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Army Center of Military History
Guerrillas are irregular military forces that operate in enemy territory through stealth and surprise. They typically live off the land and are often indigenous to the area in which they operate. They are distinct from paratroops, which are regular forces that operate as elite light infantry once landed; from Commando and Marine Raider units, which were regular forces that engaged in deep raids but were based in friendly territory between operations; and from the Chindits, which were regular forces the operated much like guerrillas but were not indigenous and were regularly resupplied (and evacuated their wounded and sick) via the air.
Because guerrillas were irregular forces, they generally could not
claim lawful combatant status and had no protection under the Geneva and Hague
Conventions. Lawful combatants were required to be under the
command of a legitimate
sovereign government and to wear distinctive
insignia, visible from a distance, when engaged in combat operations.
Guerrillas generally did not wear such insignia and did not have a
regular chain of command. However, this distinction could become
blurred, as when Filipino
guerrillas improvised American
insignia and established contact with MacArthur's headquarters
in Australia. Such guerrillas
arguably became lawful combatants (and could be classified as militia.) However, the distinction
was largely moot: The Japanese
treated all prisoners of war
brutally, and they usually executed Allied personnel caught behind
Japanese lines, whether or not they were in uniform.
Guerrillas usually had close ties to underground movements. The distinction is that guerrillas carried arms openly while underground movements operated clandestinely in the midst of the enemy. Most underground movements focused on espionage and distribution of propaganda, but sometimes engaged in sabotage as well.
Because guerrillas are generally poorly trained, poorly armed, and inadequately supplied, they cannot hope for success by using ordinary military tactics. Instead, guerrillas engage in hit and run raids designed to force the enemy to commit large bodies of troops to garrison duty and the protection of lines of communication. From a military standpoint, guerrillas are most effective when they have some contact with regular forces fighting the same enemy, for whom they can provide valuable intelligence and from whom they can be resupplied. There is always a large political element to effective guerrilla operations, which seek to win the hearts and minds of the local population, on whom they depend for most of their provisions and from whom they seek to recruit.
Guerrilla forces that attempt to engage in positional warfare usually suffer heavily, as the Chinese Communists did as a result of the Hundred Regiments Offensive. Once the Japanese recovered from their initial surprise, they inflicted very heavy casualties on the Communist guerrillas.
The Japanese countered the Chinese guerrillas with the Three Alls: "Kill all, burn all, loot all." Operating areas were devastated to leave the guerrillas no shelter or means of sustenance. The Japanese adopted a "point and line" deployment in which they garrisoned the major cities and the lines of communication between them but left the countryside unoccupied except for periodic sweeps.
The Japanese made use of radio direction finders, in the Philippines
and elsewhere, to pinpoint guerrilla radio transmitters. The Japanese
would then sweep the area, sometimes with air and naval support.
Probably the most active and effective guerrilla movement of the
Pacific War was the Filipino guerrilla insurgency. Many of these
guerrillas were former regular Philippine Army troops who had escaped
the Japanese dragnet by blending in with civilians. Some were directed
by American officers who had likewise escaped, and many eventually made
contact with MacArthur's headquarters. For example, on 3 January 1943,
Captain Ralph B. Praeger, who had escaped from Bataan into central Luzon, made radio contact with
MacArthur, reported that he had organized a force of 5000 guerrillas,
and asked for an arms drop with which to begin a sabotage campaign.
MacArthur instructed him to restrict has activities to intelligence
gathering to avoid Japanese reprisals against civilians. However,
Praeger's men could not be persuaded to refrain from ambushing Japanese
soldiers when the opportunity presented itself. Another American
guerrilla leader in the Philippines was Wendell Fertig, a mining
engineer who held a reserve commission and was called to the colors
before war broke out. He organized a force of several thousand
guerrillas on Mindanao.
Filipino guerrillas received instructions and supplies (dropped by air or delivered by submarine) and, in return, sent back a considerable volume of sometimes very valuable intelligence. The guerrillas also established covert contact with Allied prisoners of war at Cabanatuan, and were able to smuggle vitally needed food supplies into the camp that doubtless saved many prisoners from starvation. During the American reconquest of the Philippines, these guerrillas carried out reconnaissance activities ahead of the advancing regular troops. Other Filipino guerrillas were Communist insurgents who were almost as hostile to the Americans as to the Japanese, and who continued their insurgency after the Japanese surrender.
There was also an active underground movement in the Philippines
which maintained close ties to the guerrillas. Several of the leaders
were Americans who had found ways to establish false identities for
themselves as citizens of Axis
or neutral countries. For example, Claire Fuentes, an American citizen
who had worked as an entertainer in Manila, managed to obtain false
papers from the Italian
consulate identifying her as a Philippine citizen of Italian birth.
Fuentes established Club Tsubaki, an upscale resort for Japanese
officers, from which she worked for the underground as "High Pockets".
In May 1945 the Kempeitai intercepted one of her couriers, a Russian
expatriate, carrying incriminating letters. Fuentes was imprisoned and
tortured but refused to confess to any activites the Japanese did not
obviously already know about, and she somehow survived to be liberated
in 1945. Another of Fuentes' couriers was Father Buttenbruck, a German Catholic priest sympathetic with the Allied cause, who was eventually executed by the Japanese.
Another successful guerrilla movement was organized by the British and the American OSS Detachment 101 among the
Kachin tribesmen of northern Burma. The Kachin were hostile to the Burmese and
Thai ethnic groups aligned with
Japan and had suffered a number of atrocities at the hands of the
These tribesmen were very successful
at harassing isolated Japanese outposts, at gathering intelligence, and
in serving as guides to regular Allied forces. Detachment 101 harrassed
the Japanese forces in the Shan States of eastern Burma to prevent them
from interfering with Slim's drive to Rangoon in 1944. However, the Japanese
responded with vicious reprisals. One group of two hundred Karen
guerrillas was led by Hugh Seagrim, a British officer, who decided
to give himself up in order to spare the Karen tribes further
reprisals. He was executed, but the reprisals continued.
Ethnic Chinese were active in organizing guerrilla
operations against the Japanese in some parts of southeast Asia.
For example, Lim Bo Seng was an ethnic Chinese from Singapore who
helped organize a guerrilla force in Malaya.
Prior to the outbreak of war in the Pacific, he had helped organize
anti-Japanese boycotts and raise money for
the Kuomintang from the ethnic
Chinese community. The Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army, a Communist force with connections to the Chinese Communists, was also active in Mayala.
In one of the oddest divisions of responsibility of the Pacific War,
the U.S. Navy ran a significant guerrilla operation, the U.S. Naval
Group China. The "Rice Paddy Navy" was nominally responsible for weather observations in occupied territory (much of the weather of the western Pacific is shaped over China) and also for coast watching operations. U.S. Naval Group China ran a weather station in inner Mongolia that ws protected by a force of 200 guerrillas, who clashed with a Japanese armored column on 15 May 1945. Another section of U.S. Naval Group China trained guerrillas operating against communications in the Yangtze river valley.
The head of the U.S. Naval Group China, Commander Milton E. Miles,
worked closely with Tai Li, chief of the Chinese Bureau of
Investigation and Statistics, who has been variously described as the
Chinese Himmler or the Chinese J. Edgar Hoover.
In what would eventually become a painful irony, the Communist
underground in French
Indochina under Ho Chi Minh received encouragement and support from
the OSS for their guerrilla campaign against the Japanese.
Postwar these same guerrillas would drive out the French and later the Americans.
Much was claimed for the guerrilla activities of the Chinese Communists in northern China, but the weight of evidence is that the Communists engaged in very little direct action against the Japanese during the Pacific War. Instead, the Communists build up their strength in rural areas behind Japanese lines and prepared for the civil war that would inevitably follow the defeat of Japan.
The Dutch made several
attempts to insert agents into the Netherlands East Indies,
but all were captured and executed almost as soon as they landed. The
native Indonesians were inclined to side with the Japanese,
though as the war progressed, they were increasingly disenchanted and
active native guerrilla movement took hold. As with the Communist
guerrillas in the Philippines, these were almost as hostile to the
Dutch as to the Japanese. There was also guerrilla activity in Borneo among tribesmen alienated by
Japanese brutality, such as the Dyak, who helped hunt down Japanese who
escaped to the interior following the Australian landings at Brunei.
The Russians ran an extensive guerrilla operation from camps across the border from Manchuria. Several thousand Chinese Communists were trained by the Soviet Far East Intelligence Group, and along with harrassing Japanese forces, these guerrillas provided the Russians considerable intelligence on Japanese dispositions. This doubtless contributed to the decision to risk pulling troops west to fight the Germans in late 1941, as well as guiding preparations for the Manchuria offensive of August 1945. To preserve Russian neutrality, the guerrillas trained in great secrecy, isolated from any Russians other than their instructors, but were otherwise treated as well as the Russians could manage.
These Soviet-sponsored guerrillas were eventually organized into the
88 Independent Brigade, with four Chinese and one Korean battalion. The Korean battalion
was commanded by Kim Il Sung, future dictator of North Korea. These
troops were used primarily for security duties once Russia intervened
in the war.
Japanese guerrilla activities were limited to "fifth column" operations in southeast Asia during the Centrifugal Offensive. Their extent and impact was greatly exaggerated by the Allies at the time, perhaps to excuse Japanese military success; but there is little doubt that fifth columnists existed and sometimes had a significant effect on operations. Pro-Japanese guerrillas appear to have been most active at Hong Kong and in Burma.
Later in the war, when the Allies began driving the Japanese back, it was not uncommon for Japanese soldiers to hold out in wilderness areas behind Allied lines. However, these were regular troops in uniform who were still technically under the authority of the Emperor, so they did not qualify as guerrillas, and those who eventually gave up were treated as prisoners of war. However, a few of these soldiers remained at large after the general surrender. Some either did not know or refused to believe that Japan had surrendered, and were generally repatriated without fuss when they did finally turn themselves in, sometimes decades after the surrender. A few larger bodies of troops had to be coaxed into surrendering by representatives of the Emperor sent out under Allied direction to see that the surrender terms were effectuated.
The Japanese raised 5 Guerrilla Unit, also known as Mori Special Force, in Burma to
raid the Allied fuel pipeline being laid along the Ledo Road. It is not
clear whether this would best be described as a guerrilla unit or as a
special force, but before it could complete its training, it was committed to raiding the airfields around Meiktila during the seige of March 1945 and largely destroyed.
Chang and Holliday (2005)
Ramsey and Rivele (1990)
Tamayama and Nunneley (2000)
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