The Intrepid Guerrillas of Luzon

Source: Lifestyle Inquirer

On December 7th, 1941, as waves of Japanese warplanes attacked American ships at Pearl Harbor, a second flotilla was making its way south to the Island of Luzon. The largest island in the Philippines, Luzon was home to the capital of the Philippines, Manilla, as well as most of the Philippine Army and the US Army Forces in the Far East. Over the next few days, this force of Japanese ships disembarked ground soldiers across the northern and southern tips of Luzon, who then pushed on towards Manilla. By January, the Japanese were in control over most of the island, while the remnants of the American and Filipino armies were pinned into a tiny corner of the Bataan peninsula.

By April, this pocket was eliminated and the Japanese fanned out across the remaining islands that make up the Philippines. For many Americans, this represented the end of their war in the east, what was left was surviving the horrors of the Japanese prisoner of war system. But during the final liquidation of the Bataan pocket, thousands of Americans were bypassed and isolated, they made their way in small groups, sometimes in twos and threes, into the mountains and jungles of the Philippines. Their war was far from over, and what came next was the bloody business of forming an anti-Japanese resistance on the island.

A Dire Situation

In Washington, the loss of the Philippines was a major blow. With the loss of this forward base, many feared that there was little to stop the Japanese from surging across the Pacific to Hawaii. Even if they didn’t, the US Navy had lost its access to the Western Pacific Ocean and have given the Japanese with which to control all the surrounding waters. As the chaos surrounding the fall of Bataan subsided, the Navy began to reconnect with American soldiers who had taken refuge in the villages, backwoods, and remote areas across the islands. These soldiers were already building networks within strongly anti-Japanese communities, and Washington rightly saw in this the potential to keep tabs on the islands and to build up a resistance movement which could support American forces during liberation.

Filipino guerillas pose with American soldiers. Source: Warfare History Network
Filipino guerillas pose with American soldiers. Source: Warfare History Network

What these groups needed desperately was equipment, and especially radios, without which they would be unable to operate or to pass along intelligence. Logically it would be up to the Navy to ship in supplies to build up these groups. Unfortunately, there were two problems with this plan. First, the Philippines was now on the wrong side of the front in the Pacific, several thousand miles of enemy controlled waters separated American supply ships and the budding Guerrillas in the Philippines.

To get around this problem, the US Navy relied heavily on its submarine forces. Over twenty boats had been stationed in the Philippines in 1941 and now, after having relocated to Australia, they were used to run supplies into the islands, especially the big island in the South, Mindanao. From there, the cargo was broken up and put onto junks and small, local, flat bottomed fishing boats which regularly trolled through Filipino waters. While this process was useful for bringing in small amounts of supplies, both the submarines and the local boats were limited in how much they could haul at any one time. While small arms and ammunition were easy to bring in, it was only ever a drop in a much larger bucket. Even harder were the radios. Shortwave transmitters with sufficient power and range to communicate across thousands of miles were large, bulky, and heavy. One radio in Luzon alone needed a bulky transmitter, a tall aerial, batteries, switch boxes, and a heavy generator for power. Submarines alone could never bring in enough equipment to even maintain regular radio contact, especially as the Japanese naturally began to aggressively pursue American transmissions.

Nevertheless, the guerrilla movement attracted considerable local support, largely as a result of Japanese atrocities committed across the islands. And as the movements built up, they provoked increasing crackdowns which fueled further resentment and support for the anti-Japanese guerillas.

Striking Back

At first, many of these movements were either controlled by Americans, most of whom were the remnants of the Bataan pocket or had Americans as advisors. But this broke down in the winter of 1942/1943 when rumors reached the island that the Navy was planning the imminent liberation of the islands. Many resistance movements, and especially those led by American officers, immediately launched a new wave of attacks against the Japanese in preparation for the invasion. But as these groups took to the field, the Japanese retaliated and annihilated them. By the spring the American led resistance forces had been destroyed, by and large for good.

 US Forces liberate the Philippines in 1945. Source: Wikipedia
US Forces liberate the Philippines in 1945. Source: Wikipedia

However, many Filipino insurgents had not been caught up in the recent attacks and had withstood the Japanese reprisals. Throughout 1943 and much of 1944, the Navy and the US Armed Forces in the Far East shifted their efforts away from insurgent warfare towards intelligence gathering and covert subversion. Increasingly, submarines brought in fewer guns but more OSS agents and high powered radio equipment. These agents trained local forces in the tactics of partisan warfare, as well as building networks of informants and agents who kept taps on Japanese forces across Luzon and the thousands of islands across the archipelago. While this work wasn’t as sexy or romantic as the previous insurgent guerilla struggle, on the eve of the liberation of the Philippines in 1944 the Navy had an accurate and well-developed picture of Japanese forces in the region. Not only did these networks aid in pre-intelligence operations, but their intelligence, sometimes gathered by humble and assuming fisherman equipped with small local radios, helped keep the Navy appraised of Japanese movements during the crucial sea battles in the fall of 1944.

Once American forces started operating directly in Philippine waters, the problems of supply and communication disappeared. Heavier weapons, better gear, and more operatives all helped to rebuild guerrilla cells so that by the time the Allies landed, they were supported by local forces. However, during the three periods of the Filipino insurrection, thousands were tortured and killed by the Japanese. In particular, the Japanese targeted the captains and owners of the junks and small boats that shipped equipment across the islands in an effort to block the flow of weapons. As with anybody operating with American soldiers or guerrilla operatives, anybody caught shipping weapons or radios were killed. We often think of the war for the Philippines in terms of Douglas MacArthur, the great pip chomping American general who famously declared that he "shall return," a promise he would eventually keep. But it was the local Filipinos who kept the resistance alive in the dark years of 1942 and 1943 who really liberated their home. They are some of the often unremembered heroes of World War II.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.