It is quite remarkable how personal experiences have the power to shape our lives and our futures. Sometimes those uniquely personal experiences can even play a dramatic role in the course of world events. This was certainly the case for one of America’s greatest warriors of the twentieth century. Many Americans have heard his quote “I shall return,” uttered during the early months of World War II. He was leaving not just his soldiers but also the islands that had been such a large part of his early military experiences. He was General Douglas MacArthur. This is the story of his personal ties to eastern Asia, specifically the Philippines, and how those ties changed everything.
From his earliest years in the U.S. Army, Douglas MacArthur had personal ties with the eastern Pacific. He was born at Fort Dodge, Arkansas, outside of Little Rock, into a family with a celebrated military heritage. His father, Arthur MacArthur, served in the Civil War and won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his leadership in the attack and capture of Missionary Ridge at the November 1863 battle of Chattanooga. Douglas grew up on frontier outposts where his father was stationed and said later that some of his first memories included “the sound of Army bugles.” He began military life by attending the West Texas Military Academy in San Antonio, Texas. He intended to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point at age eighteen, but a spinal ailment forced him to delay his entrance by a year. At West Point, he participated in sports, lettering in baseball and managing the football team, received the highest academic average ever in the Military Academy’s first century and rose to the top military position as First Captain of the Corps of Cadets. Perhaps his success there was attributable to his mother who, for four years, literally watched over Douglas from a hotel room across the road. He graduated in 1903 and entered service as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. His first assignments were in the theatre he later dominated in World War II.
Douglas MacArthur’s personal association with eastern Asia actually began the very year he entered West Point. In 1898, the Spanish-American War erupted, and his father was part of the military expedition that seized control of the Philippines. After the war, the elder MacArthur helped put down the Filipino insurrections against the American forces. He also served as military governor of the islands. Back at West Point, the younger MacArthur yearned to see where his father had fought. To his great pleasure, for his first assignment the U.S. Army dispatched him to the Philippines to perform military surveys. He arrived in October 1903, and one of the first locations he surveyed was the Bataan peninsula. He also helped construct roads inland as well as a sea wall and a wharf along the central part of the islands. It was in the Philippines though that young Douglas’ service nearly ended before it had truly begun.
As part of his duty as military governor, Douglas’ father had formed and trained Filipino soldiers to protect the islands. Unfortunately for Douglas, not all of the inhabitants were friendly to the Americans. One day he was leading a team of surveyors through the jungle when shotgun blasts suddenly rang out. One of the shots hit the man beside him, and Douglas leaned over to catch his comrade. It was fortunate he did as another blast came from nearby. This shotgun round tore through his hat, but remarkably, he was not hit otherwise. A nearby sergeant made the comment that Douglas’ “life is on velvet,” meaning he led a charmed life. He was shaken but quickly regained his composure, as did the other members of his group. It would not be the last time he almost met his end in the dense jungles of the Philippines. Another time, one of the natives attacked him by surprise as he was walking through the jungle. He pulled out his service revolver and fired all six shots at his attacker. Despite being hit by all six rounds, the man continued charging MacArthur until he fell dead just a few feet in front of Douglas. Both of these encounters persuaded Douglas that the Filipinos would make excellent soldiers if the need ever arose, assuming they were on his side. His experiences in the Philippines did much to prepare him for later life, but these were not his only experiences with Asian culture.
Shortly after the conclusion of his duties in the Philippines, Douglas was promoted to first lieutenant, and in 1905, he was transferred to his father’s staff as an aide-de-camp. He first travelled to Tokyo before continuing on to Manchuria to observe the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War. He arrived too late to see any actual combat, but he was granted the opportunity to observe the skill and determination shown by the Japanese soldiers. Like other officers, he was greatly awed that an Oriental army was able to fight and defeat a “modern” European army. Following Russia’s defeat, he and other American leaders were forced to concede that Japan was an emerging power in world affairs. The defeat of Russia also marked the beginning of Japan’s ambitions in the Pacific. Over time, these ambitions would be a threat to American interests in the Pacific, particularly American control of the Philippines. Douglas’ observations would prove to be of the utmost importance as the Japanese advanced through the Pacific in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II.
Douglas MacArthur not only had the opportunity to observe the Japanese army, but he also travelled throughout the Pacific theatre. Along with his father, he made a tour of other eastern Asian countries that would play a role in the Pacific War. He visited Siam, Java, Malaya, Ceylon and even India. As he inspected each of these countries, Douglas gained valuable insight into the Asian mindset and way of life. The tour convinced him that the Pacific theatre would become the center of attention during the twentieth century. After the tour was over, Douglas and his father wrote a joint report telling of their impressions. It was this first-hand exposure to the countries making up eastern Asia that later enabled Douglas to chart the right strategy and bring victory to the United States during the largest war of all time.
Over the next three decades, Douglas MacArthur continued to rise in stature as one of America’s top officers. Returning to the United States, he served as a military aide to President Theodore Roosevelt and later participated in the military expedition into Mexico, personally capturing three Mexican locomotives. During World War I, he commanded the “Rainbow” Division, so called because it was composed of National Guardsmen from all over the country. He led the division through every engagement, remaining in the field despite being wounded twice and gassed twice. After the war, he became superintendent of West Point, where he modernized the academic curriculum and broadened the sports program. He later served as Army Chief of Staff before returning to his “second country,” as he called it.
In 1935, he was approached by Philippine President Manuel Quezon to command the Philippine defenses. He accepted the position and was given the rank of Field Marshal. He spent the next few years building up the Filipino army but was unable to prevent the Japanese capture of the islands in early 1942. His forces were pushed back to the Bataan peninsula and the island fortress of Corregidor before surrendering. Douglas was not part of that surrender; he had been ordered to Australia. His parting words, “I shall return,” were a vow that he would come back. For his efforts in defending the islands, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. From Australia, he prepared to keep his solemn promise not only to return to the Philippines but also to conquer the invaders. He believed he was duty-bound to honor the promise made to his soldiers and to the citizens of his adopted country. He slowly fought his way back toward the islands. Finally, in late October 1944, he fulfilled his vow and arrived to liberate the Philippines. In December he was promoted to the rank of five-star general, and in April 1945 he was named Supreme Commander of all Pacific forces. In that capacity, he continued to plan and launch strikes against the Japanese until they agreed to surrender.
On September 2, 1945, Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender onboard the battleship Missouri. He then served as military governor of Occupied Japan and gained the trust of Japanese leaders. In 1950, North Korea attacked South Korea, and Douglas MacArthur was given command of the forces to defeat the communists. His most brilliant triumph was the Battle of Inchon, an amphibious assault that resulted in a decisive victory. But his best days were over. He continually challenged the President on the conduct and goals of the war. President Harry Truman finally had little choice but to remove him from command for exceeding his orders and nearly starting war with China. After fifty years of dedicated service to his country, General MacArthur retired from the U.S. Army. He died on April 5, 1964 and was laid to rest at the Douglas MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia.
Douglas MacArthur was, undoubtedly, one of the most significant Americans in the first half of the twentieth century. The impact of his life was far reaching, both during his lifetime and well afterwards. Like all of us, he was a product of his personal experiences. His early professional life in eastern Asia, particularly the Philippines, shaped his mind, his military understanding and his very outlook on the world. He took what he learned as a junior officer and successfully employed it to defeat Japan in World War II and fight the North Korean and Chinese Communists in the Korean War. From second lieutenant to five-star general, Douglas MacArthur’s personal experiences shaped not only his own life but also the course of world affairs.