The drums of war caught the Joloanos by surprise. Pearl Harbor was thousands of miles away, but the news of the Japanese bombing was so electrifying that a cloud of anxiety blanketed the island of Jolo. It was Dec. 8, 1941. War had finally come and the much ridiculed Japanese war machines would certainly come to attack the Philippines.
And attack they did on December 24, 1941. In Jolo the Chinese residents of the island were the first to feel the cruelty of the invaders. The Japanese executed a lot of them for supporting the Chinese resistance in China. Jolo was important then as a staging area for the Japanese invasion of North Borneo.
The whole province of Sulu went under Japanese control, and the corollary Japanese brutality came to rear its ugly head. Soon various secret armed groups were organized, but they were fragmented and there was no central command for them to unite and rely upon for effective coordinated operations.
The first open defiance made by any guerilla outfit in Sulu was launched by a Tausug, Abdulrahim Imao, whose force landed in Siasi on December 25, 1942. His group, known as “the fighting 21”, provided the nucleus for which other willing leaderless guerillas flocked upon.
The Japanese twice attacked Imao’s headquarters. And twice they were repulsed and this with the Japanese using gunboats and warplanes. The place was called “Little Bataan of Sulu” after that.
Then on February 10, 1943, a veteran Philippine Constabulary officer, Col. Alejandro Suarez assumed command of the Sulu guerilla forces. Juarez who had just escaped from captivity, returned to his original area of operation in Sulu, and proceeded to consolidate the resistance there. Their group was recognized by Col. Wendell W. Fertig, the commanding officer of the 10th Military District, Mindanao guerrillas, and designated as the 125th Infantry Regiment. This guerilla unit was composed primarily of Muslim Tausugs, Samals, some Christians and even some sea gypsies. Later some Australians who escaped from Japanese captivity in North Borneo joined them.
These guerillas launched daring ambushes and harassed the Japanese, disrupting the implementation of their occupation plans. More importantly, the guerillas supplied intelligence reports to Allied headquarters about Japanese ship and aircraft movement, leading to the sinking of several enemy ships in the area.
With the guerilla becoming a serious threat to the Japanese who were developing Bongao as a Naval base. Air bombing operations were launched to destroy the guerilla headquarters, forcing them to move deeper in the jungles of Tawi-Tawi.
On Feb. 12, 1944 Col. Suarez received a message from Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordering him to establish a guerilla outfit to be called the Sulu Area Command with territorial responsibility on the Sulu Archipelago.
The American submarine, the Narwhal, then delivered tons of war equipment to the group of Feb. 22, 1944. Just in time for the defensive action against the Japanese.
The guerilla stronghold at Bato-bato was attacked by the Japanese on April 12, 1944. Knowing the terrain well, the guerillas inflicted a heavy toll on the Japanese soldiers. But eventually the guerillas were forced to withdraw from their camp. But not without killing more Japanese.
A continuous delivery of arms and supplies by American submarines insured the fighting capability of the guerillas. More than enough for them to launch offensive operations in Sulu and even Borneo.
In November 1944, the Sulu Area Command made simultaneous attacks in Tawi-tawi, Siasi and Jolo and never let go of the offensive operation until the end of organized enemy resistance.
On March 30, 1945, the last Japanese garrison in Tawi-tawi was wiped-out. On April 2, 1945, the first American troops landed in Bongao. The Sulu Area Command guerillas were in the beach to welcome them. Meanwhile, the Japanese forces in Siasi were so beaten up that they withdrew to Jolo for a final defense of the area.
The guerillas stepped up their attacks on the Japanese in Jolo and mauled them so badly that when the Americans landed in Jolo on 9 April 1945 Japanese could not put up even a feeble attempt for a counter attack.
In one of the ambushes conducted by the guerillas, a Japanese general was killed. He was Maj. Gen. Suzuki, Commander of the 55th Independent Mixed Brigade on Jolo Island. Some Japanese soldiers defending Mt. Tumantangis chose to kill themselves rather than surrender to these terrible, fearless SAC guerillas.
The Japanese surely on the verge of defeat still fought on. There were only a few of them who managed to survive. These were those who escaped to American line.
Moping up operations were deadlier than any other military mission, as the Japanese chose to fight to the end rather than surrender. But the guerillas, especially the Tausugs, were experts in fighting to the end. The masters of the Samurai finally met its match with the wielders of the Kris.
The mopping up operations continued until well after the Japanese surrender.
The Sulu Area Command was later incorporated into the 61st Infantry Regiment, Philippine Army on July 18, 1945.
The Sulu Area Command activities during World War II were largely overlooked and were barely mentioned in history books. But the efforts they made in defending freedom and their way of life ranks along side, and maybe above, with those of other more familiar Filipino freedom fighters.
And perhaps, the most important lesson to be learned here is that any government, in dealing with Muslim Mindanao, especially in Sulu, should not put any problem to the test of force. Because in any encroachment against the freedom of these people, the Kris always prevails.
Peter Jaynul V. Uckung
Senior History Researcher