The War Diary of Orville Albert Babcock

By: Jobers Reynes Bersales - CDN Digital | October 14,2019 - 06:43 AM

Orville Albert Babcock was on an inspection tour of schools in Tacloban when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and, a few hours later, Clark Field and other air bases in the Philippines on December 8, 1941. 

As a high official of the Bureau of Education in Manila, he had no intention of staying in Leyte and immediately left for Cebu City to catch any steamship heading for the capital. Instead, he got stranded here for the best of four months while attempting to send letters and telegrams to his parents and his only child in the U.S., a daughter named Jean.

Failing this, he decided the next best thing to do: to write a journal about his experiences as the war gradually crept nearer to where he was. The result: 849 pages full of wit, sarcasm and dark humor, as he recounts his life and those of countless others, first in Cebu, and eventually in Danao, Ichon, Ilihan and other upland barrios of Macrohon, Southern Leyte. 

This Thursday, on the occasion of the International Conference on the Leyte Landings at Leyte Normal University, the general public will have a chance to read nearly 600 pages of that diary in a book published by the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI) that I was privileged to edit. Entitled “Hidden in Leyte: The Orville Albert Babcock Diary of World War II 1941-45,” the thick volume recounts Babcock’s life and his observations of just about everything while in Cebu and eventually, while in hiding in Leyte. 

Who was this man and why does his diary matter? Orville Albert Babcock was a young man with an education degree from Albion College in Michigan, when he arrived in Manila in 1916 to take up a career as public school teacher. In just a few years he would get promoted to supervising teacher in Antique, eventually reaching the pinnacle of his career as schools superintendent in a number of provinces before the war broke out. One of those was Leyte, which would prove crucial in his decision to wait out the war in lieu of surrender. 

Between 1930 and 1935, Babcock was Leyte’s superintendent of schools and among the many teachers and principals under him was Margarita Kangleon Gaviola, who, as fate would have it, successfully convinced him to hide in the hills of Macrohon with her and her family. It is from the vantage point of the uplands that we are provided an eyewitness account not just of one man’s travails of surviving the war unscathed, but also of those around him. It is also from here that, perhaps for many in this country, we find a scathing and disdainful view of guerrillas, especially in the early period of resistance when rivalries among guerrilla groups and their exploitation of the civilian populace made the Japanese occupiers seem like angels.

How did the Babcock Diary end up in Cebu? A typewritten version of the original handwritten version was mailed from Manila by Babcock to his daughter, Jean, sometime in 1956. Some thirty years later, a photocopy reached Morton Jacob Netzorg and his wife Petra Fuld Netzorg, owners of The Cellar Bookshop in Detroit, Michigan, the most important source of pre- and post-war Filipiniana in the United States. On April 27, 2001, Petra Netzorg, by then widowed, wrote to Jim Halsema about the diary. A decade earlier (1991) Jim had written a biography of his father, Eusebius James Halsema, the American engineer (later, mayor of Baguio) who built Buhisan Dam in Cebu and other notable public infrastructure in the colony during the first decades of the 20th century. Days later, on May 10, Lucie Milne, who was a young girl trapped in Cebu with her parents during the war, also wrote Jim Halsema about the diary and what could be done with it. 

Unfortunately, nothing much happened thereafter until Louis Jurika, son of war hero Capt. Tom Jurika, who is mentioned in the diary, finally got hold of it among other papers from Jim Halsema three years before his demise. Lou eventually brought this copy to Cebu in 2016 to offer its publication to the late Roberto “Bobby” Aboitiz, then-president of RAFI, who, like Netzorg and Jurika himself, was deeply interested in the war. 

Sadly, Bobby passed suddenly without seeing the published version of the diary. It is therefore in his memory and his deep interest in the war, that this book is dedicated as this project would not have been possible without his imprimatur. 

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