When Muriel Jeanette Livesay returned to Guelph in August of 1945 after an absence of several years, she had a story to tell the Guelph Mercury. The newspaper had been publishing many accounts of wartime experiences as told by servicemen and women returning from the battlegrounds of the Second World War. However, Muriel had a unique tale of privation and survival.
She was born Muriel Smith in Perth, Ont. in 1896. She became a teacher and moved to Guelph, where she resided on Dublin Street. She taught at the Tytler Public School.
Then Muriel met Joseph B. Livesay, an American missionary. They were married, and Muriel went with her husband to a posting in Japan. The Livesays’ residence there came to an abrupt end when Japan’s militaristic government ordered foreigners out of the country. In April of 1941, Joseph and Muriel arrived in the Philippines, which at that time was a commonwealth under American control. In December of that year the Japanese invaded the Philippines.
For Muriel, it was the beginning of a three-year ordeal.
“Everything disintegrated,” she told the Mercury. “Law and order disappeared. The (Filipinos) were terrified from the beginning.”
The Japanese soldiers’ treatment of the local population and of foreigners was brutal, so it was vital that Joseph and Muriel avoid capture.
The Livesays were on Bohol, a central Philippine island of 3,821 square kilometers, just 64 kilometers across at its widest point. They fled before Japanese troops occupied the main town of Tagbilaran, but had no way of escaping from the island. They had to hide in the hills and the jungle. To make their situation all the more harrowing, Muriel – now in her mid-40s – was pregnant and expecting anytime.
The Livesays had to move from one hiding place to another to elude Japanese patrols. Two Filipino nurses carried Muriel. When they weren’t on the run they hid in cornfields, village huts and even a pig stye.
With her two nurses attending, Muriel gave birth to her baby in a cave. She lay on a bamboo pallet covered with cogon grass to keep her off the wet floor. As soon as the child was born, a young Filipino woman slipped away into the night with him. She was going to pretend the baby was hers in order to deceive Japanese soldiers. She dyed the child’s skin with juice so he would appear to be a Filipino infant. However, the woman feared that the baby’s blue eyes would be a giveaway, so she moved from village to village to avoid the Japanese. Seven months would pass before Muriel and Joseph saw their child again. Even then, it was only for brief visits. The little boy was 18 months old before he actually stayed with his parents.
The Livesays were fortunate that many of the Filipinos who helped them had attended missionary schools and spoke English. Those people put themselves at great risk, because anyone the soldiers suspected of assisting fugitive foreigners was tortured and executed. One such victim was a young boy who did not answer questions to his interrogator’s satisfaction.
On one occasion, Joseph and Muriel hid for 17 days in a bamboo shelter in a narrow defile in the rocky hills. Friends in a nearby village smuggled them food when no enemy patrols were around.
Planes would bomb areas of jungle the Japanese believed were hiding places for foreigners or Filipino guerilla fighters. Once, a plane dropped leaflets in the region around a gorge which the local Japanese commander suspected of being a hideout. In the pamphlet, the commander boasted that he knew where “the Americans” (the Livesays) were. He ordered them to surrender. If they didn’t, he said, then upon being captured they would be beheaded in the village square.
When the couple didn’t appear, Japanese planes bombed and strafed the gorge, killing several Filipinos.
The following day a Filipino girl who had worked in the mission hospital arrived at the Livesays’ hideout and breathlessly told them that she had overheard two local collaborators planning to turn them over to the Japanese. The girl said patrols were forming up at a schoolhouse just a mile away.
Muriel was ill, and Joseph suffered from an infected leg, but with the help of friends they fled deeper into the jungle. Muriel was carried much of the way on a stretcher made from fishing net. Sometimes soldiers passed right by their place of concealment. One night, a patrol camped 300 yards from the cave in which the fugitives were hiding. A stand of corn hid the entrance. The next morning the soldiers found the cave, but their quarry was gone.
The two were certain that sooner or later they’d be caught. They wrote farewell letters to their families and buried them in bottles. Their Filipino friends promised to dig the letters up and see to their delivery after the country had been liberated.
But in spite of many close calls, and against all odds, Muriel and Joseph were not caught. For three years they lived in hiding, sharing their sleeping quarters with snakes, rats and scorpions. They survived on a diet of rice, sweet potato tops, cassava root, and the occasional pineapple or banana. They couldn’t clean their clothes or get soap to bathe the baby. They lived in constant fear of discovery or betrayal.
A Filipino friend named Poso was ingenious at devising ways to conceal the Livesays and divert Japanese patrols away from them. Much later, when Poso was asked how he’d managed to keep his friends safe right under the noses of the soldiers, he said his ideas were inspired by Tarzan comics.
Following the American naval victory in the Battle of Surigao Strait in October of 1944, the Japanese occupiers withdrew to the coastal towns and patrols were less frequent. Later, Joseph traveled to a deserted Japanese airfield where an American transport plane made periodic stops to deliver arms and supplies to Filipino resistance fighters. He was told that if he could get his family there, they would be flown to the island of Leyte, which was now in American hands.
On April 21, 1945, the Livesays arrived in San Francisco on an army transport plane. Muriel would now be making her home in the United States, but after the war she went to Guelph to see family and friends and to share her incredible story with the Mercury. She and Joseph remained together until his death in 1981. Muriel died in Augusta, Georgia, in 1985.