Book Review: American Guerilla


“American Guerilla” is a fresh look at an anti-Japanese US-led insurgency on Luzon in the Philippines during World War Two and the role this played in the subsequent creation of the US Army Special Forces, better known as the “Green Berets.

Published this year by a US Army Armoured Corps officer, “American Guerilla” recounts the wartime career of Captain Russell W Volckmann with emphasis on his activities from 1942 to 1945 and again during the Korean War and the role this played in the establishment of the Special Forces and Special Forces doctrine.

Volckmann graduated West Point in 1934 and eventually secured a posting to the Philippines – a plum posting at the time – as second-in-command of a Filippino infantry regiment, although he was just” a captain at the time. The outbreak of war saw this regiment deployed on anti-invasion duty. When the commander was posted away, Volckmann was appointed in his stead: an officer with seven years’ experience in command of three infantry battalions and a headquarters battalion. Next followed a retreat to Bataan, combat, promotion to major and appointment as divisional intelligence officer. Then disaster: surrender. “By now Volckman was incredulous. He felt as though all his hard work, and the blood and suffering of his men, had been for nothing. He wondered if ‘Uncle Sam’ expected him to spend the rest of the war in a prison camp – assuming the Japanese were even taking prisoners.” Escape, evasion and link up with remnant troops in the interior of Luzon seemed more appealing.

He escapes, with a small group of companions, and makes his way north, soon linking up with other evaders Fillipino and American, military and civilians, wary of the Japanese. At first they get by on survival rations, then discarded Japanese food then a network of “evacuation camps” set up by civilians and former military personnel keen on sitting out the Japanese occupation. Here, in the school of hard knocks, he learns the essentials of guerilla warfare: leadership and combat motivation in the absence of a military disciplinary system; the importance of health and hygiene; securing food, winning and keeping the hearts, minds and cooperation of the local population; communicating with friendly forces, gathering intelligence, ensuring security, dealing with traitors and informers; engaging in psychological warfare, sabotage and direct action against the enemy, often in the face of vicious, sadistic, reprisals against civilians.

Volckmann learned it was one thing to organise guerilla forces, it was entirely another to put it to gainful employment. Indeed, each generation of Green Berets is still taught this during Exercise Robin Sage, a large-scale guerilla training endeavour in the North Carolina backlands. The standard Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, or “A-Team” of 12 soldiers is, in fact, organised and equipped to recruit, train and lead into battle a battalion-sized guerilla force.

After the war, Volckmann authored two Army field manuals, FM31-20 Operations Against Guerrilla Forces (published September 1950) and FM31-21 Organization and Conduct of Guerrilla Forces, (released 1951) both of which laid the foundation for special warfare doctrine and joined the Office of the Chief of Psychological Warfare that was responsible for creating the first Special Forces Group.

The rest, as they say, is history. An interesting, thought-provoking and well-written read on a campaign that is not well-studied in Africa.

American Guerrilla: The Forgotten Heroics of Russell W. Volckmann.

Mike Guardia

Casemate Publishers

240 pages, 26 Illustrations, 6 maps. Hardback.

Available in South Africa trough Casemate’s distributor, 30 Degrees South Publishers,