Any Damn Thing but Surrender
Mindanao, the Philippines
The brown Japanese sedan jolted over the muddy Mindanao road. Seated between two Kempei Tai officers, Brigadier General Guy Forte, American ex-commander of the 81st Division of the Philippine Army, jolted from one captor to the other. His face registered weary resignation. He had been subjected to brutal interrogation and coercion since the surrender of his division. He had delayed his capitulation until May 27 a full seventeen days after receiving the capitulation order from General Sharp, commander of US forces on Mindanao, allowing any of his soldiers to flee into the island’s jungles rather that give up to the Japanese. He was about to pay the price for his refusal to betray them. He knew that the next morning, November 11th, 1942 would be the last day of his life. The tale of his fate would spread across the island; a warning to those who defied the official order to surrender to the Japanese, that a similar fate awaited them.
* * * * *
By 20 December 1941 Japanese forces had established a token lodgment on Mindanao, occupying the city of Davao, but then made no further effort to expand the foothold while they focused on defeating the American forces defending the Island of Luzon. General William Sharp, commander of US forces on Mindanao concentrated on improving his defenses in anticipation of a greater Japanese incursion. That included airfields. To that end Sharp sought an engineer to assist in upgrading his airfields at Del Monte. Lieutenant Colonel Wendell Fertig, an army reservist called up from his employment as a mining engineer in the Philippines, was dispatched in late April from Corregidor to assist Sharp. After several delays en route and a harrowing flight via navy PBY, Fertig arrived on Mindanao just in time to be informed that on 7 May 1942, General Wainright had capitulated on Bataan and Corregidor and then on 10 May General Sharp followed suit.
When asked by a fellow officer what he would do, Fertig retorted, “Any damn thing but surrender.” Those words laid the foundation for an American legend and hero to the people of Mindanao. When word came to Fertig that General Guy Fort and the 81st Division had not thrown down their arms, he fled to the interior of Mindanao, but before he could reach them the 81st threw in the towel on May 27th, thus ending official American resistance in the Philippine Islands.
In 1942 Mindanao was a wilderness. There were only two partially completed highways that turned into quagmires during the rainy season. Most interior communications relied on river transportation. The forests were dominated by bandits and fierce Muslim guerrillas known as Moros. The Japanese garrisoned the larger coastal cities like Davao and the capital Zamboanga City and sent out patrols to outlying villages. Using brutality, torture and terror they soon subdued the urban populations, but the interior was a much different matter.
The Moros fought the Spanish before the Americans came to the Philippines in 1898 and then they fought the Americans and Philippine authorities. To them the Japanese were no different. In one reliably reported case a Moro guerrilla band killed five hundred surrendered Philippine soldiers to obtain their weapons.
Un-surrendered Filipino soldiers also formed into resistance groups, and before long many competing bands were launching uncoordinated attacks on outlying Japanese garrisons and patrols.
Fertig was not the only American who refused to give up. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen, who had refused to give up fled into the wilderness. Among them Capt. Luis P. Morgan and his Philippine Constabulary Company had drawn together many un-surrendered soldiers and several small guerrilla bands located in the area of Kolumbugan. As his force grew, Morgan realized he could not handle the load alone. Learning that Wendell Fertig was in the vicinity, Morgan contacted him suggesting, Fertig take command of his forces.
Fertig agreed, but he envisioned nothing less than the unification of all guerrilla groups, under his command. He assumed rank of brigadier general and within a week most of the western Zamboanga Peninsula fell under Fertig's control. American and Philippine flags flew side by side from government buildings. Morgan led an expedition to the outskirts of Zamboanga City and destroyed its hydro-electric plant. Rather than finding a submissive population, the Japanese found that the battle for Mindanao had just begun.
Slowly over the next year Fertig’s organization grew and consolidated. He put down five mutinies, but without bloodshed, a tribute to his tact and negotiating abilities. He even enlisted support of far better armed Moros in the fight against the Japanese.
Fertig extended his command not only throughout Mindanao and Sulu, but also Negros Oriental and a part of British North Borneo. His influence could be felt in Leyte, Borneo and Cebu. His Intelligence network included Catholic priests and even officials in the Japanese puppet government. Fertig re-established civil government and administration in unoccupied communities. One of Fertig’s biggest problems was how to finance civil administration, not to mention his own operating expenses. After several fits and starts the Mindanao Emergency Currency Board was formed under Sam Wilson, a U.S. Navy lieutenant commissioned a major in Fertig’s army, was producing currency.
Another problem frustrating Fertig was radio communications with the outside world. A team of Fertig’s recruits, drawing on an old radio manual from a correspondence course and using whatever equipment and makeshift substitutes they could find, cobbled together a workable transmitter and in December 1942 began sending: CALLING CQ. CALLING CQ, WE HAVE URGENT INFORMATION FOR MIIITARY AUTHORITIES! IN AUSTRALIA. They followed with a short message using U.S. military code that ended with the fall of Corregidor and presumed to be in the hands of the Japanese.
The message was picked by operators in San Francisco, but it was assumed to be a Japanese trick. Frustrated, Fertig followed with a message addressed to the War Department: AS SENIOR AMERICAN OFFICER IN THE PHILIPINE ISLANDS I HAVE ASSUMED COMMAND OF -MINDANAO AND VISLAYAS WITH RANK OF BRIGADIER GENERAL -- AS LEADER OF THE GUERRILLA FORCES WE HAVE REACTIVATED THE USFIPI AND ESTABLISHED CIVIL GOVERNMENT IN THE HANDS OF DULY ELECTED COMMON-WEALTH OFFICIALS.
Fertig finally got his answer: COMMAND AREAS WILL BE PROGRESSIVELY ESTABLISHED ON EXISTING MILITARY DISTRICTS. COMMANDERS OF DISTRICTS WILL OPERATE UNDER CONTROL OF THIS HEADQUARTERS, AND ASSIGNMENT WILL BE SUBJECT TO REVIEW ON BASIS OF PERFORMANCE. LT. COL. FERTIG (CF) INF. IS DESIGNATED COMMANDER 10TH MILITARY DISTRICT (MINDANAO) . . . NO OFFICER OF RANK OF GENERAL WIL -BE DESIGNATED AT PRESENT. MACARTHUR
The brass in Australia didn't take kindly to Fertig promoting himself to General rank. On February 6th, 1943, Fertig issued General Order No. 16, re-designating his command as the 10th Military District, USFIPI. All orders, directives and proclamations previously issued in his name as Commanding General of the Mindanao-Sulu Command continued in force. But he would always be "the General" to the people of Mindanao.
Once contact was established with Australia matters began to pick up for Fertig and his command: on 5 March 1943 the submarine USS Tambor arrived at Pagadian Bay delivering four tons of supplies: radio transmitters, carbines, ammunition and medicines. Also included were matches and small packages of cigarettes on which were printed "I Shall Return. MacArthur”. There were even recent magazines and 10,000 dollars U.S. and 100,000 Philippine pesos. The sub also bore two liaison officers sent by MacArthur’s intelligence chief, Charles Willoughby, to pass on instructions for use of the shipment and assess Fertig’s operation.
News of the submarine spread like wildfire. The matchbooks and cigarettes were widely distributed and passed from hand to hand even when empty. The magazines gradually fell apart, but got an even wider circulation as individual pages were passed on: proof they had not been forgotten. Rival guerrilla groups which had remained aloof now willingly joined with Fertig.
Still, four tons did not amount to much tangible aid to men so short of ammunition, that empty brass cartridge shells were re-loaded with homemade powder and a sharpened piece of brass curtain rod for a bullet. But Willoughby wasn’t interested in how many Japs they killed. He wanted only intelligence. The radios were to be set up as a coast watcher network. The weapons were for protection of the network. Willoughby didn't think that a rag-tag band of guerrillas could succeed where a regular army had failed. Fertig’s rag-tag band was well on its way to the 38,000 effectives under his command at the war’s end.
Fertig informed Willoughby’s liaison officers that the driving force in his guerrilla army was killing Japs. The Japanese treatment of civilians: torture, executions, rape and abducting young women into brothels for their soldiers engendered a burning hatred. Fertig’s control over his guerrilla army would soon be lost if he restricted their activities to intelligence gathering. The liaison officers agreed and on their return communicated Fertig’s objections.
In the meantime the occupying Japanese while suffering ambushes when they ventured from their city garrisons, had not been idle, training counter guerrilla forces that on 26 June 1943 suddenly launched an offensive into the interior from established bases, accompanied by incursions with sea borne assaults in coastal areas. Caught unawares, the guerrilla forces scattered and retreated back into their jungle redoubts where they quickly began to reform and resist the invaders. Slowly the Japanese withdrew into their city enclaves and Fertig regained control of the interior, wiser and hardened by the experience.
On the night of 15 November 1943, the USS Narwhal, a large cargo submarine, surfaced on Butuan Bay, bringing Fertig’s army 92 tons of supplies: more carbines, submachine guns, fifty- caliber machine guns, bazookas and 20 mm cannon. There were jungle boots and khaki uniforms, radios, tools and spare parts. The liaison officers’ delivery of Fertig’s message had found, if not in Willoughby, at least some open minds.
In late December 1943 the Japanese again launched an assault on Fertig’s forces, this time the guerrillas fought back tenaciously. The costly conflict raged unabated for over a year and a half. In anticipation of the eventual return of American forces, the Japanese poured reinforcements into Mindanao. Fertig's guerrillas faced a force five times the size Japanese had needed to capture the island originally.
On 20 October 1944, American liberation forces landed in Leyte. The actions of Fertig’s guerrilla forces on Mindanao held down Japanese forces that would have made the invasion at Leyte a far more difficult proposition than it was.
It was March of 1945, before any American forces landed in Mindanao. Thanks to the guerrillas, they landed unopposed. By 30 June, the U.S. Army considered that organized resistance in Mindanao had ceased. But for the guerrillas, the fighting continued until the end of the war. Over 23,500 Japanese surrendered in Mindanao after hostilities ceased on 15 August 1945.
Wendell Fertig, the man who organized a guerrilla army of over 38,000 men, larger than a standard American infantry division that would be commanded by a major general, eventually did receive promotion . . . to full colonel. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor.
But perhaps his greatest honor came when a decade after the war on a routine business visit to Mindanao, Wendell Fertig was received and taken on a triumphal parade with flags and banners and welcoming committees in every city, town and barrio he visited or passed through. From all over Mindanao people gathered to welcome the "General" who had led them during those bitter years of Japanese occupation.
Copyright © 2018 by Robert Bruce Drynan
All rights reserved. This short story or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Please contact Robert if you have any questions or comments.