On December 8, 1941, hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan launched an attack on the Philippines. In the following days, Japanese troops advanced rapidly towards Manila, the capital city. The US Army, under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, decided to vacate Manila and move their forces, consisting of US soldiers and Filipino fighters, to the Bataan Peninsula. When the military left, thousands of American and British civilians, including men, women, and children, were left in the city. Many of them became POWs at Santo Tomas Internment Camp. Conditions at Santo Tomas were dire, but as Christmas 1942 neared, internees realized they could band together to create a holiday celebration for children at the camp. One of those prisoners was Associated Press correspondent Raymond P. Cronin. He recorded his experience and published it following his liberation.
With their military protectors gone and Japanese forces occupying Manila, Allied civilians (considered enemy aliens) were transported to the University of Santo Tomas. The university was a walled compound containing various buildings on roughly 50 acres. Prisoners arrived with meager possessions; some had only the clothes on their backs. Internees worked together to establish living quarters, plant gardens to provide food, establish medical facilities, and construct additional latrines.
In late September, the prisoners from diverse backgrounds with various skills gathered to discuss the upcoming holiday season. They decided to organize their own Santa’s workshop. They were determined to provide Christmas gifts for every child in the camp. They built new toys out of wood scraps and painted them bright colors. They repaired old and broken toys donated to the camp by Filipino friends. With meager materials, prisoners carved, crafted, and created the gifts. Soon, internees had built cars, scooters, and rag dolls, complete with doll wardrobes. Shortly before Christmas, internees learned that a group of children had just arrived from the Iloilo Internment Camp. There were no gifts for the new arrivals, so the internees worked feverishly to construct 100 more presents.
Christmas morning arrived, and Santa came to the guard gate at Santo Tomas. For a moment, Japanese soldiers seemed to get in the spirit of things and let Santa in without a pass. Internees gathered around a giant Christmas tree brought in from the Baguio Mountains. There, Santa distributed hundreds of gifts. Every child in the camp received presents and words of cheer. Compassionate friends on the outside donated roasted turkeys, pigs, ice cream, cakes, and candy.
For 3,500 internees at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, the Christmas of 1942 was never to be forgotten. Except for a few prisoners released on exchange, those interred at Santo Tomas spent three years as POWs. They were liberated in February 1945.
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