Bellingham soldier was guerrilla leader in the Philippines during World War II

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 12, 2012 

Birch Bay retiree Stuart Bowler has his father's dog tag and Army paperwork from World War II, a few newspaper articles about his dad, and a few mementoes, including swords given to his father in thanks by some Filipinos.

Stories about his father's wartime activities show up in scattered books, reports and memoirs, but his father never sat down to write his own definitive account.

That's a shame, because his dad, Lt. Col. Robert V. Bowler - born near Spokane, educated at Washington State University and domiciled with his wife and son in her hometown of Bellingham during the war - held a unique position from the start of the war until the Philippines were retaken from the Japanese nearly four years later.

His father, a tall, good-looking businessman, was a guerrilla fighter.

"Robert V. Bowler is to me one of the greatest of the guerrilla leaders," the Rev. Edward Haggerty wrote in his 1946 wartime memoir, "Guerrilla Padre In Mindanao."

"He traveled on foot and on horseback more than any other commander, and knew his officers and most of his men in a very personal way; and he never left a friend down," Haggerty wrote. "He spoke often of his home in Bellingham, his lovely wife and towheaded son."

UNKNOWN GUERRILLAS

Ask most people about resistance fighters during WWII and they'll likely think of the brave underground fighters who resisted the Nazis in Europe.

But on the other side of the globe, hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos organized themselves to resist the Japanese, who attacked the Philippines one day after Pearl Harbor.

In a 1982 paper, a Marine Corps colonel called the resistance in the Philippines the "first historical example of Americans, military and civilian, organizing guerrilla units on a grand scale."

With the U.S. military taking a "Europe first" approach to fighting the worldwide war, the guerrillas in the Philippines played an important role by forcing the Japanese to keep more troops there than they would have liked.

Bowler graduated from WSU in 1932 and went into business, running a company that sold a weatherproofing product. A member of the Army Reserve, he was called to active duty as war approached and sent to Manila, capital of the Philippines.

Five days before Pearl Harbor he left for assignment to the 38th Division on Mindanao, second largest of the 7,100-plus islands that make up the Philippines. Bowler was in some mountains with his Filipino troops when U.S. officials on Mindanao surrendered. Bowler didn't learn about it until 10 days later.

"I sent my troops home but I had no intention of surrendering myself," he later told a newspaper reporter.

Bowler established his resistance headquarters in the middle of the island, and soon had about 1,000 guerrillas under his command, most of them Filipinos.

Friction existed between various guerrilla groups on Mindanao and elsewhere in the Philippines. Over time, the groups on Mindanao came under the direction of Col. Wendell Fertig, with Bowler second in command and overseeing six of the eight guerrilla organizations on the island.

"At one time he could probably have controlled more guerrillas than any leader in Mindanao, but he gladly threw in his forces with Fertig for the sake of unity," Haggerty wrote in his memoir.

A newspaper article later estimated that Bowler commanded some 27,500 guerrillas. Other reports put the total number of guerrillas on Mindanao at 33,000 to 36,000.

Early on, Bowler and other guerrilla leaders on the island, many of them U.S. soldiers, focused on recruiting members, establishing a civil government, winning civilian support, punishing collaborators, gathering intelligence, and engaging in raids and ambushes against the better-armed Japanese. Bowler estimated his forces killed several thousand of the enemy.

At one point, a Japanese commander placed a bounty of 2,000 pesos on Bowler's head. Displaying his sense of wit, Bowler wrote to the commander saying he was insulted by such a small sum. The commander upped the prize to 10,000 pesos.

Along with fighting the Japanese, the guerrillas fought malaria and other jungle diseases, persistent hunger, a lack of heavy weapons and a lack of medical supplies. One guerrilla, an Australian, used a mirror and a razor blade to remove his own appendix. It took him five hours.

At first, the Japanese controlled the coastal towns on Mindanao and largely left the interior to the guerrillas. But starting late in 1943 they launched attacks meant to kill every American on the island.

Probably not coincidentally, the guerrillas had established radio contact with Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters in Australia by early 1943. They could now radio details about Japanese activities to MacArthur, and U.S. subs could ferry supplies to the guerrillas.

In late May 1944, for example, a sub surfaced off the northwest coast of Mindanao with 62 tons of cargo. Bowler boarded the sub to oversee the unloading. Less than a week later, Bowler and about 30 small boats met another sub in the same area to haul away 96 tons of supplies, including ammo and diesel fuel.

When U.S. forces returned to the Philippines in the autumn of 1944, Bowler and other guerrillas used their on-the-ground knowledge to help guide the troops, plan operations and reduce casualties. For such assistance, Bowler received the Bronze Star, one of his many service honors.

AFTER THE WAR

Once Mindanao was liberated, Bowler was flown to the states to reunite with his wife, Lillian (Pierce), and his son. He retired from the Army and became a State Trooper. But a war wound, shrapnel in his back, got in the way.

"His back bothered his sitting all day in the car," Stuart Bowler said.

Bowler next took a job working as a purchasing agent for Boeing, so the family moved to Seattle. While there, Bowler received a surprise home visit from someone he had befriended while stationed at Fort Lewis; President Eisenhower.

"We sat around that evening and talked about old times," Stuart Bowler recalled.

Robert V. Bowler died in 1998 at the age of 90. He's buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, near Ferndale.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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