Within the Walls of Santo Tomas: A saga of captivity and survival in Manila during World War II
Author: Betty Byron with Cassius Mullen
Publisher: Tate Publishing (2011)
Binding: Perfect Paperback, 376 pages
'Do you believe that what we do in life comes back to haunt us later?' 'You mean like fate comes along and throws you a curve ball when you least expect it?' 'Yes, exactly.' 'There are so many strange things that happen to people, nothing surprises me anymore.' 'I think life is a mirror. What you do reflects back at you.' Former army nurse Molly Martin has never forgotten her experience in the internment camp at Santo Tomas University during World War II. The horrors she witnessed in her younger days are burned in her brain, along with the memories of the people who walked with her through hell and the enemies who put them all through it. When she sees a picture in the paper of the doctor that committed some of the worst war crimes and got away, she knows it is time to tell her story. It is the last chance for justice. Travel back to 1942, when twenty-eight-year-old Molly Martin's life was changed forever. She and other army nurses and soldiers are taken from Corregidor to Manila, where they are imprisoned by the Japanese within the walls of Santo Tomas University with innocent US and Allied civilians. Molly leads the nurses in establishing a hospital in the former gymnasium, and they attempt to make the best of things. Soon Molly and her friend Clara befriend an ingenious teenage boy nicknamed Scrounger, who uses his skills to make life tolerable for the internees. Over a three-year period, Molly and the internees suffer greatly. Food and medicine are hard to come by, and the commandant becomes harsher. A sinister doctor carries out cruel experiments on selected internees, resulting in more death. Things become even more difficult as the American army draws nearer. But Molly is determined to make it out alive, to make the evil pay for their wrongdoings. Will Molly see justice before her days end? Go Within the Walls of Santo Tomas to find out.
I have worked with several authors who wrote memoirs about their experiences in the Philippines during World War II. One, the late Billy Templeton, survived when his B-17 was destroyed on the ground at Clark Air Field on December 8, 1941. He then became a prisoner of war and was forced to participate in the Bataan Death March. He spoke of the nurses on Bataan -- and how they were evacuated to Corregidor to protect them from the advancing Japanese Army. Two other authors, both young American girls living in the Philipines at the time of the attacks, described their time in the various internment camps and ultimately in Bilibid prison at the very end of the war. Because I was familiar with these historical events, I was fascinated with Betty Byron and Cassius Mullen's tale about this era -- and eager to read it.
The story begins with an elderly Molly Martin reliving her worst experiences in a nightmare. I found this technique an effective hook. When a nurse wakes Molly, we learn that she's ready to talk about the events in Bataan, Corregidor, and Manila during World War II -- events she has avoided discussing for more than half a century. She has her reasons for breaking her silence but we don't know them until the end of this page-turner.
Molly's story is delivered in flashback. We learn that she was a nurse in 1942 when she was wounded on Bataan and evacuated to the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay. There she worked over the wounded and awaited the inevitable -- capture by war-hardened Japanese soldiers. Ultimately, the worse happens and they are crowded along with almost four thousand "alien" civilians (mostly Americans) into Santo Tomas University Campus in Manila. There they are guarded by the most corrupt and psychotic of the Japanese invaders. Like the reflections of those who lived through those times, Molly oozes with hatred for the her jailors -- and as she relates her experiences, the reader understands why.
It was a time of racial biases on all sides, but it seems that the Japanese were especially brutal to those of other cultures. They murdered American and Filipino military men -- anyone capable of mounting a defense -- immediately. Women, children, and the very old endured abuse, neglect, and any number of horrors for 37 months until they were liberated in 1945. Molly is witness to Japanese mistreatment of the internees -- from simply withholding adquate care -- limited food and medical supplies -- to overt torment -- beatings, sexual assaults, medical/surgical experimentation, and executions.
This story is an interesting blend of fact and fiction -- with the appearance of real people who interact with Molly before or after they go on to become heroes or villains of the war. As an afficionado of historical fiction, I love books where I am not quite sure which small detail is fact or fiction. They compel me to go look up things I thought I knew -- and then go back to read with appreciation how the author's managed them. I like that kind of engagement.
Molly, like some of the internees I've known, longed for justice -- and defined justice as retaliation. After reading this novel, you will understand why -- not only intellectually, but emotionally. I'll leave it to you, after you read Within the Walls of Santo Tomas, to decide if she found it.
Reviewed by: Joyce Faulkner (2012)