Australia and New Zealand celebrate Anzac Day on Monday, April 25, 2022.
Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served”.
Observed on 25 April each year, Anzac Day was first intended to honor members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who served in the Gallipoli Campaign, their first engagement in the First World War (1914–1918).
For this year’s commemoration of Anzac Day, we honor the memory of three outstanding soldiers of the Royal Australian Army who fought against the Japanese occupiers alongside Filipino and American guerrillas in Tawi-Tawi and Mindanao during World War II.
Australian military involvement in the liberation of the Philippines began in June 1943, when eight Australian Servicemen who escaped from Sandakan in Sabah joined the Filipino guerrillas fighting on Tawi-Tawi in the southern Philippines.
Among them were then Lt. Rex Blow, Sgt. Walter Wallace, and Pte. Robert Kerr “Jock” McLaren from the 8th Australian Division of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) fighting the Japanese in British Malaya then became prisoners-of-war (POWs) with the fall of Singapore.
McLaren and two others escaped but were betrayed, recaptured and again imprisoned in Singapore. They contrived to add themselves to a contingent of prisoners being sent to a concentration camp in British North Borneo.
As part of ‘E’ Force, McLaren and Blow were among five hundred British and five hundred Australian prisoners transferred to North Borneo in March 1943. The Australians were taken to a camp on Berhala Island, at the entrance to Sandakan harbor in British North Borneo.
Sgt Walter Wallace, Pte Howard Harvey and Pte Theodore MacKay (serving as McKenzie) were part of the “B” Force and made a separate break on May 1943. Harvey and MacKay were betrayed by five Malays to the Japanese and executed, but Wallace escaped to Berhala Island where he joined Blow, McLaren and five other Australians aboard a “Kumpit” piloted by a Filipino guerrilla Corporal Cuadra on June 26th for Tawi-Tawi in Southern Philippines where they were told other Australians were fighting as guerrillas. Their escape from Berhala Island saved their lives as they then missed the early 1945 Sandakan Death Marches.
McLaren and six others soon linked up with the 125th Infantry Regiment in Tawi-Tawi commanded by veteran Philippine Constabulary officer, Lt. Col. Alejandro Suarez in June 30, 1943.
This group was recognized by Col. Wendell W. Fertig, the commanding officer of the 10th Military District, Mindanao guerrillas, and composed primarily of Muslim Tausugs, Samals, some Christians and some sea gypsies.
On July 1, 1943, the entire group was absorbed into the 125th Infantry Regiment with the following ranks and appointments:
Capt. Ray E. Steele — Assistant Executive Officer, and Regimental Training Officer.
Lieut. Charles Wagner — Regimental Intelligence Officer.
Lieut. Rex Blow — C.O. 1st Battalion.
Lieut. Miles Gillon – 2nd in command, 1st Battalion.
Sgt. Walter Wallace — Chief Instructor to the Regiment.
Sapper James Kennedy, Private Rex Butler, Private Jock McLaren Assistant Instructors.
From being escaped prisoners of the 8th Australian Division, they were now members of the United States Forces in the Philippines.
McLaren had been promoted sergeant in July and served with distinction in the Philippines, receiving a field commission (January 1944) and the rank of temporary captain (April 1945) with the 105th Infantry Regiment in Tawi-Tawi, and later with the 108th Division in Lanao.
From early 1943 the Filipino guerrillas were supplied by submarine with weapons and equipment from Australia. One delivery brought an 8-meter whaleboat.
McLaren took a fancy to the vessel and fitted it with a 20mm cannon in the bow, a .50-calibre gun in the rear and twin .30-inch guns amidships. He was tempted to add an 81mm mortar until Blow warned him that if he ever fired the mortar it would “blow her stern off”.
McLaren named his boat the Bastard and sailed up and down the coast disrupting enemy supplies and destroying installations. He attacked Japanese small craft and coastal installations with dash and aggression, qualities he also displayed when commanding combat patrols on land.
The boat would sail into Japanese-controlled ports in daylight hours, direct its automatic fire at the piers and Japanese boats. It is said that its crew would even challenge the Japanese by sending them invitations. This craft was also effective against Japanese aircraft.
On one mission he and his handpicked Moro crew sailed into the well-defended harbor at Parang, Sulu on the west coast of Mindanao, sinking three enemy vessels. That action won him the first of his two Military Crosses.
After the reconquest of Mindanao, the Americans wanted to give him the Bronze Star Medal; the proposed citation noted that through his “outstanding courage and resourcefulness” he had made a “marked contribution to the liberation of Mindanao”. (For reasons of Australian military protocol, he never received this medal.)
On 2 April 1945 McLaren and Blow headed elements of the guerrilla force’s 108th Division in an assault on the last Japanese stronghold in Lanao province. Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Hedges, the American division commander, recorded that the fighting ended with the capture of the garrison and the annihilation of about 450 enemy troops.
As senior officers at both the guerrilla unit and army levels began to appreciate his initiative and dependability, McLaren was often assigned to make small unit and solo forays into Japanese held areas for intelligence. Toward the end of the war, high-level U.S. and Australian commands relied on him to penetrate Japanese areas in the Philippines and former Dutch colonies ahead of planned invasions for the latest intelligence and to scout possible enemy routes of retreat which could then be interdicted.
As a member of the American forces in the Philippines, McLaren was under U.S. command. However, on 20 April 1945, upon the request of the Australians who had a need for his talents, General Robert L. Eichelberger personally signed an order releasing McLaren back to Australian command.
During the course of his service, McLaren was decorated with the Military Cross twice for his heroic actions, as well as being Mentioned in Despatches.
His M.C. citation read: ‘throughout the whole of his service with the Guerilla Forces, Captain McLaren displayed outstanding leadership in battle and had no regard for his personal safety. His cheerful imperturbability was an inspiration to all with whom he came into contact’. The Americans awarded him the Philippines Liberation ribbon.
After US troops invaded Mindanao in April 1945, Australian war correspondents rushed to report the exploits of Jock McLaren and his fellow guerrillas.
According to the Sydney Sun, McLaren and his friend Blow “established an almost legendary reputation for daring and brilliant jungle fighting”. The Perth Daily News reported that after escaping from Sandakan, the pair “cross[ed] over to the southern Philippines in a six-foot dugout, killing some Japanese and destroying enemy outposts on the way”.
Like many of the stories published about them, it was mostly fiction: the only firearm they had was Blow’s .38 revolver. Far from “shooting up enemy patrols”, both men took great care to avoid them.
The Sun told its readers that McLaren and his companions “lived with the blood-thirsty Moros on Tawi- Tawi Island”, at times subsisting “for months at a time on bananas and roots”. McLaren was said to have become famous for his skill with the native machete, “with which he lopped many Jap heads”.
McLaren was an elusive figure, described by Brigadier John Rogers, Australia’s wartime director of military intelligence, as a “cloak and dagger” man.
Having begun the war as a private in a field workshop, repairing and maintaining artillery, he ended it as a captain in special operations, but circumstances meant that most of his war was spent out of sight of the authorities. Between April 1942 and April 1944 his service record lists him as “missing”; then “reported prisoner of war”; and finally “escaped & on active service – no date given”.
Captain Ray Steele, another of the group that escaped from Sandakan, remembered him as “completely fearless”. On Mindanao, McLaren’s reckless bravery soon made him a marked man. According to Richardson, the Japanese published a bulletin with his photograph and the promise of a 70,000 pesos reward for his capture, dead or alive.
Except for a short leave in Australia toward the end of the war, he spent most of the war years serving as a coast watcher and guerrilla leader.
However, the Japanese never caught him again and he died on 3 March 1956, when he was killed in an accident near his home.
Blow was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for “highly successful command and leadership during active operations” by the UK, and the Silver Star, third-highest military decoration for valor in combat by the US Army for his service with the guerrillas in the Philippines.
Despite the time he spent incommunicado as a prisoner of war and a guerrilla fighter, his war was quite well documented. He went on to live a long life, dying of natural causes at 83.
Wallace was responsible for training the Tawi-Tawi Signal Corps which supplied key intelligence to US Navy submarines which resulted to the sinking of approximately sixty Japanese ships in the waters round Tawi-Tawi and Sulu equivalent to roughly 130,000 tons of shipping, and about 150,000 soldiers.
Although he also later moved to Mindanao, Wallace’s frequent bouts of malaria precluded his taking a more active role in the Resistance, and his ailment caused him to struggled mightily as he traveled the Mindanao seas made perilous by the constant presence of hostile Japanese navy and aircraft, and having to trudge through the rugged terrain and jungles of Zamboanga del Norte, Misamis Occidental, Lanao del Norte, Misamis Oriental and Agusan province.
He was finally picked up by the submarine USS Narwhal at Butuan Bay on March 3, 1944 and arrived in Darwin, Australia on March 11, 1944. While being debriefed by Brigadier J. D. Roberts of the Australian Intelligence Section in Brisbane, he learned that he was the first Australian prisoner of war to escape successfully from a Japanese prison camp, and the only one to escape from Sandakan and arrive in Australia. He finally arrived home in Sydney on 24 March 1944, 11 months after his escape from Sandkan and epic journeys through Tawi- Tawi and Mindanao.
For his escape, and for his work in the Philippines, Warrant Officer Wallace, AX 58809, A.I.F., was mentioned in Dispatches for ” Distinguished Service in the South-West Pacific Area” (Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 34/46). This was followed by the award of the Bronze Star Medal from the President of the United States. (Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 122/48),for which he was granted permission by King George VI for performing meritorious service at Tawi-Tawi, Philippines, from July to October, 1943.
His Bronze Star citation reads further: As Regimental Signal Officer, he demonstrated efficiency in the operation of the signal unit 125th Infantry Regiment (Guerrillas). His submission of timely information regarding the presence of enemy shipping in the Sulu and Celebes Seas resulted in their destruction. His judicious decision and devotion to duty was a source of inspiration to the men in his unit and reflected the highest credit on the service.
Lest we forget
These men’s wartime exploits are well recorded in books: And Tomorrow Freedom: Australian Guerrillas in the Philippines by Sheila Ross, Bastard Behind the Lines by Tom Gilling, and Escape from Hell: The Sandakan Story, Walter Wallace’s first person account of his epic escape from Sandakan and adventures in Tawi-Tawi and Mindanao, Philippines.
On this Anzac Day 2022, we remember and honor the memory of Major Rex Blow, Capt. Robert Kerr “Jock” McLaren, Warrant Officer Walter Wallace and other Australian soldiers who served in the Resistance in the Philippines . Thank you for your service to our country and its people. We shall never forget.
- Holmes, Kent. Wendell Fertig and His Guerrilla Forces in the Philippines: 1942-1945) pp. 110
- Australian War Memorial
- Gilling, Tom. Jock McLaren, Australia’s ‘cloak and dagger’ war hero, The Weekend Australian, January 30, 2021 (Retrieved April 24, 2021)
- Wallace, Walter. Escape from hell: the Sandakan story. London, Robert Hale, 1958.
- Chilvers, Colin. Sandakan Prisoner of War Camp WWII – Northwest Borneo. (Retrieved 22 April 2022)
- Australians in Borneo during World War II, Borneo Tour Specialists, borneo.com.au,(Retrieved 22 April 2022)