We ran to the Protestant (Lopston?) compound across the street to get away from the burning house but we got more exposed to the danger of being hit by flying bullets in that open field.

From there we went to upper San Raymundo to Pah (??) house. We stayed there and had our meal of rice porridge flavored with sugar or salt. We slept there for a while on floors, tables and chairs before we were told to go to the general hospital near the PC headquarters because it was safer there. During our march to the hospital, I remember seeing burnt posts which looked like lighted Xmas trees at night and walking through a road lined with heavily armed men with flashlights and peeking through everyone’s baggage. I think we slept the rest of the night at the grounds of the hospital. In the morning, Dra. Estampador, Mamang’s obstetrician and pediatrician helped us get a place inside the hospital. I think this was already the 3rd day or 4th day? While in the hospital, I could see snipers from other far buildings running back and forth. At the hospital grounds some people seemed to be in a picnic mood, frying food and pancakes (there were rice, flour, sugar, oil, canned foods, etc. that were rationed to the refugees) while some were crying in pain from the wounds inflicted by bullets.

In the afternoon we went to the pier and I remember seeing dead bodies lying on the streets, covered by newspapers. We went to the Bureau of Customs office and I saw some smeared blood and scattered flesh on the walls. I also remember going into those empty houses on stilts in the pier to answer the call of nature with Ninang. We had to cross a high and narrow cemented bridge that I almost backed out for fear of falling into the sea. As late night approaches, people were scampering to get into the navy ship. We had to hold on very strongly to each other in order not to get separated from the group. Apuh Dayang (Mamang Anna) who was tugging Amy with her got her gripping loose and they were left behind. But Mamang thought that Apuh Dayang was worried of the house belongings left behind and Bapah Abdul was staying behind any way. Fortunately nothing happened to them and they reached ZC 2 days(?) later. In Zamboanga, I remember Papang kept on going back and forth to the pier to check for them.

In the navy ship, soldiers were helping the people climb in and it seemed like I was just being thrown from one person to another (maybe they were just doing it to kids because they were small people). We were cramped into the open area of the ship. We just have to put our heads down on our bags in order to get some sleep. Nur-aina was complaining of an old man who was throwing out his collected urine into the sea and getting them blown back to her face by the wind.

Well, I think you just wanted to know from me the dates but I ended up telling my story. You can also try to juggle Mamang’s memory. Mamang was having Wafia that time and she didn’t even know that she was pregnant.

The Rifle Guitar

Comparing notes with a school acquaintance of mine in one of the coffee shops above the fish market of Zamboanga City in March 1974, I learned that a few days before my Jolo pier movie scene, during the mopping-up operations, armed men arrived at the Jolo dock and started rounding up the male civilians. My friend’s family, living near the port area, were among the first few families to encamp at the pier. The males were lined up at the edge of the barren pier, against a listless sea. Then they were shot at so they would fall off into the sea, some dead, some alive.

This is the solution that some people would want to impose on Mindanao.

I had a less painful experience. As the family rushed out of the house into the raging streets when the fire started to lick the upper portions of our house, I grabbed my Japanese-made guitar. It was a deep-mahogany colored guitar that my father, in those days a customs guard who boarded logging ships off the coasts of Southwestern Mindanao, bought very cheaply from a drunk Japanese sailor. According to my father, the sailor would have broken the guitar into two if it remained under his care one minute longer.

In the confusion of the plight, with bullets zinging in the air and the thumps of mortars reverberating around, my mother had the sense to see to it that all of her children were intact but did not realize I was lugging the guitar all along until we rested in one of the kind houses farther up in Upper San Raymundo.

My father at that time was on an assignment in Zamboanga City so I would never know what he would have done with the guitar himself. But my mother sternly told me to leave the guitar to the son of the house samaritan when, after a day and a night, we moved on to the general hospital deeper inland, passing through a jungle trek that some local official, up front in the long beeline, seemed to be very familiar with.

“Someone might fancy that guitar for a rifle”, my mother told me.

I dearly loved that guitar, strumming it into the night off those Jingle music magazines, with my sweaty longhaired nape and my bare back leaning against a windowsill for the most part of my high-school halcyon days, singing Cat Stevens’ Moon Shadow or It’s a Wild World. In fact, this was how I acquired my bronchitis, so Dr. Parouk told me, after which I was never to sing again or even lean on a windowsill to stare at a full moon up to this day.

[This piece is a combination of chapters 19, 20 and 21 of Bugs & Bytes in bigger print published in 1999 by Said Sadain, Jr. editor of The author was born on March 15, 1958 in Jolo, Sulu, picked up his writing from the ashes of a devastated Jolo in 1974 and along the way garnered a Focus Philippines Award in Poetry and a couple of top prizes in the UP English Club Literary Contests. He completed his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering (1979) at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, spent five years teaching Electrical Engineering in UP while pursuing his Master of Science in the same field in 1984. Tired of the floods in the national capital, he decided to take on the role of a modern-day hero and went to Saudi Arabia “to bask under the Arabian sun while helping prop up the Philippine economy” as an information systems manager of a Saudi American metal building company. This piece was reprinted, with permission from the author, in on February 7, 2004, on the 30th anniversary of the burning of Jolo, and in the February 2011 issue of OUR Mindanao newsmagazine. We are reprinting this on 7 February 2016, the 42nd anniversary of the burning of Jolo]