Map of Luzon with principal battle areas of the fall of the Philippines. Manila Bay and the Bataan Peninsula are to the southwest, with Cavite to the east of Bataan across the bay, and Corregidor Island off the southern tip of Bataan.
The 7,000 Philippine Islands, eleven sizeable, form a natural barrier between Japan and the rich resources of China, Southeast Asia and the East Indies. Manila, with the finest natural harbor in the Far East, was the capital, located on Luzon, the largest and most populous of the islands. In 1941 the Philippines were a possession of the United States (a commonwealth with independence scheduled for 1946) but a far outpost, 5,000 miles from Pearl Harbor and over 7,000 miles from San Francisco. Manila is, however, only 1,800 miles from Tokyo.
The defense of the Philippines was the responsibility of Major General Douglas MacArthur, retired Army Chief of Staff, recalled to active duty and assigned to mobilize the Philippine Army and strengthen the U.S. garrison in the Philippine Islands. On 26 July 1941, MacArthur took up the post with a commitment for an air force of 100 B-17 Flying Fortresses and other increased resources.
MacArthur's Plan for the Defense of the Philippines
The official plan for the defense of the Philippine Islands was "Philippine Department Plan ORANGE, 1940 Revision (short title: HPD WPO-3), AGO No. 326." That unrealistic plan entailed a defense of Bataan only, as a delaying action until reinforcements could be sent. It was certain to fail but was nonetheless the plan inherited by MacArthur, who intended to replace WPO-3 with a new plan, one of his first priorities when he took office in July. He insisted that defense of Manila Bay and Luzon required that the enemy be denied control of any of the southern islands. He successfully argued for a change to an active defense of all the islands in the Philippines.
The Japanese Attack the Philippines
MacArthur's headquarters received word of the 7 December Pearl Harbor attack at 0230 on 8 December 1941, but did not act immediately. Ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese staged disastrous air attacks against Clark Field and Iba Field, destroying half the heavy bombers and fighters of MacArthur's Far East Air Force. The next day they struck at Cavite, the main naval base, causing heavy damage, and precipitating a naval retreat to bases in Java and Australia, 1,500 miles away. With MacArthur's air and naval defenses crippled, the Japanese made three preliminary landings on Luzon in the next weeks to secure airfields and to support the main landings to come.
On 22 December, Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma's Japanese 14th Army came ashore at Lingayen Gulf, about 135 miles north of Manila, with 80 ships and 43,000 troops, followed by units with tanks and artillery. The Philippine Scouts staged a heroic but futile defense, but the performance of the untrained and poorly equipped Philippine Army troops was the clearest sign of disaster. At the first appearance of the enemy, they broke and fled, disorganized to the rear. MacArthur never publicly acknowledged the poor performance of the Army he had done so much to organize and train.
In a few weeks, the Japanese had achieved aerial and naval supremacy in the Philippines, isolating MacArthur's force from Australia to the south and from Hawaii and the United States to the east. On Christmas Eve 1941, more of Homma's forces landed to the southeast of Manila at Lamon Bay and began their advance toward the capital, preparing to crush the American-Philippine forces in a pincer maneuver, on the verge of total victory.
Withdrawal to Bataan and Corregidor
By 23 December 1941, General MacArthur clearly understood the impending disaster. MacArthur had about 60,000 unreliable Philippine troops, 11,000 better trained Philippine Scouts, and 19,000 Americans against Homma's hardened and well equipped force descending upon them. MacArthur notified all force commanders on the night of 23 December that "WPO-3 is in effect," a return to the original Plan ORANGE concept. To deny the Japanese victory over his troops, he ordered the withdrawal of forces on Luzon to the Bataan Peninsula, a tongue of land in southwest Luzon forming the northwestern boundary of Manila Bay (See map at top of page). Manila was declared an open city on 26 December to spare its destruction, but the Japanese bombed and shelled it anyway.
MacArthur's headquarters was transferred to the tiny fortified island of Corregidor, south of Bataan in Manila Bay, on Christmas Eve. Next morning, Christmas Day, Headquarters USAFFE opened on Corregidor and MacArthur reported his new position to Washington. Maj. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright remained on Luzon, commanding the ground force.
The withdrawal to Bataan proceeded quickly and in remarkably good order, streaming in from all parts of Luzon. Near the town of San Fernando, all forces had to pass through a single intersection and down one narrow road to reach the Bataan peninsula. By sheer good luck, the Japanese failed to take advantage of their air superiority to attack the defenders at this vulnerable choke point. Wainwright staged a tough ground defense at San Fernando, holding the line to allow an orderly movement of all troops into Bataan by 6 January 1942.
The hasty withdrawal left most supplies and equipment behind, supplies that had been dispersed from their original depots in Bataan and Corregidor to support MacArthur's broad defense plan. Now with trucks in short supply, roads congested, and time short, resupply of the Bataan and Corregidor strongholds was impossible. The resulting lack of food, ammunition, weapons, and medical supplies would prove to be the critical factors in the coming months.
Battling Bastards of Bataan
The plan for Bataan called for two defensive lines. The first extended across the peninsula from Mauban in the west to Mabatang in the east. Major Japanese attacks along the first defensive line began on 9 January with artillery, followed up with an assault by infantry and tank units. After eight days of sometimes intense combat, the Japanese forced a partial withdrawal, followed by evacuation of outflanked positions on the evening of 22 January. Over the next four days, the defenders fell back to a new defensive line that ran from Bagac on the western shore to just south of Orion on the eastern shore of the peninsula, a distance of 4,500 yards (2.5 miles), a smaller but much more defensible position.
The Japanese attempted to bypass the line by staging an amphibious landing along the rugged Bataan southern coast. Between 22 January and 2 February, in the "Battle of the Points", the Americans turned back successive Japanese attempts to gain a beachhead, but at the cost of heavy casualties that could not be replaced.
The Japanese renewed the offensive against the Orion-Bagac line on 26-27 January, but fierce defense stalled the attack all along the line. General Homma ordered a general withdrawal from the 14th Army's forward positions on 8 February. Since 6 January the Japanese had suffered 7,000 battle casualties, with another 10-12,000 men dying of disease. The unexpected tenacity of the American opposition forced Homma to call for reinforcements. For the Americans, the failure of the supposedly invincible Japanese to crack their defenses lifted morale despite the dismal strategic situation.
During March, as the Japanese received reinforcements, the defenders' health steadily eroded. Rations, already short, were now further reduced to a mere 1,000 calories. The Bataan jungle and the starvation diet fostered disease, with malaria common and no quinine supplies for relief. By the end of March, commander's estimates of troop combat efficiency dropped to 20-25 percent.
Recognizing the steady deterioration of the American position, President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to move his headquarters to Australia, over MacArthur's objections. On 12 March, the commander, his family, and his USAFFE staff departed Corregidor on three PT boats, then transferred to B-17s at Del Monte airfield on Mindanao. Wainwright was left in command. MacArthur swore, "I shall return!" which he did in late 1944. [Thanks to Martin Beckner, whose father was in the crew of one of the PT boats, for help with details of MacArthur's departure.]
The end was not long in coming. Japanese attacks resumed on 3 April with a sustained aerial and artillery bombardment, followed by an attack on the left flank of the line. The exhausted, malnourished, and dispirited defenders soon gave ground, and the entire line began to crumble. In thirty-six hours the Japanese succeeded in breaching the American line, leaving the rest outflanked with no place to retreat. General King, I Corps commander, attempted to negotiate terms for all of the forces on Bataan on 9 April, but was unsuccessful, and defending units surrendered unconditionally to individual Japanese units. Wainwright had not been informed since King knew Wainwright's orders did not permit surrender.
Defense Continues to the End on Corregidor
Staff of Finance Office and Signal Corps, U.S. Army, Manila, shared Lateral Number 12 of Melinta Tunnel during the siege of Corregidor, Phillipine Islands, March/April 1942.
With Bataan completely in their hands, the Japanese turned their attention to Corregidor. The Corregidor Island defenders were in relatively better shape than the Bataan units, but by April were also showing the effects of prolonged siege. Continuous bombardment by artillery from Bataan as well as naval and air bombing went on through April. Although fortifications, underground tunnel facilities, and some gun emplacements withstood the bombardments, all installations in the open were destroyed. Ultimately, what Japanese shells didn't do was done by deliberate destruction to prevent the facilities from falling into Japanese hands. As the end clearly approached, code books and records were burned and small arms smashed.
The Japanese began their final assault on Corregidor with a heavy artillery barrage on 1 May. On the night of 5-6 May, two battalions of infantry landed on the northeast end of the island. Despite strong resistance, they established a beachhead that was soon reinforced by tanks and artillery. Army and Navy support personnel fighting as infantry joined a Marine regiment to meet the invasion, but the defenders were quickly pushed back to the Malinta Hill stronghold where their position became untenable.
President Roosevelt had personally authorized General Wainwright to decide on the circumstances of surrender. The last message from Wainwright on Corregidor was received late on 6 May:
"... with broken heart and with head bowed in sadness, but not in shame, I report... that today I must arrange terms for the surrender of the fortified islands of Manila Bay, Corregidor, Fort Hughes, Fort Drum, and..." (end of message)
Although it ended in defeat, the successful execution of MacArthur's Bataan plan saved the 75,000 troops on Luzon from immediate defeat, delayed the Japanese timetable for conquest by four months, and kept large Japanese combat forces tied up in the Philippines long after Malaya, Singapore, and the Indies had fallen.
The fate of the Americans and Filipinos who became POWs was a shameful chapter in the history of war, the Bataan Death March.
Recommended Books about the Fall of the Philippines and Bataan
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