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The Artist Abroad

A Good Man Is a Treasure Hard to Come by

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NEW YORK—He didn’t come as a newer version of the Thomasites, as the first American teachers were called, to preach the virtues of being a good American, nor did he come to enrich himself as a white colonizer at the expense of Filipinos, viewed condescendingly as brown little brothers. When he first arrived on Philippine shores in Leyte in 1944, William Pomeroy was a soldier and part of General Douglas MacArthur’s returning forces. Assigned to the army’s historical section, Pomeroy was one of the chroniclers of the US campaign in the Philippines. He was also a writer and a full-fledged member of the Communist Party USA.

He quickly got to know the leaders and guerrillas of the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Anti-Japanese National Army), the armed unit of the Soviet-leaning Partido ng Komunista ng Pilipinas, that fought the Japanese in Central Luzon—and not at all sympathetic to US colonial occupation. Aware of the long-festering land problem and other social issues in Central Luzon, Pomeroy helped the Huks obtain supplies and protested against the US Army’s clandestine attacks against the Huks, even as the war was raging.

In 1947, Pomeroy, now a civilian, returned to the islands and enrolled at the University of the Philippines, under the GI Bill of Rights, and quickly involved himself in the struggle the Huks, now renamed Hukbo Magpalaya ng Bayan (National Liberation Army), were spearheading against an independent Philippine government that was still in thrall to its patron the United States. He met Celia, a UP graduate, and married her the next year. It was a union that lasted until Pomeroy’s death in January of 2009 at the age of 92. Celia was to follow in August that same year.

In 1950, Bill and Celia joined the Huks in the forested mountains of the Sierra Madre, acting as teachers and writers. Two years later, the two were captured by government troops—a time when Ramon Magsaysay was Secretary of Defense, with Col. Edward Lansdale of the CIA as his adviser. Drawing from his experience in fighting the Huks, Lansdale went on to help formulate the hearts and minds strategy in the Vietnam War. He also served as a model for Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and for Colonel Hillandale in William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American.

Pomeroy wrote movingly of his and Celia’s life with the Huks in The Forest, his first book and the first I read. To that point, I knew next to nothing of this extraordinary man and his extraordinary life. That was many years ago. Then, more than a month ago, I came across Bilanggo or Prisoner, the last book he wrote (UP Press, 2009) at the New York University library and took it out immediately. Bilanggo covers the period when the couple was incarcerated at Bilibid, from 1952 to 1962, with Celia in the women’s prison, a sequel, if you will, to The Forest. It is a powerful and gripping, plain-spoken narrative, mainly of Pomeroy’s life as a political prisoner. Imprisoned with him were members of the PKP’s Politburo.

I had mentioned coming across Bilanggo in an e-mail to writer/columnist and Marcos political prisoner Jose “Butch” Dalisay. He wrote to let me know that while he still had to read Bilanggo, “Pomeroy was very influential in shaping my leftist mind. It was the lyricism of The Forest, which I read in high school, that prodded me to become an activist. I still count it as the most important book of my young life.”

Most of Bilibid’s denizens were criminals of all varieties, from petty thieves to murderers and rapists. Pomeroy’s assessment of the Philippine criminal justice system would not be out of place today: “I think of myself as the victim of a system of justice designed to protect wrongdoing on a vast scale. The murderer, the gangster, the rapist, the viciously dishonest are not my brothers, any more than the officials who sent me here.” He points out what is surely true in other countries where the divide between the haves and the have-nots, between the powerful and the powerless, seems also depressingly unbridgeable: that most of those imprisoned come from the wrong social class and lacked the clout to get a fair trial. In rare cases where a moneyed individual does get prison time, he is treated with kid gloves. Remember the former provincial governor of Batangas who, disdaining the regular accommodations, had his own residence built on the penitentiary grounds, next to a plant nursery, and regularly ventured sans official authorization outside the walls? The rich, as F. Scott Fitzgerald had one of his characters say, “are different from you and me.”

Pardoned by President Carlos P. Garcia in his last year in office, the couple were released in 1962, and went on to live in London: while Pomeroy, being a US citizen, could not be denied entry to his homeland, Celia had been barred from entering the US Even though Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt against purported Communists had proved a disaster, it was still the Cold War, and Communists were not looked upon too kindly by the US government.

At Bilibid, Pomeroy and the captured Politburo members, including Jose Lava, were kept in a cell house separate from the other prisoners, who for the most part respected them, partly due to the reputation the Huks had as disciplined fighters who would not hesitate to retaliate should anyone in their group be harmed. The Politburo wisely did nothing to discourage this perception, which came in handy when a bloody and brutal war erupted between the OXO and Sigue Sigue gangs—one of the most graphic and compelling sections in the book. Amidst the blood-curdling cries, according to Pomeroy, a party member reminds Santos, the Sigue-Sigue leader, that the Huks are not taking sides and that he, Santos, should “tell your men to keep our area off limits.” Pomeroy continues:

“The tall, powerful figure of Santos, naked to the waist, stands in the corridor, arms upraised with a club in each hand, brown skin steaming with sweat. His voice booms out above the din … ‘Stay away from the Politburo group! Do not touch the Politburo! They are the comrades of all of us! I will kill the first man who touches a member of the Politburo!’
Those who have been striking at our barrier promptly vanish.”

The strict discipline the Politburo enforces among its members, and the use of a clandestine network to communicate with the outside world (and, in Pomeroy’s case, with Celia) enable these ideological prisoners to maintain their dignity and morale. In addition, Pomeroy finds mighty solace in poetry, for “through it I can reach to Celia and find my link with the human spirit everywhere.”  Here are the last lines of one poem written for her:

Stripped of the intimacy of our years,

We in our lonely marriage, turn inside

To rooted depths, beyond the reach of fears,

Where, underlying love, the heart has pride

Assuring, in the bleeding of its cost,

That nothing that lovers have is ever lost.

He speaks of how a bigoted Catholic priest, when conducting services for the other inmates, calls the Communists “animals” and “filthy beasts”; describes the ploys of military intelligence agents to break down their solidarity; cherishes the moments when he and Celia are allowed to visit and for a while even cohabit; and observes in at times amusing detail the prison life of those other inmates, the roaches and the rats.

In London, he was sought by the ANC (African National Congress) and SACP (South African Communist Party) activists, to speak at their gatherings, when apartheid was still official South African policy. When the South African police captured Nelson Mandela, then head of the Umkhonto We Size (Spear of the Nation, the ANC’s military arm), among his books was a copy of Luis Taruc’s autobiography Born of the People, though in truth the book had been ghostwritten by Pomeroy. Pomeroy never ceased to write, publishing books on apartheid, US neocolonialism, and the Philippines.

Pomeroy was more Filipino than many nationalists, and more nationalist than many Filipinos. It is only fitting that his ashes have been interred in the Philippines. His story is part of a hollowed tradition, the outsider fighting in some other land because of his conviction in the righteousness of a particular cause, whether it is Byron in Greece, Che Guevarra in Bolivia, David Fagen in the Philippine-American War, or George Orwell and other international partisans fighting against the Franco-led forces in the Spanish Civil War. Disagree if you will with his political beliefs, but you would be callow not to be moved by his willingness to suffer because of his convictions. Were you to salute him instead, you would be in the company of many others.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2012


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