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‘I Shall Return’

General MacArthur and the Second Coming

On April 9, 1942, the United States surrendered Bataan to the Imperial Army of Japan in the very heart of the six bloody years of World War II. It was the largest surrender in American history — 75,000 troops — since the surrender that ended the Civil War eighty years earlier in 1865.

On December 7, 1941, just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had turned their fury on the American forces in the Philippines, a pivotal and vulnerable air and naval crossroads. Because the Americans, paralyzed by the surprise attack on Hawaii, failed to respond more quickly, Japanese Zero fighters raided two major airfields nine hours later, wiping out half of the air force in a matter of 45 minutes. Almost every available plane was destroyed within a couple of days, crippling General Douglas MacArthur’s ability to defend the Philippines.

The war for Bataan, a key province on the Philippine island of Luzon, began one month later, on January 7, 1942. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they had cut off the naval support the Philippine Army desperately needed, meaning tens of thousands of troops were left fighting for their lives, and with no help in sight. Trying desperately to hold the strategic port of Manila Bay, but without any reinforcements or provisions, General MacArthur consolidated his American and Filipino forces into the Bataan peninsula for one last, ill-fated stand.

‘I Shall Return’

On March 11, 1942, a month before Bataan fell, President Franklin Roosevelt, knowing the American troops would soon be forced to succumb, ordered MacArthur to leave the last stronghold at the island of Corregidor. The order surely fell on the proud and loyal MacArthur all the more heavily because he knew he hadn’t acted quickly enough in the wake of Pearl Harbor, leading to devastating losses that had crippled their defenses. What might have been if he had reacted quicker? How many of his men’s lives might have been spared?

MacArthur and his family rode by boat to an airstrip 560 treacherous miles away, barely surviving the rough seas and Japanese gunfire. As the general sailed away from what may have been the greatest loss in American history, knowing what the brave men he left behind would now suffer, he resolved, “I shall return” — a promise he would repeat over and over again. When his plane touched down in Melbourne, Australia, he gave a now-famous speech, declaring,

When I landed on your soil, I said to the people of Philippines whence I came, “I shall return.” Tonight, I repeat those words: I shall return. Nothing is more certain than the ultimate reconquest and liberation from the enemy of those and adjacent lands.

MacArthur did return, two and a half years later, on October 20, 1944. Today marks 75 years since the day he landed on the shore of Leyte, with 280,000 soldiers under his command, to recapture and finally liberate the Philippines, a story that reverberates with an even deeper and more epic victory.

Bataan Death March

To feel the weight of MacArthur’s surrender, and the significance of his return, we have to face the cruel brutality of the Japanese army. Not all were savage, some were even kind, but the stories will make anyone nauseous — atrocities almost too awful to repeat. When MacArthur was ordered to leave behind his horribly wounded, diseased, and malnourished men, he surrendered them into some of the worst hands imaginable.

After the surrender of April 9, 1942, the Japanese immediately forced the tens of thousands of nearly dead men to march 66 miles north over the next several days, now called the Bataan Death March. If soldiers faltered at all, and many did, they were often beaten, bayoneted, or even beheaded. Sometimes the Japanese struck and killed without warning or cause, reveling in their prisoners’ agony. Historians estimate that 3,000 died during the march, meaning a corpse roughly every 100 feet.

When survivors arrived at Camp O’Donnell, a prisoners of war camp, they met even worse conditions, a horror that seemed barely possible. The Japanese deplored the concept of surrender, avoiding it at all costs and despising anyone who surrendered to them. They also were grossly unprepared to provide the food or medical care many gravely needed. Crammed into horrible, disgusting quarters, disease spread like wildfire — malaria, dysentery, beriberi, and more. The brutality persisted and intensified, especially as Japan began to lose ground in the war. It’s estimated that nearly half the Filipino and American prisoners who made it to the camp never left.

Author Hampton Sides tells the gut-wrenching and heroic story of the battle for the Philippines, walking painfully close to the diseased and tortured troops along the Death March in 1942, and then following 121 remarkable rangers who, in 1945, slipped behind enemy lines while MacArthur recaptured Manila, risking their lives to rescue 513 of the prisoners of war before they would have been systematically slaughtered. The story is riveting, devastating, and unforgettable.

Liberation of Manila

October 20, 1944, marked the beginning of the end of the Japanese brutality. The American troops had stormed Normandy several months earlier. Saipan, a critical Japanese base, had fallen on July 10, leaving the stubborn Imperial Army reeling. Then, the Allies broke through the German lines on July 27, reaching German soil on September 11. Normandy had fallen. Then, Paris. The war would not end for ten more grueling months, but as MacArthur and his men returned to the Philippines, their ruthlessly stubborn enemy was on the ropes.

The Japanese sent every available soldier, plane, and ship to defend the Philippines, deciding this was the decisive battle. The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle of the war, and the bloodiest campaign of the war for the Pacific. The Imperial Army in Manila did not fall for several more murderous months, but it did finally fall in March, spelling the end for the Japanese, who eventually surrendered on September 2, 1945, ending World War II.

In the end, the sorrow of surrendering the Philippines in 1942 gave way, for Douglas MacArthur, to the joy of being the instrument of their liberation in 1945. He felt the victory in an especially personal way, and on many levels. When he was a teenager in 1898, his father, General Arthur MacArthur, had fought and won the Spanish-American War, liberating the Philippines from more than 300 years of Spanish rule. Douglas himself served twice in the Philippines for 14 years between 1922–1942. His only child, Arthur MacArther IV, had been born in Manila. His heart and life had been intertwined with the Filipino people all his adult life, and now he had led an army who had not only ended the horrors of the Japanese occupation, but who had ultimately secured their freedom as a nation.

His Second Coming

“I shall return.” The words have taken on greater meaning for me personally since I married into a Filipino family, who, like many Filipino families, remembers General MacArthur fondly. My in-laws were born in the Philippines a little more than a decade after he had fought admirably to secure their independence. MacArthur’s words, however, echo something far deeper and more meaningful still, because they echo an even deeper, more intimate reality. Jesus, in the very hottest moments of the war of God against sin, says to his disciples, “I will come again” (John 14:3).

To feel the weight of his surrender on the cross or the significance of his promise, we have to face the awful tyranny of sin in the world — and in us. As cruel as the Japanese bayonets were, they could not reach where sin pierces; they could not maim like our own wickedness could (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:9–20). Sin, a far worse enemy, caused mankind to pierce “themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:10). The death march, as gruesome and inhumane as it was, could only hint at the wide gate that leads to destruction and the millions marching over its cliff (Matthew 7:13). Camp O’Donnell in all its terror will look like sanctuary next to the righteous wrath awaiting those who refuse to be forgiven. As fearsome as the Japanese were, Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Sin reigned in our bodies, while the whole world laid in the hands of evil (Romans 6:12; 1 John 5:19). Into this mayhem, God landed in a manger, taking on a body that could and would be killed.

Unlike MacArthur, Jesus never fled. He buried himself in the furnace of conflict, absorbing the nuclear storm we deserved in obedience to the Father (Philippians 2:8). No portrait of the cross could ever communicate the extent and intensity of its warfare. Unlike MacArthur, he was not forced to surrender, but laid down his arms of his own accord (John 10:17–18). Unlike MacArthur, he was not motivated by selfish gain or vainglory, but by the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2). Unlike MacArthur, the moment which seemed to be his greatest defeat was, in fact, his greatest victory.

But like MacArthur, before Jesus mounted the cross, plunging himself into enemy lines, he promised he would return. “I will come again” (John 14:3). On this side of the cross, and empty tomb, we know that our Commander and King “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). And when he returns, the sin remaining in us will be forced to surrender once for all, because “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Jesus did not gloss over the suffering we would face between now and then: “In the world you will have tribulation” — you will suffer opposition, persecution, the awful futility of creation, and even physical death. “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He also did not leave us to fend for ourselves on the battlefield, but came to live in us and with us by his Spirit, saying, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). We have far more than a promise of his return. We have him — until he comes again to end all our warring.

To End All Wars

One of the thousands of brave men at MacArthur’s side when he walked ashore on October 20, 1944, was Wallace B. Fogarty (1910–2000), my great-grandfather. Less than a year after he landed in the Philippines, he was deployed to Hiroshima after the bomb, witnessing the unprecedented devastation firsthand. Like many men and women of his generation, he saw and suffered hostility utterly foreign to the vast majority of Americans today.

Our family visited him and my great-grandmother, Shirley, often when I was a child. I remember sitting on the couch in their living room. I remember Grandpa Wallace rocking quietly on our screened-in porch. He was friendly and kind, and didn’t say much. I was 14 when he passed away.

I wish I could ask him what it was like to run ashore at Leyte — to fight a war the Allies had already begun to win — to help recapture a whole nation enslaved and oppressed by evil. I imagine what he might say would shed another striking ray of light on the combat of combats, the first, longest, and fiercest global war: the war of God to seize his children and secure his glory.

In history, God tells his stories, the exhilarating and the devastating, to draw us further into the fight. Many of them, like this one, are hard to stomach, but none of them is outside of his sovereign sway — and all of them are working for his glory and our greater joy in him. And now, as we endure the trials before us and battle the spiritual forces of evil in our paths, we keep our King’s promise close to our hearts: “Surely I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20). We wait along the shore of eternity, staring intently over the wide and raging seas before us, praying with expectation and urgency, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”