Between the surrender of Corregidor in May 1942 and General Douglas MacArthur’s return in October 1944, the people of the Philippines waged a remarkable yet underappreciated war.
Japan’s attack had caught the defenders of the Philippines off-guard, but they still managed to extend the campaign more than 100 days longer than Japan had planned for. When ‘organised resistance was no longer practicable’, MacArthur instructed his commanders to split ‘into small groups and conduct guerrilla warfare from hidden bases in the interior of each island’.
He authorised men like Fort Stotsenburg’s Provost Marshal, Major Claude Thorp, and the Camp John Hay commandant, Lieutenant Colonel John Horan, to organise irregular forces behind Japanese lines. Prominent Filipinos like Manuel Roxas promised to provide intelligence. These efforts unravelled, however, once MacArthur relocated to Australia.
After the surrender of 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers, the Japanese tried to pacify the islands. They established the Central Authorities and the Planning Board to direct economic exploitation, the native Philippine Executive Committee with Jorge B Vargas as Chairman to maintain order, and the Japanese Military Administration (JMA) to oversee all economic, political, and social developments. Almost immediately, they met resistance.
The JMA closed all schools, putting 2,000,000 students on the streets. They banned women from ‘questions of public policy’ and tried to confine them to the home. The Army’s Religious Section attempted to coerce the Catholic Church. With the collapse in the Philippine exports to the US, jobs disappeared and wages shrank. Although Japan controlled two-thirds of the world’s rice fields at the time, they caused long- lasting famine in the Philippines.
Martial law and military police
To thwart unrest, the Japanese instituted martial law and unleashed their Kempeitai military police. According to witnesses, they
arrested, maimed, and murdered Filipinos by the tens of thousands… whipping them, starving them, setting fire to the hair in their armpits, pulling out their fingernails, giving them showers of boiling water, abusing and killing their children in front of them, and chaining them to slabs of iron in the burning midday sun so that they slowly fried to death.
Women suffered particularly. In a too-typical tragedy, when two soldiers grabbed 14-year-old María Rosa Luna Henson, she screamed to a passing Japanese officer only to have him rape her before passing her back to the others. Thousands more women underwent similar cruelty. Each Japanese company-sized unit kept about ten such ‘comfort women’, raping each five to ten times a day.
Infuriated by these abuses, and inspired by MacArthur’s promise to return, Filipinos took up arms. In Legaspi, congressman and Philippine Army reserve lieutenant Wenceslao Q Vinzons organised several hundred men into Vinzons’ Travelling Guerrillas (VTG) and began attacking Japanese troops.
In Libmanan, wealthy businessman Elias Madrid organised the Tangcong Vaca Guerrilla Unit (TVGU) to avenge the imprisonment of his father-in-law.
In Manila, Antonio Bautista united activists of the Philippine Civil Liberties Union into the Free Philippines, and put spies in the collaborationist government and Japanese headquarters.
Filipinos would form up to 1,000 guerrilla units over the course of the war, supported by some 1.3 million civilians.
Many of the most effective groups grew from Philippine military remnants: Lieutenant Blas Miranda on Leyte, Major Salvadore Abcede on Negros, and Third Lieutenant Ismael P Ingeniero on Bohol rallied local populations. Some became armies unto themselves. In 1945, Colonel Macario Peralta greeted the Americans returning to Panay with a well-organised force of 23,000 guerrillas.
Americans like Luzon miner Walter Cushing and Cebu radio broadcaster Harry Fenton also formed guerrilla groups. Refugee soldiers like Russell Volckmann, Edwin Ramsey, and Robert Lapham joined Thorp or Horan before becoming guerrilla leaders.
However, most Americans who evaded capture either sat out the war or awaited recruitment by Filipinos. Natives divided by politics could unite behind veteran American outsiders, who were also likely to attract MacArthur’s support.
Women joined the fight. The Escoda Group in Manila, the Daughters of Tandang Sora, and the Daughters of Liberty in Bicol provided vital aid. Most guerrilla groups included Women’s Auxiliary Service (WAS) units. Individuals like Claire Phillips and Dorothy de la Fuente gathered intelligence. Lieutenant Estella Remito led 20-mile-a-day marches though she was only 5ft tall. Trinidad Díaz of Marking’s Guerrillas led men in combat with until she was captured, tortured, and killed.
The war they waged was brutal and cruel. Guaranteed torture and death if captured, the guerrillas ‘never burdened themselves with keeping or protecting Japanese captives and have not infrequently submitted them to severe methods of torture’.
The Japanese fought back with networks of informers and sweeps by massed forces. Starvation stalked the guerrillas: Americans lost on average 40% of their body weight. Malaria, dysentery, and beriberi ravaged emaciated flesh. Damp jungles and rainy seasons eroded equipment and turned leech bites into running sores. An estimated 33,000 guerrillas lost their lives.
In Australia, MacArthur created the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) in April 1942 to develop theatre intelligence. In July, they received a radio signal from Captain Guillermo Nakar in northern Luzon: ‘Detachment of Fil-American forces – we have not surrendered and are actively raiding…’. These words ‘dramatically confirmed MacArthur’s faith’ in Philippine resistance, and he determined to ‘exploit it as a powerful adjunct to Allied arms’.
He tasked the AIB to validate, support, and develop the insurgents. They drew up plans to have the guerrillas collect information on the enemy and ‘weaken the enemy by sabotage and destruction of morale’. The AIB set up a Philippine Regional Section to train hundreds of American and Hawaiian-born Filipino volunteers for special operations in the Philippines. In January 1943, a US Navy submarine travelled 1,600 miles to Negros and put ashore an AIB team of eight Filipino volunteers led by Captain Jesús Villamor. Over the next two years, 41 submarine missions conducted over 50 insertions and delivered over 12,080 tons of supplies to the guerrillas. They added coast-watcher and weather-observer teams, and set up 134 radio stations in the islands. MacArthur thus developed reliable guerrilla groups, isolated unreliable groups, and blocked any challenges to his command.
Supporting ‘the return’
It was not easy. Some Filipino leaders suspected racism when white, professional US Army officers arrived to take charge. Even American guerrilla leaders resented MacArthur’s orders to avoid hostile action and develop intelligence. They felt it necessary to strike against the occupiers if they were to maintain vital public support.
With or without MacArthur, the guerrillas disrupted Japan’s economic efforts through direct attack, sabotage, and intimidation. They employed terror and assassination to deter collaborators and fuel popular defiance. They inflicted between 13,500 and 67,463 casualties on the Japanese forces.
The guerrillas also changed the course of the Pacific War. When Kuniaki Koiso assumed power in Tokyo in July 1943, he decided to make the Philippines the decisive battle of the war to coerce the Americans into a truce. At the same time, President Roosevelt met with his commanders in Hawaii to decide between Admiral Chester Nimitz’s plan to invade Formosa and General MacArthur’s plan to return to the Philippines. The evidence of Filipino guerrillas sacrificing themselves in support of the US decided the issue in MacArthur’s favour.
To facilitate the invasion, the guerrillas attacked the enemy’s lines of communication, troop movements, supply, and command posts. When American planes started bombing, the guerrillas provided targets, rescued downed pilots, and even operated airfields. Coast-watchers reported Japanese flotillas passing through the straits.
As one of General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s associates noted:
It is impossible to comprehend the speedy reconquest of the Philippines by the United States forces without an understanding of the part played behind the lines by the guerrillas… Bridges were destroyed, wires were cut, military vehicles were wrecked. Japanese night patrols would fail to return to their bases – the soldiers would eventually be found dead, their heads and other important organs removed by bolo knives.
The guerrillas also rescued Philippine President Osmeña’s family, captured Yamashita’s defence plan, and guided the Americans into Manila.
With the help of the guerrillas, MacArthur’s troops killed an estimated 381,550 enemy troops, captured 115,755 more, and destroyed nearly all of Japan’s remaining combat aircraft and naval vessels. The guerrillas paved the way to victory in the decisive battle of the Pacific War. •
James Kelly Morningstar is Adjunct Professor of Military History at Georgetown University in Washington DC. A retired US Army lieutenant-colonel, he was an armour officer with service in West Germany, Iraq, and Bosnia. He holds degrees from the United States Military Academy, Kansas State University, Georgetown University, and the University of Maryland. James is the author of Patton’s Way: a radical theory of war and War and Resistance in the Philippines, 1942-1944.
Popular Resistance and the Fall of Imperial Japan
The Japanese surge between December 1941 and June 1942 – between, that is, Pearl Harbor and Midway – created a huge Far Eastern empire comparable with that of the Nazis in Europe.
But at that point Japan’s capacity for expansion was utterly exhausted; in fact, she was highly overextended and would spend the rest of the war fighting on the defensive – a long, brutal, increasingly suicidal war of attrition against massive enemy superiority in manpower and machines.
Japanese wartime decision-making was not entirely rational. Just as Nazi ideology informed Hitler’s fatal decision to attack Russia, so Militarism – the Japanese form of fascism – informed the actions of the Tojo government in Tokyo.
The war-making technology may have been ultra-modern, but the Japanese leadership was guided by a medieval hodgepodge of emperor-worship and samurai warrior-cult. This found expression in bestial behaviour in occupied territories wholly comparable with that of the Nazis in Eastern Europe. The Japanese regime meant murder, torture, and rape on a genocidal scale.
The notion that one might seek to win ‘hearts and minds’ was wholly alien. Subject populations were viewed with contempt for having been defeated and conquered. Henceforward they were to be ruled by terror. Resistance movements therefore developed across the Japanese Empire.
A multi-front war
The Japanese Empire was a vast sprawl made exceptionally vulnerable by the need to defend thousands of islands and tens of thousands of miles of coastline. This vulnerability increased as the massive industrial power of the United States was fully mobilised. With growing air and maritime superiority, the initiative was almost entirely with US forces, which could choose when and where to land and fight.
The Japanese were eventually fighting on several fronts – against Nationalist forces in the Chinese hinterland, against the British in Burma, against the US Army in the Philippines, against the US Navy and Marines in the Western Pacific, against the Australians in New Guinea, and against the US Air Force in the skies over Japan.
But the Resistance constituted another front, and one of exceptional and little-appreciated importance.
The war with China had begun in 1931, escalated in 1937, and continued until 1945. The bulk of the Japanese Army throughout this period was deployed in China, both to defend the Chinese coast against conventional Nationalist counter-attack, but also in response to the Chinese strategy of trading ‘space for time’, of scorched earth, and of guerrilla resistance (by both Nationalists and Communists).
China was as central to Japan’s defeat in the Second World War as Russia was to that of Germany in Europe. History shows that China can no more be conquered than Russia. It is too vast and too heavily populated for any invader to take over the whole country. The most that can be achieved is to seize the central state and become assimilated as a new ruling class. The Mongol Yuan dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries and, to a degree, the Manchu Qing dynasty of the 17th to 20th century are examples.
Japan launched its wider blitzkrieg in December 1941 despite still being hopelessly bogged down in China after three-and- a-half years of full-scale warfare. It was a desperate attempt to solve Japan’s chronic raw-materials shortages so that she could expand her military-industrial capacity. But it could not succeed in the long run.
Less attention is given to the role of resistance movements for two main reasons: most operations were small- scale, and most were clandestine. Guerrilla operations rarely make headline news. Nor do they yield an abundance of historical documents – maps, photos, orders, after-battle reports, etc – to provide historians with the source material they need. Guerrilla warfare is war in the shadows.
But the impact is often out of all proportion to the investment. Guerrillas often achieve exceptional levels of what military theorists call ‘economy of force’. Small bands using low-tech, even improvised weaponry can overwhelm small posts, ambush local patrols, eliminate collaborators and informers, destroy military equipment and supplies, and sabotage infrastructure like trains, bridges, telegraph lines, and so on.
The guerrilla fighter is protected by invisibility – either because he/she is embedded in the local population and is indistinguishable from them, or because he/she operates from a remote and hidden base. This protection is enhanced by the guerrilla’s ability to choose when, where, and how to strike, ideally on the basis of maximum intelligence and with minimal risk. Hit and run, and survive to fight another day, is the essence of guerrilla warfare.
To deal with this kind of chronic low- level threat, the occupation forces have to disperse into numerous penny-packets guarding thousands of vulnerable locations; but, ideally, never so small as to become easy targets in themselves.
To take the offensive against the guerrillas almost invariably involves attacks on the civilian population from whom they are recruited and among whom they find food, shelter, intelligence, and so on. So counter-insurgency operations are liable to increase popular hostility to the occupier and funnel recruits to the resistance.
During the Second World War, millions of Japanese troops who might have been fighting the Americans, the British, or the Australians were in fact fighting nationalist insurgencies in China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and elsewhere. The contribution of the resistance movements to the defeat of Imperial Japan was enormous.
From resistance to revolution
The scale of the resistance had long-term implications. Despite their brutality, the Japanese had demonstrated the hollowness of the European empires in the Far East. Following defeats like that of the British in Singapore, and given the role of the resistance movements in the subsequent struggle against the Japanese, the restoration of these empires was never going to be straightforward.
The Chinese Communist Party swept to power in 1949, crushing its Nationalist rivals in a three-year civil war, despite massive levels of US support to Chiang Kai-Shek. The British gave up trying to hold India – the ‘jewel in the crown’ – and granted independence in 1947.
The Indonesians declared their independence in August 1945 and went on to defeat a Dutch attempt to restore colonial rule during a four-year insurgency.
The Vietnamese resistance had played a central role in the liberation of the country from the Japanese. The British then used captured Japanese soldiers to contain the Vietnamese nationalist movement pending the arrival of French colonial forces. The French attempt to restore colonial rule turned into an eight-year war, with the French finally defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, after which they withdrew.
But, in a classic instance of Cold War politics, the country was partitioned, and the Americans then attempted to prop up a corrupt client dictatorship in Saigon. They were eventually defeated by an insurgency of North Vietnamese regulars and South Vietnamese guerrillas who were the direct descendants of the anti-Japanese resistance during the Second World War.
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.