The World War II fighting on Mindanao, the southernmost and second-largest island of the Philippine archipelago, rarely gets mentioned in conventional histories of the Pacific War, even in those histories that focus on the battles in the Philippines. Still less do those histories recount the heroic struggle of the Moro resistance fighters who conducted a costly insurgency against the conquering armies of Imperial Japan from 1942 to 1945. Thomas McKenna, an anthropologist who lived and worked in Moro communities on Mindanao, tells the story of one of the unsung heroes of the resistance, Mohammad Adil, in his new and groundbreaking book Moro Warrior.
McKenna describes his book as “narrative history”, and it is history based largely on the memories of Mohammad Adil and written sources that McKenna found that helped to corroborate Adil’s information, including original documents that Adil created in his guerrilla camps during the war and kept after the war. Although McKenna asserts that “no events [detailed in the book] have been invented,” he explains that he filled-in some details by imagining them “based on … firsthand anthropological knowledge of Mindanao or on inferences drawn from other people, periods, and places.”
Research for the book began in 1986, when McKenna was working as an anthropologist and met Adil at Adil’s home near Cotabato City in northern Mindanao. Adil was then in his 60s, “vigorous and handsome, with salt and pepper hair brush cut in the military style.” Adil was one of the featured speakers at a victory rally celebrating the end of Ferdinand Marcos’s rule in the Philippines. (Ironically, this book is published in the year that Ferdinand Marcos, Jr, was elected President of the island nation). Adil decried the corruption of the Marcos years, and had fought against the Philippine army—his former comrades—when Marcos attacked the Moro homeland in Mindanao in the early 1970s.
A few months after that event, McKenna visited Adil who regaled the author with his memories of the Moro resistance to the Japanese occupation during World War II. It was the first of several meetings. Adil’s stories portrayed the Moro resistance as “leading actors” in the struggle against the Japanese forces in Mindanao. McKenna notes that the Moros are comprised of distinct ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Magindanaons and the Maranaos. What has historically united them is their Muslim faith and their stubborn resistance to colonial overlords—be they Spanish, American, or Japanese.
After the American General Douglas MacArthur left the Philippines from an airfield on Mindanao, the army he was forced by President Roosevelt to leave behind surrendered after bitter fighting against a larger and better equipped Japanese army. MacArthur when he reached Australia famously promised that he would return to liberate the Philippines, but soon learned that there were no forces immediately available to do so. By the time MacArthur acquired and equipped the necessary forces, Japan had established positions on New Guinea and other islands in the southwest Pacific. MacArthur coupled his innovative land-sea-air campaign in that region with establishing communications with and supplying the resistance forces in Mindanao and other places in the Philippines. MacArthur valued the resistance for its ability to inflict casualties and unnerve Japanese forces and, more important, for its on-the-ground intelligence.
And until MacArthur returned to the islands with American forces in October 1944 at Leyte, the struggle against Japan in the Philippines was a resistance struggle led by some American soldiers who had not surrendered and Filipino natives. Other Filipinos collaborated with the occupiers and thereby also became targets of the Filipino resistance. The Moros on Mindanao were fierce fighters who created an insurgency that inflicted significant casualties on Japanese occupying forces and their native collaborators. It was a savage, cruel, unrelenting struggle that featured the ubiquitous Japanese atrocities with vengeful retaliation by the Moros. “It was a conflict,” McKenna writes, both bloody and intimate.”
Adil also told McKenna about his relationship with Edward Kuder, whose family was from Pennsylvania but who was born in India and later worked as a teacher in the Philippines and became Adil’s foster-father. Kuder, McKenna writes, was “committed to improving the well-being of Moros,” but he also believed in America’s “imperialist project in the Philippines.” During Japan’s occupation, McKenna writes, Kuder’s role in the resistance resembled that of TE Lawrence in the Arab revolt of World War I. When Kuder was evacuated from the Philippines, he began writing about his time there and the Moro resistance. One of his lengthier articles appeared in the Saturday Evening Post where he described the Moros as, in McKenna’s words, “fearless fighters, clever tacticians, and loyal friends.” Unlike Lawrence who made himself the hero of the Arab revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Kuder made the Moros the heroes of his stories.
Mindanao was the last part of the Philippines liberated by US forces who had to battle with the help of Moro resistance forces against 40,000 Japanese forces who were ordered to fight to the death. Mohammad Adil was in the thick of the fighting there, assigned to guide American soldiers in “territory he knew well”. Adil’s military skills were evident in the fact that in two years of fighting the enemy, he had not lost a single soldier in battle. When the war ended, Adil was training to take part in Operation Downfall—the planned invasion of the main Japanese islands. After the war, he returned to Mindanao and worked for American counterintelligence officers to identify and locate wartime Filipinos who had collaborated with the Japanese.
Later in life, Adil, at the urging of Kuder, started law school in Manila, but left school and returned to the military and became one of the Philippine’s most decorated soldiers. When Marcos’s government sent units of the Philippine armed forces into Mindanao in the early 1970s, Adil once again became a resistance leader—this time against his own government. But that, Mckenna promises, is a story for another book.