Walter Borneman: 75 years ago, brave American troops honored a US commitment and changed history

It is worth remembering that the sanctity of America’s word was once inviolate. Rarely has there been as succinct or profound an expression of American commitment as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s pledge to return to the Philippines during World War II.

MacArthur’s “I shall return” was distinctly personal and singular in his choice of pronoun. President Franklin Roosevelt and the American joint chiefs tried to change his words to a collaborative “We shall return,” but MacArthur stood firm. It was his personal pledge and it quickly became that of a nation.

MacArthur’s pronouncement was uttered at the low point of America’s experience in World War II. The American fleet lay decimated by losses at Pearl Harbor. Japan was moving at full speed to isolate Australia and threaten Hawaii.

As MacArthur fled the Philippines by dark of night in March 1942, his departure foretold the fall of the islands. Arriving in Australia expecting to head an immediate relief expedition to save the Philippines, he found minimal forces and no such plan.

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It took two and a half years for MacArthur to fulfill his promise. He had escaped Corregidor in a flotilla of four tiny PT boats and orchestrated the first counterattacks in New Guinea with only a handful of destroyers and landing craft. Nonetheless, 75 years ago, on the morning of Oct. 20, 1944, MacArthur’s invasion fleet anchored off Leyte with 200,000 ground troops and 700 ships.

In a global war fought on many fronts, his return to the Philippines in such force confirmed the tremendous surge in America’s military and industrial strength. Millions of men and women standing together from the front lines of battle to the assembly lines of American factories had made it possible.

After a heavy naval bombardment that October morning, the assault waves of four divisions stormed the beaches near Taclolan and Dulag. By early afternoon, MacArthur decided that it was time to go ashore himself. Mortar and small-arms fire still resounded from the nearby hills.

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Dressed in a crisply pressed set of khakis, MacArthur did not initially intend to wade ashore, but his landing craft grounded some distance from dry ground. The general and his party, including Philippine president Sergio Osmeña, splashed into knee-deep water.

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Some attributed MacArthur’s grim expression as he strode through the surf to wet pants, but the resulting photograph is among the most iconic of World War II. Any hint of disgruntlement on his face became a determined look of personal destiny and national resolve.

His party moved inland to a small clearing where a portable transmitter broadcast the moment to the world. “People of the Philippines,” MacArthur announced, as his hands shook with emotion, “I have returned.”

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Seventy-five years later, the Bataan Legacy Historical Society honored the fulfillment of MacArthur’s promise at its annual symposium. Many in attendance were descendants of Filipinos who had endured a hellish occupation. A few were old enough to remember those times personally. It was an emotional gathering.

The military significance of the invasion of Leyte was the toehold it gave MacArthur from which to liberate the remainder of the Philippines. "I shall return" became "I have returned." But the broader significance of the moment is that the Filipino people continue to cherish America’s kept promise.

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