Josiah Martin | a&e editor
Duquesne students packed into the small second-floor lounge of Assumption Hall on April 9 to hear the story of Carmen Leffler, who was held as a prisoner of war in the Japanese-occupied Philippines during World War II.
Leffler, just 18 years old at the time of her internment, is now 95 — she was accompanied at the event by her daughter Michele, who shared the story of Carmen’s experience from a long document, compiled over the years from her detailed memories of the incident.
In 1942, Carmen was living in the Philippines with her mother, Anna, and grandmother, Petra. Though of Spanish descent, Carmen was born in the U.S., and considered herself an American. She was the only American-born student of the Good Shepherd convent school, where she stayed and studied.
“Carmen received a lot of special attention there. They considered her a ‘holy terror,’ and were determined to straighten her out,” Michele said. “In many ways, they were the parents she never had.”
When Carmen’s mother Petra encouraged her to keep her American citizenship secret as Japanese forces took Manila in January 1942, Carmen reportedly replied, “Well, I am an American, and I don’t care who knows it.”
As Japanese soldiers took over the city, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, housed in a large mansion a short distance from Petra’s home, was evacuated and escaped. Michelle recounted an incident where many of the remaining American citizens were marched down Dewey Boulevard.
“Japanese soldiers were always on hand to club them until they stood up again, or became lifeless and bloodied lumps on the street,” Michele said. “Carmen saw Japanese soldiers bayonet fallen Americans.”
This event had a profound effect on Carmen.
“At the Good Shepherd, she was taught to hate the devil — and on that day, on Dewey Boulevard, she thought she hated the Japanese more.”
Though she evaded capture for a short while, Carmen refused to hide her American citizenship and was interned at Santo Tomas internment camp. This site was home to the University of Santo Tomas, and Carmen was kept in a classroom with five other roommates on the second floor of the school’s main building.
“Carmen spent every night in that building, but she doesn’t remember the names of her roommates, because the only thing she did in that room was sleep on a cot,” Michele said.
In early 1944, the Imperial Japanese Army took over direct control of the camp, and conditions worsened.
“The new commandant made it clear from day one that they were all suspected resistance members and would be treated as such,” Michele said.
The package line was shut down, most food was cut off and taken from the internees, the perimeter was patrolled by armed guards and harassment of the prisoners increased. One Japanese lieutenant forced prisoners to learn to bow to him properly.
In September 1944, however, Carmen saw a sign that better days were on the way.
“As Japanese guards ran this way and that, [Carmen] looked up to see a single silver-bodied plane flying over Santo Tomas as it turned toward Manila harbor,” Michele said. “[The wings] bore not the Japanese … rising sun insignia, but the white star and circle of blue of the American Air Force.”
Conditions did not, however, improve immediately. It was not until Feb. 3, 1945, that liberation finally arrived for the prisoners. U.S. forces successfully fought off the Japanese forces that controlled the camp that night. In the months following, Carmen was reunited with her mother, who survived, despite rumors to the contrary.
The story, as Michele told it, changed gears at this point, as Carmen befriended Sgt. Leroy Lefler, a U.S. soldier from Johnstown, PA. For the remainder of her time in the Philippines, and following Carmen’s triumphant return to the U.S., Sgt. Lefler repeatedly asked Carmen to marry him. She refused consistently, eventually accepting his proposal while on her way back from finally reuniting with her biological father.
“Lee wasn’t giving up — he knew what he wanted, and he wanted to marry Carmen, so he decided to take her window shopping in downtown Johnstown,” Michelle said, to laughter from those in attendance.
Taking her to a jeweler’s shop, Michelle shared Sgt. Lefler’s master plan — “‘Now I got you,’ he said. ‘Either you’re going to pick out an engagement ring and say yes, or I’m going to cause a scene and embarrass the living daylights out of you.’”
Michelle teared up while talking about Sgt. Lefler, her late father. Though Carmen herself was relatively silent during the presentation, she lit up at several points in the story — once while Michelle recounted the story of when Carmen doused the dinner of an American MP with hot sauce. Carmen did this as revenge for the MP’s abuse of elderly passengers aboard the ship.
Carmen also smiled upon learning that an attendee spoke Spanish, in which Carmen is still fluent. The two briefly conversed in Spanish during and following the event.
Michelle shared Carmen’s philosophy in moving on from the tragic events in Manila, as Carmen carried resentment toward the Japanese soldiers for many years.
“The guilty generation is almost gone,” Michelle said. “The world has changed. The lifelong objects of her hatred have all but disappeared.”