Soldier’s Story Best Seller Captures Story Of Leader Of Guerrilla Forces And Self-Promoted General Who Played A Valuable Role In Philippine Fighting

A famous black and white photo from LIFE Magazine shows Gen. Douglas MacArthur striding to shore through the shin-deep surf of the Philippine Islands.

The victorious MacArthur, followed by a carrier-full of soldiers, was reclaiming the islands from the Japanese and fulfilling his famous pledge to the Filipinos that “I shall return.”

When Pat Hudson, a Coeur d’Alene resident and part-time Post Falls librarian, looks at the photo, she thinks of her father, Lt. Col. Wendall Fertig.

Fertig was thought to be insane by the military establishment when he declared himself a general and took command of guerrilla forces on a Philippine island.

His story hit the best-seller lists in W.E.B. Griffin’s book “Behind the Lines.”

If not for Fertig and other guerrilla fighters, the victorious 1945 scene may have looked much, much different.

“He (Fertig) didn’t do well with authority,” Hudson recalled as she sat at a Post Falls Library table, surrounded by books, one with the LIFE photo on its cover.

“He would have been more famous than he was, had he had any help from MacArthur,” she said.

Griffin’s book, released in January, has been on national best-seller lists for weeks. It is currently No. 9 on the Publishers Weekly list.

The fictional tale is based on the real-life adventures of Fertig, who commanded guerrilla forces on the Philippine island of Mindanao after U.S. forces formerly surrendered the islands to the Japanese in May 1942.

As part of Griffin’s best-selling series on the U.S. Marine Corps, the book is hard to find. Local libraries have long waiting lists and many bookstores are out of stock.

Hudson and her daughter Tricia Forbes, who grew up on her grandpa’s war stories, say the book is pretty accurate, despite Griffin’s literary license with a few historical details.

Fertig was a mining engineer and a manager of mines in the Philippines when war broke out in 1941. A reserve officer with the Army Corps of Engineers, Fertig went on active duty.

When it became apparent that MacArthur’s forces could not hold the Philippines without reinforcements, MacArthur moved his command from the Philippines to Australia in March.

Fertig’s wife, Mary, and two daughters (Hudson was 12 at the time) escaped on the last ship out of the Philippines before the Japanese arrived, Hudson said.

“The next ship was sunk,” she said. “Everyone on board was lost.”

They went from living the Manila country-club life, where they frequented the yacht club and servants attended to their every need, to being nearly penniless in Golden, Colo. Fertig was assumed missing in action, and then dead. As a result, his family lost all their government benefits.

“My mother kept saying, ‘He’s not dead. If he was dead, I’d know,’ ” Hudson recalled.

In fact, Fertig had escaped to Mindanao, a large, mountainous island from which many serviceman hoped to make their escape to Australia.

Fertig reportedly gave up his spot on one of the last outgoing airplanes to a nurse. Instead of escape or surrender, Fertig melted into the jungle like many other Filipino and American servicemen.

When he could find no organized guerrilla force or any higher ranking officer than himself, Fertig promoted himself to brigadier general and took command.

“To the Filipinos, everyone’s a colonel,” explained Forbes, who lives in Post Falls. “So he had to promote himself to general so they would take him seriously.”

It worked.

Fertig had a Moro metalsmith fashion general’s stars for him from silver coins. He posted fliers and word spread through the “bamboo telegraph” that he was in command of guerrilla forces on the island.

The loyalty Filipinos felt toward Americans and their common distrust of the Japanese helped Fertig bring together a cohesive force that grew to 35,000 - many of whom were barefoot and had no better weapon than a machete.

“He created a nation out of chaos on the island,” wrote John Keats in his 1963 historical book “They Fought Alone,” which also made the best-seller lists upon its release. “Fertig happened to be the man who brought the Moros, pagans, Christian Filipinos and white men of Mindanao together in a common cause.

“This was a feat that four centuries of Spanish and forty years of prior American rule had failed to accomplish.”

Keats based much of his book on Fertig’s diary, a treasure Hudson has inherited. When Keats visited the Philippines with Fertig, the Filipinos honored Fertig with a hero’s parade and some wept as they sang “God Bless America” for him.

In his book, Griffin captures the natural ability Fertig had to lead the disparate men who came his way.

In one exchange between two Marines who had just finished their jungle wanderings at Fertig’s headquarters, Sgt. Percy Lewis Everly asks his lieutenant, “Is this General Fertig going to be able to do any damage to the Japs?”

Lt. James Weston answered, “Yes, I’m sure he is.” Then he thought, “I’ll be damned. I really believe that,” Griffin wrote.

Fertig was an unconventional officer. He wore a traditional Moro hat and let his beard grow into a red goatee.

But even sight unseen, the Americans had a hard time believing he was real, or - if he was real - if he was sane.

Using an old radio transmitter assembled from scrounged materials by a young Filipino, Fertig tried to raise MacArthur’s headquarters daily.

The Japanese had difficulty locating the transmitter because of its mountainous location.

Weeks after his first transmission, he finally got a reply from a Navy communications station in San Francisco, asking him to confirm who he was by giving his daughter’s name and the city she lived in. But it wasn’t until early 1943 that the San Francisco authorities authorized messages to come from MacArthur’s headquarters.

Griffin’s book suggests that MacArthur was reluctant to acknowledge the existence of guerrilla forces on the islands because he had already told President Roosevelt that guerrilla operations in the Philippines were impossible in the fall of 1942.

“He was embarrassed when he found out that Fertig already had one (a guerrilla force),” Forbes speculated.

In Griffin’s book, Fertig asked the U.S. station to pass along this message to his family: “Having pineapples for breakfast.”

But in real life, Hudson said, Fertig sent that message in a letter transported by a bomber pilot. When his wife got the letter, she knew he was alive and on the island where the Del Monte plantation was.

An FBI agent visited Mary Fertig, and she passed along that information to him, Hudson said.

After that, submarines started arriving with supplies to the island.

“The first thing they (Fertig’s forces) asked for was food,” Hudson said. But, “the first guy off the submarine was a psychiatrist. My father said, ‘I could have killed them.’ “

The U.S. sent more radio transmitters, and the guerrillas established a radio network to report on ship movements and other Japanese activities. Their intelligence work and harassment of the Japanese greatly helped MacArthur reclaim the islands in 1945.

When Fertig finally returned home to Colorado, Hudson was 16. The rest of her young life was marked by a steady stream of visitors.

“The doorbell would ring, and there would be this little Filipino man,” Hudson recalled. “He would say, ‘Is General Fertig here?’ “

Fertig was often their only hope for getting paid for their service in the guerrilla forces. “My father had a phenomenal memory,” she said. And “he had documentation on all of it.”

Fertig was decorated with more than a dozen ribbons and medals for his service in the Philippines, and earned the admiration of his children and grandchildren - although he struck them as a bit stern and frightening when they were young.

Fertig died in Colorado in 1975. The Army never did promote him above lieutenant colonel, a fact that still rankles his granddaughter, who devoured Griffin’s book when it came out.

“It doesn’t seem quite right, does it?” Forbes said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color) Map of the Philippines

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