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Santo Tomas

Internment Camp


In January of 1941, a group of businessmen in Manila formed the American Coordinating Committee with the express purpose of preparing for war with Japan by selecting safe places for civilians to assemble and stock piling food and medical supplies.  When the war abruptly started on December 8, 1941, the committee wrote a letter to the High Commissioner, the American governor of the Philippines, recommending that civilians considered enemy aliens by the Japanese be gathered at a central place for their safety.  It recommended the University of Santo Tomas and two alternate locations.


The Japanese entered Manila on the evening of January 2, 1942, and by January 4, all civilians rounded up were placed in “protective custody” at Santo Tomas.  The University facility came to be known as Santo Tomas Internment Camp or STIC.


THE UNIVERSITY  The University of Santo Tomas was established in 1611 by the Dominican fathers in the Intramuros of Manila.  In 1927, it was moved to a new 65-acre campus in North Manila surrounded on all sides by a high wall or iron fence, making it an ideal location for confinement of a large number of people.  Its permanent facilities included the Main Building and the Education Building, both 3-story concrete structures mainly containing classrooms, and a gymnasium.  In addition, there were two light construction one-story buildings called the Annex and the Infirmary.


The Main Building of Santo Tomas as it appeared during the tranquil days before the start of World War II


Layout of the campus when it was opened as an internment camp


ADMINISTRATION  When the first prisoners were brought into Santo Tomas on January 4, 1942, the Japanese appointed a civilian leader who was responsible for setting up an organization to oversee the operation within the camp.  The original organization evolved with time into an elected Executive Committee with a number of support committees to organize every aspect of the internees’ existence.


The Japanese were responsible for controlling the civilian organization, issuing all regulations, and overseeing every activity of importance.  Initially the commandant was a member of the Japanese gendarmerie of Manila.  A member of the Japanese Consular Service replaced him after a short time.  In January of 1944, the Japanese Military Police took control of the camp, and life became miserable for the prisoners.


POPULATION  The population of Santo Tomas grew rapidly as people were brought in from various districts of Manila, and by the end of  January 1942 it held 3,300 people.  The population continued to expand as others were brought in from various locations on Luzon and from other islands.  By the middle of 1943, the population was almost 4,000 and the Japanese decided to move everyone to a new camp at Los Baños.  800 men were transferred to the new site to build housing using native materials, but eventually the Executive Committee convinced the Japanese that moving the whole camp to a primitive location was inadvisable.  Only volunteers were moved and eventually Santo Tomas held about 3,800 prisoners and Los Baños 2,200.


The distribution of nationalities represented by the prisoners was approximately as follows:

73% American

20% British

5% British Empire

2% Netherlands, Norwegian, French, Spanish, German, Slovak, and Swiss


HOUSING  Providing accommodations for the large number of people was a problem form the outset.  Sanitary facilities suitable for a daily student population were extremely inadequate for the size of the permanent population.  The classrooms were converted to overcrowded dormitories, with women and children housed in the Main Building and Annex.  Men were crowded into the gymnasium.  Teenage boys and young men were housed on the third floor of the Education Building, with the Japanese garrison occupying the first two floors.


In mid-1942, the Japanese agreed to allow the construction of shanties on open space in the campus.  Shantytowns were laid out in the northwest quadrant, adjacent to the north wall, between the Annex and the Infirmary, and along the east wall.  Individual families who could afford to buy the native construction materials built the shanties, and they were unique in design.  Initially, the shanties were permitted for daytime use only and all prisoners were required to be in their dormitories after curfew.  However, as overcrowding continued, eventually some 400 families were allowed to live in their shanties.


RECREATION  In the first two years, the population established an active recreation program.  Sports were organized, clubs were established, and groups gathered to put on entertainment.  A movie screen was built in the plaza and occasionally movies were obtained from theaters in Manila for outdoor viewing enjoyment.  The recreation programs declined in the last year as starvation stalked the camp and people no longer had the energy.


Schools for all grades through high school were established, and started functioning shortly after Santo Tomas was populated.  In many cases, students and teachers from Manila took up their classes almost seamlessly, and were later joined by students from other locales.  The schools were permanently closed in the autumn of 1944 when American air raids increased in frequency.


FOOD  The Japanese made no provision for feeding their prisoners.  Initially, they were able to buy food from Filipinos through the iron bars along Calle España, and a package line was established to allow people in the Manila community to pass food and sundries to their friends.  The Executive Committee soon established a committee to purchase food for everyone in the camp from the outside community, and a central kitchen was set up to feed everyone.  Initially, the Philippine Red Cross provided the funds, but the Japanese confiscated their money.  The Japanese then agreed to pay a stipend that was considerably less than what had previously been provided by the Red Cross.  Quality and quantity of food declined with the lower food allowance and as shortages and inflation reduced the amount of food that could be obtained.   This plan continued until early 1944, when the Japanese forbid the food purchasing committee from leaving the camp, and started allocating food to the prisoners.  They reduced food supplies to 700 calories per person by the end of 1944, and death by starvation and related diseases increased rapidly.


Santo Tomas Internees at Liberation

LIBERATION  The first indication that American forces were in the vicinity of Manila was on September 21, 1944 when Navy dive bombers attacked shipping in the harbor and military installations ashore.  Unknown to the prisoners was that this was a preparation for the landings on Leyte, which occurred on October 20, about which they received a coded message on the camp PA system.  B-29 bombers start hitting the city in December of 1944, and were followed by bombing and strafing attacks by B-26s at the end of the month, flying from bases on nearby Mindoro where American forces had landed in mid-December.  P-47 and P-51 fighter aircraft joined the attacks in mid-January of 1945.  The prisoners did not know that MacArthur’s forces had landed on Luzon on January 9 and were advancing towards Manila, but the short-range aircraft indicated that they were close.


American intelligence had intercepted a message from Tokyo to local commanders in the Philippines to kill all prisoners before they could be liberated, and there was an urgency to reach several POW camps before the Japanese could carry out the order.  Then they received a message from a clandestine radio in Santo Tomas saying that the Japanese appeared to be preparing to execute the prisoners.  MacArthur ordered the 1st Cavalry to immediately race to Manila to free the prisoners at Santo Tomas.  At one minute after midnight on February 1, the 44th Tank Battalion, forming a flying column, broke through the Japanese lines and raced 100 miles to Manila in 3 days.


The column reached the outskirts of Manila late in the afternoon of February 3, where a Filipino guerilla unit joined to lead it through the streets to the gate of Santo Tomas.  The column reached the España gate shortly before 9 PM, where it was briefly delayed by a skirmish with Japanese guards who wounded the American battalion commander and mortally wounded the Filipino guerilla captain.  Finally, a tank broke through the wall, and the column progressed into the campus, almost immediately freeing most of the prisoners.  However, the Japanese garrison took 228 people hostage in the Education Building where they were held until February 5 until released in exchange for allowing the Japanese troops to be released beyond the American lines. 


Tanks inside Santo Tomas


BATTLE OF MANILA  Santo Tomas briefly became an armed camp with 800 American defenders surrounded by a Japanese force of 26,000.  More 1st Cavalry units entered North Manila starting on February 4, and the 37th Infantry arrived on February 5.  Because of their surprise, the Japanese initially put up little resistance, and it appeared that Manila would be spared.  However, on February 7 the Japanese resisted further American advances into the city.  They shelled Santo Tomas for 3 days, killing 18 civilians and wounding 65.  They withdrew across the Pasig River, blowing up all of the bridges and setting fire to huge swaths of buildings to delay the American advance, and set up their defenses in the Intramuros and central business district, refusing to surrender.  The resulting 4-week battle was the most intense urban engagement fought by American forces during World War II, and left Manila the second most destroyed city, after Warsaw.



American artillery battery firing from inside the Santo Tomas campus during the battle of Manila


A Japanese shell hits the Main Building of Santo Tomas


MORTALITY  3,768 surviving internees were rescued at Santo Tomas.  The toll of those who did not survive was high.  The statistics are only an estimate, since many internees removed from the camp by the Japanese simply disappeared, the approximate figures are as follows.  This doesn’t count people who died later as a lingering result of their treatment in the camp.  It accounts for 1 in 8 of the internees.

7 executed by the Japanese

19 killed by enemy action

450 died of starvation, deprivation, and other natural causes


Burial at Santo Tomas







Contact Sascha Jansen