Leyte landing: Old friendships never die

by Ambassador B. Romualdez

Gen. Douglas MacArthur returns to the Philippines as he promised | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When General Douglas MacArthur made that historic landing on the shores of Palo, Leyte, on Oct. 20, 1944, he fulfilled the promise he made to the Filipino people, summed up in those three famous words: “I shall return.”

That famous line has become “immortalized” in the hearts and minds of Filipinos, spanning many generations, because history tells us the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation during World War II could not have been possible if not for the return of MacArthur.

Last Thursday, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. led the commemoration of the 78th anniversary of the Leyte Gulf Landings with a ceremony at the MacArthur Leyte Landing Memorial National Park. Joining him were US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson, local officials from the province of Leyte, and 31 World War II veterans awarded with US Congressional Gold Medals to honor their heroism.

It was a significant occasion as it reminded us of our shared history with the US and why our friendship has remained strong. Many Filipinos consider General MacArthur’s return as the personification of America’s commitment to the alliance, liberating us from one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history.

I still remember when the man dubbed the “American Caesar” returned to the Philippines for the last time in July 1961. I had just graduated from grade school at the Ateneo when my father – a history buff who was a young major and doctor in the Philippine Army during the war – told me to line up along Taft Avenue. I waited for the open car carrying General MacArthur, his motorcade traversing the street slowly as he waved to the thousands of spectators cheering and enthusiastically waving flags, confetti pouring down from buildings.

I have been an admirer of the General since then. MacArthur was legendary for making sure his image was always perfect. He was very conscious of his bearing, even the way he stood, as shown in photos, especially in that famous photo of the Leyte landing. The story goes they took the photo three times, especially because General Carlos Romulo was barely above water when the photo was first taken because of his height – “a dime among nickels,” the General would retort when asked about the photo.

October is also Filipino American History Month in the United States, and last Wednesday, I delivered the keynote address at an event titled “From Stewards to Flag Officers: Filipinos in the US Navy” at the US Navy National Museum.

The Bataan Legacy Historical Society, in collaboration with the US Naval Judge Advocate General’s Corps and the Naval Legal Services Command, organized the event, which centered on Filipino Americans serving in the US Navy and their vital contributions to promoting global peace and security, and as the event title aptly puts it, how they have risen through the ranks from stewards up to the level of Flag Officers.

“I have absolutely no doubt that the historic landing in Leyte of the “American Caesar” has left an indelible imprint not only among Filipinos who suffered atrocities during World War II but also their children’s children who have come to understand the significance of MacArthur’s fulfillment of that promise he made.”

The event was also an opportunity to give special recognition to Telesforo de la Cruz Trinidad, a Filipino sailor who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1915 for saving other crew members when one of the boilers of USS San Diego exploded. For his courage and heroism, a future Arleigh-Burke class destroyer will be named USS Telesforo Trinidad in his honor.

As I said during my remarks, the decades-old alliance between the US and the Philippines has significantly evolved over the years, despite the rough patches at one point or another. As President Marcos himself has described it, the relationship between the US and the Philippines is long and special.

I have absolutely no doubt that the historic landing in Leyte of the “American Caesar” has left an indelible imprint not only among Filipinos who suffered atrocities during World War II but also their children’s children who have come to understand the significance of MacArthur’s fulfillment of that promise he made. The return to Leyte became a thread that served as a strong tie that continues to bind Filipinos and Americans to this day.

No wonder nearly 90 percent of Filipinos look upon the US as our most trusted and reliable ally, the one that comes through during the most critical times, like in November 2013 when Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) pummeled Central Visayas, killing 10,000 people. I vividly remember the call I got from Congressman Martin Romualdez, his voice quivering as he described Leyte being “completely ravaged!” He told me, “Only the Americans can help us on this.”

Hearing that, I immediately called the US military attaché, who then called the US Pacific Command. They immediately dispatched the USS George Washington (docked in Hong Kong then) to the Gulf of Leyte, equipped with choppers, water desalination equipment, and rescue and relief operations personnel. The immediate response from the US was so tearfully moving that I wrote a column titled, “Thank God for the United States!” ending it with, “God bless America!”

The relief and encouragement Yolanda survivors felt at seeing the USS George Washington was almost like the return of General Douglas MacArthur on the shores of Leyte in 1944, bringing with it a sense of inspiration and, most of all, hope.

In 1951 when General MacArthur addressed the US Congress to announce his retirement, he said: “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”

Remembering how the US has stood by Filipinos during good times, especially during the bad, allows me to paraphrase the General’s words: “Old friendships never die; they will never fade away.”

Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

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