Halfway up the eastern Visayas, above Mindanao but below Luzon, is the Island of Samar, part of the archipelago that makes up the Philippines. Made up of equal parts of mountains and swamps – all covered by a nearly impenetrable jungle – it was first colonized by Ruy López de Villalobos, who came to the island in 1543 and named it Las Islas Filipinas. At the southern tip of the eastern side of the island is the town of Guiuan where, in 1944, the American Forces landed on the island of Suluan where they fought their first battle in the Philippine territory three days before Gen. Mac Arthur fulfilled his promise to return on the beaches of Leyte.
The first sign of liberation from the Japanese, who had occupied the island since 1943, came on the 17th of October 1944 when the Sixth Ranger Battalion landed on Samar to clear the way for Mac Arthur’s landing at Leyte. By the 27th of November a Navy submarine chaser steamed the harbor to make sure it was clear of mines. On the 1st of December 1944 the fleet of arrived in Guiuan Bay to unload machines that allowed more than 50,000 Americans working day and night to complete Navy 3149 Base in less than 1 month. Not only did they transform Guiuan into one of the biggest Naval Bases in the Far East but the airstrip they built served the Enola Gay, the B-29 Bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on August 7, 1945 in Hiroshima, helping to end the war in the Pacific.
This small island, not quite twice the size of Long Island, is where William Leach began his combat service in the Second World War. He left only a few photographs and no written record of his time in the Pacific. Like his friends who served with him it was not a topic for conversation – it was a duty they had discharged and those of us who first respected and only later appreciated the nature of that duty honored their wishes and hope that the entire nation will honor them once again this November 11th.
The only stories he shared about the war were about the children and people of Samar whom he greatly admired and remembered with fondness. Our Texas parish was regularly visited by a Filipino priest who advanced from a humble padre to a bishop over the years. I soon caught on to the fact that every visit was the result of a church, school, hospital or orphanage having burnt down. While I irreverently inquired one day, “What burned down this year?”, dad always dug a little deeper in his wallet to help his old friends.
Hakkō ichiu, the Japanese belief that their emperor should bring all the world under one roof – his – was the Japanese political slogan that justified aggression from the Second Sino-Japanese War through World War II. It left a trail of destruction from Indochina through the islands of the Pacific – not sparing Japan – to the southernmost reaches of Siberia. The net costs can be seen in this 1945 picture of Manilla and in one of their soldiers left behind. In Miyazaki the Japanese built the Tower of the Emperor with Prince Chichibu‘s calligraphy of Hakkō ichiu carved on its front side. It is still there only it has been renamed the Heiwadai or Peace tower. Some things do not change.