War is messy. Guerrilla war is even messier. Most conventional histories of the Second World War’s Pacific theater detail Japan’s invasion and conquest of the Philippines in December 1941 and early 1942, and then jumping to US General Douglas MacArthur’s return in October 1944 and America’s retaking of the islands. James Kelly Morningstar’s new book War and Resistance in the Philippines, 1942-1944 fills an important historical gap by detailing the guerrilla war waged by Filipino insurgents and US soldiers who refused to surrender or avoided captivity during the Japanese occupation.
The author is a retired US army officer, decorated combat veteran, and a professor of military history at Georgetown University. His history of the guerrilla warfare in the Philippines during World War II is based mostly on archival records and memoirs, though he also makes good use of secondary sources to provide the relevant historical context. Morningstar covers the Filipino resistance and insurgency on every major island, and each chapter is divided into sections that describe the activity on those islands on specific days of the occupation.
The guerrilla war lasted more than a thousand days, involved somewhere between 260,000 and a million Filipinos organized into between 277 and one thousand guerrilla units, spread out over the huge archipelago. The guerrillas suffered over 33,000 dead during the fighting. Many more Filipinos lost their lives due to the brutality of the Japanese occupation. Manila, notes Morningstar, “suffered damage only comparable to that seen in Warsaw,” and more than 100,000 Filipino civilians were killed during the battle for the Philippine capital.
Some guerrilla units were led by Americans and others by Filipinos, and Morningstar brings to life these guerrilla leaders whose names are mostly lost to history: Lt Col Wendell Fertig, who led resistance efforts on Mindanao; Maj Robert Volckmann and Lt Robert Lapham, who led similar efforts on Northern Luzon; Capt James Cushing, a mining engineer who organized resistance activity on Cebu; Maj Claude Thorpe, who organized guerrilla bands in Central Luzon (and was captured and executed by the Japanese); Maj Salvadore Abcede on Negros; Capt Macario Peralta on Panay; Capt Esteban Beloncio on Mindoro; Col. Ruperto Kangleon on Leyte; Maj Charles Smith on Samar; Lt Ismael Ingenerio on Bohol; and several others.
The guerrillas used hit-and-run tactics, assassinations, and sabotage:unconventional warfare that resulted in more than 13,000 Japanese casualties. And it brought brutal reprisals against Filipino citizens and captured guerrillas—rapes, tortures, starvation, executions, all too typical of Japan’s occupation tactics during the war.
The occupation also produced Filipino collaborators, including Benigno Aquino, whose daughter-in-law Corazon Aquino later became President of the Philippines after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Morningstar writes that collaboration “came in shades of gray,” meaning that some collaborators were duped by Japan’s promise of independence, while others saw it as the only way to survive under the tyrannical Japanese. Some collaborators betrayed guerrillas to the Japanese, while others did not.
And sometimes rival guerrilla leaders clashed with each other, fueling mini-struggles for power. The Communist Huks, for example, fought the Japanese as well as other guerrilla forces with an eye toward establishing a revolutionary communist state after Japan’s defeat. One estimate noted by Morningstar attributes 5,000 Japanese deaths and 20,000 Filipino deaths to the Huks during the occupation.
When President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to escape to Australia, the general reluctantly left the islands and after reaching Australia famously pledged to return to the Philippines. MacArthur and his intelligence units understood the value of guerrilla and resistance forces. As he recalled in his memoirs: “I had acquired a force behind the Japanese lines that would have a far-reaching effect on the war in the days to come.” Filipinos, he wrote, held “aloft the flaming torch of liberty.”
MacArthur’s headquarters established and maintained communications with several guerrilla groups. US submarines covertly provided supplies to resistance forces. MacArthur realized that such forces could create havoc and confusion that would assist his army when it landed to retake the Philippines. And the guerrilla forces, Morningstar notes, placed their hopes of liberation on MacArthur keeping his promise. “Filipinos asked one question: When would MacArthur return?” One American guerrilla leader recalled,
[MacArthur’s] name was like an invocation to them, a holy word that had special power and meaning. None of them doubted his promise to return, but they were anxious to learn when the invasion would come.
The invasion almost didn’t come. The US Navy suggested bypassing the Philippines and moving on to Taiwan as a stepping stone to the invasion of Japan’s home islands, and the Chiefs of Staff agreed. MacArthur at a meeting in Hawaii persuaded President Roosevelt to retake the Philippines. Morningstar believes that the fact of the Filipino resistance “proved decisive to MacArthur’s argument,” though other historians credit FDR’s political instincts (MacArthur mentioned that voters in November might turn against a president who abandoned American POWs and millions of Filipino Christians) as being the decisive factor.
When MacArthur finally returned, guerrilla forces ambushed Japanese patrols, destroyed bridges, cut communications, disabled military vehicles, and provided intelligence that helped the invasion succeed. Morningstar explains that although the guerrillas did not and could not defeat the Japanese by themselves, “they arguably denied them the fruits of victory.” A Japanese general who served in China, Singapore, Sumatra, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines, opined that the scope and ferocity of Filipino resistance to their Japanese occupiers exceeded that of any other territory conquered by Japan. James Kelly Morningstar’s book is a welcome recognition and tribute to the steadfastness and bravery of those Filipino patriots.