The Role of American Civilians in the Philippines in the

 Preparation and Execution of War Against Japan




Federico Baldassarre


Prior to WW II, the Philippines had already been a US Colony/Dependency/Commonwealth since the end of the Philippine-American War, in 1903.  In that period, a large number of American civilians migrated to the Philippines seeking their fortune or a new life.  In some cases, they were ordered to go by their country to work in some civilian capacity.  There were also a substantial amount of soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War who decided to stay in the Philippines and make a new life for themselves in the islands.


As time passed, their lives permeated the very being of Philippine culture and economy.  To write about the history of the Philippines, from 1903 to 1941, is to give credit to the American civilians who transformed the Philippines from a Spanish colony into an American expression.     


Howard Taft, Leonard Wood and the other early civilian governor generals of the Philippines purposely engineered the Philippine economy away from the US government and US military, and into the hands of American civilians.  Today, we call that the “privatization” of assets and services.  Banks, utilities, agriculture, and industry in the Philippines were owned and managed by private American civilians, or United States based companies.  Since Howard Taft, the role of the US government and US military, in the Philippines, changed from managers to protectors. 


The US 31st Infantry Regiment, the Manila Garrison, marched through the Escolta district of Manila, the financial hub of the Philippines, with their drummers beating the cadence of their march and flying their colors for all to see and to assure the American citizens that their investments and lives were safe. 


The US Army was present and invincible and the Japanese were caricatures of bow-legged, simian like, near humans, who wore very thick glasses, and certainly no match for a real Army, in spite of their victories in China, at least that was image portrayed to the population of the Philippines. 


No one told the American civilians living in the Philippines about “War Plan Orange III” (and neither did they tell most of the military…) and how if Japan attacked, the Philippines and all its inhabitants were to be abandoned and sacrificed, nor were they told that Europe had first priority, and only after the war in Europe was under control would any significant effort be made to rescue them.


In the spring of 1941, many grand children of the original American settlers had already been born and were in the American school systems in Manila and Bagiuo.  These were the second generation of Philippine born Americans.  The families were well rooted in the islands.  Along with these original Americans, more Americans continued to arrive in every decade leading up to the start of the war.


Americans and other foreign civilians in the Philippines became doctors, nurses, lawyers, journalist, business men, agriculturist, bankers, miners, missionaries, teachers, clergymen, and they filled every other socio – economic role that existed.  They fished the ocean around the Philippines.  They farmed the great Haciendas and Estates.  They mined the gold, magnesium, and chromium rich mountains of the Philippines.  They owned the lumber mills. 


Also, American and other foreign civilians were the owners and/or managers of much of the infrastructure in the Philippines: public transportation, the utilities, the railroads, the telephone service, the tugboats in Manila Bay, the stevedores in the Port Area, and everything else you can think of that you would categorize as infrastructure.  This would also include the merchant marines and the airlines that serviced the Philippines.


American and other foreign civilians in the Philippines also worked for large firms and corporations that had very lucrative contracts with the US government and military.  Companies like Bechtel were constructing new port facilities in Subic Bay and the Cavite Naval Yard.  American oil companies were supplying the military with diesel and gasoline, as well as managing the storage and distribution of diesel and gasoline in military properties.  The ships of the Presidential Lines were on contract to ship troops from the States to the Philippines and then back to the US.


Around 1,000 American and other foreign civilians were direct employees of the US government and the US military.  They worked for the Adjutant Generals Office, the US Navy, the Army Transport Service, the Bureau of Docks and Yards, the CPNAB, the US Army Quartermaster Corps, the Philippine Department, and USAFFE, along with many other civil service type positions.


The US government and the US military in the Philippines were completely dependent on the American and foreign civilians who lived in the Philippines.  They provided the military with water, electricity, phone service, food, transportation and everything else you can think of, except for military hardware, weapons and ordinance.  They were dependent on this civilian community for the over-all health of the economy of the Philippines from which they could draw goods, services, human talent and finances.


By late 1940, it became apparent that conditions brought about by economic sanctions against Japan might result in hostilities between the US and Japan.  Many of the concerned business and social leaders in the Philippines had a series of informal meetings.   After questionnaires were sent out to all classes of American residents living in the Philippines, it was decided that there was a need to form a committee whose purpose would be to look after the general welfare and protection of American citizens living in the Philippines.


In January 1941, a large gathering of over 300 American and foreign civilians met in the Manila Elks club where they formed “The American Coordinating Committee.”  Their mission was to coordinate the efforts of the US Army and US Navy with those of the High Commissioners Office, the Philippine Commonwealth Government and the American and foreign civilian population.


In July, 1941, President Roosevelt ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur out of retirement and back into active duty.  The following month FDR ordered the 100,000 Filipino reserves into active duty, to form 10 new Divisions.  The United States Army Forces of the Far East (USAFFE) was formed, under the command of Gen. MacArthur, replacing the Philippine Department as the supreme command in the islands and relegating the Philippine Department as the service branch of USAFFE.


The US military began to prepare for war assisted by the American and foreign civilian residents of the Philippines.  Air strips, QM depots and communication centers were built in all the appropriate locations.  The US Air Corps Air Warning Service companies were deployed to protect all the important targets.  Additional troops and materials began pouring into the Philippines.  Plans were made to build more barracks and more camps to house the new American and Philippine soldiers.  There was a mad rush to acquire large quantities of supplies of all different types for this larger American and Philippine Army.  The US military enjoyed the full cooperation and support of the American and civilian community.  As well as supplies, most of the transportation and communication assets came from this same civilian community.


Many American civilians with ROTC or military background volunteered for military duty.  They were given officer commissions and used to alleviate the lack of officers in the Philippine Army’s new 10 Divisions.  Others simply joined the Army as enlisted men.  Civilians with training in engineering were used to bolster and create new engineering companies, battalions, and regiments.  Many American civilians simply offered their services and expertise to the military and although they were never inducted into the military, they served in a civilian capacity, performing a large variety of duties, with many of the US military units who went to war.


The military authority evacuated the dependents of US Army and US Navy officers.  The first ship left in February and two left in May, 1941.  The American Coordinating Committee tried to get the High Commissioner and the Military Authorities to issue a declaration and instructions for all American non-essentials, especially women and children, to leave the Philippines and go to the United States.  Initially, the High Commissioner, the US Army and the US Navy approved of issuing such a statement.  When the moment came to issue the statement, they made a complete turn around and decided against it.  American and other foreign civilians were never issued an order to evacuate or even advised to evacuate.


Many surviving members of that civilian community have since written in their memoirs that the High Commissioner’s office did everything in their power to prevent civilians from evacuating the Philippines.  They ignored all their pleas to issue them passports, telling them if Americans began leaving the Philippines in large numbers, it would negatively affect the morale of the Filipinos who were left behind.


I would suggest there were other reasons for the High Commissioner to discourage American and foreign civilians from leaving the country.  The civilian’s direct and indirect support of the US Army and US Navy, in their preparation for war, made them too important to be allowed to leave the Philippines.  A sudden exodus of US citizens from the Philippines before the war would have meant an immediate loss of their services, talents, and money.  The US military could not afford to have that happen.  This would have crippled the military’s preparations for war and the military’s ability to execute the war.  An exodus of American and other foreign civilians would have led to the collapse of banks in the Philippines and destroyed the Philippine economy.                 


When the war began buses from the American owned Pambusco Bus Line took many of the soldiers to locations throughout Luzon.  Heavy trucks from American owned companies were used as primary movers for the large artillery pieces.  As well as the men who were civilians before the war who joined the military, another large group of approximately 600 American and foreign civilians joined the military on Bataan, Corregidor, and Mindanao. 


On Bataan, American and foreign civilians managed and operated the switchboards in Lamao.  They worked in the motor pool in Cabcaben.  They managed the docks in Mariveles.  Civilian engineers tried to preserve the integrity of the Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor, while Japanese artillery fire and bombs rained down their heads.  They performed all other tasks requested of them by the military, while in harms way.  On Bataan some were killed in action and some went missing in action, with their remains never recovered.  They drew the same starvation rations as the military and they died of the same diseases as the military.


After the Fall of Bataan, these American and foreign civilians made the fatal March from Mariveles, Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga, marching with the US and Philippine Military.  They too were beaten, starved, dehydrated, and bayoneted, and decapitated by the roadside.  They too died and were buried in mass graves in Camp O’Donnell and Cabanatuan.  They too died on those Hell Ships.  They too were used as slave labor in the Hitachi copper mines and the Mitsui coal mines, under the most horrific conditions.  All this, while their wives and children, their mothers and fathers, and their brothers, and sisters languished away in their own prisons in Santo Tomas, Los Banos, Baguio, and Bilibid, enduring their own horrors and deprivations. 


The American and foreign civilians who were not captured joined the guerrilla forces or formed their own guerrilla groups.  Walter Cushing, who was a civilian miner before the war, formed and led one of the most effective guerrilla groups in the Philippines.  They directly assisted the American forces in retaking the Philippines.  Many were captured, tortured in Ft. Santiago and then decapitated, or shot, by the Kempeitai in the Chinese cemetery in Manila.        


The simple truth is this:  the American government and military asked, and even demanded, that the American and foreign civilian population of the Philippines “stand up” and assist them in preparing for war, going to war, and executing the war against Japan in the Philippines.   This civilian community did so with great honor and distinction, performing beyond expectation.  For this, they paid a very dear price.  They became prisoners of the Japanese.  For this, they were never

adequately honored or recognized. 




Burials in Santo Tomas



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