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General Douglas MacArthur (right center) with American military officers (from left) Lieutenant General George Kenney and Lieutenant General Richard K. Sutherland and former Philippine President Sergio Osmeña (center) off Leyte Island, Philippines, on October 1944. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
“I shall return.”
These three simple words by the son of American Civil War hero General Douglas MacArthur had a profound impact not only on Philippine history books but also on Filipino hearts. It was a promise that prisoners in Corridor and the Bataan Peninsula held onto for more than two years after the Japanese invasion—the hope these men clung to get through the hell they were going through.
The Japanese Invasion of 1942
General MacArthur was placed in command at the last minute following Japan’s invasion of the Philippines in late 1941. Despite his valiant efforts, the former US military chief adviser was forced to flee the Philippine island of Corregidor in March 1942 on orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Still suffering from the major loss of the Pearl Harbor bombing, Roosevelt realized the hopelessness of the situation and opted to withdraw temporarily to recompose his remaining troops in the Pacific, including the repatriation of General MacArthur and his family, among many others.
MacArthur left for Australia, where he’d fly home to the stateside. With his departure, however, he left behind around 90,000 American and Filipino troops in Corregidor and on the Bataan Peninsula, who, lacking food and ammo supplies, would soon fall into the hands of the Japanese offensive. Unfortunately, only one-third of these men lived to see the return and fulfillment of his promise.
MacArthur Fulfilled His Promise
As the venerable General assumed a new role commanding the defensive in Australia, the abandoned American and Filipino soldiers faced a torturous tread towards its prison camp near Cabanatuan soon after the defeat in April 1942.
Infamously dubbed the Bataan Death March, thousands of prisoners were forced to march “about 85 miles in six days with only one meal of rice during the entire journey.” Upon reaching the camp, at least 7,000 perished out of the 70,000 captured, and those who survived the agonizing trek had to brace themselves for months to come of suffering within the confines of the Japanese prison camp until the General’s return.
“People of the Philippines, I have returned,” MacArthur announced via radio broadcast upon arriving ashore on the Philippine island of Leyte in mid-October 1944. “I’m a little late, but we finally came.”
The reenergized General brought with him hundreds of men who would gradually reclaim their dominance in the country and push back the Japanese resistance until the war ended in August 1945.
While the remaining scattered Japanese soldiers continued to fight in the mountains of Mindanao, MacArthur granted independence on July 4, 1945, in Luzon, and the Philippine Commonwealth government was finally reinstated.
A Decade-long Alliance
Since then, both countries have established a deep diplomatic relationship that includes a bilateral security alliance, extensive military cooperation, close people-to-people ties, and many shared strategic and economic interests. The Philippines also became one of the largest countries’ recipients of US military assistance in the East Asia-Pacific, including Foreign Military Financing and Assistance under the Department of Defense’s Info-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative.
Furthermore, more than four million Filipino Americans live on US soil, and almost 300,000 US citizens reside in the Philippines, including many military veterans.
Prior to COVID, millions of US citizens visited the Philippines each year, contributing significantly to the latter’s tourism industry. Meanwhile, the world’s longest continuously running Fulbright program, the International Visitor Leadership Program, and the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program are among the several people-to-people exchange programs between the United States and the Philippines each year.
Not to mention that over the last decade, the Philippines has received millions in disaster relief and recovery from the US government through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This includes assistance during the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda (2013) and Super Typhoon Odette (2021).
Annually, the United States and the Philippines hold a Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD) to plan for the future of their relationship. The most recent BSD forum was held in November 2021, resulting in the Joint Vision for a United States-Philippines Partnership in the Twenty-First Century. Moreover, the US has been the strongest partner of the Philippines in grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic through the COVAX facility, a global pooled procurement mechanism for COVID-19 vaccines developed by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Reaffirming Washington’s pledge to continue defending the Philippines against adversaries to the latter’s newly elected President, US Vice President Kamala Harris recently met President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Malacañang. During the top officials meeting, Harris reiterated the “unwavering” commitment of the US to its alliance with the Philippines, particularly with the still ongoing dispute in the South China Sea.
“We stand with you in defense of international rules and norms as it relates to the South China Sea,” Harris told Marcos. “An attack on the Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke the US mutual defense commitment… that is our unwavering commitment to the Philippines.”
There might have been several differences and occasional misunderstandings between the two nations every now and then, but the tight-knit relationship has been undeniable.
All thanks to MacArthur’s promise to come back and the fulfillment had earned the loyalty of Filipinos and paved the way for the decade-long relations between the United States and the Philippines.
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