Tabunan was the general headquarters of the Cebu Area Command under Harry Fenton and James Cushing for less than a year, from late 1942 to March 1943, and fell after a Japanese expeditionary force penetrated the interior of Cebu.
The loss also ushered in the gradual falling out of some of the original leaders of the resistance movement against the Japanese resulting in the subsequent execution of Fenton, who was accused by his own comrades of war crimes.
To the peasants now residing in Tabunan, the memory of Fenton and not of the more sober Cushing left a lasting imprint upon their psyche. Now, why Fenton?
Teofilo Pador, barangay tanod of Tabunan, was born in 1943, or months after the guerilla base was set up in their barangay. His knowledge of the war was handed to him by his parents and the older residents who have taken the saga of their place to heart.
Pador guided us to a boulder in Ssitio Fenton, also called Ka Fenton, near which the guerilla leader was said to have set up his camp. A few meters above the place was a spring, now inside a cemented structure, that supported the needs of Fenton’s group and his aides during his stay.
Fenton’s quarters was located around a kilometer above the place where the rest of the guerillas stayed. But to the civilians in Tabunan at that time, that area was more than the base of a famed leader of the resistance movement.
For as Col. Manuel Segura would later write in a book, the place would make those who collaborated with the Japanese “cower at the very thought of being brought there to face guerilla justice.”
A few meters away from Fenton’s quarters, in an area now planted with camote and pepper, was the unmarked mass grave of those who were executed, rightly or wrongly by the guerillas.
There, 75 years old Ricardo Gabutin would pass in the years after the war, and there he would stand alone and talk to the dead, apparently trying to assure the souls of those who were innocent that they were remembered.
Gabutin was a 22-year old ex-college student who was among those who evacuated to Tabunan from Guadalupe during the Japanese occupation.His knowledge of English would later endear him to Fenton, who solicited his services as a volunteer guard.
Gabutin’s closeness with Fenton would make him witness to a terror that struck not only the Japanese spies but also those who were merely accused of being one.
Remembering the war years was both painful as it was memorable for the people who were not party to the actual goings-on in the resistance movement. The peasants who were in Tabunan never fought the Japanese face to face, and their only recollection of the war was about what the guerillas did.
Gabutin remembered his first meeting with Fenton, who was then with the less educated Alberto Englis. He remembered the American telling him that he wanted to build a cottage for his family and that the farmers could not understand what he was telling them.
On September 16, 1942, Fenton and his group was able to recruit the first farmers from Tabunan to join the guerillas. Then Cushing came and the others. Gabutin and Julian Gerona, who later became a barangay captain, would refuse the draft although they supported the resistance movement.
“Sus, hilabihang ngilngiga gyod sa patay. Ang uban nagtoo ko nga wa gyod to’y sala. Dunay usa ka tawo nga nasakpan nga nagda og kwarta sa hapon gipatay. Namaligya intawon to’g asin,” Gabutan said of his decision to shy away from the actual battle.
Fenton would later ask him to stay by his side, a suggestion well meant as Gabutin would later realize. He too was arrested for a very flimsy reason even though he led the volunteer guards then. He was almost executed had not Fenton intervened.
Gabutin can only remember a few of the 135 people said to be buried in that unmarked lot in Sitio Fenton. He talked about a certain Daniel Apurado, another he alleged to one of the owners of the Visayan Electric Company, a Doring Osmeña (said to be the brother of Dr. Emilio Osmeña, father of former Gov. Lito Osmeña) and many others.
“Kana si Doring gidakop na na, unya kadto si Frank nakaaway niya anang buntag. Unya gilabay man ni Doring si Frank unya naigo ana si Fenton man. Hustisya dayon. Pagka alas tres patay si Doring Osmeña,” Gabutin narrated.
There, too, was Siano, his friend from Banawa, who was unfortunate enough to have been the guard when a Japanese prisoner escaped. A letter was found in his pocket that the investigators could not read.
Believing that the letter was from a Japanese, Siano was executed as a spy. When a literate official got hold of the letter, it was found out, too late, that it was from Siano’s sweetheart with whom he proposed marriage.
Gabutin narrated many other sad tales of people who wanted to die facing the firing squad, of those who stood their ground insisting they were innocent. He would remember the staccato of gunfire then the long silence.
As for Gerona, his memory of that period was not different. He knew that every burst of gunfire in Tabunan meant death. One time, he saw more that 20 people, tied to each other marching towards Fenton’s quarters to await his verdict.
But the story that would capture the emotions of the residents was the one of Conchita, a school teacher from Leyte, who they claimed was wrongly executed. Her story would be told and retold in the mountain fastness and an unknown composer would later write a song about her fate.
Gabutin said Conchita was a mestisa named Rosie Miller from Leyte who went to Cebu to teach. He remembered that they dug the woman’s grave years aftershe was executed and found her hair to be somewhat blonde.
Anecita Gabutin, Ricardo’s younger sister who is now 70 years old, would memorize the song composed for the unfortunate schoolteacher. She would readily sing the song to anyone who would dare listen. And every time she does, tears of pity would well from her eyes.
Indeed, the farmers did not forget easily.
Tabunan therefore meant many things to different groups of people. For those who would wage the war as soldiers, the place signified leadership and unity at a time when the people decided to be defiant.
In short, it was the beacon in the darkness during the early stages of the war against the Japanese.
But for some of the peasants, it also symbolized the excesses of war, where justice became muddled by the exigencies of the battle waged. In Tabunan, some of the residents still harbor a tinge of bitterness that needs to be corrected and rationalized.
Whatever the perception, the memory of Tabunan should be preserved and the lessons, no matter how painful learned.
–By BONG WENCESLAO (This is the seventh part of a 10-part special report I wrote for The Freeman in March 1995)