The Last Night

"This wasn't just Manila's last night of freedom. This was the last night the thirty-two reporters packed into the Bay View would spend together. A group bonded as tightly as any army platoon in the heat of battle -- many of whom had served alongside one another for years in the heat and stink and drama of China's wartime capital, Chongqing (then known as Chungking), where they were once so young, so eager and so ready to take on the world -- would soon fracture.”

Dear friends,

It's been a while. Long enough that I wish I had written many more letters to each of you individually. The other week I received a call from a man who stumbled upon a tweet I'd written about a journalist who crossed Mel Jacoby's path in the Philippines. That man was the caller's godfather. The caller told me about the stories his godfather told, what a wonderful man he had been and all the possessions he left the caller with clues to the fantastic life he lived. We struck an instant rapport and I identified immediately with the caller's fascination with his godfather. This whole process of composing this story has been replete with similar connections.

Just this afternoon I set aside a draft of this letter to chat with a barista at the coffee shop I typically haunt. After I brought up something unrelated to my book I learned that the barista's husband is Filipino. His family, the barista told me, experienced some of the war's most horrific experiences, some of which overlapped with what Mel witnessed or reported. As the barista and I spoke, the woman sitting next to me at the counter took interest. In the ensuing conversation I learned a bit about her own family's history. Though a separate story, the introduction opened a deep, meandering discussion that left me feeling inspired about how crucial spontaneous interpersonal interaction remains in this day of channelized media and "social" media.

Now a new year looms. As it has since I began unfurling this story, New Year's Eve carries a special meaning. As much as I'm thinking about Mel and Annalee, I'm also thinking about the people who left similar impressions upon them, and upon whom they left their own impressions. Just this November, I met one of the families of Mel and Annalee's closest friends and colleagues. As the family provided me with intimate glimpses of their parents and the Jacobys' experiences, we struck up our own friendship, one of a few I've been fortunate enough to begin through my work on this book.

All of these people are on my mind as I consider how, 73 years ago tonight, friends and family were on Mel and Annalee's minds. It was that night when Mel and Annalee made the heartbreaking decision to leave their friends at a Manila hotel, run to the city's burning docks and leap aboard the last boat sailing into a dark, mine-strewn harbor before the Japanese entered the Philippines' capital. It was not an easy decision; the people they left behind were their colleagues, their friends, their fellow "soldiers of the press." They were, as I've addressed before, their tribe.

The passage at the beginning of this email is a small sample of what I've written in my book's opening chapter, and I hope it whets your appetite for what is to come. Later the same night Mel, Annalee, and their friend Clark Lee toasted the new year with a bottle of applejack on the darkened deck of the boat they'd escaped upon. As we celebrate the New Year, I thought I'd share a little bit more from my first chapter, particularly, what I wrote about that toast as 1941 blazed into 1942:

"On New Year's Eve, treacherous waters roiled around a burning city and a nation at war. But the three reporters had finally escaped, and for a moment, for one quiet moment in the darkness of Manila harbor, they were just a newlywed couple celebrating the new year with one of their friends.

"In the 21st Century, we plan for New Year's parties like they mean something. Like they'll change our lives. Like where we decide to go determines the sort of year we'll have. Our decision points will be bars, clubs, house parties, restaurants or quiet nights at home. We wonder whether we will spend the holiday with friends or dates, or if we'll spend it alone.

"We toast with Champagne. We toast with beer. We toast with sparkling cider or we toast with nothing at all. The renewal swept in by the calendar's turn leaves us longing for drama and adventure, so we will brave the cold and try new neighborhoods, new bars, new habits and new loves.

"But as 1942 approached Manila, New Year's Eve meant braving the future and a new war. Nineteen-forty-two might not have been a year to welcome with Champagne, but the simple fact of the reporters' survival so far merited celebration. This would be a year for escapes and near misses. It would be a year for tragedy and loss. With 1942 arriving the way it did, a bottle of applejack passed around the deck of a blacked-out freighter made for as good a toast as anything. All the last minute sabotage and looting throughout Manila provided the fireworks.

"'A ninety-million-dollar send-off,' Mel said of the Hollywood-esque theatrics, before the reporters drifted off to sleep."

I can't wait to share what happened when they woke up, and what led them there. Meanwhile, let's all stay in touch in 2015. Write back to this email. Share this project with your friends. Send me a note some time. Give me a call. Knock on my door. I'll try to do the same.

Happy New Year,
Bill

P.S. I have tickets booked to retrace Mel's steps in China and the Philippines this spring. I'll write more about my trip soon, but I'll welcome any suggestions any of you have for these places, and I welcome any introductions you have to people there (and I'd love to see you if by chance you'll be in either place).