Liberation of Cebu, 3 (The Unvanquished)

The speed with which the Japanese Imperial Army overran Filipino and American defenders when it invaded the Philippines in December of 1941 proved the invalidity of many initial assumptions.

For one, it exposed the flaws in the strategy and tactics employed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the state of unpreparedness of the Philippine army.

MacArthur’s plan called for the defense of the islands by stopping the Japanese on the beaches and this required a mobile and well-trained force capable of slugging it out in places where the landings were expected.

There wasn’t any such force in the Philippines, a reality that Maj. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright, then commander of the North Luzon force, admitted when he said thus:

“Few units of any force had been completely mobilized and all lacked training and equipment. No division or force had been assembled or trained in unit maneuvers, staffs lacked organization and trained personnel.”

Col. Manuel F. Segura, who became regimental adjutant and S-1 of the 82nd Regiment of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), admiited this in his book “Tabunan: The Untold Exploits of the Famed Cebu Guerillas in World War II.”

“When the attack on Pearl Harbor shook this part of the world, soldiers newly called to the colors had not fired any kind of weapon, not even cal.22 rifles for markmanship training.

“Rushed into basic training, they were issued a pair of uniforms and old Enfield rifles whose extractors broke easily and were not easy to replace. Springfield rifles were in demand but there were very few of them.

“M-1 (Garand) rifles were to be seen only in American magazines, but we did see two or three issued to the Philippine Scout enlisted men sent to Cebu to assist the few American officers serving as advisers and instructors.

“There seemed to be enough ammunition for the rifles for one battle but the cal.50 machineguns only had 250 rounds each and the 81 mm mortars only had few rounds of shells.”

As for strategy and tactics, the US defense plan in the event of Japanese invasion was already incorporated in the so-called War Plan Orange and, with minor modifications, Rainbow 5.

The main thread of the plan was to abandon the Philippines after a short period of resistance. This stemmed from the thinking of US officials summed up by former governor general William Cameron Forbes as early as 1927:

“I doubt very much if any real effort will be made to defend the Philippine islands as such. They are indefensible and from a military point of view not worth defending. The main thing is to make any interference with them as costly as possible.”

MacArthur’s insistence on holding on to the entire archipelago in the event of a Japanese invasion conflicted with the original defense plan so that the subsequent hedging of the policymakers resulted in the lack of preparation of the troops and in the supposed defense positions like Bataan and Corregidor.


The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8, 1941, then raided the Philippines, hitting the air force at Clark and Iba in Pampanga nine hours later and wiping out the navy at its base in Cavite on Dec. 10.

After the crippling attack, Japanese troops began landing troops in Aparri, Vigan and Legaspi on Dec. 10 and 12, then sent its main force under Gen. Masaharu Homma to Lingayen on Dec. 22, defeating Filipino and American defenders in just two days of fighting.

By then, it was already clear that the Japanese juggernaut could not be stopped by inadequately trained and ill-equipped defenders so much so that MacArthur decided to revert to the so-called War Plan Orange 3, which called for the withdrawal of the USAFFE forces to Bataan and Corregidor.

The sudden shift in strategy caught the entire defenses off-guard so that the transfer of troops, the setting up of the needed military infrastructure and the stocking up of ample food supplies were crammed within a two-week deadline.

It was to the credit of the Filipino and American defenders that they were able to fight on until April 9, 1942 when Bataan surrendered.

After the victory in Luzon, the Japanese proceeded to take the other major islands. Troops numbering almost 5,000 men under Maj. Gen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi came in a convoy of three warships and 11 transport vessels and invaded Cebu on April 10, 1942.

It was apparent that despite MacArthur’s strategy shift to War Plan Orange 3, troops in the province still used the general’s beach defense plan of occupying positions in probable landing sites then, when overwhelmed, fighting delaying actions inland.

The Japanese landed in Barrio Bato, Pinamungahan in the west coast and in Talisay (the same area later chosen as American and Filipino landing sites in 1945) after trying to cripple air defenses at the Lahug airport and other areas.

The USAFFE forces heriocally stood their ground, engaging the advancing enemy troops in skirmishes. But the same ill-equipped and ill-trained soldiers could not hold on to their positions for long.

In a span of a few days, the strategy shifted to guerilla warfare with the USAFFE troops dispersing in small groups, leaving Cebu City open to the invaders. On May 13, 1942, Brig. Gen. Bradford Cheynoweth, chief of the Visayas Force, surrendered.


MacArthur, who had left for Australia with the promise to return, and the American military leadership apparently underestimated the Filipino people’s capacity to endure and fight for their motherland with the call to surrender.

Ranking USAFFE officials who were not captured began surrendering, first in trickles and then in torrents. Some of them must have regretted the decision for they were eventually killed by the enemy.

The Japanese occupation forces tried to create a semblance of order by restoring the province’s political leadership, even through the use of force (Hilario Abellana was reinstalled as governor but was later killed when he refused to cooperate).

But the new colonial masters were not able to ingratiate themselves to Filipinos with their use of coercion. Side by side with the atrocities committed was the exploitation of the province’s economic resources to support Japanese aggression elsewhere.

Weeks after the disbandment of the USAFFE in May of 1942, groups started picking up the firearms left behind or hidden by the surrendering forces. The Cebuanos had learned that the only way to salvation was to fight.

During this period, more and more people escaping from Japanese atrocities filtered into the hinterlands. In Tabunan, a self-sustaining community was set up paving the way for the rising of a guerilla headquarter there.

Among those in Tabunan was Harry Fenton, a broadcaster of radio station KZRC. He refused to surrender after some of his fellow Americans were killed by the Japanese in Sudlon a few kilometers from Tabunan.

Another American, James Cushing, a mining engineer, evacuated together with his Filipino friends to Pong-ol, which was laso near Tabunan. Fenton and Cushing would later lead the resistance under the Cebu Area Command.

Protacio “Asing” Tabal, who led a separate group of freedom fighters, would later point out that the idea of putting the command under the two untrained Americans was necessary at that time.

“Kun Pilipino ra goy mangulo, kuyaw nga mag-unay,” he said in an interview with The Freeman.

What he did not say was that the move was a product of a pro-American bias inculcated by years of colonial tutelage under the Philippine Commonwealth.

By the latter part of 1942, the Cebu guerillas were under one direction and control. It was then that their heroism was brought to the fore and their “intrepidity and daring” recognized even by MacArthur’s forces. (Next: Tales of Heroism)

–By Candido O. Wenceslao

Published in The Freeman on March 18, 1995


‘We Would Rather Die Fighting’

Protacio “Asing” Tabal didn’t have any pretensions about why he chose to fight the Japanese during the war.

He was an ordinary peasant tilling his land in Barangay Tagbao when the USAFFE disbanded.

The Japanese occupation force had set up a puppet government when it started imposing a policy that would be its undoing.

“Kadto si Jose Gajudo nahimong paki-Hapon ug mimando sa mga tawo nga bahinon og katunga ang mga abot sa umahan aron ihatag sa mga Hapon,” Tabal recalled.

Many peasants resented the move and started efforts to resist what they saw was an unjust policy.

“Gisabot nako ang mga tawo nga kun motungas gani ang mga Hapon unya mga 30 ra sila ka buok atong kombatihon kay daghan man mi,” Tabal said.

The man was 37 years old then, married and didn’t have military background.

But like the others, he chose the path of resistance and chose to lead like his father, Quentin Tabal, who fought the Spanish colonizers during his time.

Asing claimed having under him almost 2,000 armed men coming from mountain barangays Sirao, Babag, Cambinocot and Adlawon.

Their firearms were those left behind by the disbanded USAFFE troops.

Tabal’s daring and courage caught the attention of the officials of the Cebu Area Command and he was inducted as second lieutenant. He later rose to become a major.

Tabal, who was 88 years old when the interview was conducted, lived with his wife Leodegaria in Barangay Bonbon near a river that flows to Talisay.

He was popular in Bonbon, a legend of sorts, and the daughter of his brother Guillermo, who fought with him during the war, became the wife of the barangay captain of Tagbao.

–Candido O. Wenceslao

March 18, 1995


5 Responses to Liberation of Cebu, 3 (The Unvanquished)

  1. Dale Baker says:

    Hi…I’m trying to locate more information on my great, grandfather Hilario Abellana. My mother’s side of the family are Abellana’s with many of them still in Cebu. However, we don’t have any cognizant written history of Hilario. Most of what we do know is that he sent his family away to hide when the Japanese came. Then he was executed by the Japanese.

    Do you know where I might look to find more information?

    Best Regards,

    Dale Baker

    • m. lozano says:

      did you ever get a reply you your query? My aunt was married to the Governor until his death. I may be able to help you some.

    • Champ Yap says:

      abellana? my uncle is an Abellana. . .They are from cebu… they consist of the wealthy abellana families.. Their family used to own an island.. I’m not really sure if they are related to the ABELLANA HIGH SCHOOL history.. but I hope this helps.

  2. Rene Vega says:

    Hi…I’m trying to locate more information about my father mr espiridion vega who is a cebu guerilla during wolrd war ll battle of lahug, because according to my old relatives still living in brgy Busay and Babag 1. my father is a hero and his story is written in the history book of battle lahug and we want to have a copy of the book. do you have any idea to reproduce a copy? .

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