(Courtesy Philippine Embassy, Canberra)
In 1995, fifty years after the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation, the Republic of the Philippines announced the awarding of a Philippines Liberation Medal to Allied veterans who served in the country or its territorial waters during 1944-45. More than 3000 Australians have received this medal.
In March 1942 General Douglas MacArthur, who was to become Supreme Commander of Allied forces in the South-West Pacific Area (SWPA), escaped from the Philippines to Australia. He landed at Batchelor, near Darwin, in the Northern Territory and during the subsequent rail journey south stopped at Terowrie, South Australia, where locals and reporters crowded the railway station. In an address to the assembled people, he famously declared:
The President of the United States ordered me to break through the Japanese lines and proceed from Corregidor to Australia for the purpose, as I understand it, of organising an American offensive against Japan, the primary purpose of which is the relief of the Philippines. I came through and I will return.
The shortened catchphrase 'I shall return' became MacArthur’s most famous words.
From that point onwards, the Allies always had as one of their key objectives in the South-West Pacific Area the liberation of the Philippines. From the middle of 1942 when Australian and American forces inflicted a series of defeats against Japanese forces, MacArthur steered the Allied offensive towards the Philippines. It took more than two years for the Allies to advance across New Guinea and islands of the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) to be within reach of the Philippines.
In October 1944, MacArthur finally was able to make good his pledge: 'I shall return'. Able Seaman David Mattiske serving in the cruiser HMAS Shropshire, part of the massive fleet assembled for landings at Leyte Island, southern Philippines, remembered:
Well here we were … fulfilling a prophecy, a promise and creating history. The lowliest seaman can say to his grandchildren with pride, ‘I helped take MacArthur back’.
The liberation of the Philippines began on 20 October 1944 when American troops were landed on Leyte Island in the southern Philippines. The Australian Army was left out of this operation, and this has led many Australians to believe that their fellow countrymen and women did not help to liberate the Philippines. In fact, several thousand Australian sailors, airmen and some soldiers did serve in the Philippines with distinction. They were preceded even by a handful of Australian soldiers who had fought as guerrillas after escaping from Borneo to the Philippines two years earlier.
As the naval invasion fleet approached Leyte, at its forefront was a hydrographical survey group plotting and marking the approaches to the beaches. It included the Australian frigate HMAS Gascoyne and Fairmile motor launch HDML 1074 laying buoys to mark the approach channels. The ships that followed delivering American troops included the three Australian landing ships, or LSIs (Landing Ships, Infantry), HMA Ships Kanimbla, Manoora and Westralia. As well as the Americans on board, they carried landing craft to ferry the troops ashore. On board also were several Australian soldiers who served in landing craft liaison teams. Protecting the force were many more Allied warships including the Australian cruisers HMA Ships Australia and Shropshire and the destroyers HMA Ships Arunta and Warramunga. The warships bombarded enemy positions on the shore before sailing further out to sea to protect the flanks of the invasion fleet.
In the days that followed, the Allied ships endured repeated air attacks as the Japanese reacted to the landing. The Australia became the first Allied warship struck by a kamikaze (suicide) aircraft when it was rammed on 21 October. Thirty of Australia’s crew, including Captain Emile Dechaineux DSC, were killed or died of wounds. Another 64 men, including a soldier who was a member of a liaison team from the Army’s 1st Australian Naval Bombardment Group, were wounded; 26 of these were classified as seriously wounded with burns and shrapnel wounds. Badly damaged, the Australia was escorted out of the battle area by the Warramunga for repairs. The Shropshire and Arunta stayed on battle station and took part in the Battle of Surigao Strait, part of the wider Battle of Leyte Gulf, in which the Allied naval forces defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attempt to attack the invasion fleet.
In the wake of the initial landings came many supporting units. Among the first was No. 1 Wireless Unit RAAF, an intelligence unit responsible for intercepting and decoding Japanese signals. Leading Aircraftman John Moon recalled:
… we landed at a place called Tacloban, which has a population of about thirty thousand and we went straight to American General Headquarters and then … we were allocated to a campsite, which happened to be a Japanese vegetable garden full of fertilizers and everything else and it started to rain. We had a typhoon one night and that was absolutely deplorable and it was very difficult but we intercepted all our [enemy] Morse code in two brand new trucks which had been sent up in the invasion fleet … but the difficulty was of course all the time the air raids were pretty terrific and although we weren't bombed we were copping a tremendous lot of [shrapnel from] flak and … bullets and things that are fired out of aeroplanes and … we had to wear tin hats all the time because of the flak falling and we had a great lot of bombing …
[Interview with John Moon, Australians at War Film Archive,
Also at Tacloban were some Australian civilians who had been interned there by the Japanese since the fall of the Philippines in 1942. They were among the first prisoners of war and internees anywhere in the Pacific to be freed.
Three other RAAF Wireless Units served in the Philippines, moving north with the Americans. They became the most northerly based Australian land units in the Pacific war. The RAAF also assisted the Americans by providing air support. In the lead-up to the first landing, Australian aircraft flew missions against enemy supply lines and then on 22 November 1944 Australian aircraft attacked targets in the Philippines for the first time. Boston light bombers of 22 Squadron attacked Bunuwan harbour on Mindanao Island and Beaufighter strike-fighters of 30 Squadron strafed barges in Davao Gulf. During November and December, Catalina flying boats of 76 Wing dropped mines in Manila Bay to support American landings to the south on Mindoro Island. On the night of 14 December, nine Australian airmen were killed when their Catalina either crashed or was shot down.
Landing at Mindoro Island on 15 December 1944 was 3 Airfield Construction Squadron RAAF which had been stationed for a few weeks at Leyte Island. The Australians landed in the second wave ashore and were responsible for building airfields as quickly as possible, working alongside American engineers. While they were unloading the LSTs (Landing Ships, Tank) Japanese aircraft were bombing and strafing the beaches and ships offshore. Close to the Australians an LST carrying American troops was hit by a kamikaze with shocking casualties suffered. All day the Australians toiled under the hot sun to unload machinery, equipment and supplies. Air raids occurred at half-hourly intervals. American anti-aircraft gunners kept up a constant barrage during the attacks but a kamikaze got through and nearly hit an LST in which Australian airmen were unloading supplies. Leading Aircraftman William Barham who was just 17 years old, having put up his age by two years to enlist, was killed by shrapnel. Others were lightly wounded.
By nightfall, the Australians at Mindoro Island had unloaded all of their bulldozers, tractors, graders, rollers, trucks, generators and other equipment and gear and had moved a kilometre inland to where the first airfield was to be built. Working alongside American engineers, they were subjected to many air raids, working all day and getting little sleep at night as Japanese bombers kept up their attacks. Squadron Leader Acheson Overend described the scene:
… a terrific dog fight overhead, at least 50 fighters involved at once and at least five fights going on simultaneously … Had a bad scare watching belly tanks falling into camp thinking they were bombs. Watched at least 13 aircraft shot down, and two [American] Lightnings force landed on strip …
[Squadron Leader Overend quoted in David Wilson, Always First: The RAAF Airfield Construction Squadrons, 1942-1974, Canberra, 1998, p.77]
(Courtesy Philippine Embassy, Canberra)
Despite the many difficulties, within three days the first runway was completed and fighter and transport aircraft began landing. Several days later, during an enemy counter-attack, the Australians were subjected to artillery and naval shelling. Volunteers drove trucks through the barrage to transport reinforcements and shells from the beaches. One airman distinguished himself by using his bulldozer to repair a runway while it was being shelled. Fortunately, no more Australians were killed.
In early January 1945, Australian warships took part in their next big naval action of the campaign when American forces were landed at Lingayen Gulf for the invasion of Luzon Island. Their objective was the capital, Manila. The frigates Gascoyne and Warrego carried out survey tasks and escort duties, coming under artillery fire and also attacks from aircraft. The Kanimbla, Manoora and Westralia again transported American troops for the landings and once again the escorts included the cruisers Shropshire and Australia – the latter had undergone repair – and the destroyers Arunta and Warramunga.
The Allied fleet was again subjected to many bombing and kamikaze attacks. The Australia was unlucky to be hit again several times. It seemed to be singled out by kamikazes, although it was not the only Allied ship to be targeted and hit by the suicide pilots. Between 5 and 9 January 1945, the Australia was struck by six aircraft resulting in considerable damage to the ship and the deaths of 25 crewmen, with many more wounded and burnt. The warship, which many found hard to believe could still be afloat, was withdrawn from the battle for extensive repairs. It took no further part in the war. Its place was taken by HMAS Hobart which was rejoining the campaign after having been seriously damaged by a torpedo in 1943. The Arunta also lost two men killed when a kamikaze narrowly missed the ship, the explosion blowing holes in the hull. Its steering damaged, it too was withdrawn for repairs. Other ships narrowly escaped damage. The gunners on all ships performed tremendously – although nerves were frayed, they kept up constant barrages that downed other kamikazes before they could strike a ship.
Australians continued serving in and around the Philippines until the war’s end. Some RAAF squadrons were also based on Filipino islands to support Australian operations in Borneo. When the war ended, more Australians were sent to the Philippines to assist in the processing of prisoners of war returning from Japan on the way home to Australia.