Gen. Douglas MacArthur firmly established his status as a World War II icon 75 years ago, when he waded ashore a Philippine beach on Oct. 20, 1944.
The moment had been two and a half years in the making.
The proud general was heartsick when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered him to relinquish his command in the Philippines in the spring of 1942, in order to organize the allied counteroffensive against the Japanese in the Southwest Pacific theater.
MacArthur’s ties to the Philippines went back to his earliest days in the U.S. Army, and he had returned to the archipelago multiple times throughout his decades-long career.
In 1936, the American territory’s president, Manuel Quezon, had named the former U.S. Army chief of staff as field marshal of the newly forming Philippine Army. The following year MacArthur retired from the U.S. Army, but remained in Manila as a senior military adviser to Quezon.
That same year MacArthur, now 57, married Jean Faircloth, and they had their only child, Arthur, in the Philippines in early 1938.
The two would stay by the general’s side during the difficult early months of World War II.
As the war clouds began to gather in 1941, Roosevelt federalized the Philippine Army and sent additional U.S. military personnel to the territory.
The commander in chief also called MacArthur back to active duty, naming him leader of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East.
On Dec. 8, 1941, the Japanese struck the Philippines only hours after hitting Pearl Harbor and with the same devastating effect, destroying most of the American air power and naval forces stationed there.
Soon thereafter, over 57,000 seasoned Japanese soldiers landed on the main island of Luzon and forced the combined American forces under General MacArthur into retreat to the Bataan Peninsula at the mouth of Manila Bay.
There, the Americans and Filipinos made a brave stand for four months against the Japanese onslaught, until lack of food, supplies, reinforcements and disease made surrender appear inevitable.
In March 1942, Roosevelt directed MacArthur to leave the Philippines and go to Australia.
“MacArthur’s image was as large as his ego and it would have been a great coup for the Japanese if they had captured him in the Philippines,” Dr. Conrad C. Crane, chief of historical services for the Army Heritage and Education Center, told The Western Journal.
James Zobel, an archivist at the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia, agrees that Roosevelt did not want the Japanese to score such a major propaganda victory.
“You’ve got [radio propagandist] Tokyo Rose and Japan saying they’re going to hang him in Imperial Plaza,” Zobel said.
The historian pointed out that MacArthur’s forces had been the only Americans holding out anywhere in the world against the Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy in early 1942.
MacArthur had become a hero back in the U.S.
Obeying the president, he left the American fortress island of Corregidor just off the Bataan Peninsula on a Navy PT boat by night. His wife, young son and some members of his staff traveled with him on the perilous journey, slipping through the Japanese naval blockade of Manila Bay.
The PT boats traveled hundreds of miles to the south, experiencing a close encounter with the Imperial Japanese Navy along the way. Eventually, they reached an airfield in the southern Philippines, where the MacArthurs boarded a B-17 American bomber, which flew them to Australia.
However, the harrowing trip was not quite over, because at the very time MacArthur’s plane was nearing Darwin in northern Australia where the Americans intended to land, the pilots got word it was under Japanese air attack.
Arthur Herman writes in his book “Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior” that U.S. planes were forced to divert their landing to an emergency strip fifty miles to the south.
The Australians had specifically requested that MacArthur come to their country.
“When Australia was offered some American forces or Douglas MacArthur to come save them, they picked MacArthur because of his reputation and perceived abilities,” Crane said.
The newly appointed Allied commander of the Southwest Pacific made his plans clear to a group of reporters when he arrived in Adelaide in southern Australia.
“The president of the United States ordered me to break through the Japanese lines…for the purpose, as I understand it, of organizing the American offensive against Japan, a primary object of which is the relief of the Philippines,” MacArthur said. “I came through and I shall return.”
“I shall return,” became a rallying and promise cry in the Philippines.
Within weeks of MacArthur’s arrival in Australia, the Japanese launched a major offensive in Bataan resulting in the surrender of U.S. and Philippine forces in early April 1942.
The horrific 65 mile Bataan Death March to a prisoner-of-war camp followed.
Approximately 9,000 of the 80,000 or so combined American and Filipino troops died on the march due to Japanese brutality, denial of food and water and exhaustion from the months of previous fighting.
Today we mark National Former Prisoners of War Recognition Day, commemorating the April 9, 1942 surrender of approximately 10,000 US military personnel & 65,000 Filipino soldiers on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines to the invading Imperial Japanese Army #WWII #History pic.twitter.com/tnc0iaSEyE
— WWII Memorial Friends (@WWIIMemorial) April 9, 2019
Thousands more died within a month after arriving at the prisoner-of-war camps from the effects of the march.
News of the fall of Bataan greatly distressed MacArthur and made him all the more determined to begin the counteroffensive that would ultimately take him 3,500 miles back to the Philippines.
“It’s something that he pushes for the whole time,” Zobel said. “It’s almost like he wills himself back there.”
Making it back to the Philippines would take far longer than MacArthur had hoped.
On the first anniversary of the commonwealth’s fall in 1943, he issued a communiqué reminding Americans of the thousands of their countrymen languishing in POW camps and the millions of Filipinos forced to live under brutal Japanese rule.
MacArthur said that redeeming them all was the “Holy Grail” he asked Americans to pray “Almighty God” would allow Allied forces to achieve.
As Crane explained, the war leader engaged in what he called “triphibious warfare” as he directed the Allies (primarily Australian and American troops) on an island-hopping campaign, bypassing enemy strongholds and cutting off their supply lines so the Japanese forces would “rot on the vine.”
“[MacArthur] deserves credit for really a phenomenal campaign in the Southwest Pacific with relatively little resource help and lot of innovative tactics,” Crane said. “He is one of the architects of victory in the Pacific.”
Finally, on Oct. 20, 1944, MacArthur’s forces stood poised in Leyte Gulf to fulfill the general’s 1942 pledge.
The passage of years had brought new hope and new might.
Backed by over 100 warships, including 20 aircraft carriers, and supporting a landing force of 175,000 soldiers, MacArthur’s and the United States’ hour of redemption was at hand.
— WWII Front Pages (@WW2frontpages) October 28, 2018
As dawn broke, MacArthur looked toward the invasion beach on Leyte Island and thought “this is a full moment,” as he would later write in his autobiography, “Reminiscences.”
It had been 41 years since MacArthur had first seen Leyte as a young second lieutenant in the Engineer Corps. He had been assigned the mission of surveying its terrain; he knew this land — it was his second home.
“You’ve got to think it is probably the greatest moment in his life, fulfilling that pledge, redeeming that promise,” Zobel said.
— Michael Beschloss (@BeschlossDC) October 20, 2014
After inspecting up and down the beach to see how the fighting was going, MacArthur proceeded toward a portable radio microphone from where he would address the Philippine nation.
“People of the Philippines: I have returned,” he said. “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.”
MacArthur then informed the Filipinos that their president was with him, and that their government was therefore now re-established on their soil.
“The hour of your Redemption is here,” the general said. “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! 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.”
MacArthur would go on to lead a successful campaign to liberate the Philippines in the months ahead, including his troops rescuing thousands of American POWs.
Rather than being hung in Imperial Plaza as Tokyo Rose had predicted, MacArthur oversaw the Japanese surrender ceremony in Tokyo Harbor on Sept. 2, 1945.
Japan- Sept. 2 1945- Allied sailors and officers watch Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur sign documents during the surrender ceremony aboard USS Missouri. U.S. Check out for more pics: https://t.co/ZeFFLfMkIW pic.twitter.com/pnatsUYFRn
— History Lovers Club (@historylvrsclub) June 14, 2018
“Strategic leadership is rhetoric and action,” he said in a statement to The Western Journal. “We tend sometimes to focus on one and ignore the other — both count. We get so wrapped in his public image, we understudy what he actually did. Look at World War II, there is no question that MacArthur’s campaign contributed significantly to the Allied victory.”
Portions of this article first appeared in “We Hold These Truths” by Randall DeSoto.
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