“…I shout to her above the continued sound of gunfire…
we exchange a look of love, pity and terror.
But I have to leave you! She cries. There is no more time to talk”
– William. J. Pomeroy, The Forest, 1963.
Broadside #35 takes up the story;
“William J. Pomeroy, an American writer, and beautiful Celia Mariano, a teacher, were married in Celia’s native Philippines in 1948. Involved with the Huks, they were captured in 1952 by government troops and sentenced to life imprisonment. They served two long years before world-wide protests brought a pardon. Pomeroy was deported at once back to the U.S. but Celia was forbidden to leave the Philippines. Again there were world-wide protests and finally President Mecapagel gave Celia a passport. But the Walter-McCarron Act forbade her entry into the U.S. so they arranged to meet in London…Phil Ochs had been thinking of this song when he learned Celia had at last been freed. But he finished the song anyway, that same night.”
During the Second World War the Huklahap (known as the Huk, the military arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines, or the PKP) had fought against the Japanese, and had continued fighting against the U.S. backed Philippino government after the end of the war. As a G.I. during the war, William Pomeroy, a member of the Communist Party of the U.S.A, had been posted in the Philippines to fight against the Japanese. Though they had shared a common enemy, the U.S army declared war on the Huk, themselves fighting a guerilla war against the Japanese, a move that led William to openly protest.
After the war, supported by the Communist party, William stayed in the Philippines, where he had met Celia. They became active in the Huk, with William being responsible for the publication of the Huk newspaper ‘Titi’ (meaning flame) and magazine ‘Kalayan’ (meaning freedom) and though William warned them against continued armed struggle, they continued to resist the government forces until 1954, when they were finally defeated. By which time of course, William and Celia were in prison, arrested in the Sierra Madre mountains.
Upon William’s arrest the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and former wartime Admiral Raymond Spruance is quoted as saying “Anything the Philippine government does to him, including hanging, is alright with us.”
Celia’s arrest was graphically chronicled in Time magazine in April 1952;
“In Luzon’s jagged Sierra Madre mountains one day last week, a Philippine army patrol scattered a small party of Huk guerrillas. Over the barking rifles a woman’s voice cried: “I surrender! I am Celia Mariano, wife of William Pomeroy.” Out of the bushes came a frightened, tired woman, long, raven-black hair falling over her bruised face, her bare feet bleeding. When the Philippine army captured her husband, U.S.-born Huk Leader William Pomeroy, she had leaped out of a window and fled into the mountains with two Huk women and two male Huk bodyguards…After her capture last week, she was allowed a few minutes with her husband: locked in his arms, Celia Pomeroy wept. Then she was taken to jail to await trial, like her husband. The woman who a few hours before had cried “I surrender,” now fiercely declared: ‘The Huks and their leaders will never surrender!’”
Whilst in prison William composed several poems for Celia, released as the book ‘Beyond Barriers, Sonnets for Celia’ in 1963.
William was well remembered by the people he left behind in the Philippines. Upon his death, aged 92 in 2009, Pedro G. Baguisa, general secretary of the PKP issued a statement saying;
“Comrade William J. Pomeroy, a great Filipino patriot, and a great communist will be mourned by comrades and friends on several continents. His works will always be a source of inspiration for our Party and his memory will live on in the hearts of all our Party members.”
Upon hearing Phil’s song, undoubtedly one of his most beautiful and delicate, Celia Pomeroy wrote to Phil, as published in Marc Eliot’s biography of Phil,
“Dear Phil Ochs,
I can hardly find the words to tell you how much I appreciate that song you composed and sang for the sake of my husband’s reunion with me. As I listened to your song when played on a tape recorder, I could not hold back my tears. The melody was hauntingly sad and plaintive and the words conveyed so eloquently our plight of separation then. Bill and I had the song played and replayed several times, and I think I’ll never get tired of it. It is so beautiful and splendidly sung by you.
It is heartening to find in this world people like you who go out of their way to contribute their share in the cause of humanity and the correction of injustices. There is no doubt you have great talent, and I am so glad that you are using it for good purposes. I wish you success and good luck along the line you have chosen to devote your energies.
With every hope I would someday have the privilege to meet you in person, I thank you with all my heart.
Celia M. Pomeroy”.
Celia died a few months after her husband, in August 2009.
Perhaps one of Phil’s most underrated songs, Celia brings to the fore the personal in the midst of the political. It is a song of romantic love (unusual for Phil, there are few others) but also of sacrifice and while Phil shows some restraint (only the line “If hate must be my prison cell, then love must be the key” leans towards sentimentality) it nevertheless manages to conjure some of the personal loss suffered by those who commit themselves to political causes. This latter theme would be returned to later in Phil’s career but, unfortunately for Phil, he wouldn’t be singing about other peoples pain.