They Fought Alone in the Jungle

May 25, 2011

The Japanese were twenty miles away.  If he moved, he would starve.  If he stayed where he was, he would be killed.

There was an alternative.  He could chuck the whole bloody business.

Since Bowler was presently unable to take over the net, Fertig could surrender control of the guerrilla to Supreme Headquarters, cache his radios, and tell his men to scatter into the hills.  A few men, traveling alone, could always find something to eat.  He could wander across the mountains, searching for food, until The Aid came.

Why not?  Hadn’t he done enough?  After the Regular Army surrendered, his makeshift army had killed seven thousand Japanese.  He had re-established a government.  He had denied the Japanese any practical benefit of their conquest of Mindanao.  Instead, Mindanao had been a constant drain on Japanese resource.  They had had to divert 150,000 men to Mindanao in an unsuccessful effort to crush resistance.  From an arithmetical standpoint, it was already an enormous victory.  Forty thousand guerrilleros had killed seven thousand of the enemy and, in effect, taken 150,000 prisoners.  There was also the incalculable benefits accruing from guerrilla intelligence.  Supreme Headquarters had never specified whether any particular sightings had led to any particular sinkings, but the Navy had sent the coastwatchers its highest compliment:  Well Done.  More important, the guerrilla had done much to restore the face America had lost by its abject surrender.  The Filipinos would never again allow Americans to call them “little brown brothers.”  After all, the resistance was almost entirely a Filipino operation:  Fertig was an invited guest.  But Americans who refused to surrender, and instead accepted the invitation, had done much to salvage the essential image of an America that was the friend of the Filipino people.

(…)

Fertig felt the wight of the Moro silversmith’s stars on his collar.  He was Colonel Fertig to (the American headquarters in) Australia, but here on the island he wore his stars.  On Mindanao, he was, and would remain, The General.

The above is excerpted from They Fought Alone by John Keats, recounting the thoughts of Wendell Fertig as his guerrilla headquarters deep in the jungle interior of Mindanao was hemmed in by the Japanese and running low on supplies.   A previous post this week also excerpted this book.  The comment about “A few men, traveling alone, could always find something to eat” reminded me of another recent post here about food shortages in the jungle.

The Filipino guerrilla movement against the Japanese occupation is a relatively little-discussed aspect of WW2, but this is one of the more well-known books about it and there has been rumors of a possible Brad Pitt movie based on it (all movies trying to secure funding will star Brad Pitt, don’t ya know?).  They Fought Alone was first published in 1963, coincidentally, just as the Vietnam War was about to escalate.  It demonstrates that the US had plenty of experience as jungle guerrillas in Southeast Asia, with knowledge of how they succeed and how they could be defeated.  It’s a shame that US leadership during the Vietnam War seemed to ignore some of the lessons in this book.

Though They Fought Alone is heavily based on the journals of Wendell Fertig, it must be noted that it’s actually a novel and therefore should not be depended upon for historical accuracy.  Clyde Childress, an officer under Fertig on Mindanao, wrote a rebuttal and critique of the inaccurate history and self-serving nature of They Fought Alone.  Download a PDF of the rebuttal here.  At times, Childress seems to paint Fertig as a real-life Kurtz character:  an aloof leader commanding a force deep in the jungle!  (Remember…Apocalypse Now! was filmed in the Philippines.)  Unsound methods?  I wouldn’t go that far, but Childress ends his rebuttal with this:

“What baffles me is how this man, with such an overweening desire to create a distinguished reputation for himself as the great guerrilla leader, could allow these personally damaging remarks that expose his obviously unsound frame of mind to creep into his biography for everyone to read and assess. This is indeed a strange book!”

Whatever the case may be, Fertig was successful at what he set out to do on Mindanao.  The Filipino guerrilla movement was fractured and disorganized in many parts of the Philippines, as shown by the map below.  The physical isolation of the many islands explains some of the disorganization, as does the concentration of Japanese forces in some areas.  For Fertig to unite the freedom fighters of Mindanao under his command was an accomplishment, considering how the island was and still is embroiled in bloody conflict between numerous religious and political divisions.

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7 Responses to “They Fought Alone in the Jungle”

  1. Alex said

    On the guerilla bit: there was a documentary I saw on the History channel last year about that.

    But I’ll share something related to the Japanese occupation that I learned from it:

    There was a time that the Japanese wanted to parade captured Americans through the streets and they asked one of the Philippine marching bands to play something slow and mournful to exacerbate the despair of the captives — hopefully to visually drive home their defeat in the face of Japanese superiority.

    The Philippine band, risking their lives, played a slow, depressing (possibly transposed into a minor key), yet recognizable version of the Star-Spangled Banner — which naturally had the opposite effect on the marching Americans.

    Fortunately for the band, the Japanese never caught on.

  2. […] much that isn’t found in Escape From Davao.  Notable for its additional details about the Mindanao guerrillas and preparations for the arrival of the Narwhal in November of 1943 at Nasipit […]

  3. tony Garcia said

    my great uncle Julian Benac, Gallup New Mexico, was one of the few American soldiers who refused to surrender to the Japanese and chose to fight with Colonel Fertig.He suffered this nightmare experience throughout his life. Malaria attacked his brain and was a constant reminder of the horrid expereince endured.

  4. A similar story for my father RM3 William F Konko, a member of Bulkeley’s PT Ron 3 who also chose to fight alongside Col. Fertig

    • Anonymous said

      Did your dad ever mention what happened to Stuart Williver jr. He was on the 41 boat. He might have been with your dad when he was with Wendell Fertig. I have read conflicting reports about my uncle. He eventually got captured and spent the rest of the war in Japan working in a coal mine. He had lost half his body weight by the time he was liberated. Any information on how and when he was captured would be appreciated. Thank You, Dave Jenny, Kintersville, Pennsylvania

  5. al gust said

    My name is Al Gust and served as a radioman stationed in Perth,
    West Australia. I communicated with Wm. Konko for a couple of
    years, and contated him after the war. I never knew where he was
    until I read some of this stuff on PT boats.

  6. Jeremy Konko said

    To Al Gust,

    Thanks for the reply. Wm Konko was my father and he passed when I was very young. Would love to connect if you’re open. J.konko at Gmail dot com

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