FFE Magazine

PH History Today: The General Returns

As our very own president is making the rounds of the Philippines’ Asian neighbours to improve international relations, this day many many years ago a man returned to the Philippines to strengthen his country’s ties to our cause. Does ‘I shall return’ ring a bell? It should! Because for Filipinos who have gone through basic Araling Panlipunan or  Philippine Historysubjects, this phrase is synonymous to the name of one man who made a difference during World War II in the Pacific.

I am talking about him, the one with the cool stance and the imposing pipe… United States Army Chief of Staff and General Douglas MacArthur.

Prepare a bowl of snacks, grab a pipe (if you fancy that kind of thing) and draw up a chair. I’m taking you to the whirlwind days of World War II Philippines, 20 October, 1944 – the day the general finally fulfilled his promise.

The great escape

It was World War II in Asia – in a little island off the coast of Manila Bay General Douglas MacArthur, the hero who would save the Pacific from the clutches of Japan, had been told to flee the country. Washington declared MacArthur’s neck was more important, and that leaving him martyred in the Philippines will mean losing the most valuable asset they had. They had to save him if they wanted to win the war in Asia.

The general, however, had already told his commanders that he and his family intended ‘to share the fate of the garrison’ in Corregidor island. This was a very brave declaration, albeit a reckless one, considering that the Japanese were already closing in around the island. At that time Manila was brimmingwith Japanese soldiers. MacArthur was on the losing side, but he didn’t budge until the president of America ordered him to do so on 23 February, 1942. What would a good general of the United States do but follow his commander-in-chief?


A model of the PT boat

So his plan to escape to Australia through Mindanao was set. Easier said than done. The Americans were disrupted by the increased activity among the Japanese fleet surrounding Corregidor’s waters. But they had a secret weapon – the PT boat: quick attack crafts that can easily slip through the big gunboats of Japan.

MacArthur’s chief of staff finished the list of passengers of the PT-41, priority was given to the general and his wife and son. Various myths surrounding which items the MacArthurs carried on their night of escape have been passed through history – scandalous tidbits like cash, gold and even a piano. In truth, general MacArthur himself left Corregidor with nothing but the clothes on his back.

In 11 March, 4 PTs swiftly carried the general, his family and his officers from the ‘jaws of death’ under cover of darkness. They did not reach Cagayan de Oro until 13 March. The crew stayed in Del Monte Airfield until they got hold of two Boeing-17 planes, which flew them to Australia on 16 March.

Upon reaching the Batchelor Airfield in Northern Territory, Australia, the crew was airsick but hurried off in another plane to Alice Springs, where they split up. MacArthur’s group took a special train to Melbourne, leaving the Japanese scratching their heads over his flight. He soon arrived safely in the hands of Australian minister for the Army Frank Forde by 21 March, ending his 10-day escape.

It was en route to Melbourne, in Terowie, South Australia, that the general made his rallying speech which included the famous line ‘I came through and I shall return.’ A promise of sorts, considering he was deemed by Americans, Filipinos and the Japanese as the only person who could turn the tide in the war.

20 October, 1944

After years of suffering under the rule of the Japanese, the Philippines saw a ray of light one sunny day in October:


MacArthur lands in Leyte

General MacArthur – resolute face and stance, knee-deep in salt water and rearing for action. Do you remember seeing this picture for the first time? Pretty dramatic, don’t you think? Actually, it was meant to be that way because MacArthur’s return to the Philippines did not only mean that the country was once again in the hands of a very capable general. It also meant that America has just gained a good foothold over the war in Asia.

Actually, by this time the war had already been won by the Allied forces. MacArthur seemed keen on clearing up unfinished business in this side of the Pacific, and he was certainly back for vengeance. The Americans were ruthless in their attack on Japanese forces all over the country. After the historic landing in Leyte, campaign after campaign was won by the Americans, including the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the invasion of Mindoro and Luzon, and the historic Battle of Manila. Pretty soon, America gained ground in Manila and the Commonwealth of the Philippines was restored. It was only a matter of time before they could scare off the remaining Japanese in the countryside.

By 5 July, 1945, the Philippines was declared liberated from the clutches of Japan. The general fulfilled his promise.

Did you know?

There are a number of interesting facts that textbooks may have left out in the MacArthur saga of our history. For one thing, the good general was branded a coward and deserter. Just when the Philippines needed him the most, he fled the country. Although the idea of his escape was indeed the logical choice for the Allied presence in the Pacific, majority of the American and Filipino soldiers were not so forgiving. However, to clean up the tarnished image of the general, he was duly awarded a Medal of Honour at the time of his flight. Image was everything during that chaotic time, and glittering gold was a great way to bring the spark back in the general’s sleeve.

Another interesting fact was that after the general delivered the famous Terowie speech, he was asked to change his promise from ‘I shall return’ to ‘We shall return.’ A curious case of words? Not exactly. Washington wanted to show that it was America, and not solely Douglas MacArthur, which was making the brave promise to the war-torn Philippines. However, the general ignored the request. In my opinion, his stern and consistent refusal of orders made him the kind of man who did not believe in a compromise. A great characteristic for a military strategist!

Did you also know that because of his campaign in the east he was expected to run for president? President Douglas MacArthur does have a ring to it! However, after he ended his service to the military, he endorsed another senator. Unfortunately, it was rival contender Eisenhower who finally won the seat.


General Douglas MacArthur in Manila

I think it takes courage to be in the position to command the fate of millions of people, and leaders like MacArthur and our very own president Benigno S. Aquino III have to make the most difficult decisions in our stead. Sacrifice is such a huge thing – it is capable of breaking our conscience or our fellowmen, our kapwa. Being in the position to control the fate of a nation is such a tantalising prize, yet the responsibility makes it unattractive. Just look at Aquino now, doing his best to clean up the government yet dodging flaks himself. But I think I’ll just leave politics up to you.

Have you ever given a promise? What makes you make or break them? If you were alive during the war, would MacArthur’s escape be acceptable to you? Why was General MacArthur’s promise to the soldiers and Filipinos important? Share your thoughts below!

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