Australia and New Zealand celebrate Anzac Day on Sunday, April 25, 2021.
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 two outstanding soldiers of the Royal Australian Army who fought against the Japanese occupiers alongside Filipino and American guerrillas in Tawi-Tawi and Lanao during World War II.
Australian military involvement in the liberation of the Philippines began in June 1943, when eight Australian servicemen who had escaped from Sandakan in Sabah joined the Filipino guerrillas fighting on Tawi-Tawi in the southern Philippines.
Among them were then Robert Kerr “Jock” McLaren and then Lt. Rex Blow of the 2/10th Australian Field Regiment, 8th Australian Division of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) fighting the Japanese in British Malaya and 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 Borneo to a concentration camp. As part of ‘E’ Force, McLaren and Blow were among five hundred British and five hundred Australian prisoners transferred to Borneo in March 1943. The Australians were taken to a camp on Berhala Island, at the entrance to Sandakan harbor in British North Borneo.
They wasted no time in escaping again and stealing a boat from a nearby leper colony, set off to the Tawi- Tawi islands 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.
They soon contacted Filipino guerrillas, who assisted McLaren and six others to link up with the 125th Infantry Regiment in Tawi-Tawi commanded by veteran Philippine Constabulary officer, Col. Alejandro Suarez in June 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 even some sea gypsies.
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 (26-foot) 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 fire its mortar at 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 Military Crosses.
On 2 April 1945 McLaren and Blow headed elements of the guerrilla108th 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 destruction of about 450 enemy troops.
As senior officers at both the guerrilla unit and army levels began to appreciate his initiative and dependability, he 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, Lt. 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. To be mentioned in dispatches (or despatches, MiD) describes a member of the armed forces whose name appears in an official report written by a superior officer and sent to the high command, in which their gallant or meritorious action in the face of the enemy is described.
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.
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.
Blow lived a long life, dying of natural causes at 83. He 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. McLaren was an altogether more elusive figure. Brigadier John Rogers, Australia’s wartime director of military intelligence, described him 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, one 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 a 70,000-peso reward for his capture, dead or alive.
However, the Japanese never caught him again and he died on 3 March 1956, when he was killed in an accident near his home, after he backed a vehicle against a dead tree, and timber fell on him.
Both men’s wartime exploits are well recorded in books: And Tomorrow Freedom: Australian Guerrillas in the Philippines by Sheila Ross, and Bastard Behind the Lines by Tom Gilling.
On this Anzac Day 2021, we remember and honor the memory of Capt. Robert Kerr “Jock” McLaren, and Major Rex Blow. Thank you for your service to the Philippines and its people. We shall never forget.