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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.

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”.

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

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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?

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.

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.

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.

“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.