Life in the Philippines Leading up to WWII
Most American high school students can tell you the significance of the date December 7, 1941. The events of that day reverberated in the American subconscious in a way that few others have since. Think of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or perhaps to a lesser extent the recent Boston marathon bombings. In each of these instances, Americans were left feeling powerless, and made abruptly aware through various media forms of the respective eras of a previously unacknowledged vulnerability. That said, I must point out that although each of these instances led to great political upheaval, none quite shared the far-reaching implications of the attack that led to America’s entrance into the Second World War. It must also be acknowledged that the attack on Pearl Harbor was not, as it is often claimed, entirely unprovoked. High tensions had existed on both sides for some time before the surprise attack, which were largely the result of Japanese imperialism coupled with American resistance to it in the form of a trade embargo (no US trade meant virtually no oil for Japan). Having said this, I must add that although America’s entrance into the war seemed all but inevitable from a political perspective, this was not necessarily the case from that of the individual soldier.
One such voice, that of Captain John D. Wood, is preserved in the manuscripts collection at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS). In correspondence between the captain and his wife, Mary Robeson Wood, we hear the voice of a man who, after training soldiers in the Philippines, had his tour of duty involuntarily extended because of the breakdown in U.S./Japanese relations. In these letters, Wood discusses such far ranging topics as recent world political events, his potential reassignment to a new post by the end of the year (his wife returned to the United States in February, 1941—the letters extend from that time until November 30, 1941), and his ever increasing anxiety, resulting from the “crisis still building up” and the ever-present distance from his family (his wife as well as their barely one-year old daughter, Ann, fondly referred to as “the brat”). Although tensions in the letters seem to grow with the revelation that the Japanese last ditch efforts at diplomacy, the Kurusu envoy, have been unsuccessful—“Japan has evidently been told that they can either take it or leave it. They say they’ll [leave] it” [Nov. 27]—one is struck by the little things that take up Wood’s time outside his service—his commonly referred to “bull sessions,” his trips to the cinema, and his common references to afternoon spent playing tennis with other soldiers. It’s a very human exchange—one that transcends the geopolitical story unfolding around him. As he puts it, “[p]erhaps I am not a very good soldier, but when I have time to think of you, you and Ann mean much more than anything I am trying to accomplish here….It may not be what you want to hear, but it’s the truth” [May 7].
To find out more about the plight of an artillery-man stationed in the Philippines in the months leading up to America’s entry into the Second World War, check out the article, “Corregidor, The Last Month of Peace: The Letters of Captain John D. Wood,” in the October 1985 issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, or for the more complete story, come to the VHS library and read the letters of Capt. John D. Wood.
The photos are courtesy of Mary R. Pendleton and were originally printed in the VMHB article mentioned above.
Matthew Chaney is a library clerk at the Virginia Historical Society.