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Making peace with WWII memories

When Helen Madamba Mossman thinks of her time during World War II as a child in the Philippines, it’s not the pop of rifle fire or the whirring of helicopter blades that she remembers. Her mind instead fixates on the lush green of the jungle, and the crash of the crystal blue waves on the beach.

“There were certain times when the tide was so high that the waves would come up on our concrete porch,” she said, smiling at the memory. Of course, that was before the family fled their beachfront home; before they spent two years hiding in makeshift encampments in the jungle where they spoke in perpetual whisper to avoid detection by Japanese soldiers.

Mossman, a Petaluma resident, penned the memoir “A Letter to my Father” about her family’s experience in WWII, a story she will share during a free reading on Saturday, Sept. 20, at 2 p.m. at the Petaluma Library.

Mossman said she wrote the book as a tribute to her father, whose strategic planning ensured the family survived the war, and made it safely to America. It was a feat she never appreciated during her father’s life. When she first set foot in the United States in 1945, she decided to cut ties with her childhood in the Philippines, which in some ways meant cutting out her father, the prevalent Filipino relative in her new American life.

“I just wasn’t a very good daughter,” she sighed. “I wrote this (book) as an atonement.”

Mossman’s parents, Jorge and Iva Madamba, met at the University of Oklahoma while he was an exchange student. Unable to find work during the Great Depression, he went back to his native Philippines after graduation while she saved her pennies until she had enough to join him overseas in 1932. Two children, Mossman and her younger brother Jorge Judy, soon followed.

It was a bucolic childhood on the tropical island of Negros, until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, when the life they knew slowly began to crumble. First, Mossman’s father left to serve with American troops. Then came the violent patrols along the beach where they played as children.

“If they (Japanese forces) saw a building or person on shore, they’d shoot at it,” said Mossman.

It was then that the family headed into the jungle, carrying just the bare necessities along with some family photos and mementos. It was the beginning of a grueling two years as the family darted from one safe haven to another, living in shelters quickly fashioned from bamboo. The children learned to never raise their voice above a whisper for fear of capture. But despite the inherent dangers, Mossman, who was 10 at the time, doesn’t remember being fearful.

“My parents never told us anything that frightened us, they never told us we were going to get killed or anything,” she said. “Their whole premise was that we were going to be safe because we were going to hide from the Japanese.”

Instead, they focused on happier things, included long talks about the rich future waiting for them in America. Iva Madamba even made sure her children celebrated Christmas in the dank jungle, crafting a soccer ball out of an old tennis ball, twine and her last silk stocking in 1943.

“Our father and mother smiled at each other as my brother and I played with the ball,” Mossman wrote. “They had given us the most perfect gift they could provide, the best Christmas present they had to offer.”

In 1945, word spread that the empire of Japan had surrendered. Jorge Madamba immediately made plans to bring his family to America aboard a military vessel. Mossman, who was 12 by then, remembers when the ship stopped in Hawaii, where the Red Cross provided clothing.

“It was the first time I got to wear shoes in two years,” she recalled.

After docking in San Francisco, the family quickly boarded a train back to her mother’s hometown of Woodward, Okla. Life took a dramatic turn, but Mossman was ready. She had dreamed of her “real life” in America for years after listening to her parents’ stories of Oklahoma. But she struggled to figure out how her father, with his thick accent and old world traditions, fit into her new life.

“I knew he was a foreigner, and I wasn’t a foreigner,” she said of her younger self. “I remember just wanting him to go inside and turn off the lights so no one would know he was my dad.”

After Mossman began a successful career as a journalist, she began writing about her experiences in the war. Only then did she begin to make peace with the memory of her father.

“I hope he knows that I really, really appreciated everything he did,” she said.

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@argus courier.com)