Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 23, 2023

Moro Warrior: A Philippine Chieftain, an American Schoolmaster, and The Untold Story of the Most Remarkable Resistance Fighters of World War II in the Pacific (2022), by Thomas McKenna

As I wrote in a recent #6Degrees, we tend to have a skewed version of WW2 events, often limited to the General Macarthur narrative that prevails in the Pacific War.  If I didn’t subscribe to the Asian Review of Books, I might have never have heard of Thomas McKenna’s Moro Fighter or learned about the Filipino heroes of the Resistance movement.  The US was pivotal to the defeat of the Japanese in WW2, but they did not fight alone in the Philippines (or anywhere else).

About the book (from the AmazonAU website)

Moro Warrior tells the remarkable true story of the Philippine Muslim (Moro) resistance fighters of World War II — the most successful and least-known guerrillas of the Pacific Theatre. It is the story of Mohammad Adil, a sword-wielding warrior chieftain commissioned as a junior officer in Douglas MacArthur’s guerrilla army while still a teenager. Confident in his secret protective powers learned from a Sufi master, Adil roamed the highland rainforests with a price on his head, attacking Japanese outposts, surviving ambushes, and gaining a reputation as a man who could not be killed.

It is also the story of the colonial official Edward Kuder, foster father to Mohammad Adil and a rare American friend to the Moros, who sheltered him during the Japanese occupation. Kuder was the sole chronicler of the early Moro resistance — an armed opposition so vigorous that the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army found themselves outfought time and again by Moro irregulars.

When the soldiers of the Empire of Japan invaded their homeland, the Moros, sometimes with swords as their only weapons, bravely fought on alone after the rapid American surrender of the Philippines. At the urging of Edward Kuder, they later joined the American-led guerrilla movement that emerged in 1943 and served with distinction, but their exceptional contribution to the defeat of the Japanese occupiers and the liberation of the Philippines has never been properly acknowledged. Here, based on the vivid recollections of Mohammad Adil and the wartime writings of Edward Kuder, the extraordinary achievements and sacrifices of the Moro freedom fighters of Mindanao finally receive their full due.

The AmazonAU website tells us that McKenna is an anthropologist who has worked among Moro communities in the Philippines and spent decades writing and conducting research on their culture and history.  He interrogates the narratives at hand: the recollections of Mohammad Adil, a sword-wielding warrior chieftain commissioned as a junior officer in Douglas MacArthur’s guerrilla army while still a teenager and the writings of the colonial official Edward Kuder, foster father to Mohammad Adil and a rare American friend to the Moros, who sheltered him during the Japanese occupation. McKenna confirms Adil’s stories and Kuder’s writings with records from military archives. These stories amplify the Wikipedia version of Philippine Resistance here and here.

Mohammad Adil is not much more than a boy at the beginning of McKenna’s book, and what gives the story authenticity is the acknowledgement of the mistakes that were made.  In later years as he learned to trust McKenna, Adil confessed to comic blunders and tragic missteps, disappointments and regrets. Well, normal people aren’t born with the strategic skills, expertise and cunning to combat an occupier, and resistance fighters have to learn these skills, and they make mistakes while they’re learning.  Adil has some lucky escapes from a formidable and callous enemy.

Not only from his enemies! Hoping to join the guerillas, he makes his way to their camp with his foster father Kuder…

It was midday, and there were few guerrillas about. Hedges was not in his office, but Adil recognized Datu Lagindab, whom he knew from his time as a student in Lanao, sitting with some other Maranao men on a bamboo bench along the wall. Adil saw that Lagindab carried one of the new M1 Garand semi-automatic rifles recently offloaded from an American submarine, and he asked if he could examine it. Its mechanism was unlike the Springfield rifle he was used to, and as he handled it, the gun went off, its .30 caliber bullet smashing into Hedges’ portable typewriter on the nearby desk and flinging it across the room.

The sound of a gunshot from Hedges’ office woke the camp, and within seconds the room was filled with men, mostly Americans and Filipinos, with guns drawn and pointed at Adil, standing now with the Garand by his side and beginning to tremble. As shouts of “spy!” rang out, Datu Lagindab and a few other Maranaos stepped in front of Adil. With raised guns and hardened faces, they roared back that the gunshot was an accident and that they would defend this lad. Several tense moments passed until Hedges appeared, recognized the culprit as Edward Kuder’s boy, and ordered all the men to stand down. He cursed vigorously at the sight of his punctured typewriter, scowled at Adil, then dismissed him. Burning with shame, the boy went to find Kuder. It was not the sort of first impression he had hoped to make at guerrilla headquarters.  (pp. 77-78).

But in time, 19-year-old Mohammad Adil became one of the youngest officers in General Douglas MacArthur’s guerrilla army, commissioned as a third lieutenant in the 119th regiment, bringing hope to other Moro with gifts such as Marlboro cigarettes that proved the Americans were on their way to help. In the photos, he looks like a schoolboy.

McKenna writes that, though there were some (including the Sultan) who counselled an end to resistance because they feared Japanese reprisals, the formidable Moro resistance tempered the brutality and reprisals of the Japanese occupation to some extent.

Military history is not my thing but McKenna writes well, flavouring the narrative with anecdotes that bring the principal identities and the locale alive for readers not familiar with the Philippines.  There’s a great story, for instance, about Datu Piang and how he rose from being a nobody to overturn a cruel tyrant called Datu Utu, basically through diplomacy and strategic alliances.

But there are also stories of vengeance and infighting that are not for the faint-hearted. Perhaps that goes with the territory for guerilla fighters… As McKenna says, Adil was a multi-sided individual.

By 1986, he was widely known as a fearsome man who personified the fighting spirit of the Moros—a man about whom songs were sung and legends were told. He was described in terms used for forces of nature: dangerous, unstoppable, uncontrollable. He was said to inspire fierce loyalty in his soldiers, who told him they would gladly jump into the mouth of a crocodile if he gave them the order. He was also known as a “man without mercy” because, as a constabulary officer, he could not be bribed and would arrest even his kinsmen. And he was reputed to be both fearless and, when provoked, deadly. He was, without a doubt, the man described by that reputation.

But as I spent more time with him at his home, I gradually gained a fuller perspective on his life. He was also a man who quoted Kipling, Tennyson, and William James and considered himself an environmentalist. He wrote beautifully composed letters in a graceful hand, preferred classical music, and appreciated beauty in all forms, especially in women. He had a robust, unselfconscious sense of humor and enjoyed making people laugh. Married to his first wife for 47 years until her death, he raised three daughters to be courageous and uncompromising and four sons to be thoughtful and wise. Later, he doted on his grandchildren, raised orchids, and had a warm and playful relationship with his second wife, whom he addressed with great tenderness as “friend.” (p. 166).


I felt uneasy about recovery from illness (and even aspects of childbirth) being attributed to superstition and the supermatural.  Spirituality and customary healing and protective verses from the Koran may be comforting, but at the end of the day malaria responds to quinine, or with good nursing and a bit of luck it runs its course, or you die.   Adil’s difficult birth would not have been resolved by Saik a Datu touching his mother’s tormented body where it was most swollen, and speaking a few potent words. A day’s labour is, alas, not unusual, and the arrival of the child would simply have been Mother Nature at work.

Likewise, attributing military success to prayers to Allah ignores the fact that combatants on all sides pray to their assorted gods. (Germany and Britain were praying to the same one.) But the author simply repeats these claims without contesting them.

I must admit to losing steam towards the end of the book.  It does a fine job of showing that Adil was, as many heroes are, a flawed human having great courage.  But he also had an elevated view of his own importance.  TBH his demands for respect because of  maratabat (a sense of personal honour, dignity, self-esteem and reputation) sounds mostly like testosterone to me, and (influenced by this article) I’d be interested to know how enthusiastic the women are about it.

The book includes Acknowledgements; A Brief Note on Sources and Methods; a Select Bibliography; a Glossary and Pronunciation Guide; Illustration Credits;  and an Index.

Author: Thomas McKenna
Title: Moro Warrior: A Philippine Chieftain, an American Schoolmaster, and The Untold Story of the Most Remarkable Resistance Fighters of World War II in the Pacific
Publisher: Armin Lear Press (2022)
ASIN: B09YD9PBFY, Kindle edition, 324 pages, with numerous B&W reproductions of photos
Source: Purchased for the Kindle from AmazonAU


  1. This is a fine, balanced review, Lisa. Well done. You are right that we need to read more than Douglas Macarthur’s campaign history to grasp the complications of the South-West Pacific campaign against Imperial Japan. Certainly, the Americans did not fight alone. Australians, New Zealanders, Fijians, and many other nationalities joined the combined forces in that theatre of operations. And the fighting in this section of the overall war against the Japanese was supported by the fighting in other sections, such as Burma, and the Pacific, with its island-hopping strategy. Of course you know this.
    Two key things can be added to the whole war. First, that code-breakers (not the Bletchley Park code-breakers working in German codes, but those who broke the Japanese codes — a separate battle, without Enigma machines or early versions of computers) provided crucial intelligence about Japanese intentions. Second, that, aided by code-breaking, American and Allied submarines were able to virtually eliminate the Japanese merchant navy that was vital to maintaining and supplying Japanese military forces — land, air and sea — away from the Japanese homelands.
    What still remains to be considered is to what extent guerilla resistance to the Japanese occupation of the Philippines contributed to the final defeat of Japanese forces in the Philippines. As I understand it, some extremely hard fighting was needed by invading American forces before the Japanese were finally beaten in the Philippines. My feeling is that the guerillas (as with the Maquis in France; or the Chindits in Burma) were minor players that did little to weaken the Japanese defence against the American sea-born invasions, island by island.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, John.
      The thing about resistance movements, as far as their effectiveness goes, is that they can tie up the occupier’s resources. I learned this, would you believe, from watching the French TV series, A French Village, in which the local resistance face the moral dilemma of resistance v reprisals. The communists (who fought with the Resistance), taking orders from Moscow, are quite clear about it: at the cost of some local lives, resistance deflects some of the armed forces from the front. That’s the Big Picture.

      Russia, BTW, has another piece of the WW2 in the Pacific narrative that I have only recently learned. I have always felt discomfort that my father in the British army was about to embark for the Pacific war, when the US used their nuclear bombs. He, and everyone I knew, attributed Japan’s unconditional surrender to the threat of more of those bombs, and their use was justified because it meant fewer lives were lost than in island-by-island warfare.

      But that’s not quite how it was…

      There is a remarkable series called Soviet Storm (available on You Tube) which traces the USSR’s path from defeat in 1941 to victory. The last of 18 episodes is about the USSR’s pivotal role in forcing the Japanese to surrender. This is not something we ever hear about in the West, though once you know about it, you can find acknowledgment of it and presumably historians of the war know it.

      Stalin had a deal with Churchill and Roosevelt that the USSR would join the Pacific War after Berlin had fallen, and when the Red Army arrived, the Japanese were not expecting them in Manchuria because of its impregnable geography. Even Wikipedia which has no time for the courage and determination of the Red Army acknowledges that “The Soviet entry into the war and the defeat of the Kwantung Army was a significant factor in the Japanese government’s decision to surrender unconditionally” because the USSR would not countenance conditional terms.

      I find it fascinating that in an era of questioning to the truth about everything, we don’t seem to question the prevailing narratives about war. (Including the present one!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Lisa. Thorough and enlightening. I knew the Russians (USSR) declared war against the Japanese late in 1945, but did not know how big their actual triple-front offensive was.
        I can’t help wondering, though, if defeat in mainland Asia, as in Burma, or, in this instance, Manchuria, had as much impact on the Japanese decision to surrender as the two atom bombs on the main Japanese island?
        I don’t read Japanese, and have no access to documents about the Japanese decision to surrender, including persuading the Emperor to accept the need to surrender.
        Your breadth of knowledge is very impressive.
        As for guerillas/Resistance tying up German resources, Max Hastings’ “The Secret War” argues that this was a small effect on the whole struggle for victory, and came at a huge cost in German reprisals against civilians. It is hard to establish a pro-and-con kind of accounting system that could settle this.
        The French Resistance seemed to have two major “victories”, among many defeats, and at a very heavy cost: the rescue of Allied airmen and their return to Britain; and the delaying of a major German armoured division’s journey from the south of France to the Normandy battles. The rest seems to have been a matter of morale and political principle, but at great human cost to Resistance members and many uninvolved civilians.


        • It’s just occurred to me, John, do we even know if the US had a spare bomb or two up their sleeves?

          Re the significance of fighting on two fronts, as a general reader, I don’t know. But Soviet Storm is emphatic about it. I’d have to watch it again but I recall that it said that the decision to surrender unconditionally wasn’t immediate even after Nagasaki.

          Well, of course, in the Cold War, it stands to reason that both sides would have diminished the contribution of the other so the Russian version is bound to be different to the West’s.

          And there’s the same tension in stories of the Resistance. The Brits despised France for surrendering, so they were not much disposed to acknowledge the contribution of the French resistance except where (as you say) it helped their airmen, whereas France had a shameful history to deal with, so they’re proud to have Resistance stories to tell.

          For all that, I admire them.


          • The Hiroshima bomb and the Nagasaki bomb were the only two immediately available for use against Japan, but more bombs were due to be available later in August:
            “Groves expected to have another “Fat Man” atomic bomb ready for use on 19 August, with three more in September and a further three in October”

            It is true that the victors write the history.
            But it is also true that the Soviets had spent decades rewriting history to put themselves in prominent positions. For example, almost any list of world inventions has Russian claims to have been the first.
            The persistence of Russian propaganda, and Russia’s belief in its own propaganda, is seen in Putin’s claim to be defending Russia against modern-day Nazis.
            A similar persistence is evident in Japan’s present day refusal to acknowledge the use of slave labour and comfort women from Korea, and other places.

            Having said that, you are right to look carefully at claims of “fact” where there may be other sides to the claim.


            • Exactly.
              I don’t believe anything I hear from either side in the Ukraine conflict.


  2. I could be tempted to read this, but not for a while.


    • I think it would make a great movie.
      And did you know? There’s an amazing Filipina woman resistance fighter who led a band of guerillas. Captain Nieves Fernandez was a Filipina school teacher who led the resistance in Tacloban, Leyte. Instead of writing romanticised novels of the French resistance, why don’t our novelists write her story?!

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, I didn’t know. What a great story!


        • There’s a picture diary called The Hidden Battle of Leyte: The Picture Diary of a Girl taken by the Japanese Military by Remedios Felias as well, but it’s prohibitively expensive, unfortunately.


  3. What do they say, the victors write history…? Sounds interesting but probably not one for me.


    • But wouldn’t it be interesting if an aspiring writer saw this post and decided to write a novel about it!


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