The Partisan Archipelago
While the OSS, which helped organize resistance units behind the lines during WWII, was largely hands-off in the Philippines, make no mistake, the PI was lit ablaze by such groups from April 1942 through the final liberation in the Spring and Summer of 1945.
After all, it is hard to impossible to pacify 7,000 islands spread out across 1,000 miles of ocean filled with people that don’t want to be ruled by a foreign power, no matter how many troops you are willing to pour into the fight– the U.S. had learned that in the very same places in 1899-1902.
As noted by US Army Special Operations in World War II by David W. Hogan, Jr. (CMH Pub 70-42), covering the acts and deeds of Rangers, Alamo Scouts, OSS Jedburghs, Chindits Mauraders, and the like, there is a telling chapter on Philippines guerilla units as led by American hold-outs:
“General Douglas MacArthur, the imperious theater chief, and Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, commander of the U.S. Sixth Army, made extensive use of guerrillas, scout units, and commando forces, particularly in support of the effort to recapture the Philippine Islands.”
“Even before Pearl Harbor MacArthur, as commander of the forces defending the Philippines, considered the possibility of waging a guerrilla war. Under existing war plans his forces were expected to hold off a Japanese attack for several months before an American relief expedition could reach them. As part of his strategy for such a contingency, MacArthur established an embryo underground intelligence service among the numerous American businessmen, miners, and plantation owners on the islands and also contemplated the withdrawal of some Filipino reservists into the mountains to serve as guerrillas.”
“By 23 December MacArthur’s beach defense plan lay in ruins, and his remaining forces were withdrawing into the Bataan peninsula. Cut off from Bataan, Col. John P. Horan near Baguio, Capt. Walter Cushing along the Bocos coast, Capt. Ralph Praeger in the Cagayan Valley, and Maj. Everett Warner in Isabela Province formed guerrilla units from the broken remnants of Filipino forces in northern Luzon, and MacArthur sent Col. Claude A. Thorp to organize partisans in central Luzon. To meet the need for intelligence from behind enemy lines, Brig. Gen. Simeon de Jesus organized a network of about sixty agents who infiltrated by foot or by boat across Manila Bay and reported by radio to a central station in a Manila movie theater, which forwarded the data to MacArthur on Corregidor. Meanwhile, MacArthur directed Maj. Gen. William F. Sharp in Mindanao to intensify preparations for guerrilla warfare in the southern islands.”
To this were added other bands of scattered American fugitives and renegade Filipino soldiers led by Cols. Martin Moses and Arthur K. Noble.
While Sharp would surrender most of his forces in early 1942, with Horan and Warner following soon after, others kept fighting. By the end of the year, Cushing, Prager, and Thorp’s groups were all destroyed, and the aforementioned officers dispatched by their hunters.
In early 1943, Moses and Noble were killed.
Similar losses were suffered by indigenous forces, for example, Lt. Col. Guillermo Z. Nakar, Philippine Army, was captured and killed by the Japanese in October 1942, reportedly beheaded.
The two most effective American guerrilla leaders were the red-beared Lt. Col. Wendell W. Fertig on Mindanao– who crafted an uneasy alliance among Moros, the local Catholic church, and other groups– and Maj. Russell W. Volckmann in northern Luzon. Volckman, who had started 1941 as a company commander, would by 1945 command a mixed force of 22,000 guerillas in the field.
Fertig notably, “maintained his support among the opportunistic Moro tribes in part through the distribution of a LIFE magazine article in which King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia allied Islam with the United States.”
Another guerilla force involved one Lt. Iliff Richardson, USNR, a PT-Boat man who, much like the last five minutes of They Were Expendable, took to the hills and kept fighting after Corregidor fell, where the locals soon took up the fight armed with latongs, improvised slam-fire single-shot shotguns.
“Like a character in the book A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT, Lt. Richardson showed the guerrillas how to fashion the badly needed guns right in their own villages using scrap material like plumbing pipe and old lumber,” correspondent Ben Waters reported in 1944.
By the end of 1943, despite many initial setbacks, the underground resistance groups in the Philipines had started to turn the tide and were linked by radio with MacArthur’s headquarters in Australia. Instead of the airdrops frequently seen in Europe from SOE and OSS, the Navy organized an effort by Tagalog-speaking LCDR Charles “Chick” Parsons, an officer well aware of the PI coastal waters, to supply the insurgents with vital material. Parsons’s “Spy Squadron” of 19 submarines delivered 1,325 tons of supplies in at least 41 missions to the guerrillas between 1943 and 1945, with the emphasis on medicine, weapons, ammunition, and radio gear.
This led to increased organization and effectiveness, with fresh local recruits fleshing out the ranks of legitimate organizations of companies, battalions, and even divisions.
One of the most unlikely leaders was Lt. Col. James Cushing, a former mining engineer.
Another successful light colonel was Ernie McClish, a Native American.
In April 1945, after more than three years as a guerrilla leader in the Philippines, Lt. Col. Edward Ernest McClish came home to Okmulgee, Oklahoma, where his family, who had refused to believe him dead, waited for him. Some of his story has been told in American Guerrilla in the Philippines, by Ira Wolfert, and other details have been added in a report given to the Public Relations Bureau of the War Department by Col. McClish. It is an extraordinary tale of accomplishment against great odds.
Lt. Col. McClish, a Choctaw, who graduated from Haskell Institute in 1929 and from Bacone College two years later, was called to active duty in the National Guard in 1940, and early in 1941 he arrived in the Philippines, where he became commander of a company of Philippine Scouts. In August he went to Panay to mobilize units of the Philippine Army there, and as commander of the Third Battalion he moved his men to Negros, where they were stationed when the war broke out. Late in December they crossed by boat to Mindanao, and there all the Moro bolo battalions were added to McClish’s command.
The Japanese did not reach Mindanao until April 29, 1942, shortly before the American capitulation on Luzon, and Col. McClish’s men fought them for nearly three weeks. When forces on the island finally surrendered, McClish, a casualty in the hospital, some distance from headquarters, was fortunately unable to join his men. Instead of capitulating he began to organize a guerrilla army.
By September 1942, he had an organization of more than 300 soldiers, with four machine guns, 150 rifles, and six boxes of ammunition. Some American and Filipino officers had escaped capture and joined the staff. In the early stages of the organization, McClish got word of a Colonel Fertig, of the Army Engineers, who was working along similar lines in the western part of Mindanao, and he managed to reach Fertig by travelling in a small sailboat along the coast. The two men decided to consolidate their commands, and Colonel Fertig asked McClish to organize the fighting forces in the four eastern provinces of the island as the 110th Division.
Organization was at first very difficult. Independent guerrilla bands had sprung up all over the island, some of them composed of robbers and bandits who terrorized the villages. Some were anti-American, says Colonel McClish. Most of them lacked military training and education. But slowly the work proceeded. The bandits were disarmed and jailed; the friendly natives were trained, and young men qualified to be officers were commissioned. By the spring of 1943 McClish had assembled a full-strength regiment in each of the three provinces, a fourth had been started, and Division headquarters staff had been completed.
Simultaneously with the military organization, civil governments were set up in each province. Wherever possible, the officials who had held jobs in pre-war days were reappointed, provided that they had not collaborated with the Japanese. Provincial and municipal officials worked hand in hand with the military, and helped greatly to build up the army’s strength.
Because of the shortage of food, reports Colonel McClish, a Food Administrator and a Civil and Judicial Committee were appointed to begin agricultural and industrial rehabilitation. Army projects for the production of food and materials of war were begun throughout the Division area, and all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 50 were required to give one day’s work each week to one of these projects. They raised vegetables, pigs, poultry, sugar cane, and other foods. The manufacture of soap, alcohol, and coconut oil was started. Fishing was encouraged. In some of the provinces food production was increased beyond the peacetime level. The civilians realized that they were part of the army, and that only a total effort could defeat the enemy.
The public relations office published a newspaper, and headquarters kept in communication with the regiments in each province by radio, by telephone (when wire was available), or by runner. The guerrillas acquired launches and barges which had been kept hidden from the Japanese, and these were operated by home-made alcohol and coconut oil. Seven trucks provided more transport, but it was safer and easier to use the sea than the land. In order to maintain their motor equipment, they “obtained” a complete machine shop from a Japanese lumbering company in their territory.
From September 15, 1942, to January 1, 1945, while McClish’s work of organization and administration was continuing, his guerrilla forces were fighting the Japanese, and more than 350 encounters–ambushes, raids on patrols and small garrisons, and general engagements–were listed on their records. One hundred and fifteen men were killed and sixty-four wounded. Enemy losses were estimated at more than 3,000 killed and six hundred wounded.
The guerrillas finally made contact with the American forces in the South Pacific and supplied them with valuable information about the enemy which was extremely helpful when the time for the invasion of the Philippines came at last. They did their part in bringing about the final victory in the Pacific.
On 26 May 1944, seven PB4Ys (Navalized B-24 bombers) of VB-115 flew to the recently liberated airstrip at Wakde in Dutch New Guinea, and on the next day, this squadron made the first regular air reconnaissance of southern Mindanao since early 1942 when MacArthur’s leadership was pulled out by B-17s for Australia. It would be the first of many American aircraft over the PI and heralded the official return of the U.S. to the islands.
By October 1944, some guerilla units had swelled to over 10,000 or more effective fighters, and openly wore uniforms, seizing control of large swaths of the country’s interior as well as numerous small cities and towns. They were even able to call in close air support at the tactical level.
It was during this later stage that PI guerilla forces ably served as lifeguards and protectors for downed American aircrews.
Opposed against them, the Japanese Kempati organized local collaborationist police and informants into snitch squads–who, while they did put a crimp in insurgent operations, were more often than not just used to settle local grudges. By 1944, stood up the Makapili (Makabayan Katipunan Ñg Mg̃a Bayani, or Alliance of Philippine Patriots) organization, armed with captured American weapons, to go toe-to-toe with the local guerillas. However, the mighty Makapili only ever made it to brigade (5,000~) strength, although it should be pointed out that they fought alongside the Japanese to the bitter end.
Secret radio net
A radio net operated across the archipelago, linking operations with advancing Allied forces.
A specially-formed unit, the 978th Signal Service Company, operated clandestine radio nets blanketing the Philippines. Activated in Brisbane, Australia on 1 July 1943, the 978th consisted primarily of “Pinoy” Filipinos and Filipino Americans recruited by the Signal Corps from the U.S. Army’s First and Second Filipino Infantry Regiments then training in the United States at Camp Beale (now Beale AFB) and Camp Cooke (now Vandenburg AFG), in California and trained at Fort Gordon.
The 5217th Reconnaissance Battalion (Provisional), later known as 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, was formed at Camp “X” or Camp Tabragalba, near Beaudesert south of Brisbane in southern Queensland, to include the 978th and the 5218th Recon Coy (Provisional), whose motto in Filipino was Bahala na (Tagalog for Come What May).
Ultimately 200 parachute-skilled radio operators deployed with the insurgents providing a link back to MacArthur in Australia over which vital intelligence was sent back.
In the end, the Filipino guerilla movement retook large parts of the country and formed a standing, uniformed Army.
The famous Cabanatuan Prison Raid, conducted 30-31 January 1945, could not have been pulled off without PI forces.
When MacArthur finally did return, much of the way had already been prepared.
The transition from the secret army to a field army
As the Americans began landings in the Leyte Gulf and moved inland former irregular guerillas were quickly outfitted to fight as line infantry, a process that saw them clothed for the first time– typically in obsolete sateen uniforms– equipped with a mix of second-line rifles such as M1917 Enfields and M1903A3 Springfields as well as some newer ordnance like M1 Carbines and M1 Thompsons, then given a pair of often ill-fitting boots.
Some new PI divisions were even outfitted with 75mm howitzers for the final push to clear Northern Luzon, a campaign that didn’t end until mid-August 1945.
Lt. Col. Ruperto Kangleon, Philippine Army, was the acknowledged leader of the resistance movement in Leyte during the Japanese occupation– the Black Army– a force that would be organized as the 92nd Division (PI) in October 1944. He would be decorated by MacArthur personally.
Others were remembered as well.
Meet Captain Nieves Fernandez, the only known Filipino female guerrilla leader, and school teacher.
In the above photo, she is showing U.S. Army Pvt. Andrew Lupiba how she used her bolo to silently kill Japanese sentries during the occupation of Leyte Island.
When the Japanese came to take the children under her care, she shot them. She didn’t hide in a closet, she didn’t put up a gun-free zone sign, she shot them in the face with her latong.
She then went on to lead forces credited with killing over 200 Japanese soldiers during the war and holds the distinction as the only female commander of a resistance group in the Philippines.
Besides the Americans and local insurgents, there was also a formation of ethnic Chinese residents who formed the underground Wha Chi battalion, who fought the Japanese occupation tooth and nail, in the end helping to liberate the towns of Jaen, Sta. Maria, Cabiao, San Fernando, and Tarlac in 1945.
Once the war was over, the Americans, by and large, went home and received some minor notoriety.
PT-boat sailor Richardson, who had been promoted to a Major in the U.S. Army during his time behind the lines, went on to unsuccessfully market a line of “Philippine Guerilla Shotguns.”
Meanwhile, Volckmann is seen today as a legend in the SF community and went on to literally write the book (several, actually) on COIN operations, based on his own first-hand knowledge. A book recently came out on him that is quite good reading.
There were also several sensationalized accounts in men’s pulp mags and in trade paperbacks published in the states throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Still, the resistance movement in the Philipines would never get the same type of coverage that similar, and often much less effective, efforts got in Europe, which is a shame.
For a great read on the subject see the CMH’s chapter on the Philippines Campaign dedicated to the Philippine Resistance Movement.