The years following the Fall of Bataan in 1942 were among the darkest in Philippine history. Filipino and American soldiers who fell into the hands of the Japanese suffered unspeakable torture, imprisonment, and execution. You’d be considered extremely lucky if you made it out alive.
James Carrington was one of the lucky few.
His heroic escape from the notorious Bilibid Prison–which the Japanese thought to be escape-proof–was one for the books. If it weren’t for this successful escape, Carrington would have been dead before he could even reach his full potential. But as fate would have it, the young American soldier cheated death and lived on to become part of Luzon’s formidable guerrilla forces.
Carrington, as a matter of fact, would go down in Philippine history as the “Cajun guerrilla”–the fearsome commandant who used a pair of machine guns and led several of his men in a battle against the advancing Japanese.
He survived the war, returned to the U.S., and raised a family. All of these wouldn’t be possible if his escape from that Manila prison turned out otherwise. A heaven-sent escape that an 11-year-old Filipino boy became a part of.
Saving Mr. Carrington
Jesus Gonzales grew up in a turbulent time. In the 1940s, his family lived in a house few blocks away from the University of Sto. Tomas where American civilians were imprisoned. Although he was very young when the war broke out, he vividly remembers how he dropped some coconut candies towards the starving soldiers on a death march. The Japanese apprehended him for what he did, but the young Jesus cried so loud the enemies were forced to release him.
When their father died, Jesus’ brother, 20-year-old Moises, became the family breadwinner. The younger Jesus would often accompany his brother to work, riding with him in a family-owned caritela (a horse-drawn cart) driven by Moises himself.
On that fateful night of April 14, 1944, the brothers were on their way home with their caritela when they saw someone jumped from the wall of Bilibid Prison. That someone was none other than Marine corporal James Carrington, and this is when their paths crossed.
Carrington barely escaped dangerous electric lines and seemingly insurmountable walls of Bilibid Prison when he saw a caritela traversing the street. The vehicle was filled with hay and a couple of Filipino passengers. “Please give me a ride!,”he begged to the Gonzales brothers.
Other people in their right minds would never entertain a stranger, let alone an American soldier, for fear of the Japanese. Not only would they face arrest, but also possible execution by the rabid enemies. These things probably crossed the minds of the Gonzales brothers, but seeing a man who was few seconds away from imminent death, compassion prevailed.
They quickly let Carrington hid under the hay before Moises drove straight towards the checkpoint. A Japanese inspector poked the hay with his bayonet, checking for a stowaway. It hit Carrington’s legs, but the American remained unnoticed.
After that close encounter with death, the brothers then let Carrington hide in an area close to their home. He stayed there for three days, during which he left the Gonzales family with a cigarette lighter engraved with his name as a souvenir. Disguised in a priest’s robe, he then escaped to Manila where he was given a .45-caliber pistol before going to the guerrilla camp in the mountainside. It was here where Carrington came to be known as a folk hero who wreaked havoc on the Japanese forces.
Meanwhile, Moises’ girlfriend, frustrated about his decision to not marry her, informed the Japanese authorities about the heroic rescue made by the Gonzales brothers. Soon, several soldiers stormed into their house, slapped their mother, and arrested Moises for collaborating with an enemy. The young Jesus, hidden in a mosquito net, luckily escaped the wrath of the Japanese.
Carrington received the report that Moises was possibly executed. He sent some guerrillas back to Manila with a goal of finding–and killing–the traitorous woman who got Moises arrested. As for the Gonzales family, the U.S. military granted pension to their mother after the war. This was for their role in the rescue of an American serviceman as attested by several evidence, one of which was the lighter given by Carrington himself.
65 years later, the same lighter also led to what turned out to be the last bittersweet reunion between the WWII veteran and his young hero.
A heartfelt reunion
In 2007, Valerie Gonzales was on a quest to find James Carrington. Her father, Jesus Gonzales, 76, was finally able to remember the name of his long lost friend through the help of the lighter with “James W. Carrington, USMC” engraved in it. Jesus by then was a retired engineer who earlier moved with his wife to Canada where they raised three children.
After a few stumbles, Valerie was finally able to track down the subject of an enduring family mystery. James Carrington, as it turned out, was spending his remaining years at the Ormond Nursing and Care Center in Destrehan, Louisiana.
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Jesus Gonzales and his family didn’t waste time. The reunion became an emotional one for the two old and fragile heroes. Together, they reminisced the events of those war-infested days that brought out the heroes in both of them. Eleven days later, Carrington died peacefully.
The 88-year-old war veteran was not the only one saved by the selflessness of the Gonzales brothers. Because of their decision to choose not the easier way out, the guerrilla forces earned a fierce warrior in the person of James Carrington. A warrior who bravely fought the Japanese and ultimately helped in releasing the country from the shackles of Japanese Occupation.
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