3 Great War Films History Fans Should See! WWII in the Philippines

If you asked an American with just a passing knowledge of the Second World War the question: “Who fought against the Japanese, and where?” you would likely get the following answer – “The Pacific Islands and the Marines.” In a sense that person would be right.

Of course, the Marines fought their way across the Central Pacific, fighting in such legendary battles as Guadalcanal, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima, just to name three.

But what most people today forget is that the US Army had hundreds of thousands of combat troops in the Pacific, and they too fought at Guadalcanal and Okinawa, places thought to be memorialized only in the hallowed halls of the Marines.

People also tend to forget that two of the largest and most brutal battles of the Pacific were fought by the Army as well: on the giant mountainous island of New Guinea (along with their comrades from the British Empire), and in the huge western Pacific archipelago of the Philippines. Of course, the men of the US Navy fought hard throughout the Pacific.

A U.S. Marine patrol crosses the Matanikau River in Guadalcanal in September 1942
A U.S. Marine patrol crosses the Matanikau River in Guadalcanal in September 1942

During and immediately after the war, a number of movies were made which told of episodes from the Philippines campaign. In 2003, the Battle for the Philippines grabbed some headlines again when the movie “The Great Raid” was released.

The Philippines had been in American possession since the Spanish-American War of 1898, and while the Filipino’s themselves were divided in their feelings towards the Americans (many had fought a brutal Guerrilla war against the Yanks at the turn of the century), most Americans had kind feelings for the people of the islands, and many Americans called the islands “The Pearl of the Pacific”.

Filipino troops of Colonel Tecson in Baler, May 1899.
Filipino troops of Colonel Tecson in Baler, May 1899.

In 1946, as they had promised, the Americans gave up possession of the Philippines, and the nation became self-governing. However, in the years before the war, there were many, not only in the Philippines but throughout Asia, that believed that Americans and Europeans had no place ruling over the native cultures in their own land.

This is where the Japanese stepped in. At the start of the war, the Japanese started a propaganda campaign aimed at the native peoples of the Pacific called “Asians for Asiatics!” One only had to take a quick look at how the Japanese treated the Chinese that fell under their control to see that that phrase was just white-wash, and really meant “Asia for the Japanese”.

1935 poster of Manchukuo promoting harmony between Japanese, Chinese, and Manchu.
1935 poster of Manchukuo promoting harmony between Japanese, Chinese, and Manchu.

In late 1941/early 1942, the Japanese began their campaign of conquest in the Pacific. Within a short time, Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia and many of the smaller islands of the Western Pacific were under Japanese control. Of course, the United States entered the war on December 7, 1941, with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and just a few hours later the invasion of the Philippines began.

Pearl Harbor, 1941.
Pearl Harbor, 1941.

It only took a short time for most of the people of the Philippines to realize that the Japanese occupation was going to be much much different than advertised by Tokyo. To say the Japanese were brutal during their occupation of much of Asia is putting it mildly.

At the start of the First Battle of the Philippines, American troops and civilians believed that it was only a matter of time before the Japanese had their hats handed to them, and were sent home running. Of course, the exact opposite happened.

Battle-hardened Japanese troops fought against generally ill-prepared and ill-equipped American and Filipino troops and soon had the bulk of the American force cut off from the world on the Bataan Peninsula and the island fortress of Corregidor across from the Philippine capital of Manila.

U.S. troops entering Walled City, Manila.
U.S. troops entering Walled City, Manila.

In April/May 1942, the Japanese slowly ground down the US/Filipino forces there, and on May 6th, American General Wainwright surrendered his command to the Japanese. The general commanding the American troops in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur,  his family and a number of Filipino and American VIP’s had been evacuated by PT Boat (patrol torpedo boat) before total defeat.

Japapnese troops wounded surrender to US and Filipino soldiers in Manila 1945
Japapnese troops wounded surrender to US and Filipino soldiers in Manila 1945

In late 1945, MGM released the film “They Were Expendable”, starring John Wayne, Robert Montgomery and Donna Reed, directed by John Ford. The film, now considered a classic, told the story of two fictional PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat commanders during the first battle of the Philippines. Robert Montgomery himself had been a PT boat commander during the war, and his knowledge contributed to the film’s realism.

A PT-105 boat underway.
A PT-105 boat underway.

Based on the book of the same name by journalist William White which told of the actions of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, the film depicts fictional actions which are based quite closely on real incidents. The movie begins with the two main characters, John Brickley (played by Montgomery) and Rusty Ryan (Wayne) arriving in the Philippines just as news of the Pearl Harbor attack is announced.

Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley while serving in the US Navy.
Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley while serving in the US Navy.

Both men see that the small, fast and hard-punching boats could be a real asset against the numerically superior Japanese fleet, but their superior officers scoff at the notion and instead assign the squadron to messenger duty. This causes both men to try and transfer to other assignments so they can take the fight to the Japanese, but they are continually turned down.

Soon though, they get to prove themselves useful and sink a Japanese cruiser, but they take losses. Ryan (Wayne) has to go to the hospital with blood poisoning with a wound and is disappointed when he is ordered to the rear.

There he begins a weird romance with Donna Reed – weird in the sense that it’s just there, and while it shows women doing a hard job in a difficult place, the whole thing seems stilted. It’s also doomed. We lose touch with Donna Reed, and never quite find out what happened to her. This is done intentionally and is definitely true to life – in the chaos of defeat, people lose track of each other.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore during landing at Leyte, Philippine Islands.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore during landing at Leyte, Philippine Islands.

Eventually, the PT Boat crews are recognized for their skill, usefulness, and bravery and are sent on a variety of missions – including taking MacArthur to safety. Near the end of the film, Wayne and Montgomery sink another cruiser and lose more men. The desperate situation (low supplies, the Japanese closing in) is depicted well, and many of the men become foot-soldiers as gas for the boats runs out.

At the end of the movie, the main characters and two others are evacuated out of the Philippines because the high command has recognized the value of the PT Boats and needs good commanders. Many other men stay behind in the Philippines because there is no room on the plane. They do this stoically, and we know from history that they are not going to have it easy.

The movie is quite good, taking into account the slow pace of war films of that era. The movie is carried not by Wayne, but by Robert Montgomery, who was an actual PT boat commander (as well as career actor and father of Elizabeth Montgomery of “Bewitched”).

Robert Montgomery
Robert Montgomery

Many of the characters are typical of early WWII movies, but as close as the film comes to being over the top, it manages to stop just before it goes over. The corny patriotic music in the background is not good though, and it’s always there. The movie also moves slowly, but it doesn’t plod on too much.

Unlike 2003’s “The Great Raid”, which would have made a fairly good three or four part mini-series instead of the box-office bomb of a movie that it was. Starring Benjamin Bratt and James Franco, the movie depicts the raid by US Army Rangers to free the POW’s in the Cabanatuan, Philippines prison camp before the Japanese can kill them all for fear they will testify in war-crimes trials.

Captain Pajota’s guerrillas at Cabanatuan.
Captain Pajota’s guerrillas at Cabanatuan.

As I mentioned, the film would be a great mini-series. It tells the story, not only of the raid (which is a long time coming in the film), but of the lives of the POW’s, and the risks of the Philippine civilians and resistance members near the camp.

The film-maker tells the story well, and is obviously well versed in the history, but many times, the film takes long side-tracks and seems less about the “Great Raid”, and more about the Philippine War and occupation.

At the end of the movie, the raid takes place, and like reviewers stated at the time, the scenes of the review seem more like a documentary on military tactics for people already well-versed in them. The action is good, but there is too much explanation before during and after. The life of the POW’s was more interesting film-wise than their liberation.

Former Cabanatuan POWs celebrate after successful raid on prison camp.
Former Cabanatuan POWs celebrate after successful raid on prison camp.

For a better film on the POW experience, the better bet is “Empire of the Sun” with Christian Bale and John Malkovich.

The last of our three films on the Philippine War is the 1959 Japanese film “Fires on the Plain”. Made almost fifteen years after the end of the war, the movie was initially panned as too bleak and violent by both US and Japanese audiences (who also saw it as “anti-patriotic”). However, since its release, the movie has had a second life and is considered to be one of the first anti-war movies with a WWII plot.

The film follows one soldier, Private Tamura, on the large Philippine island of Leyte in February 1945, as the Americans are re-taking the Philippines. Tamura suffers from tuberculosis and despite being low on men already, his commanding officer tells him to go to the hospital or simply commit suicide. His unit moves out to fight the Americans in a useless last-stand, and Tamura is left behind with a few sweet potatoes to sustain him until he dies.

The private makes it to the hospital, which is very low on supplies and is told he is not “sick enough” to be admitted. No matter, the place is soon bombed by the Americans and the staff abandon it. Tamura and other survivors of the bombing wander aimlessly, and the private, completely without hope, wanders into the jungle rather than attempt to try to help any of the wounded. What’s the point?

American troops of Troop E, 7th Cavalry Regiment, advance towards San Jose on Leyte Island, Philippine Islands.
American troops of Troop E, 7th Cavalry Regiment, advance towards San Jose on Leyte Island, Philippine Islands.

The rest of the movie follows Tamura as he tries in vain to find somewhere “safe”. He enters the hut of an impoverished Filipino couple and while the young man escapes, Tamura kills the screaming Filipina girl for a bag of salt. He then wanders back into the jungle where he meets some comrades who only accept his drain on their food supply because he has much-needed salt.

As they try to make their way back to where they think Japanese lines are, the column is attacked by Filipino Guerrillas, and almost wiped out to a man before they can surrender to an approaching American unit which eventually passes them by, thinking them all dead. By this point in the movie, you know nothing good is going to happen to Private Tamura, and it doesn’t.

Philippine guerillas greet the crews of U.S. Marine Corps North American PBJ-1D Mitchell Bombers on Mindanao, 1945.
Philippine guerillas greet the crews of U.S. Marine Corps North American PBJ-1D Mitchell Bombers on Mindanao, 1945.

The contrast between the men left behind in “They Were Expendable” and the Japanese soldiers in “Fires on the Plain” could not be starker. The Americans know they are going to die or be taken prisoner, but all of them have the hope and almost certain knowledge that their countrymen will be back. Not so for Private Tamura and the Japanese on Leyte. All is lost.

At the end of the movie, Tamura joins another unit moving zombie-like through the jungle. Two of the men explain to Tamura that the way they have stayed alive so far is by eating “monkey meat” – it soon becomes clear that they have become cannibals. In the end, Tamura and two other soldiers are fighting over water.

Filipino-American World War II veterans
Filipino-American World War II veterans

One guards the source and the others beg. Finally, the man guarding the water kills another to eat him, and Tamura in turn kills him. He then wanders off into the mist to find “someone who is normal and leading a normal life”. The films final scene shows Tamura collapsing in the middle of nowhere.

Read another story from us: Resistance Warriors of the Philippines

“Fires on the Plain” is true on many accounts of the last days of the Japanese Army in the South Pacific. Cannibalism was a fact of life for an army cut off from its homeland by thousands of miles of ocean and the American navy. I would also highly recommend this film and the great 1980’s Japanese documentary “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On”, for those interested in finding out more about the “other side” in the Pacific War.