by Jesse Marinoff Reyes:
October 30, 1944 issue
Illustration: Boris Artzybasheff (1899-1965)
Today is Memorial Day.
Not merely a day to relax in the backyard and fire up the barbecue, but to remember those who gave service to our country, the living and the dead. On this day, I especially take the time to remember my Dad. I think about him all the time, but today I specifically think of him as a soldier in the U. S. Army, fighting as an immigrant from the Philippines to take back the Philippines from the Japanese Empire—the third spike of the Axis. Were he still alive today he’d be about 105, but it will be 30 years this November when he departed this life and the embrace of his son. A long time. But not so long ago as that day in 1944 when he landed on Leyte under the command of the former Field Marshall of the Philippine Army, four-star General of the U. S. Army, the man who vowed “I Shall Return” when ignominiously forced to flee Japan’s unstoppable onslaught in early-1942, but by 1944 Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area. General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964). The mission and the promise was to take back the Philippines.
I’ve had heated discussions here on Facebook with Filipinos who take issue with America’s Imperial Ambitions, especially as it applies to the Philippines in the wake of the Spanish American War when the U. S. took my Dad’s homeland as its own. Dad was born in 1907, after the war, so the Philippines he grew up in had only vestiges left of the Spanish Empire—parts of the bureaucracy, the Catholic Church’s grip as the dominant religion—the Philippines he grew up in was mostly American. English was increasingly spoken as the multi-lingual island nation’s new Lingua Franca (now The Philippines is one of the largest English Speaking nations in the world), American pop culture—the movies and newsreels, publications and popular music—and casual informality would color its occupation. A “soft” colonialism, all things considered. After 300 years of Spanish Rule it was curiously tolerable, even for a people burning to be free to choose their own destiny. Not that America wasn’t without cruelty (MacArthur himself loses points with Filipinos as he was charged with crushing the rebellion of the Philippine Scouts—Filipinos who fought with the U. S. “as” U. S. troops during the Spanish American War and after, but were denied the benefits due American Service veterans), but it was a selective cruelty and not a blanket policy. My Dad thoroughly enjoyed seeing the newsreels, especially the sports reports of Jack Johnson defending his heavyweight title, or reading the comic strip funny pages of the American newspapers, or seeing the cowboy stars shoot ‘em up in the silents from Hollywood. When he departed the islands as a 20-year old to, however briefly, pursue an education in the United States, he already spoke proper English (better than I do now I can tell you), knew Chaplin’s, Fairbanks’s, and Tom Mix’s oeuvre, and was a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Fast-forward 14 years. Dad had by this time endured the hardships of immigration, and of being a stranger and an outsider in a country he was so familiar with before he arrived. Jingoism, racism, paternalism, were all hurdles to be overcome, or accommodated as best possible. …Hotels with signs posted, “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” White America was not the welcoming, shining light of Democracy on the horizon that he and his countrymen were told of (and in many cases, recruited for as laborers), where the streets were, as they have always been portrayed to every shit-faced yokel, every member of the unwashed multitudes “yearning to be free,” paved in gold. No, sorry Dad, not gold. Still in all, Dad and his countrymen—the “Manongs” as we, the second generation refer to them as, the respected ones who came before and suffered, endured, found their way to be American, and made it easier for us to BE American… Then came December 7, 1941. Even as Pearl Harbor was being strafed by Japanese Fighters, the Philippines was attacked as the Empire dealt its hammer blow to the Pacific. 300 years of Spanish rule and less than fifty years of American occupation would seem like a cakewalk compared to the ensuing four years.
Dad and his countrymen would join the war effort nigh-literally the next day. First, Dad went to the shipyards, where production for the war went into full swing. Then, as 1943 loomed he enlisted, at 35 years of age, joining many Filipinos who traded in their tools for bayonets. Stories of Japan’s treatment of Filipinos had reached Dad and his comrades, “the boys” as he liked to say. Even if half-true it was too horrible to contemplate (the truth would prove even more horrible than the stories had been). They joined up, not to drive trucks, not to work in the laundry, not to shine shoes at the officer’s mess. They joined to kill the Japs. Fortunately for the usually segregated and generally exclusive U. S. Army (blacks were assigned to transport duty, Japanese Americans were banned from duty until the advent of the 442nd Regiment), they were not deterred from combat. If anything the Army counted on them fighting even harder than anyone else. They were right.
MacArthur launched his New Guinea Campaign in March 1943. Though a “segregated unit,” the 1st and 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiments would serve with distinction as MacArthur’s “shock troops.” Though not as well documented as the Japanese American 442nd (European Theater), the Filipino Infantry claimed over fifty thousand decorations by the end of the war (my half-brothers lost Dad’s medals by fooling around with his stuff playing “army men,” but I know he earned a sharp-shooters medal and quite a few more). The New Guinea Campaign was integral to MacArthur’s strategy to take on Japan in the jungles, island by island, to impose his will on the Pacific Theater. My Dad was there, most every step of the way, in many decisive battles. I cannot tell you much outside of the history books. Like many soldiers, he never spoke of the war other than anecdotally. I know he fought in harrowing battles, most likely including the Battle of Driniumor River, New Guinea’s bloodiest battle, but I am seeking the movements of the 1st and 2nd Infantry to be sure. I know he landed at Leyte with MacArthur and fought tenaciously throughout the ensuing Philippine Campaign. I know he saw what had become of his homeland, and what had been done to his people. I know how he felt about MacArthur fulfilling his promise.
The politics of empire and ambition meant little to him compared to the bodies of the Filipino men, women, and children he saw, massacred by Japanese forces. He was there to make things right again, to help MacArthur keep his promise, to live up to the ideal of his words. The Filipino people could not yearn for freedom if they were dead. MacArthur spoke that day on the beach at Leyte. It seems quaint now, but his words meant more on that day—words that meant a lot to Filipinos then, whether in uniform or not.
“People of the Philippines, I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our force
and again on Philippine soil. …At my side is your president, Sergio Osmeña, worthy successor to that great patriot, Manuel Quezon, with members of his cabinet. The seat of your government is therefore now firmly established on Philippine soil… Rally to me… Let every arm be steeled. The guidance of Divine God points the way. Follow in His name to the Holy Grail of righteous victory.”
Not without a sense of reality, MacArthur said to Chief of Staff, Lieut. General Richard K. “Dick” Sutherland in more plain language: “Believe it or not, we’re here.”
Dad had the greatest respect for his Supreme Commander. He understood the importance of the promise and his part in helping to fulfill it.
Illustrator Boris Artzybasheff was the artist for over 200 TIME magazine covers between 1941 and 1965. Astoundingly influential, and best known for his almost collage-like constructions of machines and contrivances to create “machine men” idea-illustrations for TIME’s covers, and deliciously absurd caricatures as well—leading many to draw a link between himself as an influence upon master comic artist Basil Wolverton—it is his “classic” portraiture that I have long admired the most. As represented here, General MacArthur’s portrait is as good as they come. Meticulously crafted and composed for TIME’s cover design format. But it is the background “graphic” that takes it over the top, an aspect of the subject’s life or career that Artzybasheff would key on to illustrate the man “in the news.” In MacArthur’s case, he chose the “in the news” aspect over the general career achievement of the subject, here smashing Tojo’s rising sun back down to the ground in the face of American Power—and America’s Julius Ceasar.