Tag Archives: Huk

The Insurgent Communist Huks in the Philippines

By Michael Benge

Flag of the communist Hukbalahap

The communist Hukbong Laban sa Hapon (Anti-Japanese Army) or simply Huks, comprised mainly of disenfranchised peasant tenant-farmers of Central Luzon, was only one of several guerrilla groups resisting the Japanese invasion and occupation of the Philippines. The Huks were well received by the villagers and were seen as their protector from the abuses of the Japanese. There were many motivations for people to join: nationalism, empathy, survival, and revenge. Those who could not join the guerrilla army joined the underground government via its “secretly converted neighborhood associations”, called Barrio United Defense Corps. The Huks also tried to recruit beyond Central Luzon but were not as successful.

On March 29, 1942, the communist Hukbong Laban sa Hapon (Huks) was incorporated into a broad-based united front of guerrillas named the — Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon (Hukbalahap) — “The Nation’s Army Against the Japanese”). Soon after, its representatives met with USAFFE (United States Army Forces in the Far East) representative Colonel Thorpe at Camp Sanchez in the spring of 1942, and under this umbrella, the conferees agreed to cooperate, share equipment and supplies, with the Americans providing trainers under USAFFE’s overall command.

Although the communist Huks fought the Japanese, at times, they also fought other guerrilla units under USAFFE as well as killed, pillaged and plundered other Filipino nationalists. Their methods were often portrayed by other guerrilla leaders as terrorists; for example, “Ray C. Hunt, an American who led his own band of 3000 guerrillas, said his experiences with the communist Huks were always unpleasant, they were much better assassins than soldiers.” Tightly disciplined and led by fanatics, they murdered Filipino landlords and drove others off to the comparative safety of Manila. They were not above plundering and torturing ordinary Filipinos, and they were treacherous enemies of all other guerrillas on Luzon. The initial force of 500 armed Huks was organized into five squadrons and “by late summer 1943, Huk leadership claimed to have a fully armed guerrilla force of 5,000 to 20,000 active men and women military fighters and 50,000 more in reserve. By August 1948, the Huks became a trained and experienced force, well-equipped and well-prepared for its guerrilla warfare. Their weaponry was obtained primarily by stealing it from battlefields and downed planes left behind by the Japanese, Filipinos, and Americans. The Huks also created a training school where they taught political theory and military tactics based on Marxist ideas. In areas that the group controlled, they set up local governments and instituted land reforms, dividing up the largest estates equally among the peasants and often killing the landlords.” Among the group’s leaders were figurehead Luis Taruccommunist party Secretary General Jesus Lava, and Commander Hizon (Benjamin Cunanan) who aimed to lead the Philippines toward Marxist ideals and communist revolution.

After the surrender of Japan in WWII and the withdrawal of its forces from the Philippines, most of the guerrilla groups disbanded and went home, or were absorbed into the Philippine Constabulary (civilian police) or the Army. The aftermath of the liberation from Japan was characterized by chaos. The paternal relationship of the large landowners toward the tenant farmers had been virtually destroyed during the war, and life was economically unsustainable for the peasants who had joined the Huks. Moreover, the poor harvest between late 1945 to early 1946 period not only exacerbated the plight of the Huks, it also further intensified the gap between the tenants and the landlords. Added to this, the Huks being a communist-led group were considered to be disloyal and were not accorded U.S. recognition or benefits at the end of the war. Their hardships were aggravated by the hostility they experienced when the Philippine Government, following orders from the United States of America, disarmed and arrested the communist Huks. Harassment and abuses against peasant activists became common. Largely consisting of peasant farmers, the Huks feared for their lives as the USAFFE and the Philippine Constabulary (civilian police) hunted them down. In September 1946, the Huks retreated to the Sierra Madre Mountains and their guerrilla lifestyle as a response to supposed maltreatment by the government and renamed themselves Hukbong Magpapalaya ng Bayan (HMB) or People’s Liberation Army.

Although the communist Huks were only one of a plethora of guerrilla groups in the umbrella organization Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon (Hukbalahap) — “The Nation’s Army Against the Japanese”), originally formed to fight the Japanese. However, in 1946 in what became known as the Hukbalahap Rebellion, the communist Huks extended their fight into a rebellion against the Philippine Government and usurped the Hukbalahap name in an attempt to play off on its patriotic reputation and create a charade of legitimacy among the peasants. Adding to this deception, the Huks claimed that it had extended its guerrilla warfare campaign merely in search of recognition as World War II freedom fighters and former American and Filipino allies who deserved a share of war reparations. In reality, the communist Huks insurrection was but an attempt to take over the entire Philippines. The rebellion lasted for years, with huge civilian casualties.

In 1949, the Huks ambushed and murdered Aurora Quezon, Chairman of the Philippine Red Cross and widow of the Philippines’ second president Manuel L. Quezon, as she was in route to her hometown for the dedication of the Quezon Memorial Hospital.  Several others were also killed, including her eldest daughter and son-in-law. This attack brought worldwide condemnation of the Hukbalahap, who claimed that the attack was done by “renegade” members.

The continuing condemnation and new post-war causes of the movement forced the Communist Party of the Philippines (PKP) in 1950 to reconstitute the organization as the armed wing of a revolutionary party and change the official name to Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB) or “Peoples’ Liberation Army”; likely changing it in emulation of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Notwithstanding this name change, the HMB continued to be popularly known as the Hukbalahap, and the English-speaking press and the U.S. Army command continued to refer to it and its members, interchangeably, as “The Huks” during the whole period between 1945 and 1952, and commentators have continued to do so since then.

The start of the 1950s saw the beginning of the rebellion’s decline. There was general weariness among the people from years of fighting.  Many prominent Huk leaders either had died or were too old to fight, and those that remained were few. To make things worse, the villagers of Central Luzon showed signs of becoming weary of supporting them or just saw them as irrelevant. Public sympathies for the movement began waning due to their postwar attacks. The Huks carried out a campaign of raids, holdups, robbery, ambushes, murder, rape, massacre of small villages, kidnapping, and intimidation. The Huks confiscated funds and property to sustain their movement and relied on small village organizers for political and material support. Nevertheless, from Central Luzon, the Huk movement had spread to the central provinces of Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Tarlac, Bulacan, and in Nueva Vizcaya, Pangasinan, Laguna, Bataan, and Quezon.

In June 1950, American alarm over the Huk rebellion during the cold war prompted President Truman to approve special military assistance that included military advice, sale at cost of military equipment to the Philippines and financial aid under the Joint United States Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG). Soon after, Major Ed Lansdale, an experienced covert intelligence operator who cut his teeth in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during WWII, was appointed Chief of the Intelligence Division in the Philippines.  Elpidio Quirino, the president of the Philippines, immediately requested Lansdale’s help in his fight against the communist insurrection taking place in his country. Allen Dulles, also a former OSS officer who headed the CIA, then gave Lansdale $5-million to finance CIA operations against the Huks. Among others, Lansdale’s main task was to rebuild the country’s security services. Prior to being assigned to the Philippines, Lansdale had met Senator Ramon Magsaysay who was on a study tour in Washington, DC, and judged him to be very intelligent and nationalistic; Lansdale quickly developed a close friendship with him. In September, Magsaysay was appointed as Minister of National Defense on American advice. The following month, Magsaysay captured the Secretariat of the Peoples’ Liberation Army including the general secretary Jose Lava, following the earlier capture of the Politburo in Manila. Magsaysay felt that the Philippine Army’s first priority should be devoted to the well-being and protection of the rural population.

Rather than being an advisor per se, Landsdale’s modus operandi was to invite Magsaysay and his staff to informal, friendly get-togethers, usually coffee klatches or over lunch, and in Madison Avenue advertising agency-style brainstorming sessions, he would skillfully start discussion to mull over problems, obstacles, ideas or pose questions, and under Ramon Magsaysay‘s leadership together the Filipinos would come up with suggestions for solutions.

Lansdale wielded a wide array of counterinsurgency and psywar (psychological warfare) tactics; Psywar and civic-action were favorites of Lansdale, thus you can see the result of his style of friendly persuasion and even perhaps a faint imprint of a velvet glove on many of the actions taken Magsaysay and his staff. He firmly believed that you had to flip the communist’s propaganda against them and drain the water in which Mao’s fish swam. Examples include:

  • The Army and the Philippine Constabulary (PC, i.e., civilian police) was purged of corrupt and inefficient officials and the abuses of the peasants and others were stopped. Both the Army and the PC received civic-action training received the wherewithal to conduct actions in both rural and urban areas.
  • Psywar teams were created and trained and embedded in all military units and set into action before, during and after all military operations including those areas where the Huks had hit-and-run.   Landsdale conducted research into local superstitions and his psywar advice was innovative and it became apparent in some of the psywar activities of the teams embedded with Battalion Combat Teams (BCT). The villagers’ belief in vampires, and in ghosts of the dead was exploited, such as playing upon the popular dread of an asuangs, or vampires. When a Huk patrol came along the trail, the ambushers silently snatched the last man of the patrol. They then punctured his neck with two holes, vampire-fashion, held the body up by the heels, drained it of blood, and put the corpse back on the trail. When the Huks returned to look for the missing man and found their bloodless comrade, every member of the patrol believed that the asuang had got him and that one of them would be next. In the ‘Eye of God’ campaign, suspected guerrillas living in a village were targets of psywar teams that surreptitiously painted a menacing eye on a wall facing the suspect’s hut. Lansdale noted that such tactics were remarkably effective.”
  • Magsaysay set up a Complaint and Action Commission (CAC) whereby any citizen had the right to send a telegram free of charge to CAC of any local injustices and abuses of power. Investigators were immediately sent out on surprise inspection trips in response to legitimate complaints to investigate and resolve the complaint; reports of abuses by the Army had first priority. With these reforms, the Philippine peasants no longer saw the need for “Huk justice”.

·      The Economic Development Corps (EDCOR) program was set up to lure disenfranchised peasants away from the Huks. Those who voluntarily surrendered were resettled in new settlements far removed from their operational bases, given land, provided with agricultural extension services and credit to ensure a productive new start. (A similar Chieu Hoi program was launched in 1963 in Vietnam.)

Major military offensives were launched and the army became innovative in pursuing the Huks in the mountains.  An important movement in the campaign against the Huks was the deployment of hunter-killer counter-guerrilla special units; the “Nenita” unit commanded by Major Napoleon Valeriano was the first of such Special Forces whose main mission was to eliminate the Huks’ infrastructure (a somewhat similar operation, the Phoenix program, was in operation in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972). In July 1950, Major Valeriano assumed command of the elite 7th BCT that developed a reputation toward employing a more comprehensive unconventional counter-insurgency strategy thus reducing collateral damage from operations.

American assistance allowed Magsaysay to create more BCTs, bringing the total to twenty-six by 1951 and army strength had increased by 60 percent over the previous year. Thus the army was able to vastly increase the use of mobile strike forces in offensive campaigns against the Huks. By 1954, Valeriano was promoted to Colonel and had developed the tactic of employing psywar through combat intelligence and infiltration that relied on secrecy in planning, training, and execution of attack by the mobile striking forces.

With the all-out anti-dissidence campaigns against the Huks, they numbered less than 2,000 by 1954 and without the protection and support of locals, active Huk resistance no longer presented a serious threat to Philippine security. From February to mid-September 1954, the largest anti-Huk operation, “Operation Thunder-Lightning” was conducted and resulted in the surrender of Luis Taruc on May 17. Further cleanup operations of guerillas remaining lasted throughout 1955 diminishing its number to less than 1,000 by year’s end.

Magsaysay’s leadership and actions combined with Lansdale’s application of advertising principles and media manipulation that led to the honest election of Ramon Magsaysay as president in 1953; Ramon del Fierro Magsaysay is considered the best president that the Philippines ever had.

From his experiences in the Philippines, Lansdale framed his basic theory that Communist revolution was best confronted by democratic revolution. He came to advocate a four-sided campaign of social, economic and political aspects combined with military actions. 

Viet Nam: The Great White Hope

Because of Lansdale’s success in aiding in the defeat of the communist Huks in the Philippines, he was tapped by President John F. Kennedy to see if he could once again pull a magical rabbit from Viet Nam’s hat as he had in the Philippines. Lansdale had developed a close personal relationship with the dynamic Ramon Magsaysay, first in Washington, D.C. when Magsaysay was serving as Chairman of the Committee on Guerrilla Affairs for the Philippine House of Representatives, then as the Philippine Secretary of Defense and later as President. Magsaysay and his staff willingly worked with Lansdale to implement the necessary reforms to defeat the Huks. In the Philippines, Lansdale had carte blanche – complete operational freedom, full support of the important politicians in Washington, D.C., and no interference from the other Americans, civilian or military, who were stationed in the Philippines. However, Viet Nam was a horse of a different color, a nation with a myriad of almost insurmountable problems.

Governance in Viet Nam was a family affair. President Ngô Đình Diệm was held in high esteem by the Vietnamese people; some thought he had a mandate from heaven. However, he had an albatross around his neck — his powerful and devious brother and principal advisor Ngô Đình Nhu, who was the personification of evil, and his wife with a venom-glazed tongue and scalding temper – the de facto First Lady – aka the Dragon Lady.

Viet Nam was a daunting task, and although Lansdale had developed an amicable relationship with President Ngô Đình Diệm in the early days of the establishment of the Republic of South Viet Nam, it wasn’t long before he found out that he lacked the necessary unbridled support from U.S. politicians as he had enjoyed in the Philippines. Instead, he faced high-level government bureaucrats and military brass both in Washington and Saigon who continuously marked and fiercely defended their perceived territories in lieu of providing positive contributions to Viet Nam. This was compounded by an endless stream of advisors offering inaccurate advice, political tourists, and members of the misleading media. The environment was hugely competitive and rife with backstabbing. The prevalent attitude among the diplomats and military brass was, “What is good for General Bull Moose is good for everybody.”*

All this culminated in the U.S.-generated military coup d’état against the Diệms. After the leading Vietnamese general had been promised safe passage for President Diệm via an American aircraft, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge welched on the promise and refused to provide the plane – ringing the death knell for the unfortunate President Diệm and perhaps Viet Nam.

The magical rabbit was dead upon arrival preventing any chance for the counter-insurgency tactics used so effectively by Lansdale in the Philippines to succeed.

*The bombastic General Bashington T. Bullmoose was a character created by Al Capp for his satirical comic strip Li’l Abner.