Recalling War and Liberation

 Marion Lee

St. Catherine’s Nursing Home, located here in Emmitsburg, is faithful to the tradition of service established by St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise de Marillac, St. Catherine Laboure and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Their mission statement declares: We are a "family of faith " whose MISSION is to serve the frail and elderly with cordial respect, compassion, and gentleness.

As a volunteer at St. Catherine’s for over two years, I can attest to the fact that at St. Catherine’s they mean what they say. This is not an ordinary nursing home but, rather, it’s an extraordinary "home" that happens to take care of the elderly. What makes St. Catherine’s unique is that staff and volunteers can be individuals, and everyone is encouraged to use their individual talents.

The Administrator, Joe Lydon, is an innovator always open to new ideas and this type of leadership makes for great team effort. To keep the spirit of the mission alive, there are ongoing workshops, employee incentive programs, and a host of activities in and out of St. Catherine’s that leave little time for boredom. Music is certainly a priority at St. Catherine’s and every Wednesday, you can hear the lovely strains of songs from yesteryear played by Linda Duffy, a regular volunteer. On Fridays, there is always a special program of some sort. Aquatics is a regular activity, as are games and crafts. Outings are routinely planned for the residents. Trips to Baltimore, the Washington Zoo, the Smithsonian, train rides through Gettysburg and even attending the Totem Pole Theater in Chambersburg — all are part of the recreation schedule. Mary Van Buren, Director of Activities, says: "If we think of it, we’ll do it! The only requirement we have is SAFETY."

St. Catherine’s Nursing Home is a beautiful facility filled with wonderful people, each of whom has an interesting story. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that many nursing home residents led full and vibrant lives at one time. We tend to focus on the present situation without realizing who these people are and what they did prior to this phase in their life. The true blessings of working with the elderly are those rare moments when one discovers the rich history hidden behind a person with Alzheimer’s or some other debilitating handicap.

Our purpose here is to record thumbnail sketches of people who have personal, sometimes fascinating, stories to share. Lillian O’Donnell is such a lady and was kind enough to share a dramatic portion of her life with me.

Lillian Taylor was born and raised in the Philippines. Her father was a career Navy man. Her mother was from the Philippines but her parents had separated when she was a small child. Lillian, her two sisters and one brother remained in the custody of their father. While she may not remember all the details of her formative years, Lillian vividly remembers what life was like as a young woman living in the Philippines during World War II.

After the Japanese invaded her country, they interned American and British citizens, along with all priests and nuns. Lillian’s mother, being a native of the Philippines, had escaped imprisonment. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Lillian, her father, or her siblings. The University of Santos Thomas (a Catholic university) was confiscated by the Japanese and used as an internment camp where Lillian and her family endured four and a half years of hardship.

Lillian’s eyes still light up when she describes General MacArthur’s arrival after the war and the liberation of all prisoners. "You cannot imagine how exciting a time that was," says Lillian. "In prison, they didn’t feed us very well. We mostly subsisted on Talinam soupa— soup made from weeds. Occasionally, we were given rice and, sometimes, they fed us horse or caribou meat. Some of the men who were interned with us, in an attempt to get nutritious food, would place money (wrapped in paper) into the camp garbage cans. In exchange for the cash, the Philippine people who were forced to work for the Japanese would place concealed beans and rice in the garbage. Of course, this posed a great risk and I remember seeing what happened to those who were caught. The Japanese would line up prisoners outside and force them to stare directly into the sun. If they dared to move their heads or look down, a soldier would immediately hit them with the butt of a rifle."  Life was harsh for all prisoners. No one could avoid the cruelty imposed by the invading army. Even those, like Lillian, who were not physically tortured nevertheless still carry the scars of that "nightmare" period. In recalling her experience, Lillian said,

"Every night, the guards counted heads to make sure that no one had escaped. We had a committee in the camp and, toward the end of the war, the Japanese would randomly pick people, take them outside and decapitate them! I did not actually witness such horrors, but was later informed by others who knew exactly what was happening. After the war, a Philippine man who had witnessed the atrocities showed the Americans where the bodies were buried. I remember one day, toward the end of the war, seeing a bunch of Navy planes fly over the camp. I saw a plane being shot down and watched while the pilot freed himself from the burning plane only to be shot by a Japanese soldier. He was dead before he even hit the ground. For the longest time, I could not bear the sound of airplanes overhead-it was a dreadful reminder of falling bombs and senseless killings."

Lillian met her husband, John O’Donnell, while still in prison. He was in the Army’s Amphibious Engineers and part of the second group that liberated the camp. They were married before leaving the Philippines and then remarried in a church wedding after the war.

"When we were liberated, Papa was so malnourished, he had to be hospitalized. Eventually, my family was brought to the United States on a Norwegian ship and when we reached San Francisco, my father was immediately placed in another hospital. Tragically, it was too late—he died there in a matter of weeks. After the funeral, Papa’s pension enabled me to go to a school in Reno where I learned how to be a long distance telephone operator. One of my sisters attended with me and we lived together in a rented room. My husband John was working for the government in Washington, D.C. and I joined him when I completed my schooling."

After the war, Lillian saw her mother only once. She had come to San Francisco to visit her children and, while they tried to persuade her to stay in the States, she returned to her homeland. Sadly, Lillian was never able to go back.

Lillian and her husband raised two sons. Her husband is gone now, and so is her brother, but her two sisters are alive and well. A few years ago, Lillian sustained a stroke and, at the age of 78, she needed full time care. Her son and daughter-in-law live in Thurmont and arranged for her to live at St. Catherine’s Nursing Home in Emmitsburg.

"I love St. Catherine’s," Lillian told me. "The surroundings are pleasant and the nurses are very kind and do so many nice things for the residents here."

In reminiscing about her past, Lillian reminds us how fortunate we are to be living in a country that has never experienced the horrors of war firsthand.

Read other articles by Marion Lee