[ANALYSIS] 75 years after MacArthur's return, WW2 combatants face common threat
Last October 8 to 18, the militaries of the Philippines, the United States of America, and, most interestingly enough, Japan conducted a multilateral exercise. It was dubbed Exercise Kamandag or "Kaagapay Ng Mga Mandirigma ng Dagat" – translated as Cooperation Among Warriors at Sea – and featured amphibious landings and humanitarian assistance activities.
The Japanese participation made it a noteworthy exercise. It was a result of almost a decade of diplomatic activities conducted by both Manila and Tokyo to enable Japan to have a more active security posture in the South China Sea and South East Asia. This exercise highlighted how much has changed in the relations between all of the participants in it, especially when one takes into consideration events that took place 75 years ago.
Seventy-five years ago, on October 19, 1944, a mighty U.S and allied armada bore down on the central Philippine island of Leyte. On that island, thousands of Filipino guerillas were poised to disrupt the operations of the 10,000-strong Imperial Japanese Army garrison. On October 20, 1944, General Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his personal promise to return to the Philippines and waded ashore in Palo, Leyte, together with his staff and Commonwealth President Sergio Osmeña and General Carlos P. Romulo. There, MacArthur issued his famous declaration that he had returned:
People of the Philippines I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil – soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples. We have come, dedicated and committed, to the task of destroying every vestige of enemy control over your daily lives, and of restoring, upon a foundation of indestructible, strength, the liberties of your people.
At my side is your President, Sergio Osmena, worthy successor of that great patriot, Manuel Quezon, with members of his cabinet. The seat of your government is now therefore firmly re- established on Philippine soil.
The hour of your redemption is here. Your patriots have demonstrated an unswerving and resolute devotion to the principles of freedom that challenges the best that is written on the pages of human history. I now call upon your supreme effort that the enemy may know from the temper of an aroused and outraged people within that he has a force there to contend with no less violent than is the force committed from without.
Rally to me. Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on. As the lines of battle roll forward to bring you within the zone of operations, rise and strike. Strike at every favorable opportunity. For your homes and hearths, strike! For future generations of your sons and daughters, strike! In the name of your sacred dead, strike! Let no heart be faint. Let every arm be steeled. The guidance of divine God points the way. Follow in His Name to the Holy Grail of righteous victory!
As the landings in Leyte commenced, the Imperial Japanese Navy committed their remaining major warships against the massive Allied armada. What ensued has gone down in history as the largest naval battle of the Second World War and one of the largest in world history. The Battle of Leyte Gulf began on October 23, 1944, and ended a few days later on October 26, 1944. There were 4 major sub-battles to this historic naval clash:
- The Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, which was the American aerial assault against the Japanese surface warships heading toward San Bernardino Strait.
- The Battle of Cape Engano, which was the American aerial assault on the Japanese decoy force that lured the fleet carriers and fast battleships of the US Navy away from Leyte Gulf.
- The Battle off Samar, which saw the Japanese surface warships unsuccessfully attack the weak American units guarding the northern entrance to Leyte Gulf.
- The Battle of Surigao Strait, wherein old American battleships guarding the southern entrance into Leyte Gulf wiped out an equally old Japanese battleship force attempting to break through.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was an overwhelming American and Allied victory. It sealed the fate of Imperial Japan as, following that battle, the Japanese were not anymore able to conduct any operation of such a scale due to losses of warships, crews, aircraft, pilots, and even fuel. Although direct Filipino participation in that naval battle was limited to intelligence gathering on movements of enemy ships within inland Philippine waters, some Filipino coastal communities played a direct role. When Japanese sailors who survived the sinking of their ships swam to shore, they were beaten to death by vengeful Filipinos.
It took the combined Filipino and American forces a total of a little more than two months to clear out Leyte Island, and even then there remained Japanese stragglers in the mountains. On December 13, 1944, the Americans landed in Mindoro and, together with Filipino guerrillas there, eliminated the Japanese garrison on that island. Mindoro was the stepping stone to Luzon Island and the prize of Manila. American forces would stage off from both Leyte and Mindoro for the eventual landings at Lingayen Gulf that were slated in January the following year.
Unknown to the Filipinos and Americans, the huge Japanese garrison in Luzon of approximately 250,000 troops were planning to make it a very costly affair for the Allied forces and Filipino civilians. Although as MacArthur had indeed said that the hour of redemption was at hand, tens of thousands of combatants and non-combatants would die in the Philippine liberation battles and massacres of 1945.
So why did combatants from all sides – from American invasion forces, Japanese troops, all the way to Filipino guerrillas – fight so hard for the Philippines? For Filipinos, it was not just because the Commonwealth of the Philippines was a member of the Allied forces and also that of the newly-established United Nations. Grand strategy, operational, and geopolitical issues were farthest from the minds of Filipino resistance fighters. Filipinos fought because their homeland was invaded, and Filipino men, women, and children were killed and violated by the brutal Japanese invaders. It was a patriotic war for the Filipinos. It was also a war of revenge and seldom were Japanese prisoners taken by the guerrillas. For the Americans and Japanese, the war took on a larger scope in relation to the Pacific War and the need to secure lines of communication and bases.
The Japanese admiral, Soemu Toyoda, stated with regards to the importance of the Philippines:
…that should we lose in the PHILIPPINES operations, even though the fleet should be left, the shipping lane to the south would be completely cut off so that the fleet, if it should come back to Japanese waters, could not obtain its fuel supply. If it should remain in southern waters, it could not receive supplies of ammunition and arms. There would be no sense in saving the fleet at the expense of the loss of the PHILIPPINES.
For MacArthur, there was also a moral obligation in securing the Philippines:
In my opinion purely military considerations demand the reoccupation of the Philippines in order to but the enemy's communications to the south and to secure a base for our further advance; even if this were not the case and unless military factors demanded another line of action, it would in my opinion be necessary to reoccupy the Philippines. It is American territory, where our unsupported forces were destroyed by the enemy; practically all of the seventeen million Filipinos remain loyal to the United States and are undergoing the greatest privation and suffering because we have not been able to support or succor them; we have a great national obligation to discharge.... I feel also that a decision to eliminate the campaign for the relief of the Philippines, even under appreciable military considerations, would cause extremely adverse reactions among the citizens of the United States; the American people, I am sure, would acknowledge the obligation.
Hence, for the nth time, century after century, the Philippines – because of its central location in relation to Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Pacific and Indian Oceans – had found itself smack in the middle of the path of invading armies and navies. The Filipinos, either bound by alliance or as spectators, became participants to events that decided the course of global history.
Fast forward 75 years later: Filipino, American, and Japanese marines have just finished conducting mock battle against a hypothetical terrorist enemy in unprecedented multilateral exercises hosted by the Philippines. Tokyo is increasingly becoming involved in the enhancement of the security posture and capabilities of the Philippines. It has provided ships and aircraft to enhance the monitoring capabilities of the Philippine military and coast guard. The United States continues to provide training, grants, and surplus military equipment to the Philippines as assistance. Who were once foes are now all allies.
The question though is, why are they all here in the Philippines doing such activities? It is because there is a new threat that desires regional and eventually global domination. Beijing has muscled its way into Southeast Asia and has claimed what is not its own. It wants to project into the Central Pacific and establish its second island defensive perimeter, and the Philippines is in its way.
Although not as dramatic and blatant as the Japanese conquest of the Philippines in 1942, the Chinese strategy is more covert and insidious. Instead of the power of heavy weaponry, Beijing has used money to coopt and seduce Filipino politicians, turning many of them into a treasonous 5th column who have opened the gates to Chinese interests within the country. Illegal drugs have flooded into the country from China in order to cause social decay. National leaders, the highest in the land included, have all kowtowed to the demands of Beijing, and instead of defending Filipino interests are quick to defend those of Beijing and have no shame in acting as China’s mouthpieces.
It is anybody’s guess as to what will be the eventual outcome of allowing China to directly influence affairs of state in the Philippines. Would the Filipinos be on the side of its traditional allies, Japan included? Would the country go over totally to Beijing and be its puppet state? Or would the external pressures result in the break up of the Philippines and the creation of a Syrian situation, where one side will be propped up by China and Russia while the other by the US, Japan, and other like-minded countries. That remains to be seen. – Rappler.com
Jose Antonio Custodio is a security and defense consultant. He specializes in military history and has post-graduate studies in history from the University of the Philippines. He occasionally teaches history and political science in several universities in Metro Manila.