Remembering the Chinese Battalion That Defended the Philippines During World War II
“Is history a lie,” asked the stony-faced girls of the Debate Club when I applied for membership back in high school. I fumbled: Yes. I mean, no. I mean, kind of.
There are parts of history that probably don’t get the airtime they deserve in schoolbooks. One such overlooked chronicle is the role that the Chinese played during the battle against Japanese invaders during World War II. At that time, many Chinese immigrants from rural provinces in south China fled to the Philippines to find work.
One of them was Lee Lian Pao, who was only 16 when he came to Manila in 1936. His father was already working as a furniture maker in the Philippines. Within a few days of landing in Manila, Lee Lian Pao was sent to Nueva Ecija to become the apprentice of another Chinese businessman who started a construction company. Being young and able-bodied, Lee Lian Pao was assigned to work in the kitchen as a cook. Labor work was usually given to young Chinese boys because they were stronger and could easily pick up the Filipino language, says Aquino Lee, Lee Lian Pao’s son.
When Lee Lian Pao was in his early 20s, Japanese imperialists attacked Pearl Harbor. Soon after, their troops occupied the Philippines. Many Chinese immigrants working here were already a part of the Chinese United Workers Union in Manila. When the Japanese began their invasion, the union's members decided to set up a resistance group to fight the Japanese. They held the same anti-Japanese sentiment as Filipino soldiers because Japan had also invaded their motherland, China. They trained in the forests of Mt. Arayat, and later on called themselves the Wha Chi or the 48th Squadron, the names of two well-known fighting forces in China. Lee Lian Pao joined the squadron in Bicol, working underground.
“To understand Wha Chi, you have to put into proper context who these people are, why they were here, and why they chose to stand up and fight,” says Lee, who is now the president of the Wha Chi Descendants Association. “During those times, most of the Chinese here were just coming over to earn a living. Their motherland is China, but they had to leave their hometowns because many of them were rural folks from the villages. They could hardly make a living there, so they chose to go out and try their luck here, to earn something and send it back home.”
Translated, Wha Chi means “Overseas Chinese Anti-Japanese Guerilla Force.” The soldiers were mostly single, young men, in their teens to early 20s. Initially, about 400 recruits were sent to fight with different Hukbalahap (Hukbong Laban sa Hapon) guerrillas dispatched to the provinces, but they were recalled in 1942, so they could organize themselves into a unit of their own.
The remaining Wha Chi battalion was made up of 52 members and armed only with two handguns and seven old rifles. The members equipped themselves with abandoned weaponry they found in old battlefields and hid in the Pasbul mountains for three months, where they went through rigorous training and strategic planning.
A monument in Sta. Cruz, Laguna, commemorates how the Wha Chi battalion helped liberate the town from the Japanese.
The Wha Chi built ties with the Filipino people, who supported its members with food, medicine, and intelligence. Stories tell of the time Wha Chi soldiers hid in sugar canes, fed by Filipino kids walking their carabaos, sent over by farmers organizations. Although Lee’s father never talked much about the war, he always stressed that Filipino villagers were always on their side.
Lee recalls that one time, when Lee Lian Pao fell asleep in one of the huts in a small town, a Filipino villager passed by and saw their guns. Afraid that he would tell Japanese soldiers, Lee's father went to talk to him, but the villager responded by offering them food to eat. “As a group in any guerilla, you have to have good support of the civilians,” says Lee. “When you go over to the villages you need a place to stay and have food. I think the Filipino civilians were very supportive of the Wha Chi because there was a common enemy to drive away, so they were very sympathetic to what they were doing.”
The Wha Chi had fought so well that it earned the respect of Filipino guerrillas, and the squadron would become a threat to the Japanese, who later deployed 10,000 more soldiers to Mt. Arayat where the Wha Chi was located. The battalion had to divide itself into smaller groups and hide in the Candaba swamp.
Tired, ill-equipped, and often without food, the Wha Chi traversed through the towns. It joined big and small battles along the way and was successful in attacking puppet governments. Even when General Douglas MacArthur left and promised he would return, the Wha Chi continued its training and expanded and strengthened its support groups.
Juana Tan Mo shared with the Philippines Graphic how her husband joined the Wha Chi when he was 20 years old. She recounts that the Japanese also destroyed the civilian communities who supported the battalion.
This year marks the 78th founding anniversary of the Chinese battalion that defended the Philippines in 14 provinces throughout Luzon.
She served as a courier for the Wha Chi, picking up publications and letters for the soldiers and delivering them to another scout. She says she would hide the papers in her bike basket, under her baby sister, to avoid suspicion. Other couriers would put the messages inside live fish.
Eventually, the Wha Chi fought alongside the Hukbalahap, a communist guerrilla movement formed by Filipino farmers, and the American troops, further strengthening its forces. Today, a monument stands in Sta. Cruz, Laguna to commemorate one of the most challenging raids that the Wha Chi and the Huks succeeded in. They helped liberate the town on January 26, 1945, from over 200 Japanese troops and the Philippine Constabulary. The fighting is said to have started at eight in the morning and continued until six in the evening. The two battalions trapped the enemy troops, who took refuge in the church’s bell tower. The Wha Chi guerrillas set it on fire, signaling victory as the Japanese enemies bolted in all directions.
The Philippines was finally liberated in 1945, signaling the end of operation for the Wha Chi after three years and four months. By the end of the war, 700 Chinese youth joined and fought with the Wha Chi, defending the Philippines in 14 provinces throughout Luzon, fighting more than 200 battles, and killing more than 2,000 enemy troops alongside Filipino and American forces.
The Wha Chi who survived had no choice but to adjust to civilian life. Other descendants share that their parents suffered persecution from the Philippine government after the war. This is probably why the Wha Chi is often unheard of—because their warriors had chosen to keep mum about their war stories.
Today, children of veterans like Lee gather to commemorate the history of these unsung heroes that are often untold. The Wha Chi Descendants Association hopes never to forget the bravery of the young Chinese men who helped fight the war and secure the freedom that we enjoy today. This year is the 78th founding anniversary of the Wha Chi.
“What’s important is sharing to the next generation what transpired,” says Lee about the underdog battalion of that era. “That the Chinese and the Philippines also shared in nation-building. After 78 years, we are no longer the Overseas Chinese Worker like my father; we are Filipino. We embrace the Philippines as our country now. Our blood may be Chinese, but our root grows in Philippine soil.” The Wha Chi indeed wrote a part of our Philippine history, even if it still undocumented in many of our school books.