By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald
Most Americans are familiar with General Douglas MacArthur’s famous World War II quotation, as he emphatically stated “We Shall Return!”, upon leaving the Philippines in the war’s early days, in April, 1941. What many Clintonians may not realize is that a saga, which began here in Clinton and moved around the world, to the Far East and back again to Clinton, is the making of a story which has come full-circle in modern America.
Russell Volckmann was born in Clinton in 1911, where his father had started a furniture store in 1905. He called it Volckman’s (with one n), to save money on his advertising! Later, the furniture manufacturing plant was moved to Morrison, where a part of the story continues. However, our young Russ Volckmann was enamored of uniforms and the scouting organization, which recently had flourished in America. He decided to go on the glamorous Boy Scout Excursion to Yellowstone Park, but at only nine, he was too young. His father being an influential businessman, was willing to donate an automobile for the trip; and so, with 200 older boys, Russell began his career of adventure.
A few years later, he and best-friend John Van Allen embarked on another adventure together, as they attended high school at Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minnesota. They were such good friends that the one who was a year older decided to stay on an extra year, to keep his buddy company. Later though, John returned to Clinton to help his father, Fred, run the department store, and Russell went to West Point, where he graduated as an officer in 1934. Those were bleak years in the military, so he, being an adventuresome sort, volunteered for duty in the Philippines. Volckmann could not have imagined the adventurous tack fate was about to take, or how his decision would affect world events, nor the impact it would have on his life and that of many Filipinos, including some men who later moved to Clinton.
And so it was that Russell Volckmann was in the Philippines in 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Another Clintonian, Joe Donahey, and a Savanna man were there, too, but it was Volckmann who would rise to heights unforeseen by anyone at the time! Within months of December 7th, there were 150,000 Japanese swarming over the largest island of the Philippines, Luzon, where Manila was the largest city and capital. Within months “the Japs” had overcome American forces; MacArthur left, vowing to return; Bataan fell, and men were ordered to surrender. Then came the horrors of the Corregidor Death March, in which thousands of soldiers died at the hands of a cruel enemy.
Many of them died on the forced march, and thousands more died in concentration camps during the next three miserable years. However, Volckmann and few other military men thought for themselves and decided not to surrender, but rather to fight to end. They escaped into the jungles and distant mountains. From an initial group of four men, they began the long and arduous task of building a guerrilla force that eventually would teach the world about this type of warfare.
Meanwhile the Filipinos had difficult choices to make. They had known how to read and write before the Spaniards came in the 1500’s; then the Americans won the Spanish-American War in 1898; now the Japanese wanted to take over. These vibrant courageous people were ever-flexible and adaptive. They had learned three different languages and cultures, through difficult times, during three occupations. The oldest western university in Asia was right there in Manila. Fortunately, their education and critical-thinking skills caused them to cooperate with an American leader who won their hearts and minds and led the fight against the Japanese; a new hero for them, Colonel Russell Volckmann!
As Volckmann trudged through the mountainous terrain of north Luzon, he developed malaria and other diseases which might have caused a softer man to give up. He completely wore out his shoes and was not to have a decent pair again for three years. He and his comrades worked hard, between fevers and exhaustion. Their two leading commanders were soon lost to Japanese units, who hunted them down and killed them. Now, Colonel Russell Volckmann was the highest ranking officer of the Allied Forces in the Philippines. It was up to him to lead the fight for his country!
Initially, the guerrillas fought with abandon and many units were lost. One colleague of Volckmann’s was an officer by the name of Walter Cushing, who drove the Japanese crazy with sneak attacks that marked him as "most wanted" among the insurgents. Finally, the Japanese trapped his group in the jungle and a strong fire fight ensued. Although Japanese numbers far outweighed them, Cushing fought down to his last ammunition. He saved the last bullet for himself, since his capture would have betrayed many men and plans. The Japanese were so impressed by his courage and warrior spirit that they gave him the funeral of an honored compatriot!
Many Americans opted not to be taken prisoner and fled to the mountainous jungles of North Luzon. There they joined up with some of the natives, most of whom were very anti-Japanese …. although it was hard in some cases to know friend from foe. Many soldiers and natives lost their lives during those years, and Colonel Volckmann himself had many close calls. He wrote a book called We Remained, in 1954 that chronicles his experiences as field commander of a guerrilla army. In it, he describes how effective guerrilla fighting can be. Volckmann was a valued military consultant on this subject for many decades after the war, and his thoughts on guerrilla warfare would seem to ring true, even today.