Manila Reborn

An exhibit on the postwar reconstruction of a city

By Filipinas Heritage Library

Filipinas Heritage Library

Aerial view of Manila (1931)Filipinas Heritage Library

"Pearl of the Orient"

Manila is said to have been called "Pearl of the Orient" since the 1750s, but before World War II, guidebooks and other books have certainly referred to the city as such. Manila: The Pearl of the Orient (1908) lays down the terrain to tourists of old: "Manila is divided by the Pasig River into the north and the south sides; on the south bank are the old Walled City and the districts of Ermita, Malate, and Paco, while on the north side are the Escolta, the principal business section, and the districts of Binondo, San Nicolas, Tondo, Santa Cruz, Quiapo, and Sampaloc. The Escolta is the main business artery of Manila, and on it are located the chief business houses of the city. The junction of the Escolta and the Bridge of Spain is the principal business center, and at this point cars may be taken for nearly any part of the city or suburbs."

Sunday morning, circa 1938Filipinas Heritage Library

A foreign tourist at the time enthused: "She is easily the queen of the cities of the East, and for one who knows how to find the buried treasures, a year of residence in Manila may be one of the most profitable in a lifetime."

Bureau of Posts Building, circa 1941Filipinas Heritage Library

Built heritage in prewar Manila--such as the art deco buildings, the "Walled City" of Intramuros, and Chinatown--vividly reflected the confluence of Asian, European, and American cultures.

Manila estero, circa 1938Filipinas Heritage Library

After Spanish colonization of the country, American rule led to the institutionalization of education and the creation of public infrastructure which opened Manila to world trade and culture.

Manila HotelFilipinas Heritage Library

Cosmopolitan Manila was a city that "felt equally at home with the tango, the flamenco, the waltz, the jive, and Balinese dancing." It enjoyed an era called "Peacetime."

Prewar Manila billboards by Teodulo ProtomartirFilipinas Heritage Library

Manileños before the war were entertained by "vaudeville, talking pictures, a big basketball game, [or] a gala night at the Santa Ana Cabaret." Meanwhile, America sank into The Great Depression.

Prewar Manila street sceneFilipinas Heritage Library

As the country's capital, Manila was important in World War II for its ports, airfields, edifices, shipyards, factories, and warehouses. But when the war first broke, the city was taken by surprise.

War-torn Manila (1945) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

"They must also be thrown into the river"

As with the duration of the war starting in 1941, the capture and control of Manila was inevitable towards the end of the war four years later. The Battle for Manila between the joint Filipino and American forces and the Japanese Imperial Army from February 3 to March 3, 1945 caused the loss of more than 100,000 lives and a massive destruction of the city. According to the historian William Manchester, "seventy percent of the utilities, 75 percent of the factories, 80 percent of the southern residential district, and 100 percent of the business district was razed" in the course of the Battle.

Japanese barricade on Padre Burgos StreetFilipinas Heritage Library

Gen. Douglas MacArthur had planned to liberate Manila as soon as the United States Army entered it on February 2, 1945. Little did he know that the Japanese had been setting up defenses since December 1944.

Japanese defense positions (1945) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

Japanese equipment consisted of everything but armor and aircraft. The Japanese had machine guns, anti-aircraft and automatic cannons, howitzers, mortars, and rocket launchers.

Japanese defense strategy (1945) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

Due to the Japanese's widespread use of residences and public buildings as defense positions, the Battle for Manila was costly in terms of damage to public and private property.

Japanese soldiers with demolition charges (1945-02)Filipinas Heritage Library

As Filipino and American troops entered Manila, Japanese soldiers began to detonate buildings everywhere in the city in a calculated program of destruction.

Americans enter burning Manila (1945-02-14) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

American artillery (1945-02) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

The Filipino-American army waged the Battle for Manila with tanks and tank destroyers, heavy artillery, bazookas, machine guns, flamethrowers, snipers.

Plaza España (1945-02) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

Flamethrower, Intramuros (1945-02-23) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

Rizal Memorial Stadium (1945-02) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

US Army defense from building rooftop (1945-02) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

Capture plan for Manila (1945) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

The Americans were ordered not to fire on areas that housed civilians. Civilians, however, were randomly sniped at by the Japanese or used as human shields.

Bodies of dead civilians (1945)Filipinas Heritage Library

Civilians were raped, bayoneted, massacred. Dead bodies were ordered to be gathered in houses scheduled to be burned or destroyed. "They should also be thrown into the river," a battalion order went.

"When Manileños Died With Their City" (1995-02-27) by Bambi Lammoglia HarperFilipinas Heritage Library

The havoc was complete. As Bambi Harper wrote, "The combatants took our history when they leveled Intramuros, they took our future when they slaughtered our youth."

"The Dead City of Manila is Completely Conquered After 21 Days of Battle" by LIFE MagazineFilipinas Heritage Library

War-torn Manila (1945)Filipinas Heritage Library

"Stinking with the thousands of dead"

The editor and publisher AVH Hartendorp described Manila in the wake of the Battle: "Manila lay waste, stinking with the thousands of dead of massacre as well as battle. It had lost its piers, docks, and bridges, its electric light and power and gas plants, its telephone exchanges, radio stations, and newspaper plants, its factories and warehouses and office-buildings, its schools and universities, libraries, museums, churches, and theaters, its hotels and apartment houses, nine-tenths of its private homes, even its parks and avenues and streets. A great city, of a million inhabitants, a metropolis, three hundred years in building, was gone."

Bureau of Posts Building (1945-02) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

Among the prewar structures destroyed as a result of the Japanese defense position was the Bureau of Posts Building on the south bank of the Pasig River.

Legislative Building, circa 1945 by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

Another was the Legislative Building. Designed according to the Beaux Arts tradition, it had housed majority of the items of the National Museum of the Philippine Islands.

Finance Building (1945)Filipinas Heritage Library

The Finance Building was not spared.

Commerce and Agriculture Building (1945)Filipinas Heritage Library

Neither was the Commerce and Agriculture Building.

Manila Cathedral (1945-03-08) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

First constructed in the 1590s, the Manila Cathedral is virtually as old as the city of Manila. The seat of the country's highest prelate, it had endured many storms, earthquakes, and wars.

Bureau of Science Building, circa 1910Filipinas Heritage Library

Some important cultural structures were completely lost, like the Bureau of Science Building which contained the Divisions of Ethnology and Anthropology of the National Museum.

Souvenir leaflet on the "Ruins of Manila" p. 1 (1945)Filipinas Heritage Library

Souvenir leaflet on the "Ruins of Manila" p. 2 (1945)Filipinas Heritage Library

Souvenir leaflet on the "Ruins of Manila" p. 3Filipinas Heritage Library

Manila, north of Pasig River (1945) by US Army FileFilipinas Heritage Library

Manila came to be the second most devastated Allied city in World War II. Ruins of the Battle for Manila--and the city's prewar culture--were bulldozed to give way to reconstruction.

Aerial view of postwar ManilaFilipinas Heritage Library

"Forgotten and forgiven"

When the war officially ended in September 1945, recovery was slow. The Philippines had no one to turn to for help but the Americans, who had pledged to pay for all war damages. As per the pre-war schedule, independence from American rule was celebrated on July 4, 1946. Although in theory it gave the Philippines the independence it long aspired for, it also deepened the country's economic and political dependence on the United States.

Clearing the debris in war-torn Manila (1945)Filipinas Heritage Library

Part of the United States' war assistance to the Philippines was the clearing of debris in Manila, and the provision of surplus US military equipment and property already in the country.

Aduana Road, Intramuros (1945)Filipinas Heritage Library

War had changed how Manileños navigated their city. For instance, right-hand driving was introduced in the country during the Battle for Manila, when it facilitated the movement of American troops.

US Army engineers in war-torn Manila (1945)Filipinas Heritage Library

The United Nations sent $11 million worth of food, clothing, medicine, and farm implements, but the relief program ended when the Philippines became independent in 1946.

Inauguration of the Third Philippine Republic (1946-07-04) by Teodulo ProtomartirFilipinas Heritage Library

The United States allotted $1.24 billion as payment for war damages even if the Philippine government's estimate was $8 billion. Payment was enforced only upon the approval of US-controlled free trade.

Sergio Osmeña, circa 1945Filipinas Heritage Library

With little to go on, Filipino leaders counted on unity, loyalty, and mercy to support rehabilitation policies. Sergio Osmeña pushed for political unity by appointing former guerrillas to public office.

Elpidio S. Quirino and Manuel A. Roxas (1946)Filipinas Heritage Library

Manuel Roxas insisted that "errors of the mind rather than the heart must be forgotten and forgiven." Elpidio Quirino gave clemency to collaborators and enemy soldiers despite the massacre of his family in 1945.

By Jack BirnsLIFE Photo Collection

The money paid by America for war damages helped cover the reconstruction of some heritage structures, like the Bureau of Posts, the Legislative Building, and City Hall.

By Jack BirnsLIFE Photo Collection

Compared to reconstruction in contemporary times, postwar rehabilitation was relatively quick and took only a few months or years.

Boat along the Pasig River, circa 1947 by Teodulo ProtomartirFilipinas Heritage Library

But rebuilding life from scratch was hard. Manila five years after the war was, as Nick Joaquin wrote, "in the same condition in which it had been left after the Japs and the GIs were through with it."

Quezon Boulevard, Quiapo, circa 1950Filipinas Heritage Library

"The makeshift devices of the Liberation days, like the pontoon bridge and the quonset hut, had...become the normal the ruins, the relief goods, the racketeers."

Home (1951) by Rodolfo DayaoFilipinas Heritage Library

"Abnormality had become the pattern of our lives. And the abnormality showed most in the three freaks that the Liberation had spawned in Manila--the jeepney, the barong-barong, and the squatter."

By James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection

Life went on as Filipinos tried to recover their strength. Carlos Garcia's "Filipino First" policy encouraged Filipinos to venture into trade, leading to the proliferation of factories in Manila.

Plaza de Armas, Fort Santiago, circa 1970Filipinas Heritage Library

"A New Society"

By the 1960s and 1970s, as the Philippine government continued to grapple with corruption, civilian unrest, and foreign debt, life was not so much back to normal, as different. Ferdinand Marcos pushed for the creation of a "New Society" in which old values were supposed to be rejected in favor of progress and reform. Assisted by the military and police, Marcos embarked on a decades-long restructuring of Manila, a venture that included a reclamation project on Manila Bay and the building of cultural centers inspired by local aesthetics.

Bureau of Posts Building, circa 1960Filipinas Heritage Library

Imelda Marcos (1974) by Claudio BravoFilipinas Heritage Library

In 1975, Marcos decreed the creation of Metro Manila under which Manila was subsumed. Marcos appointed the First Lady, Imelda Marcos, as governor of Metro Manila.

CCP ComplexFilipinas Heritage Library

Rather than reconstruct old buildings, new ones were built, such as the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex in the reclaimed area of Pasay, another sub-city of Metro Manila.

Makati Central Business District (1969)Filipinas Heritage Library

Businesses left war-torn Escolta, and the once-grassy municipality of Makati prospered as the new commercial center of the region. Eventually, Makati became a city within Metro Manila.

Ruins on Victoria Street, Intramuros, circa 1980Filipinas Heritage Library

By the 1980s and 1990s, with the country trying to reclaim democracy as it approached the new millennium, World War II had already been quite forgotten despite its relics.

"Ciudad Insigne y Siempre Leal"

In 1571, the Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi landed in Manila and declared it a city founded in the name of the King: "in his name will I defend it, maintaining peace and justice for all Spaniards, citizens, and foreigners, and for all the natives, giving equal justice to the rich and to the poor, to the humble and to the great, and succoring widows and orphans." Almost 500 years later, Manila is still a "City Distinguished and Ever Loyal," sustaining the same types of people that Legazpi swore to protect. With half a millennium of history on its back, the city is home to new generations of Filipinos from all walks of life. 

National Museum (2015-02) by Michael Rafael GordovezFilipinas Heritage Library

Through the vigilance and commitment of cultural workers and old timers, Manila is still able to preserve some of the country's history. The Legislative Building again houses the National Museum.

Former Agriculture Building (2015-02) by Michael Rafael GordovezFilipinas Heritage Library

The former Commerce and Agriculture Building was briefly home to the Department of Tourism and is now set to open as the National Museum of Natural History.

Post Office Building (2015-02) by Michael Rafael GordovezFilipinas Heritage Library

In this age of social media, email, and SMS, the Post Office Building remains one of the grandest American-era structures in the country.

Manila Cathedral (2015-02) by Michael Rafael GordovezFilipinas Heritage Library

The Neo-Romanesque Manila Cathedral reopened in 2014 after another round of renovation and restoration. In early 2015, it welcomed thousands of Filipinos during a mass by Pope Francis.

Manila highways (2015-02) by Michael Rafael GordovezFilipinas Heritage Library

"Challenge and Response"

Perhaps no one can best describe the constant rebirth of Manila other than National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, who was born in the old district of Paco in 1917: "The history of Manila can be put in three words: challenge and response. It almost seems as if every problem, every crisis, arises just to prove the aliveness of this city: continually destroyed and continually rebuilt, ever decaying and ever re-greening." # # #

Credits: Story

Image Credits:

Ricardo T. Jose
John Tewell
Benito J. Legarda
Mario Feir

Works Consulted:

Connaughton, Richard et al. The Battle for Manila: The Most Devastating Untold Story of World War II. California: Presidio Press, 1995.

Custodio, Jose Antonio A. "A Study on the Battle for the Liberation of Manila." In Violeta S. Ignacio (ed.), Manila: Selected Papers of the Annual Conferences of the Manila Studies Association, 1992-2002. Quezon City: The Manila Studies Association, 2004.

Escoda, Jose Ma. Bonifacio. Warsaw of Asia: The Rape of Manila. Quezon City: Giraffe Books, 2000.

Gleeck, Jr., Lewis G. The Third Philippine Republic, 1946-1972. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1993.

Joaquin, Nick. Manila, My Manila. Makati City: Bookmark, 1999.

Jose, Ricardo T. "Philippine Independence, The Third Republic, Free Trade and Controls, 1946 to 1972." Paper for the Trade Roots Program. Makati City: Ayala Foundation, 2008.

Neveu, Roland & Mangin, Marc. Eternal Manila: Contemporary Portrait of a Timeless City. Paris: Les Editions d'Indochine, 1997.

Manila, The Pearl of the Orient: Guide Book to the Intending Visitor. Manila: The Manila Merchants' Association, 1908.

Miller, George Amos. Interesting Manila: Historical Narratives Concerning the Pearl of the Orient. Manila: EC McCullough, 1919.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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