Keelan: On the 75th anniversary of the invasion of the Philippines

By Don Keelan

Seventy-five years ago, little did an Arlington mother realize the impact that a military event taking place 8,300 miles away would have on her life, her family and her hometown.

The event that had begun to unfold on Oct. 20, 1944, was the Allied invasion of the Philippine Islands, which since early 1942 had been occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army.

Two of the islands in the Philippine archipelago were Bataan and Corregidor. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Dec. 7, 1941, they housed American military bases. Four months later they would be surrendered to the invading Japanese armed forces.

Don Keelan

Shortly thereafter, approximately 72,000 American prisoners were led north on what would be known as the infamous Bataan Death March — over 20,000 prisoners would perish on the 60-mile march north to Camps O’Donnell and Cabanatuan.

Not among the American POWs was General Douglas MacArthur, the senior military officer who was also stationed at Corregidor. He and his family were ordered by President Roosevelt to leave for Australia. Arriving safely in Australia, MacArthur vowed to return to the Philippines. Two and a half years later, he fulfilled his promise.

What is not as widely known is that in October of 1944, the second largest naval force ever assembled — second only to that which occurred four months earlier, at Normandy, France — was present at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. Its mission: to drive the Japanese Imperial Army and Naval forces out of the Philippines.

Once the American forces moved forward and onto the principal island of Luzon, panic took over the Japanese leadership. All able bodied POWs were transferred to Japan to work for the enemy. Others, especially those prisoners who were not transferred due to disabilities and who were located close to the invasion forces, were killed.

Upon hearing such atrocities, the U.S. Army leadership took action. The 6th Ranger Battalion was instructed to come up with a plan to send 130 Rangers, along with dozens of Philippine scouts, 30 miles behind Japanese lines and rescue the 500-plus POWs at Camp Cabanatuan.

The rescue force left on Jan. 30, 1945. Included in the force was a 31 year-old Harvard educated medical doctor who had grown up in Arlington, Vermont. “Doc Jimmy,” as he was known to his troops, insisted that he be on the mission, knowing that the POWs, if rescued, would be in poor condition to make the 30-mile trip through the jungle to Allied lines.

The rescue party reached Camp Cabanatuan undetected by the enemy. Once the raid on the camp had begun, over 200 guards were neutralized and, within 30 minutes, all 515 prisoners commenced their journey back to Allied lines and freedom. There were three American casualties — two soldiers and a doctor.

Dr.(Capt) James Fisher died on Jan. 31, 1945, from the stomach wounds he received from the mortar blast that caught him while he was attending to POWs at the camp’s main gate.

Doc Jimmy posthumously received the Purple Heart, as well as the nation’s third highest military honor for valor, the Silver Star. In February of 1945, his mother, Arlington resident and renowned author and benefactor Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was recognized as a Gold Star Mother.

This fall the State of Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation placed an identification sign at the Fisher-Scott Memorial Pines on Red Mountain Road in Arlington. The state land, which has a federal designation as a Natural Area, was given to the state in 1975 by the descendants of Dorothy Canfield Fisher as a memorial to Doc Jimmy and Fisher/Scott family. There has never been a sign which would identify the area, until now.

In May of 2019, the Vermont State Library Department, under “outside pressure,” removed Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s name from the annual DCF Children’s Book Award. Thank goodness such cowardice and hypocrisy did not exist in January 1945.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public domain