Personal Surprises of History

Today’s post from David Smollar is a follow-up piece to his 2015 Prologue article, “Hard, Bitter, Unpleasantly Necessary Duty: A Little-Known World War II Story of the Philippines.” David is a history tutor and retired Los Angeles Times journalist. 

My graduate school adviser at UCLA likened a quest into the past to an explorer’s dig for treasure: the result will always make you rejoice or cry, and sometimes evoke both.

Scrolling the Internet in October, I came across a little print-on-demand paperback titled War Comes to Palompon, referencing a small Philippine port on the west coast of Leyte heavily damaged in World War II. The name resonated; using my father’s wartime letters as a framework, I had authored a summer 2015 article for Prologue about his work there setting up a hospital and clinic as medical officer with a special U.S. Army group. Thirty of these little-remembered Philippine Civil Affairs Units (PCAUs) provided relief throughout the archipelago in the wake of 1944–45 invasions to end Japanese occupation. 

I ordered the book, intrigued to glean information beyond that discovered during two years of combing the National Archives and military libraries. Its arrival heralded a terrific surprise. The co-author was Montserrat Soques del Gallego. As a 23-year-old multilingual pharmacy student, Monsie Soques had been my father’s first hire after the 77th Army Division secured Palompon at Christmas 1944. Monsie had penned a brief family history with grandniece Mary Alice Basconi, a retired journalism professor. An even bigger shock awaited when I learned that Monsie is a vivacious 101 years old, living in Los Angeles!

In an early letter, my father had mentioned his good fortune in finding the highly competent Monsie, who had been trapped at the family home in Palompon when war began in 1941. She became his key assistant at the 50-bed PCAU civilian “bamboo hospital on stilts,” erected in the shadow of bombed-out St. Francis Xavier church. 

As well, in a serendipitous twist, Monsie unknowingly became the conduit for my mother to discover the precise location of my father’s unit as he was forbidden to disclose it in correspondence. An American newswire service reporter attached to the 77th had learned from townspeople of her daring intervention with the local Japanese commander during occupation to win release of prisoners who were secretly guerrilla fighters. 

Finding that Monsie spoke idiomatic English, he wrote up her story, and it was published in newspapers across the United States in late January with a Palompon dateline. My mother read it about the same time that she received my father’s letter in California and connected the dots.

Conversing with Monsie last month, the emotion and vividness of her memory animated the letters and data from medical reports my father had filed weekly to the Army’s Pacific Command (preserved at the National Archives). I felt a sensation of having entered a time portal to the past, standing alongside as my father sutured wounds, delivered babies, and coped with pointless deaths. 

Among Monsie’s recollections:

After hearing Filipino guerrillas laud how Monsie “had packed their wounds using sulfa and bandages in first-aid kits smuggled ashore from submarines,” my father hired her with but a single sentence, “Let us work together on this.” She started in his temporary tent hospital the same day.

Monsie quickly gained his confidence in inserting IVs for plasma and drawing blood. Soon she was often awake by 4 a.m., “sterilizing surgical instruments by lantern light and assisting him with operations,” like that performed on an 11-year-old boy whose right leg had been ruptured by a Japanese sniper. When the youth required extensive post-operative care, she “appealed to Maj. Smollar’s compassion and persuaded him” to accompany the frightened child by boat to a better-equipped military hospital 40 miles away. 

Fortuitously, both my father and Monsie struck up strong friendships with Maj. Winthrop Rockefeller, a supply officer for the 77th, “who arranged extra blankets, mosquito nets, crucial plasma and vaccines, and vitamins” for the PCAU. On countless nights she found Rockefeller (Governor of Arkansas 1967–71) toiling as an ad hoc colleague, “standing next to Maj. Smollar at all hours when a truckload of burned or lacerated victims arrived,” alert to obtain additional help to save severely wounded civilians and soldiers once my father completed triage. “We worked as if we knew no clock” while brutal fighting flared in nearby mountains through February 1945, mocking communiqués that labeled the warfare “mopping up.”

During lulls in hospital activity, Rockefeller—of whose pedigree she initially knew nothing—would show up to “pilfer soup from the kitchen in lieu of a K-ration” and share family photos and talk with them of postwar dreams. When fighting subsided and PCAU efforts turned fully to disease prevention and treatment, and public hygiene, Rockefeller’s regiment packed up for Okinawa. At Monsie’s urging, he ordered “that all extra military medical supplies remain with Maj. Smollar.” 

She transitioned in her role to include softening, through translation, “the gruff, down-to-business” lectures that my father gave to anyone ignoring his regulations for vaccinations, clean water, and proper disposal of human wastes. “But gruffness was just his layer of protection against showing emotions with so much misery about. Truly, every resident knew Maj. Smollar cared so much for improving their lives,” punctuating his own postwar observation that the townspeople regarded him as an eccentric Dr. Santa Claus. My father’s unit departed in April to assist hard-hit civilian areas on Mindanao; four months of labor in Palompon had laid the foundation for a better future.

A conversation akin to finding treasure concluded with smiles and tears. Monsie had engendered both in recreating the moment in time 78 years ago when, from disparate backgrounds, she, my father, and Rockefeller found themselves working together to realize good amid the detritus of war.

3 thoughts on “Personal Surprises of History

  1. My dad was in a PCAU unit on Cebu island in 1945. He would have found this story amazing, I think. The PCAUs did a lot of good for people at the time.

  2. Oh my! What an amazing and inspirational story! Thanks so much, and I’m so glad that Mr. Smollar found this precious woman still alive and with as much moxie as ever! What an interview-of-a-lifetime that must have been!

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