Seventy years ago, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur made his famous “return” to liberate the Philippines from the Japanese, a ragtag band of malnourished, disease-ravaged American soldiers walked out of the jungles to greet the American forces.

More than 500 men who had refused to surrender to the Japanese invaders had survived nearly three years in enemy territory, harassing enemy patrols, sending intelligence to U.S. headquarters in Australia, rescuing shot-down pilots and administering civil government on the islands.

Erling Jonassen of Duluth, now 95, was one of them.

The son of Norwegian immigrant parents, Jonassen graduated from Duluth Central High School in 1937, deep in the Great Depression. With no jobs to be had, he enlisted in the Army and trained as an airplane mechanic.

In December 1941, Jonassen found himself stationed at Clark Field on Luzon, one of the biggest military installations in the Philippines. Just a few hours after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, they attacked Malaysia, Hong Kong, Guam and the Philippines with equal fury. The bombing and strafing at Clark Field went on nearly all day.

“They wiped us out. They got 100 percent,” Jonassen said. “We’d been expecting an attack for weeks. We’d dug hundreds of foxholes. The mystery is still with me - we knew an attack was coming, yet nothing was done until the second day of the war.”

The signs of war were clear, Jonassen said; what’s not clear is why MacArthur didn’t take pre-emptive action - by bombing Japanese airfields on Formosa (Taiwan), for example.

As the Japanese invasion of Luzon progressed, Jonassen’s unit was shifted south to Mindanao, closer to supply lines from Australia. MacArthur withdrew to Bataan, and eventually, under orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, left the Philippines for Australia.  

American forces surrendered Bataan to the Japanese on April 9, 1942, and the Japanese forced thousands of Allied troops on a brutal 60-mile trek that became known as the Bataan Death March. Estimates vary, but historians think between 70,000 and 100,000 troops were forced on the march, and as many as half may have died. Corregidor, the last point of resistance in the Philippines, was surrendered on May 6. About 11,000 American and Filipino troops were taken as prisoners.

From Australia, MacArthur issued his famous pledge, “I shall return.” But it would be nearly three years before he strode onto a beach on Leyte, knee-deep in waves, cameras snapping. Meanwhile, Filipino civilians, Allied prisoners of war and more than 500 American servicemen who had not surrendered endured a brutal Japanese occupation.

They stayed to fight

Allied commanders decided not to defend Mindanao.

“The handwriting was on the wall,” Jonassen said. “The U.S. had used us and soldiers on Corregidor, Bataan, etc., as a deterrent to keep the Japanese from hitting Australia before they could get strong.

“There are a lot of guys who died that were cussing the Americans for leaving them sitting there, high and dry,” Jonassen said. Soldiers who defended the islands “were the most tremendous people you could ever imagine. They fought until they were sick; they fought while they were sick and while they were starving. They just fought until they died. No good. Whole damn thing was no good.”

On May 10, Jonassen’s commanding officer told his men it was time to surrender.

“A couple of the guys asked him, ‘What if we don’t want to surrender?’ ” Jonassen recalled. “And he said, ‘You guys that don’t want to surrender, take what you want from the storehouse, and good luck.’ ”

Jonassen and a dozen other men grabbed guns, ammunition and supplies and took off for the jungle. Their plan was to get to the coast, find a sailboat and island-hop to Australia.

But they never made it. They split up into smaller groups, and Jonassen’s group - which included another Minnesotan, Walter Sanders of Bemidji - traveled deep into the jungle and lived for a time with natives who apparently had never before seen white people. The natives shared their food - mainly sweet potatoes and papayas.

“Sometimes nothing was available, so you’d just eat the leaves on top of the sweet potato,” Jonassen recalled. “We had beriberi (a vitamin deficiency disease), and, of course, we had malaria all the time.”

They moved on to join a Muslim military leader, Maj. Salapida Pendatun, who commanded about 2,400 men who were fighting the Japanese in western Mindanao. Pendatun was an effective leader who also had medicines such as quinine to fight malaria. Later, Jonassen and his buddies learned from Jesuit priests that they could make their own quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree.  

Local leaders

Jonassen and his companions heard through the “bamboo telegraph” about some American civilians who were organizing Filipino fighters into a guerrilla force. These were plantation managers, mining engineers and lumbermen who’d lived in the Philippines for years. They were familiar with the territory and with the local people.

One was Wendell Fertig, who had been a mining engineer in the region for five years and was an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. After serving on active duty with troops defending Luzon and then Bataan, Fertig escaped to Mindanao. A man used to taking charge, Fertig gathered American soldiers who had not surrendered, escaped prisoners of war and Filipino fighters and worked to mold them into a single unit under his command.

For months he operated on his own, with no contact with headquarters in Australia. Eventually, two of his recruits cobbled together a makeshift radio and sent a signal that reached U.S. commanders. Fertig also sent three men to Australia in a small boat. They arrived in early January 1943, and reported to the Allied command about the guerrillas’ activities and their needs. At this point, MacArthur began taking the guerrillas seriously. He organized command structures, issued orders and arranged for periodic supply runs by submarine.

Fertig called himself a brigadier general, and he had a local craftsman make epaulettes to suit the rank. His rationale was that only an officer of highest rank would command the respect and cooperation of the Filipino troops.

One of Fertig’s deputies was James Grinstead, a plantation manager and longtime resident of the Philippines. A veteran of World War I, Grinstead had helped organize the Philippine Constabulary, a national police force. By early 1945, Grinstead’s forces consisted of 327 officers and nearly 4,000 enlisted men, American and Filipino. Erling Jonassen was one of the officers; he was put in charge of about 150 Filipino fighters.

“At the very beginning of this operation, we would go out in groups of six, seven, 10, and we would ambush Japanese trucks,” Jonassen said. He still has a message he scrawled to Grinstead during an engagement with Japanese troops. One of his men had a Browning automatic rifle; one had a machine gun. The rest were lightly armed. Jonassen’s note asked for orders. Grinstead’s reply informs Jonassen there are 400-900 enemy soldiers in the area, “but not aggressive.” He jokingly orders Jonassen, “Better have lichon and tuba tonight, for I will be there.” (Lichon is roasted pig; tuba is a coconut drink.) Notes like these were carried back and forth by runners. In the early days, there was no radio communication in the rough jungle of central Mindanao.

The guerrillas would harass the Japanese and quickly melt back into the jungle; they rarely engaged the enemy in large numbers. But the Japanese responded to these pin-pricks by killing villagers indiscriminately. So the mission changed. The guerrillas avoided contact with the enemy and concentrated instead on maintaining civilian government and sending intelligence about Japanese air, naval and ground movements to headquarters in Australia.  

DIY warfare

The radios used to relay this information were powered by generators attached to water wheels placed in fast-running streams. “So you didn’t move them unless you had to,” Jonassen explained. But sometimes they had to, because the Japanese sent bombers to destroy the radios. When that happened, the operators would “dive out and get under cover, and then if anything was left they’d come back and get it.”

About 70 soldiers, Filipino and American, held lonely posts along the coast of Mindanao, observing air and sea movements and relaying the information to Australia.

The intelligence was so valuable to Allied naval forces that 7th Fleet commanders became increasingly enthusiastic about sending submarines with equipment, supplies and items designed to boost morale, such as American magazines, cigarettes, matchboxes emblazoned with the motto “I shall return” and autographed photographs of MacArthur.

Sometimes the subs evacuated American soldiers who were having trouble handling the situation.  Jonassen chose not to leave.

“It was a temptation to go, but by that time it was a little bit personal, too, so I stayed. And so did a bunch of other guys,” he added modestly.

The relationship between guerrilla leaders in the jungle and their commanders in offices in Australia was not always cordial. American guerrilla leaders pleaded with headquarters to recognize the Filipino fighters, who otherwise were subject to being treated as bandits and summarily shot if captured. They also needed a way to pay expenses. Headquarters punted the request to a nonexistent Philippine government committee. The Army also indulged in its predilection for turf battles, resulting in some lost opportunities on the ground. Officials failed to support some of the most effective Filipino leaders, for example, preferring to send Americans from Australian bases, perhaps with the aim of closer control of guerrilla operations.

Many of the Filipino fighters felt betrayed by the United States, which for a long time seemed to pursue the war everywhere but in the Philippines. They remained loyal largely because of past treatment by the Americans, compared to the brutality of the Japanese occupation.

Survival

For Jonassen, one of the most rewarding jobs was rescuing downed American fliers.

“We picked up pilots that had gotten in trouble and fallen to the ground. The natives would bring them to us, (and) they’d say, ‘What the hell’s going on here? Who are you?’ We sent them back to the coast, where they were picked up by a submarine.”

Jonassen suffered recurring bouts of malaria and other diseases. Supplies were scarce. Jonassen used a school notebook to record his observations of air traffic. He wore civilian clothing to blend in with the population.

The Japanese knew well that the Americans were there.

“There was one time I had a message from them asking me to surrender, and being guaranteed a very good stay with them in their prison,” Jonassen said. “So they knew us; they knew our name, rank, serial number. They had a 5,000-peso reward, dead or alive, on all Americans for all the time we were there. They knew all of us.”

Jonassen was impressed that in his area no one was turned in to the Japanese.

“That’s the Filipino people,” he said. “They are that good.”

Allied reinvasion

The dark days of the Japanese army’s devastating occupation of the Philippines and nearby islands eventually gave way to a series of Allied sea victories that halted Japan’s expansion, followed by an agonizing push to scour the enemy from the region, island by island. In the late summer of 1944, Allied air strikes on airfields in Mindanao signaled the beginning of the return of regular American forces to the Philippines. On Oct. 20, MacArthur made good on his promise, striding ashore knee-deep in waves on a Leyte Island beach, cameras eagerly recording the long-awaited event.

Guerrilla forces enthusiastically and effectively supported the invasion. On Mindanao, Fertig commanded a force of 38,000 men. They captured the Allies’ first target on that island, Malabang and its airfield, before regular troops landed. A month later, U.S. forces arrived to find guerrillas already had cleared the beaches at Macajalar Bay. Then Fertig’s soldiers guarded a key highway so the Allies could race across the island without fear of Japanese attack.

It was the same on other islands. On Leyte, in anticipation of Allied landings, an effective guerrilla force under Ruperto Kangleon dynamited bridges, harassed enemy patrols and sabotaged supply depots. On Luzon, guerrillas played key roles in dramatic rescues of prisoners of war from behind enemy lines.

But the work of forcing Japanese soldiers from mountain strongholds and clearing them from entrenched positions in Manila was a long and bloody process. Although Allied forces declared the Philippines liberated on July 5, 1945, fighting continued until the final Japanese surrender on Sept. 2. After the war Jonassen was promoted twice during his time on the Philippines. Among other recognitions, he received a Presidential Citation and a Bronze Star for his service.

Jonassen studied engineering and became the district traffic engineer in Northeastern Minnesota for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. He and his colleagues designed an early computerized traffic management system for downtown Duluth’s busy Superior Street before Interstate 35 was built. He and his wife, Irene, had a son, and he now has two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Today, at 95, Erling Jonassen lives in Duluth. He reads history books, keeps up with his favorite sports teams and enjoys family gatherings.

If you ask Jonassen whether the hardships he suffered during the war were worth it, he says it’s up to history to decide. But he’s proud of his role in helping to maintain order for the Filipino people - and in helping other American soldiers. Not only did he guide downed pilots to safety, but radio reports to headquarters pinpointed the location of Japanese ships so submarines could torpedo them, preventing attacks on Allied naval vessels.

“I think in that respect we probably saved one heck of a lot of American lives,” he said.

Stephanie Hemphill is a freelance writer based in Duluth. She is retired from Minnesota Public Radio, and previously worked at KUMD-FM.  She can be reached at stephaniejhemphill@gmail.com.

After the war

Key actors in the saga of the Philippine guerrilla movement went on to play an important role in the creation of the American Special Forces. Wendell Fertig, commander of the Mindanao guerrillas, and R.W. Volckmann, commander of guerrillas in northern Luzon, drew on their experiences to conceptualize unconventional warfare. During the Korean War, Fertig served in the Army’s Psychological Warfare unit, and helped establish a center at Fort Bragg that later became the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.