The hero is not forgotten

In Photo: Higinio “Buddy” Mendoza Jr., founder of Palawan War Museum

Old photos never die. They fascinate me and I make them live. Every time I stumble into one, I spend precious seconds looking at them to see what lessons I might learn, and hear stories they might want to whisper and make me listen.

I am like a scanner. I don’t gloss over. I peer into the littlest detail, looking for an interesting find. On that gloomy afternoon of one September, barely arriving from Manila and visiting my hometown after almost five years, I braved the rain and scanned my hometown by foot—to find out about the history of Puerto Princesa’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral.

Higinio A. Mendoza Sr., Palawan’s greatest hero.

The church has intrigued me ever since I was a boy, an imposing structure, just 100 meters from where we used to live. What also aroused my curiosity was the old house behind it, built around the 1900s. I wondered who lived there, but never found out.

Anyway, that September was a bad day to have come near the area. Three offices, the admin, library and another one I don’t want to bother recalling now, each pointed me to different directions. I decided to walk away and headed to Plaza Cuartel. At the entrance, I saw a sign, saying: “Visit the War Museum”. A War Museum in Puerto Princesa? No kidding.

I immediately flagged down a tricycle and told the driver to take me to Bancao-Bancao, about one-and-a-half kilometers away, just straight up where I was. The driver told me: “Magkano po ang bigay n’yo?”“Huh? I should be the one asking you that question, ’di ba?” Not wanting to stress myself out, I answered: “Just take me there, just me as your passenger, and if you’re not reckless, I will give you P100.”

The War Museum

At the door of the well-kept Palawan Special Battalion World War II Memorial War Museum, the official name, a lovely young lady (I presume she is another walking encyclopaedia, as Puerto Princesa tour guides are now beginning to be known for) greeted and smiled at me.

Obviously, she is from the town, based on her accent, I can tell. Barely three minutes on the first module of the exhibit, I picked up my jaw on the floor. I saw never-been-published photos of the church, its horrific transition, from the time Fray Exzequiel Moreno built it in 1872 to the time Japanese soldiers bombed it to smithereens. Virtually a treasure trove for those who love history, the unassuming edifice along a quiet street that explodes with brilliant colors of Fire and Cherry Blossoms trees, the museum is mind-blowing.

Then of course, I learned and relearned the life story of Dr. Higinio A. Mendoza Sr., Palawan’s greatest hero. For the benefit of the new generation of Palaweños, this is an attempt to relive his love for country, and the museum that was built in his honor, and a tribute to other hometown guerrilla soldiers who died in the war.

To their memory, this article brings its gratitude for their exploits, some of them, sadly, still unknown to their provincemates to this very day. Without much ado, here is Higinio A. Mendoza Sr.’s story, based on my personal interview with his second eldest son, Higinio “Buddy” Mendoza Jr.:

Higinio Mendoza Sr.

Fate was unkind to Dr. Higinio A. Mendoza Sr. He was born during the Spanish-American War, one of the most turbulent chapters in Philippine history, and grew to his adulthood when World War II was breaking out.

He was thrown in a war everyone did not like, and when it was time for him to serve his motherland, he was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army and met his grisly death. To add more sadness, Philippine history books are profuse in mentioning Bataan, Corregidor, Cavite, Cabanatuan, Malinta, Manila, Lingayen, Leyte, etc. None had mentioned the strategic importance of Palawan and Puerto Princesa Airport in the bigger picture—in stark contrast to the recognition accorded to the latter by the Americans during the war, and in the way both are exalted in the Hall of Heroes of the American War Memorial in Bonifacio Global City today.

At the outbreak of war, Palawan was one of few Philippine provinces closest to most Southeast Asian countries where the Japanese had also attacked. In the Invasion of Palawan book, a high-ranking American official, General Eichelberger, said: “It was important that aircraft based in Palawan intercept missions as far as Indochina, cut off Japanese sea lanes in the South China Sea, and also reach Japanese oil installations in Borneo.”

That was the reason he chose the 41st Infantry Division of Maj. Gen. Jens Doe to conduct the Palawan, Zamboanga and Sulu operations. And now that we have all seen the military significance of the main island of Palawan, based on Eichelberger’s words, let’s all go back in time. To know Higinio Sr. much better, and why you and I should commemorate his death.

Early life of a hero

The fifth of six children of Agustin Mendoza and Juana Acosta, life was not easy for the young Higinio Sr. As a kid, he and older brother Bernardino would sing and dance for some townsfolk and sell vegetables on the street. They all did this to earn a few centavos for their school baon.

But, alas, the boy who started his elementary schooling in Puerto Princesa, and early years in Palawan High School (when it was still located in Cuyo), was already showing sterling leadership qualities. He even astounded everyone by becoming a cadet captain, member of a champion debating team and president of his 1919 graduating class.

It was not customary for Palaweños to take collegiate studies in Manila in those days, much more enrol in an expensive course, medicine. Where would he get money to finance a mainstream course? But Higinio was different. He had thought that if he only worked hard and strived for what he wanted, he would get it.

Higinio ignited his ambition and fired it till he became a doctor. Why? He had seen how hard life was in a seemingly God-forsaken province, a land almost totally forgotten by national government officials, where development was painstakingly slow, and malaria always took people’s lives away from their loved ones. His dream was not driven by a selfish desire, but because his community has not seen a doctor for ages.

And so, with a leap of faith, armed with prayers provided by his loving parents in his suitcase, Higinio crossed the big wide Pacific, boarded a Russian ship and studied in Iowa State University and University of Indiana. He then enrolled at Hahnemann Medical College to obtain a Doctor of Medicine degree, and finished in 1928.

As an intern at a children’s homeopathic hospital and in Saint Luke, Philadelphia, Higinio founded a Filipino students’ club in Iowa State University, eventually becoming chairman of the university’s foreign students association. In between, he worked as an elevator boy, janitor, dishwasher, helper, and did many other odd jobs to keep body and soul together. He also pursued many other extra-curricular activities to enrich himself mentally, even becoming associate editor of The Medic, the Hahnemann Medical College Yearbook, an outstanding achievement for a little-known Palaweño then.

After staying in the US for 11 years, Higinio arrived in the Philippines. As a full-fledged doctor, Palaweños in Manila gave him a warm welcome and a banquet, rejoicing in the exemplary achievement of a kababayan who had made good. His gift of gab also made him a most sought-after speaker. The ensuing events would also thrust him into the political arena.

Higinio was elected governor in 1931, winning by a landslide, was reelected in 1934, but lost on his third bid when Cuyo and the rest of the Calamianes island voters opted to vote for his opponent. It was an offshoot of his decision to move Palawan High School from Cuyo to mainland Palawan, an act that angered people of the northern island group. Higinio stuck to his belief, saying: “The only provincial high school should be in the mainland where it could be more accessed by many young people.”

Now on private medical practice, he continued to serve the needy, giving free medical service and medicines to his constituents. He underwent further training as a medical and reserve officer in the Philippine Army Medical Corps. During that time, war was brewing and the brave man that he was, already anticipated what was going to be the worst scenario: Fight the enemy to the end. With that, he organized the first guerrilla force in Palawan.

The Japanese invasion

It was the worst of times. People would often gather in front of Higinio’s house every day, to get news about the looming war. He had a radio, a gadget that gave him updated news from the outside world. He would tell his people not to despair, but unite, resist the enemy, and that America would “liberate the country soon”.

A few days before the Japanese invaded Puerto Princesa, he made sure that everyone left town, including his family, whom he relocated to barrio Babuyan. When the Japanese came, he was the last to leave.

Prior to the mass evacuation of people out of Puerto Princesa, Higinio attended a meeting organized by then Gov. Gaudencio Abordo to decide on a course of action. With provincial officials and leading citizens attending, and him dominating that meeting, everyone unanimously voted for a “Free Palawan Government”, a de facto form of governance by Palaweños at some safe place in the jungles in the north. This made Palawan one of only three provinces in the entire country to establish a free government, with its own currency (“Script”) to boot.

Higinio’s guerrilla unit was designated as Company A of Palawan Special Battalion, the raison d’être for the existence of the Free Palawan Government. Its main role was to ambush Japanese patrols as an offensive and defensive force, focusing on jungle warfare.

His resistance movement eventually grew in number and became a formidable force each day, frightening local collaborators in the town. They knew that with him orchestrating the movement, they will all be wiped out. In retaliation, the traitors made an appeal to the Japanese to hunt him, dead or alive.

Mendoza’s capture

As in many stories of trust, treachery and deception, one of Higinio’s men, a soldier named Namia, fell into Japanese hands. Egged on to divulge what he knew about the former’s whereabouts, Namia eventually volunteered to guide the enemy to Higinio’s hiding place in Roxas. Soon after, two barges with an army of Japanese soldiers were launched and made him fall into the dragnet.

At dawn, in sitio Jolo, Tinitian, Roxas, just as he was about to take his breakfast, a gunshot rang out in the air. Running to the bedroom to check on his family, Higinio was met by several Japanese soldiers who immediately pointed guns at him. He was led away from his family, roughly manhandled and tied with a rope. Trinidad, his wife, cried and cried but was kicked in the abdomen by Japanese soldiers. Higinio told him calmly, “Be brave, we can die for our country.”

He went under heavy questioning and, by afternoon, the Japanese soldiers decided that he would be taken to Puerto Princesa. At that very moment, he knew that it would be the last time that he would see his family.

Many people traveled far to see him. His sister Agustina walked with her sons from Aborlan to comfort him. Meanwhile, his enemies had a heyday celebrating his capture. Higinio was allowed to make a speech in public, though. In one of those instances, he said: “It’s good that they chanced upon me in the house with my family. Had I been in the camp with my soldiers, there would be much bloodshed and I would never surrender.”

In the morning of January 24, 1944, Higinio was executed before a firing squad inside his father-in-law’s (John Clark) coconut plantation in Canigaran, Puerto Princesa. Tagbanua natives who were working in the area heard rifle shots but never revealed the killing site until 1947 for fear of the Japanese. After a series of long searches, a group of civilians found his remains but his skull was not in the grave. They are now interred in a memorial marker at Mendoza Park, the city’s main plaza.

No retreat, no surrender

Higinio would have escaped execution had he accepted allegiance to the Japanese flag. But he refused not to serve in the puppet government. He chose to face death rather than betray his country. Before he died, he left these words to his family: “Do not be afraid, don’t be sad. Not many are given the privilege to die for his country.”

During the interview, Higinio’s second son, Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary and VADM Higinio C. Mendoza Jr., was misty-eyed as he quoted the same line. “Buddy,” as he is often called by Palaweños in Puerto Princesa, founded the Palawan Special Battalion WW-II Museum and financed it on its own to honor his father.

It was inaugurated on December 5, 2011, and was officially opened to the public on the day of Pearl Harbor bombing on December 7. It is located along Rizal Avenue Extension, barangay Bancao-Bancao, Puerto Princesa City. The museum is also in honor of the Palawan Fighting 1000 Guerrilla and American soldiers who sacrificed their lives in defense of their freedom.

Among those on display: A historic typewriter used by the Free Palawan Government in printing Palawan Script Money during WWII, a WW2-era Willy’s jeep,  .50-caliber guns, rifles, pistols and photos that chronicle the war era and that of the Palawan POWs. It also has the most complete collection of bayonets and helmets used in the war. The museum brings to life memorabilia items which many people today have not seen. Artifacts from the American-Muslim conflict in the early 1900s and a 1957 Buick are also on display.

One of Buddy’s sons is Matthew Mendoza, currently City Councilor of Puerto Princesa.


1 comment

  1. Lubos akong nagpapasalamat dahil nabasa ko ang akda na ito. Tunay ngang kahanga-hanga ang nagawa ni Ginoo Mendoza para sa Palawan. Ang aking mga nalaman at natutunan dito ay aking dadalhin at ibabahagi sa ibang taong makikilala sa ngayon at sa hinaharap. Aking dalangin, ito ay malaman sa aking henerasyon at sa mga susunod pa sa akin. Hindi mararanasan ang kalayaan kung walang nagsakripisyo at lumaban para sa kapakanan at sa bayan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Previous Article

US-trained economist Liu poised for key role in China debt cleanup

Next Article

Asean, partners link arms in fight vs terrorism

Related Posts

land management
Read more

NEDA: Land use act key to infra development

Legislating the Comprehensive Infrastructure Development Master Plan, a 50-year infrastructure master plan, is needed to boost the country’s growth and development to better guide the projects and programs of succeeding administrations.

Read more

‘Foreign SWFs may own shares in public utilities’

Foreign Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) can collectively invest a maximum of 30 percent in Philippine companies engaged in the operation of public utilities and critical infrastructure such as telecommunications, according to the newly released Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of the Public Service Act (PSA).