“I shall return.”
Those three words are almost certainly the most memorable utterance of any military leader in American history.
That’s because an entire nation was inspired by them during some of the darkest hours of World War II.
A day after bombing the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines, where General Douglas MacArthur was America’s chief military adviser. After four months of desperate fighting, it was clear the island nation would fall. In March 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to Australia. There he would assume command of Allied forces that would attempt to reconquer the Philippines.
MacArthur was far from a perfect person. He was an egomaniac, a flamboyant showboat who wasn’t above manipulating the press to shine his own star. He publicly rankled two presidents – FDR and Harry Truman – and irritated almost everyone who served alongside him. General Dwight Eisenhower, who would himself one day enter the White House, was once asked about his association with MacArthur. Ike responded, “I studied dramatics under him for five years…”
MacArthur reluctantly obeyed the order to leave the Philippines. He was stricken by the thought of abandoning 90,000 American and Filipino troops in the face of an advancing enemy.
Upon arriving in Australia, he boldly issued a statement to his soldiers and the people of the Philippines: “I shall return.”
Only then did he grasp the demoralizing reality that there was no Allied army awaiting his command. FDR and the Joint Chiefs, in fact, had quietly concluded that the Philippines would have to be sacrificed. They had chosen a “Europe First” strategic policy. Only after containing Adolph Hitler would America give its full attention to defeating Japan. Even though MacArthur was now the senior Allied commander in the Pacific theater, he received only 12% of available troops and supplies.
It is painful to recollect the horrors that befell those who had been left behind. The names Bataan and Corregidor have become synonymous with Japanese brutality.
MacArthur felt helpless. And livid.
As their suffering stretched from months into years, Filipinos cherished feelings of hatred toward America. They deemed the U.S. president and his cohorts untrustworthy.
But they did trust Douglas MacArthur. The exiled general continued to declare his intention to return one day to liberate their nation. They clung to the hope he would keep his promise.
By September 1944, American forces in the Pacific had reversed the Japanese tide. MacArthur convinced the military brass to route their invasion of Japan through the Philippines. Hope began to spread that Allied troops would soon appear on Filipino beaches.
That’s when “I shall return” began to appear everywhere. Postal workers in Manila, risking their own lives, stamped those three words on envelopes and parcels – some of which were delivered to Japanese military facilities. At dawn, Filipinos might awaken to see billboards repainted with MacArthur’s slogan. Sheets of paper declaring “I shall return” were posted on fences, left in railway stations, and even turned up in the filing cabinets of Japanese officials. An entire nation rallied around a single promise.
On the afternoon of October 20, 1944 – two and a half years after his departure – MacArthur waded ashore onto the Philippine island of Leyte. It was supposed to be a dry landing, but the military beachmaster, who had orchestrated the arrival of American troops just a few hours before, refused to clear a path for “special guests” – supreme commanders included.
MacArthur was furious with such insubordination, which accounts for the scowl on his face as he and his staff splashed into the surf. But once he saw how the picture turned out – the image above became one of the iconic images of the entire war – he happily embraced it as a career highlight.
As he stood on the beach, rain began to fall. MacArthur took a radio transmitter and spoke these memorable words:
“People of the Philippines, I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil… Rally to me! Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on… Let no heart be faint. Let every arm be steeled. The guidance of divine God points the way.”
Only one third of the troops he had left behind had survived. But by the spring of 1945 they had been rescued, and the Philippines were once again in Allied hands.
In the years that followed, as Filipino leaders continued to quarrel with Washington, efforts were made to erase the evidence of America’s decades-long presence. Streets, buildings, parks, and airports were renamed to honor Filipino citizens and concerns.
All except for a special handful. Today there’s a bridge, two highways, and three towns in the Philippines that preserve the memory of General Douglas MacArthur.
That’s the power of promise-keeping.
Something special happens when parents, politicians, employers, spouses, and friends make promises and then come through – or at least make genuine efforts to do so. When trust is rewarded, our capacity to trust grows. It’s impossible to imagine healthy relationships without promises made and promises kept.
Christians often wonder how they can make a difference. Is there something a follower of Jesus can do on any given day to stand out in a crowd?
Of course. Resolve to do two things: Always tell the truth, and keep every promise you make.
Wisdom will lead us to conclude that we’ll have a far greater chance of success in those two tasks if we speak fewer words. MacArthur was fond of press conferences, and he typically had a lot to say. But those three words – “I shall return” – were all he really needed. That’s because they sprang from the deepest part of his being and for 30 months were the top priority of his life.
In the end, our hope of becoming promise-keeping people primarily rises or falls on one thing: whether we grow in our trust of our promise-keeping Savior.
The more we learn from experience that Jesus always keeps his word, the more we will find the courage to extend his blessings to others.
And one day the whole world will see for themselves that when he promised, “I shall return,” he meant exactly what he said.
“I shall return.”