By Norman Sison, VERA Files
For tourists traveling to the southern Philippine island of Leyte, a must-visit site for photos — and selfies, of course — is MacArthur Landing Memorial Park in the town of Palo, a short drive away from Tacloban City.
The monument marks the spot where American general Douglas MacArthur landed with United States forces 70 years ago to fulfill his famous “I shall return” pledge to liberate the Philippines from Japanese military occupation during World War II.
Not everything went according to plan on that day of October 20, 1944. MacArthur’s landing craft got grounded in knee-deep water and he requested for a boat. But the beachmaster was too busy unloading supplies and equipment. “Let ‘em walk,” he said.
So MacArthur waded into the surf and immortality. The scene is dramatized today by seven 12-foot high bronze statues at the MacArthur memorial.
Of all Americans who figured in Philippine history, none earned greater reverence from Filipinos than MacArthur.
There are bridges and roads across the country named in his honor. One of the longest roads in the Philippines, MacArthur Highway, stretches 234 kilometers from the Bonifacio Monument in Caloocan City to La Union Province to the north.
The reception that MacArthur received on his 1961 valedictory visit to the Philippines bordered on idolatry. Thousands came out to see him. Criticism of MacArthur was tantamount to blasphemy.
If MacArthur hadn’t made a passionate case for taking the Philippines, the landing may not have happened.
History accounts reveal that after rolling back the Japanese across the Pacific, MacArthur and other military strategists conferred with US President Franklin Roosevelt in July 1944 to discuss where next to bring the campaign. Admiral Chester Nimitz, who headed the naval forces, wanted to bypass the Philippines and take Taiwan.
After arguing from a military standpoint, MacArthur countered that America had a “moral” obligation to liberate the Philippines, which was U.S. territory after all. And there was also his pledge to return.
A scene in the 1977 movie “MacArthur” depicting the Hawaii conference shed light on a deeper perspective. After the meeting, Roosevelt observed that MacArthur had spent much of his career abroad.
“Why haven’t you come home all these years,” asked Roosevelt, played by Dan O’Herlihy.
MacArthur, portrayed by Hollywood legend Gregory Peck, replied that “home” to him was the U.S. Army. “And I also see a terrace overlooking Manila Bay. Yes, the Philippines are also home,” added MacArthur, referring to his penthouse atop the five-storey Manila Hotel.
MacArthur first arrived in the islands in 1903 as a 23-year-old second lieutenant on his first deployment. The Philippines, then a newly acquired colony from Spain, “fastened me with a grip that never relaxed.”
Unlike most Americans of his day, he didn’t have a racial bias and he socialized with upper-crust Filipinos. Chief among his early friends were two new law graduates and future Philippine presidents, Manuel Quezon and Sergio Osmeña.
MacArthur understood the Filipinos’ traditional values such as utang na loob (“debt of gratitude”) and the meaning of family. Quezon stood as godfather to MacArthur’s son. “As Quezon’s compadre, MacArthur perceived as few Americans did their personal approach to the relationship,” wrote American journalist Stanley Karnow in his Putlizer Prize-winning book In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines.
Quezon became president of the newly established Philippine commonwealth in 1935 and he turned to his friend, by now a general, to form the Philippine Army. One of the job’s perks included the Manila Hotel penthouse, which was built just for him. Today, it is billed as the $3,300-a-night General Douglas MacArthur Suite.
In March 1942, MacArthur left his troops in Bataan and Corregidor to assume command of allied forces in the Pacific. But he felt that he had forsaken the Philippines. Upon his arrival in Australia, he gave a statement to reporters that would earn his place in history: “I came through and I shall return.”
“He was profoundly committed to the crusade to free a country that he regarded as his own, whose salvation he considered his personal responsibility,” wrote Karnow. MacArthur’s personal plane, a B-17E bomber that was converted into a transport, was named the Bataan.
His radio address upon his landing at Leyte resonated with predominantly Catholic Filipinos, for whom church was a part of life, as it is today.
“People of the Philippines, I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil — soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples,” MacArthur intoned as he encouraged Filipinos to rise up against the Japanese. “Let every arm be steeled. The guidance of divine God points the way. Follow in His Name to the holy grail of righteous victory!”
Today’s generation of Filipinos are more circumspect in their view of MacArthur. They question his decision allowing US troops to use artillery to dislodge the Japanese in the horrific 1945 Battle of Manila, which left the capital as the second most gutted city in World War II after Warsaw.
Yet, true to the concept of utang na loob, Filipinos still hold MacArthur dear and have a fondness for America — in spite of occasional spams of nationalism.
That was not lost on travel show host Anthony Bourdain when he visited a few years ago: “They tend to like us in the Philippines, in the measured way one likes someone who sets you free from an enemy but flattens your country while doing it.”
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)