Woman of War: British student becomes POW

By Jennifer Lee Preyss

The Aaron family

Eileen (left), with her mother, Margaret, and her brother and sister, Jack and Madge, before the war in Manila.

Angry pounding rattles Eileen Aaron's front door as she and her mother, Margaret, younger brother Jack, and older sister Jean cower in the kitchen.

The family's Filipino servants keep watch for safety, but they know they have only a few moments left of freedom.

Bombing and military air strikes echo in the distance. The war has arrived in Manila.

It is Sunday, Jan. 6, 1942.

Japanese imperial forces are invading the Filipino capital and begin taking prisoner non-Asian residents, many of British citizenship, many like Eileen's family.

She huddles with her mother and siblings for several tremulous moments before the front door opens, revealing three fixed-bayonet-wielding Japanese soldiers, demanding - in unintelligible English - they pack enough clothes and food for three days, and pile in the rear of an open cattle truck.

Born, raised in far-off land

Eileen, born in the Philippines in 1923, was only 18 years old when she became a prisoner during World War II. She was a freshman at Santo Tomas Catholic University - which would later become her prison - studying business and secretarial work, and courting a new beau, Ian, of Scottish ancestry.

For 37 months following her arrest, Eileen and her family were among the more than 3,000 "enemy aliens" Japanese militants held prisoner at Santo Tomas and Los Banos interment camps.

Many internees died of illness or starvation; others were executed.

Those who survived internment were subjected to hunger, gross malnutrition, dysentery and daily verbal and physical brutality.

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By the end of the war, an estimated 100,000 people in Manila died, and about 90 percent of the city was leveled.

Eventually, Eileen moved to Victoria, where few knew her past as a prisoner of war. Her life is retold here through her notes, memories of family, friends and other survivors of Santo Tomas and Los Banos internment camps.

Pre-war Manila

Life in the Southeast Asian American commonwealth was idyllic before those angry Japanese knocks; before Eileen's beloved Manila was destroyed by enemy strafing; before her name would be forever harnessed to "prisoner of war" and retellings of world history.

The Aaron family was among a large population of British colonials, Americans and Europeans living in Manila in the 1940s, and her family home on 20 Fresno Road was a tropical haven with mango, papaya and palm trees sprouting across the two-story property.

"She loved her childhood, and all the tropical ways of life," said Margaret Barney, Eileen's daughter. "She always spoke fondly of her childhood in Manila. She had some of the best times of her life there. And had the war never come, she'd probably never would have left."

John Aaron

Eileen's father, John, emigrated to the Philippines from England, in 1918. He left the oil business during the worldwide depression, sold insurance and ran the Army-Navy club where many prominent families socialized.

Eileen's father, John Aaron, emigrated to the Philippines from Birmingham, England, in 1918 to work for a British oil company. He was introduced to Coleman's mother, Margaret Tyre, whose family emigrated to the Philippines two generations earlier from Scotland by way of Hong Kong.

John Aaron was a non-practicing Jew; Margaret Tyre was Presbyterian, a point of contention when they aimed to marry, especially for Aaron's parents who did not want their son to marry a non-Jewish woman, but eventually their families conceded and they spent many years together, content and successful, before the war.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Eileen's father quit the oil business and found work where he could.

He sold insurance for a while, then managed the Army-Navy Club, where many of the British and American families spent time with their families on the weekends and after work.

There weren't many restaurants or entertainment venues in the 1930s and 40s for residents of Manila, so everyone belonged to various private clubs: the Army-Navy Club, the Health Club, Polo Club and Country Club.

"Some would belong to all of them because it gave families a place to go," Eileen's nephew and fellow Santo Tomas internee, Bayless Cobb, 71, explained.

John Aaron later served as executive director for the Masonic Lodge and did so until his captivity by the Japanese.

Per the status quo of the times, many Anglo families employed Filipino servants in the home as housekeepers, cooks and drivers.

Generally, Europeans and Americans were looked upon with respect and endearment by the Filipinos, Cobb said, mentioning they would later aid American soldiers to defeat the Japanese and risk their lives to liberate the interment


Margaret Tyre

Eileen's mother, was a third-generation resident of Manila. Her grandparents came over from Scotland via Hong Kong.

Eileen, like her mother Margaret in her youth, attended The American School in Manila. It was a carefree existence on the islands, where the days were filled with education, sport and annual family vacations to Baguio, followed by recreation at the Polo Club and a busy schedule of coed dances.

One of Eileen's closest friends, Patty Stevens, 90, recalled spending time as teens at a local neighborhood shop where they'd meet for ice cream and soda and talk about the war.

"Eileen lived not very far from me, and we'd go over to the school, or our little store and hang out," said Stevens, who later became prison bunkmates with Eileen on the third floor of Santo Tomas. "We were great friends our entire lives. I don't know how we made it all these years. We've had so many close calls."

Growing concern of war

As war escalates around the world in 1941, many in Manila carry on with daily life.

Several warnings begin to circulate about the possibility of Japanese attacks in the Philippines, but these warnings are largely dismissed.

In Manila, a group calling themselves the American Coordinating Committee, later the Central Committee, prepare for wartime should a battlefield appear in their backyard.

As Eileen writes in one of the few speeches she ever delivered about her time in prison, "They were really very foresighted because many of us believed we had a huge army to protect us, when in reality, we were just not prepared," she noted, discussing the attitude that many believed American troops on the islands would be able to defeat enemy attacks.

The committee partners with the Philippine government and U.S. High Commissioners and other civilians to scout locations that might be appropriate for civilian prisons, should the Japanese take American forces down and force residents into captivity.

The committee turns over a letter of request in early December, and Japanese officials agree to the location because it is a Spanish-established university and therefore considered neutral ground.

The world changes Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese war planes attack Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, killing 2,403 Americans.

A day after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declares war on Japan; Japanese troops invade the Philippines; and Eileen, along with every other resident of Manila, realizes it is only a matter of days before their city and its allied military defenders will be entrenched in war.

Manila was heavily damaged during the war, becoming the second most bombed city besides Warsaw in the conflict. The legislative building pictured above was not spared the carnage.

Wedding before war

Eileen's sister Madge had begun a courtship with an American seaman, Earl Cobb, of Arkansas, shortly before Dec. 7.

Earl, living in Manila, saw Madge from afar one afternoon and decided to ask her out. He needed an introduction so he asked her sister Jean out to a dance, knowing she already had a date and would turn him down. That allowed him to ask Jean to introduce him to her sister.

After the dance, Earl and Madge fall in love.

They rush the courtship out of fear of the war. Earl worries he could be deported, so he wants to be able to take Madge out of the war zone if that happens.

If they don't marry, they fear they could be separated for years, if not forever.

Almost a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Earl is working on a ship that is about to leave the islands. But he decides not to leave his love behind.

He makes his way through Japanese checkpoints to get into Manila and finds Madge and her family. They marry Jan. 1, as the city is falling to the Japanese.

For a celebration after the small family wedding, they find champagne about to be destroyed before the Japanese can get to it. They are able to spend a night in a hotel and have breakfast the next morning.

Taken prisoner

After invading the city, Japanese soldiers go a house at a time, arresting American, British, Canadian and others perceived to be enemies of Japan.

American military are overwhelmed by Japanese air strikes, which damage military weaponry and cripple defenses stationed in the islands. American troops fight to defeat the Japanese, but their forces are weakened, and Japanese occupation increases each day.

Radio announcements circulating though Manila implore families, especially white, non-Filipino families, to retreat to their homes or risk being taken prisoner by a growing presence of Japanese militia.

The Aaron family wait quietly, fearfully at home, praying surrounding Japanese air strikes won't reach them and hoping their home will somehow keep out Japanese military.

Within days of the warnings, military trucks begin combing the streets.

John Aaron makes a last-minute decision to visit the Masonic Lodge to destroy paperwork and documents that might get into the wrong hands during wartime. While he is out, his family is arrested.

About an hour later, John Aaron is arrested on the streets.

Madge and Earl, while honeymooning at a nearby hotel, are picked up outside an Australian embassy Japanese soldiers had earlier seized.

A photograph captures the moment of the honeymooners' arrest shortly after breakfast as they are walking near the embassy. Madge later learns this photo is the first of her yet-to-be-born son.

Packing for three days

Across the city, Eileen's friends are arrested one at a time.

Patty Stevens is huddled with her mother and brother in their home when the angry Japanese knocks arrive. They are told to pack for three days. They hope that means they will soon be allowed to return home.

Patty despairs because the Japanese won't let them bring their family dog, Suzie, a wired-haired mix.

Patty opens open about six cans of dog food and fills a few bowls of water.

She never again sees her dog.

Only a short drive from the Stevens house, the Japanese soldiers usher frantic mobs of new prisoners into the Rizal Stadium near Santo Tomas.

Each person is shown to a large table and told to sign in, then guided to a building holding three days worth of food and clothing.

Though excited to see so many familiar faces on the grounds, Eileen and her family have no answers about the impending few days at Santo Tomas.

Surely, rescue will arrive shortly, they believe, and they'll be home by the end of the week.

Continue Reading: Woman of War: Camp life becomes torturous