This award was intended not so much for me personally as it is a recognition of the indomitable courage of the gallant army which it was my honor to command. - General Douglas MacArthur, upon receiving the Medal of Honor for his defence of the Philippines.
The Japanese invasion of the Philippines was launched by the Empire of Japan as part of their widespread offensive campaign to conquer Southeast Asia in 1941-42. The islands were defended by Filipino forces and the United States, and the conquest of the Philippines is considered by some to be the worst military defeat in the history of the US.
The Japanese planned to knock out American air and naval power in the Philippines, correctly believed to be concentrated on the large northern island of Luzon, to land two divisions on that island to seize air bases on it, and then to crush the remaining American and Filipino army units in a short campaign on Luzon, on the large southern island of Mindanao and on several of the other islands. The naval and air bases in the Philippines could thereafter be utilized for the invasion of the Dutch East Indies in which, it was anticipated, many of the Japanese units involved in the Philippine operation would themselves also participate.
After Pearl Harbor, America’s political and military leaders knew that they, like the British, must suffer defeats and humiliations before forces could be mobilized to roll back the advancing Japanese. There was much ignorance and innocence about the enemy, even among those who would have to fight them. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, after receiving news about Pearl Harbor, began to make belated preparations to withdraw his troops to Luzon’s Bataan peninsula, which alone might be defensible. But it was a huge task to shift supplies there quickly.
In trying to pursue his original policy of meeting the invasion on the beaches of northern Luzon and the Lingayen Gulf, MacArthur was stymied by the successful bombing of the Clark Field air base north of Manila. Even though news of Pearl Harbor had been received at Clark, and other bases in the Philippines had been attacked, American planes were still stationed unprotected on the ground when Japanese bombers and fighters arrived from Formosa. Inter-service confusion at headquarters was blamed for the disaster, but, whatever caused it, MacArthur had only fifty planes left and had therefore lost air superiority.
The Japanese plan of attack called first for small landings on the northern shore and southeast corner of Luzon in order to secure air bases to cover the main landing forces that would seize Manila Bay. In addition, there were to be even smaller landings to seize Davao on Mindanao as well as the island of Jolo between Mindanao and Borneo, to cut off the Philippines from reinforcement and prepare the way for subsequent advances south. These landings all succeeded.
MacArthur expected a Japanese landing at the south end of the Lingayen Gulf, and deployed some troops accordingly. However, the Japanese invasion force got ashore at Lingayen Gulf after brushing aside a challenge by ill-trained and poorly equipped Filipino troops. 43,110 men of Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma’s Fourteenth Army established a beachhead with few casualties. Faulty American torpedoes caused the failure of all but one submarine attack on the troopships.
A further 7,000 Japanese landed unopposed at Lamon Bay, two hundred miles south-eastwards. The Philippines army crumbled quickly. Air commander Gen. Lewis Brereton, most of his planes gone, prudently decamped to Australia. MacArthur issued a bombastic communiqué: ‘My gallant divisions are holding ground and denying the foe the sacred soil of the Philippines. We have inflicted heavy casualties on his troops, and nowhere is his bridgehead secure. Tomorrow we will drive him into the sea.’ In reality, the Japanese advanced on Manila against negligible resistance.
In Washington, the US Chiefs of Staff wisely forswore any notion of reinforcing the defense. MacArthur enjoyed just one piece of good fortune: the invaders focused on occupying the capital, and made no attempt to frustrate his retreat to Bataan. MacArthur's beach defense plan might conceivably have worked half a year later; it guaranteed disaster in December 1941. He had decided to pull the forces into Bataan and try to hold out there.
Homma launched his first attack on the American-Filipino line across the Bataan peninsula. In the days that followed, the defenders had little difficulty in repulsing successive assaults, though they suffered steady losses from air attack. The defenders of Bataan displayed more energy and initiative than the British in Malaya: several Japanese attempts to turn the Americans’ flank by landing troops on the coast behind the front resulted in their annihilation.
MacArthur escaped to Australia by PT-boat with his family and personal retainers, in obedience to an order from President Roosevelt, leaving Gen. Jonathan Wainwright to direct the defense through its last weeks. The Philippine President was evacuated, and the United States High Commissioner and a group of American officers left.
Through February and March the Japanese made no headway, but the defenders were fast weakening from hunger, while ammunition and medical supplies were rapidly running out. By late March, a thousand malaria cases a week were being admitted to hospital. The besieged suffered terrible living conditions as well as heavy casualties.
The condition of the besiegers was little better than that of the besieged: the Japanese, too, suffered heavy losses to malaria, beriberi and dysentery – more than 10,000 sick by February. Tokyo was increasingly exasperated by American defiance, and by the triumphalist propaganda which the saga of Bataan promoted in the United States. Homma’s reinforced army launched a major offensive preceded by a massive bombardment. Filipino units broke in panic before Japanese tanks; many men were so weakened by hunger that they could scarcely move from their foxholes. The Japanese pushed steadily forward, breaching successive American lines.
General Edward King on his own initiative decided he must surrender the peninsula, and sent forward an officer bearing a white flag to the Japanese lines. King met Col. Motoo Nakayama, Homma’s operations officer, to sign a surrender. ‘Will our troops be well treated?’ King asked. The Japanese answered blandly, ‘We are not barbarians.’ Some 11,500 Americans and 64,000 Filipinos fell into enemy hands. The transfer of these debilitated men to cages became known to history as the Bataan Death March. An estimated 1,100 Americans and more than 5,000 Filipinos perished on the Death March.
From jungle refuges all over Bataan, groups of defenders emerged, seeking paths towards Corregidor island, where Wainwright still held out. The Japanese now concentrated artillery fire on Corregidor, little larger than New York’s Central Park. They also landed amphibious forces to storm the island. After two days of fighting, Wainwright surrendered all remaining US forces in the Philippines, first signalling to Washington: ‘With profound regret and with continued pride in my gallant troops I go to meet the Japanese commander … Goodbye, Mr President.’
If the disaster in Malaya discredited the British Empire, the doomed defense of the Philippines turned an American general, Douglas MacArthur, into an international hero and ensured that the future war with Japan would be fought under his influence. It was one of the most bizarre twists of World War II, for MacArthur made a defeat look like a victory of sorts, largely because of the dogged resistance of his common soldiers against what appeared to be overwhelming odds.
The four-month defense of Bataan and Corregidor, which cost 2,000 American dead and 4,000 casualties among the invaders, was made possible in part by Japanese incompetence. If Homma and his officers had displayed more energy, the Philippines saga would have ended sooner, as Tokyo’s angry high command asserted. But nothing can detract from the gallantry of Wainwright, who did his duty more impressively than MacArthur, and of his garrison. To put the matter bluntly, US soldiers on Bataan and Corregidor showed themselves more stalwart than British imperial forces in Malaya and at Singapore, albeit likewise in a doomed cause.