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U.S., Philippines relive '44 landing

Palm trees were blown to pieces, planes strafed the beaches and GIs stormed the shores of the island of Leyte on Thursday as thousands of veterans and locals watched U.S. and Filipino troops re-enact Gen. Douglas MacArthur's return to the Philippines in 1944.

U.S. and Filipino veterans lined "Red Beach" in Palo, 350 miles southeast of Manila, where U.S. and Philippine forces had prepared special pyrotechnics for the mock naval barrage from the flotilla of 24 Filipino, U.S., Australian, Thai and French ships just off the coast.

As they watched hundreds of U.S. and Filipino Marines dressed as vintage American soldiers charge the beach through a smoky haze, many of the thousands of veterans snapped pictures and reminisced.

Alva "Smitty" Smith, 73, one of the first soldiers to reach nearby "Blue Beach" during the actual invasion, said there was some shelling and snipers when he hit the beach.

"You got rushes of adrenaline when you had shells coming at you," Smith said. "My feeling was, "What the hell am I doing here?'

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Smith's voice became choked and his eyes reddened when he mentioned that the man who followed him off the landing craft was shot between the eyes after his first step: "He led the religious service the night before."

Another veteran who landed with Smith, Don Dencker, 69, crouched to chat with the troops crawling on the beach's burning hot sand. He said Leyte was also hot and sunny the morning of the invasion, but never afterward _ 30 inches of rain fell in a month.

In the second wave of the mock invasion, which featured the actors representing MacArthur's party, the American portraying the general slipped and fell while disembarking from the landing craft.

When he did make it ashore, he stood tall despite his dripping pant legs _ just as MacArthur had _ and forcefully delivered the general's famous "People of the Philippines, I have returned" address.

The invasion, which fulfilled the pledge MacArthur made after he was forced to flee in 1942, marked the beginning of the Allies' reconquest of the islands, where hundreds of thousands had died under the harsh Japanese occupation.

Former Filipino guerrilla Ignacio Palad, 72, who now lives in Chicago, said Filipinos loved MacArthur for returning. "He was our savior and we owe him a debt of gratitude," he said. "We always knew he would come back and that he would be leading a big force."

The re-enactment was followed by a formal ceremony during which President Fidel Ramos, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry and Japanese Ambassador Yoshifumi Matsuda addressed the veterans.

Matsuda apologized for Japanese aggression during the war, noting, "We Japanese are now fully aware that Japan was directly responsible for the grave consequences the war inflicted on the peoples of Asia."

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