The War Did Not Stop Our Preaching
AS TOLD BY LEODEGARIO BARLAAN
In 1942, during World War II, Japan and the United States were locked in battle for the Philippines, my homeland. I was at the mountain village of Tabonan, where local guerrillas fighting the Japanese had taken me into custody. I was beaten, accused of being a spy, and threatened with execution. Let me explain how I got into this situation and how I survived.
I WAS born on January 24, 1914, in the town of San Carlos, Pangasinan. In the 1930’s, Father sent me to school to study agriculture. On Sundays I attended Mass, and the priest would speak about the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As a result, I wanted to read them.
One day I went to the convent to buy a copy of the Gospels with money I had obtained from selling some vegetables. Instead, I was given a booklet entitled The Way to Heaven, and it did not contain the Gospels. This disappointed me. Later, pursuing my desire to obtain the Gospels, I traveled to Manila. There my uncle, who was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, provided me with a copy of the complete Bible.
In Manila, I met several Witnesses, whose ability to quote scriptures impressed me. From them I received satisfactory answers to many questions. Eventually, my uncle, Ricardo Uson, took me to a meeting at the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When nearing the place, I lit a cigarette. “Throw that away,” my uncle said. “Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t smoke.” So I threw the cigarette away and never smoked again. I met Joseph Dos Santos, the branch overseer, as well as some other Witnesses. Today, all these decades later, I still remember those fine Christian brothers.
A Desire to Serve God
By October 1937, while a student at Los Baños Agricultural College, I no longer attended Mass. Instead, I read the Bible along with the literature that had been given to me by my uncle. A group of Jehovah’s Witnesses visited the college compound, and as a result of discussions with one of them, Elvira Alinsod, my desire to serve Jehovah God became strong.
When I told my instructors that I planned to quit school, they asked: “Who will support you?” I explained that I was confident that if I served God, he would support me. After quitting school, I went to the Watch Tower Society’s office and presented myself as a volunteer, explaining: “I have read the publications Loyalty, Riches, and Where Are the Dead? Now I want to serve Jehovah full-time.” I was directed to Cebu Province to join three pioneers, as full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called.
Beginning My Preaching
On July 15, 1938, Salvador Liwag met me at the pier when I arrived on the island of Cebu. The next day, I started in the house-to-house ministry. No one trained me. I just presented the householder with a testimony card that explained our work. In fact, I knew only two words in Cebuano, the local language. Thus began my first day in the ministry.
When we started witnessing in a new town, it was our custom to go to the municipal building first. There Brother Liwag would witness to the mayor; Pablo Bautista, to the chief of police; and Conrado Daclan, to the judge. I would speak to the postmaster. Then we would visit the bus terminal, the police barracks, the stores, and the schools. In addition, we would call on people at their homes. We presented the Bible study aid Enemies. As I imitated the way my companions gave a testimony, little by little I learned to speak Cebuano, and I began to place books. Within three months we finished the whole province of Cebu—54 towns. Then I asked Brother Liwag: “Can I be baptized now?”
“Not yet, brother,” he answered. So we transferred to another island, Bohol, and preached there for a month and a half, covering 36 more towns. Again I asked to be baptized. “Not yet, Brother Barlaan,” I was told. So having finished Bohol and then Camiguin Island, we went to the big island of Mindanao and preached in Cagayan de Oro City.
By this time Virginio Cruz joined our group. He had been a public-school teacher and had quit to become a pioneer. We moved on to other towns and eventually reached Lake Lanao. While there I again asked if I could be baptized. At last, on December 28, 1938, after about six months of pioneering, Brother Cruz baptized me in the waters of Lake Lanao at the town of Lumbatan.
Rewarded for Trusting in God
Later I joined three pioneers in Negros Occidental. They were Fulgencio de Jesus, Esperanza de Jesus, and Natividad Santos, whom we called Naty. We preached together in many towns in that province. We really had to put full trust in Jehovah, since at times our finances were meager. Once we wanted to find fish to go with our rice. I met a man on the beach and asked about buying some, but all of his had been taken to the market. However, he offered me one that he had set aside for himself. I asked how much it was. “Never mind,” he said. “You can have it.”
I thanked him. But as I was leaving, I realized that one fish would not be enough for four people. Passing by a small creek, I was surprised to see a fish lying on top of a stone, still wet from the water. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s dead.’ I went to pick it up and was surprised to find that it was alive. Grabbing it, I held on tightly, remembering immediately Jesus’ promise: “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.”—Matthew 6:33.
Preaching in the Midst of War
When our group of pioneers grew to nine, two groups were formed. Ours was assigned to Cebu. It was now December 1941, and World War II was in progress in the Philippines. While we were in the town of Tuburan, a Philippine lieutenant came to our room at midnight. “Sons, wake up,” he said. “The soldiers are looking for you.” We were suspected of being Japanese spies and so were interrogated the rest of the night.
Afterward, we were placed in the municipal jail. The U.S. armed forces in Cebu City required us to provide them with copies of each of our books so that they could determine if we were Japanese spies. Many local folks visited us in jail, curious to see what those accused of being Japanese spies looked like. Some asked questions, and we gave them a witness about God’s Kingdom.
After we had spent five days in jail, the chief of police received a telegram from the U.S. Army headquarters, directing him to release the Witnesses of Jehovah. However, he instructed us not to preach anymore because it was now wartime. We explained that we could not stop preaching because we had a commission from God to do this work. (Acts 5:28, 29) The chief became angry and said: “If you continue preaching, I’ll let the people kill you.”
In the days that followed, the chief of police sought to have us rearrested. Eventually, a squad of U.S. Army soldiers stopped us, and a lieutenant named Soriano asked Sister Santos: “Will you stop preaching?”
“No,” she replied.
“Suppose we put you before a firing squad?” he asked.
“That would not change our decision,” she explained.
At that, we were all put on a cargo truck and taken to Cebu City, where we appeared before Colonel Edmund. Lieutenant Soriano introduced us to him by saying: “These are Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are Japanese spies!”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses?” the colonel asked. “I knew Jehovah’s Witnesses very well in America. They are not spies! They are neutral.” He then turned to us and said: “Because you are neutral, you will not be released.” Later, after we had been held in a storage room for some time, Colonel Edmund spoke with us again and asked: “Are you still neutral?”
“Yes, Sir, we are,” we replied.
“Then, you won’t be released,” he said, “because if we release you, you will continue to preach, and those you convert will become neutral. And if everybody does that, then nobody will fight.”
Free to Preach Again
Later we were transferred to the jail in Cebu City. On April 10, 1942, the Japanese invaded the city. Bombs fell everywhere, and a big fire broke out! The warden saw Sister Santos, whose cell was near the front of the jail. “Oh my! Jehovah’s Witnesses are still inside!” he shouted. “Open the door, and let them out!” We thanked Jehovah for His protection.
Immediately we headed for the mountains to find fellow Witnesses. We located one in the town of Compostela. Earlier he had taken a lead in the preaching work, but now he decided to stop preaching and go off to Cebu City and develop a business selling various goods. Our decision, however, was to continue preaching about God’s Kingdom, come what may.
We had many copies of the booklet Comfort All That Mourn, and we worked hard to place them in the hands of the people. However, many tried to frighten us by saying that if the Japanese saw us, they would cut off our heads. Soon afterward, an anti-Japanese guerrilla movement was organized, and the one who had ceased preaching and had gone off to do business in Cebu City was arrested. We were saddened to learn that he was accused of being a Japanese spy and was executed.
Accused of Being Spies
In the meantime we continued preaching in the mountains. One day we learned of an interested woman, but to reach her, we had to pass several guerrilla outposts. We came to the village of Mangabon, where the woman resided, but a squad of soldiers there found us and shouted: “What is your purpose in coming here?”
“We are Jehovah’s Witnesses,” I replied. “Do you want to hear the message we are bringing by means of the phonograph?” When they responded favorably, I played the record The Value of Knowledge. Afterward, we were searched and questioned and then taken to the guerrilla headquarters at the village of Tabonan. We prayed for Jehovah’s protection because it was commonly reported that almost everyone taken there was executed.
We were kept under guard and mistreated. This brings us to the situation that I described at the beginning, when I was beaten and the lieutenant pointed at me and said: “You are a spy!” Our mistreatment continued for a while, but instead of being executed, we were sentenced to hard labor.
My brother Bernabe was one of the pioneers imprisoned at Tabonan. Each morning we prisoners were required to sing “God Bless America” and “God Bless the Philippines.” Instead, the Witnesses sang “Who Is on the Lord’s Side?” Once, the officer in charge shouted: “Anyone who is not singing ‘God Bless America’ will be hanged on that acacia tree!” But despite such threats, none of us were killed. Eventually, we were transferred to other camps. Finally, my release papers, dated July 1943, came. By then, I had been a prisoner for eight months and ten days.
A Lifetime of Preaching
Our desire to see interested individuals to whom we had preached earlier moved us to hike 40 miles [60 km] to the city of Toledo. Regular meetings were established there, and many people were eventually baptized. Finally, the war ended in 1945. Two years later, almost nine years after my baptism, I was able to attend my first convention, which was held at the Santa Ana Racetrack in Manila. About 4,200 assembled for the public talk “The Joy of All the People.”
Before the war started, we had about 380 Witnesses in the Philippines, but by 1947, there were some 2,700! Since then I have continued to enjoy many privileges in Jehovah’s service. From 1948 to 1950, I served as a traveling overseer in the Surigao region. In 1951, I married Natividad Santos, who had courageously preached with our group during the war. After our marriage we served in the traveling work throughout Mindanao from 1954 to 1972.
So that we could be near our aged parents and offer them assistance, we became special pioneers in 1972. Even though we are both in our 80’s, we continue to pioneer, having spent, between us, more than 120 years in the full-time ministry. What a joy it has been to us to see the number of those proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom in the Philippines grow to more than 130,000! It is our desire to help many more to appreciate that God’s Kingdom is the only hope for enjoying true peace and happiness on earth.
[Blurb on page 22]
We were suspected of being Japanese spies and so were interrogated the rest of the night
[Picture on page 23]
In 1963, with our friends on the Island of Bohol. My wife and I are fourth and fifth from the right
[Picture on page 24]
With my wife today
[Picture Credit Line on page 20]
Background photo: U.S. Signal Corps photo