by Grace Wong
After the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century, the United States gained the Philippines as a colonial possession and established a political and military presence there. The archipelago remained under American control until World War II, when the Japanese invaded it on December 8, 1941 – just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Previously, General Douglas MacArthur had been sent to the Philippines to train a national army in case of a Japanese attack. He helped establish the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). However, training was difficult, primarily because of language and cultural barriers and a lack of supplies. The Japanese attacked before efforts were complete, forcing the American headquarters to move from Manila to Corregidor. By spring of 1942, they had been forced to the Bataan Peninsula, the last stronghold of the Allies in the Pacific. American and Filipino troops worked together to defend the peninsula. Still, months of fighting had done their damage, and by summer, the Japanese Army had occupied all of the Philippines.
MacArthur was forced to evacuate with much of his American staff, famously vowing, "I shall return." He would fulfill this vow in 1944, but in the meantime, those left in the Philippines went through a long ordeal. Some felt abandoned, yet they fought as much as they could. Those who surrendered were forced to make the infamous Bataan Death March, a 65-mile-long journey by foot to a prison camp. The conditions along the way were not only harsh and extreme in terms of weather and logistics, but Japanese treatment of the POWs was inhumane. The Japanese killed many POWs who were too weak or sick along the route. Those who tried to help them along the way – both citizens and fellow soldiers – were also beaten or killed.
Another atrocity involving Americans was the Palawan Massacre in December of 1944. As the Allied offensive approached the Philippines, the Japanese used many POWs as slave labor to strengthen defenses. They then locked many POWs in the air raid shelter at the Palawan Prison Camp and set it on fire, killing most of them. Those who tried to escape were tortured and brutally murdered by Japanese soldiers.
However, some Americans avoided capture or escape the prison camps, and many of them worked with the Filipino guerrilla resistance known as the Hukbalahap (the Huk) against their common enemy. The Huk acted as guides assisting American soldiers and also did espionage work. Together with the Americans, they also established means of communication between the underground resistance and the Allied forces outside of the Philippines.
When MacArthur finally fought his way across the Pacific and back to the Philippines in late 1944, American soldiers once again worked with Filipino fighters to plan the campaign to take back the islands. Then in 1946, a year after the Allied victory, the Philippines gained its complete independence. Many atrocities were committed against both Americans and Filipinos during World War II, and it is important to acknowledge both equally. Additionally, it is crucial to recognize the role of American imperialism in the Philippines during this time. Yet the two groups were able to unite and work together to fight for a common goal, which is something worth remembering.
Gaerlan, Cecilia. "Liberating the Philippines: 75 Years after by Cecilia Gaerlan: The National WWII Museum: New Orleans." The National WWII Museum, The National WWII Museum | New Orleans, August 31, 2020, www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/liberation-of-philippines-cecilia-gaerlan.
Salinas, Stacey Anne Baterina, and Klytie Xu. Philippines' Resistance: The Last Allied Stronghold in the Pacific. Pacific Atrocities Education, 2017.
Wrynn, V. Dennis. "American Prisoners of War: Massacre at Palawan." HistoryNet, HistoryNet, 13 Feb. 2019, www.historynet.com/american-prisoners-of-war-massacre-at-palawan.htm.
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