Captain Nieves Fernandez shows to an American soldier how she used her long knife to silently kill Japanese soldiers during occupation, 1944. Photo courtesy of https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/captain-nieves-fernandez-1944/
Resistance forces that are formed in an instant as a means to fight oppression are typically led by seasoned fighters — military leaders who are hand-picked to train and equip a much larger force in unconventional warfare. Captain Nieves Fernandez didn’t have experience, but she had moxie. The former school teacher known to her students as Miss Fernandez was a witness to the violence and unfair prosecution against the Filipino populace who had lived under constant fear in Japanese-occupied Visayas, a group of islands in the Philippines, during World War II.
“But when the Japs came, no one could keep anything,” she told a reporter from the Lewiston Daily Sun in November 1944. “They took everything they wanted.”
The Japanese would subject business owners and the townspeople of Tacloban to scalding-hot or ice-cold baths in an attempt to persuade their decisions through torture. Fernandez had enough of it and convinced men in the local municipality to join her cause. The Waray guerrillas, as they were known to the American forces in the area, were sometimes referenced as “The Gas Pipe Gang” for their use of improvised weapons such as shotguns fashioned out of gas pipes and loaded with a combination of gunpowder and nails.
For two and a half years, the 38-year-old resistance fighter ran through the port city barefoot and set up ambushes in the forest. The only female guerrilla commander in the Philippines wore a black dress and committed “silent killings” armed with a bolo knife. Her inspiration and fury acquired a following of 110-strong guerrilla fighters who killed an estimated 200 Japanese soldiers. Their run-and-gun effort equipped with a few spare American rifles and handmade grenades was so destructive that the Japanese issued a 10,000 pesos bounty on her head.
When American forces convened in the strategic Gulf of Leyte, General Douglas MacArthur made the city of Tacloban a logistical Allied military base by October 1944. This furthered relations between Filipino guerrilla fighters and American troops.
Notably, the most successful and daring hostage rescue mission ever attempted was accomplished on Jan. 30, 1945. The assault force included 121 U.S. Army Rangers from 6th Ranger Battalion, 13 Alamo Scouts, and an estimated 250 Filipino guerrillas. They snuck behind enemy lines, launched a surprise nighttime operation against the Cabanatuan POW camp, liberated 489 POWs and civilians who had survived the infamous Bataan Death March, many of whom were Americans, and trekked back across American lines.
However, a deaf British POW named Edwin Rose was unaccounted for after the Rangers administered a headcount. They decided it was too dangerous to reenter the compound and expected Japanese reinforcements to converge on the location at any minute.
The POWs were described as “the walking dead” and were in bad shape. Rose had fallen asleep on the toilet and missed the battle, then the liberation, and was left behind. He awoke in the morning to find the camp completely empty of his peers, so he shaved his hairy face, put on his best attire, and walked out of the camp. He was soon discovered by a group of Filipino guerrillas who were sent in to search for their missing man. The heroism and fighting spirit of the guerrillas helped the allies defeat the Japanese in contested islands of the Philippines.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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