Preserving the history, heritage, and legacy of the Philippine Scouts for present and future generations

The Philippine Scouts

by Chris Schaefer

These were General MacArthur's soldiers—the guys who fought America's first battle of World War II. The Philippine Division. Probably the best trained and possibly the best prepared U.S. Army division at the outset of that war.

But they weren't farm boys from Kansas and California, or Italian-Americans from New Jersey as depicted in the black and white movies made during and after the war years. They were mostly Filipinos serving as enlisted soldiers in United States Army units commanded by American officers. They were special men in special units, officially designated "Philippine Scouts." At the beginning of World War II, General Douglas MacArthur's U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, spearheaded by the Philippine Division, were mostly Filipinos.

The Philippine Division was composed of two infantry regiments of Philippine Scouts—a term applied both to the Filipino enlisted men and their American officers—and one infantry regiment of American soldiers, a total of about 10,000 men. Philippine Scouts also served in a horse cavalry regiment, manned the coastal artillery and anti-aircraft batteries that defended Luzon Island, and staffed most of the support elements of the U.S. Army in the Philippines. Although the officers were generally Americans, there were a few Filipino officers in the Filipino regiments. In 1910 the U.S. began sending one outstanding Filipino soldier per year to West Point, and by 1941 some of these men had risen to the rank of senior officers.

Beginning on December 7, 1941 they were put to the test. On that day the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, but Pearl Harbor was only one part of a much bigger Japanese operation. The Japanese had decided to capture the oil fields of Borneo in the Dutch East Indies, and they wanted to get everyone else out of the way. So on December 7, they hit and sank the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, they bombed and destroyed the U.S. Army's Far East Air Force at Clark Field in the Philippines, they attacked British Hong Kong, and they landed troops on the shores of British Malaya. The four attacks were all coordinated to begin at the same moment, but because of weather problems the U.S. Navy's battleships were already sinking to the bottom of Pearl Harbor by the time Japanese bombers destroyed the U.S. Army's B-17s on the ground at Clark Field. Over the next few months the Japanese Army marched through Southeast Asia, and by March 1942 the Japanese had completely overrun every country and island in the western Pacific—except the Philippines. The Japanese controlled almost 500 million people and four million square miles of land, more than double the area controlled by the Nazis in Europe.

That left the Philippines, and General MacArthur's army, alone in the Pacific. On the Bataan Peninsula of Luzon Island, the Philippine Scouts, a few U.S Army National Guard units and ten divisions of poorly equipped, almost untrained Philippine Army soldiers still held out against the Japanese.

In some respects, the Philippines was one place that the United States' overseas policies had "gotten it right." The U.S. took over the Philippines in 1899, ending four hundred years of feudal Spanish governance. General Arthur MacArthur, Douglas MacArthur's father, was the third U.S. military governor of the Philippines and he instituted programs of improvements that Filipinos still remember today. The U.S. Army built roads, increased farm production, and built schools all over the islands. Army instructors, later supplanted by civilian teachers brought from the States, taught Filipino children how to read, write and speak English. Soon, the Philippines was the most literate country in Asia. Today, the Philippines counts itself as the world's second largest English-speaking country.

In 1901 the United States Army organized the Philippine Scouts to combat insurgents and bandit groups in the islands, and when the insurgency was over the Scouts became the U.S. Army's front line troops in the Pacific. At the outset of World War II they bore the brunt of the Japanese attack on the Philippines, the first action of the war in which units of the United States Army faced the enemy on the ground. Survivors of the Battle of Bataan, to a man, describe the Philippine Scouts as the backbone of the American defense there. President Franklin Roosevelt awarded the U.S. Army's first three Congressional Medals of Honor of World War II to Philippine Scouts: to Sergeant Jose Calugas for action at Culis, Bataan on January 6, 1942, to Lieutenant Alexander Nininger for action near Abucay, Bataan on January 12, and to Lieutenant Willibald Bianchi for action near Bagac, Bataan on February 3, 1942.

Shortly after he graduated from West Point, young Douglas MacArthur had served a tour of duty in the Philippines, and later he came back as a senior officer and general. Filipino admiration for his father, General Arthur MacArthur, was quickly extended to his son. In the midst of the Battle of Bataan President Roosevelt recalled General Douglas MacArthur and had him spirited out of the Philippines by PT boat and airplane. With the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor in shambles, and the Japanese Navy blockading the Philippines, there was no way for America to send food, medicine or reinforcements to the troops on Bataan. Japanese airplanes rained propaganda leaflets down on the Filipino soldiers, designed to drive a wedge between them and their American officers. But Douglas MacArthur had promised that he would return, and the soldiers maintained their faith that MacArthur would indeed be back. They held out for more than four months without adequate food or medicine, while malaria, dysentery and malnutrition ravaged their ranks, and Japanese attacks drove them further down the Bataan peninsula. But Filipinos throughout the islands kept up their faith that General MacArthur and the United States Army would be back to rescue them from the Japanese.

The Battle of Bataan ended on April 9, 1942, when General Edwin King surrendered rather than see any more of his starving, diseased men slaughtered by the advancing Japanese Army. At that point 70,000 men became Prisoners of War: about 16,000 Americans and 54,000 Filipinos. What followed was one of the worst atrocities in modern wartime history—the Bataan Death March. As the emaciated men were marched north up a highway to prison camp in the blistering heat, Japanese guards summarily shot or bayoneted any man who fell, attempted to escape, or stopped to quench his thirst at a roadside spigot or puddle. The Japanese guards killed between 7,000 and 10,000 men on the Death March—they kept no records and no one knows the exact number. If a man fell, it was certain death unless another could pick him up and support him. It was here that the legendary bond between the Filipino and American soldiers was cemented.

When they got to their prison camp, Camp O'Donnell, conditions were not much better. The Japanese divided the Filipino and American soldiers into two separate halves of the camp. Camp O'Donnell was a Philippine Army camp designed to accommodate about 10,000 men. The Japanese crammed all 60,000 survivors into the camp, with little running water, sparse food, no medical care, and only slit trenches along the sides of the camp for sanitation. The heat was intolerable, flies covered the prisoner's food, and malaria, dysentery, beriberi and a host of others diseases swept through the crowds of men. They began to die at the rate of four hundred per day. It got so bad by July, 1942, that the Japanese replaced the camp commander, moved the American prisoners to another camp, Cabanatuan, and decided to parole the Filipino prisoners.

From September through December 1942, the Japanese gradually paroled the Filipino soldiers to their families and to the mayors of their hometowns, who would be held personally responsible for each man's conduct. Men from Manila were paroled first, then men from the provinces. To be paroled, each man had to sign an affidavit that he would not participate in guerrilla activity, and he had to be well enough to walk. Anyone who was too sick to walk was simply held in camp until he either got well or died. By the time Camp O'Donnell closed in January 1943, after eight months of operation, 26,000 of the 50,000 Filipino Prisoners of War there had died.

The American prisoners fared no better. Conditions in Cabanatuan were marginally better than Camp O'Donnell, and the prisoner doctors were able to somewhat stem the disease and death rate. But as U.S. forces pulled closer to the Philippines in 1944, the Japanese decided to evacuate the American prisoners to Japan and Manchuria, to use them as slave laborers in Japanese factories and coal mines. Thousands of men were crammed into the dark holds of cargo ships so tightly that the men could not sit or lay down. Again, food and water were scarce, sanitary facilities were virtually non-existent, and the heat in the closed holds of the ships was unbearable. Men suffocated to death standing up. In some cases, the guards would not even let the dead bodies be removed from the holds. The Japanese ships were unmarked and some of them were torpedoed by American submarines. More of the men died of malnutrition and exposure in the work camps. By the time Japan surrendered and the U.S. Army liberated the Bataan Prisoners of War, two-thirds of the American prisoners had died in Japanese custody.

Back in the Philippines, a strong guerrilla movement developed to oppose Japanese oppression. Many Philippine Scout officers and enlisted men who had escaped from the Japanese, and others who chose to ignore their parole terms, joined these clandestine groups to do what they could to hasten the return of U.S. forces. Contrary to the impression many of us get from our history textbooks, help was not on the way. General MacArthur's forces, such as they were, were engaged around the Solomon Islands and New Guinea to protect Australia from Japanese attack. It was not until 1944 that MacArthur in the south and Admiral Nimitz to the east commenced their two-pronged advance into the Pacific. But during the interim years, the Philippine guerrillas put together a close network to gather intelligence data on Japanese troop movements and shipping, and transmit it to MacArthur's headquarters using radios smuggled in by submarine. It has been said that their information was so complete, that when MacArthur finally did make it back to the Philippines he knew what every Japanese lieutenant ate for breakfast and where he had his hair cut.

As MacArthur's forces, supported by the guerrillas, rolled into the Philippine Islands, men began to come out of hiding. The Philippine Scouts, some who were members of the guerrilla forces, some who were not, stepped forward and rejoined the U.S. Army. Other Filipino guerrillas joined them and the Army set up new Philippine Scout units. The "New Scouts" actively participated in combat action against the Japanese Army in north Luzon, and served as military police to restore order and help locate pockets of escaped Japanese in the south. As planning for the invasion of Japan progressed, the Philippine Scouts were included in the invasion forces and begin training for what was expected to be the bloodiest struggle of World War II.

After the surrender of Japan in August 1945, the United States made good on its previous commitments, and granted the Republic of the Philippines full independence on July 4, 1946. At that point the Philippine Scouts held a unique status in U.S. military history: they were soldiers in the regular U.S. Army, combat veterans at that, but now they were citizens of a foreign country. To solve the dilemma, the United States offered the Philippine Scouts full U.S. citizenship. Most of the surviving Scouts accepted, and the Army transferred them to other units to finish their military careers. In 1946, President Truman disbanded the Philippine Scouts as an official element of the United States Army, and all of their unit colors were retired. Today, the Philippine Scout veterans who are still with us are scattered around the United States, with the highest concentration on the West Coast.

On April 5, 1989, Rhode Island State Senator John Patterson, along with former Philippine Scout officers John Olson, Lloyd Mills and Roy Reynolds, founded the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society. The Society's mission is to help preserve the history and legacy of these outstanding soldiers. It was a move that was long overdue, since there are so few of us who are aware of who they are or what they did. The Society has chapters in the San Francisco Bay area, Tacoma, El Paso, and Los Angeles, and holds a reunion on or around Memorial Day each year.

Today the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the Scouts are taking over the Society, as only a few of the men are left. More than half of them died in the merciless hands of their country's enemy. Advanced age has further depleted their ranks. At the closing dinner of their annual reunion only ten or fifteen line up across the dance floor now, with graying hair and an occasional cane or wheelchair momentarily pushed aside. In the darkened room with its sparkling lights, flashbulbs and background music, they receive the applause of their families and admirers. I have had the privilege of attending two of those dinners now, and I am always struck by how straight these men stand.

Chris Schaefer is a historian who lives in Houston, Texas. He is the author of "Bataan Diary," a book about World War II in the Philippines. For more information, see This article was first printed in the August 2006 issue of Filipino Times magazine and is reprinted with permission.


Last modified: 14-May-2007