Japanese Invasion of the Philippines
One of the worst military defeats in US history
8 December 1941 - 8 May 1942
author Paul Boșcu, March 2019
After the attack at Pearl Harbor the Japanese Empire launched an invasion of the US-occupied Philippines. The Japanese landing at Formosa enabled them to quickly overrun Luzon but the American-Filipo defenders held out in the Bataan Peninsula for four months before finally succumbing to the Japanese advance. The defeat in the Philippines is considered one of the worst military defeats in US history.

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.

In the beginning of the campaign the Japanese bombed the American planes at Clark Field and staged several landings across the Philippines. Unable to defend the landing points, the American and Filipino forces started to withdraw towards the Bataan Peninsula.

The first major Japanese attacks on the American-Filipino forces in Bataan forced a retreat to the main defensive line across the peninsula, called the Bagoc-Orion line after towns on the western and eastern coasts of the Bataan peninsula. Their attack on that line was defeated with heavy losses to the Japanese, and the attempts of the latter to land at points on the southwest coast of Bataan were also beaten off.

After the first battles in January there followed two months of stalemate in Bataan during which the Japanese rebuilt their forces and the American and Filipino soldiers wasted away from hunger and disease, while the desperate efforts directed from Washington to send supplies through to the doomed garrison produced a mere trickle in the face of distance, shortages and the Japanese.

Somehow the 2,000 who had made it to Corregidor managed to hold out for a further twenty-seven days after Bataan’s surrender. Its headquarters and hospital, located in caves, survived the fifty-three air raids directed against it. With malaria rife, and only three days’ supply of water left, the garrison finally surrendered.

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.

The IJA Headquarters in Tokyo judged the American situation so hopeless that it withdrew the veteran 48th Division for operations in the Dutch East Indies, replacing it with a brigade of reservists. Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma’s army remained at around half the size of General Douglas MacArthur’s force.

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.

‘Suddenly we realized that nobody knew anything about the Japs,’ said carrier pilot Fred Mears. ‘We had never heard of a Zero then. What was the caliber of Jap planes and airmen? What was the strength of the Japanese Navy? What kind of battles would be fought and where? We were woefully unprepared.’

Many Americans had acknowledged for months the logic of their nation’s belligerence. Yet it is characteristic of all conflicts that until enemies begin to shoot, ships to sink and loved ones – or at least comrades – to die, even professional warriors often lack urgency and ruthlessness. ‘It was amazing how long it took to get the hang of it and to react instantly in the right way,’ American sailor Alvin Kiernan observed. ‘War, we gradually learned, is a state of mind before it can be anything else.’

The original American plan for the defense of the Philippines had called for a concentration on defense of Manila Bay and the withdrawal of the major United States army forces to the Bataan peninsula, with the hope that they could hold out there for half a year until a relief force from Hawaii could reach the islands. This latter part of the plan was in reality a wistful thought rather than a serious possibility. American contingency planning for war, with its assumption that Germany constituted the greater danger and must be defeated first, assumed the early loss of the Philippines, and looked to a victory over Japan in some distant future after the defeat of Germany.

MacArthur assumed, correctly, that the Japanese wanted Manila and the military and naval bases around Manila Bay. The remaining navy harbor defense forces and his own coast artillery made a direct attack unlikely, so he assumed, also correctly, that the Japanese would land at Lingayen Gulf and march south down the Rio Grande valley on Manila; he also thought the Japanese would land somewhere in the south and surround the city.

MacArthur belatedly informed President Manuel Quezon of the mooted withdrawal, which he began to implement. Doctors warned that Bataan was notoriously malaria ridden, because of the prevalence there of the anopheles mosquito, but little was done to secure stocks of prophylactics. Meanwhile, Manila was bombed every day.

Douglas MacArthur, a charismatic leader and former US Chief of Staff, had only ninety fighter aircraft, thirty-five Flying Fortress B-17 bombers and a hundred tanks to protect the Philippines, and his army, though large on paper, was primarily made up of under-trained and under-equipped Filipinos, some of whom disappeared back to their villages as soon as the Japanese invaded.

There was indeed some hope in Washington that the building up of the army and air force in the Philippines, in addition to the stationing of a small fleet consisting primarily of submarines, might deter the Japanese from attacking at all. It is, of course, theoretically possible that a longer period of building up forces might have had a deterrent effect on the Japanese; but the Japanese did not intend to wait, in part precisely because they could see the United States rearming.

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.

American pilots were queuing for lunch in the mess when the Japanese struck. No fewer than eighteen of the B-17s were destroyed, as were fifty-six fighters and other aircraft, at a total cost of seven Japanese planes.

The Japanese insistence that surprise at Pearl Harbor take precedence over everything else, and the time differential between the Philippines and Hawaii meant that MacArthur had plenty of warning that war had started by the time the Japanese began their attack on the Philippines hours later. But on that fatal morning there was only confusion at his headquarters.

The Clark massacre, which included many pilots and skilled technicians, ensured that the Japanese would not face any significant air threat when the Fourteenth Army began landing operations. Similar air attacks the same day ravaged the naval bases at Subic Bay and Cavite.

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.

Over the next ten days, the Japanese landing detachments advanced inland while the air force destroyed most of what was left of the Far East Air Force and chased the United States Navy's ships out of the archipelago.

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.

Lacking enough air cover, Admiral Thomas C. Hart therefore withdrew the US Asiatic Fleet to the Java Sea, where it joined powerful units of other allies. The original American plan had been for MacArthur to try to hold out on the Philippines for long enough to be relieved by the US Pacific Fleet. With the battleship part of that force now crippled at Pearl Harbor, the plan was moribund, but no alternative commended itself. Using captured air bases, the Japanese reinforced the initial invasion forces.

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.

The Japanese struck at a force of American and Filipino troops that was more than twice as large in nominal strength but consisted overwhelmingly of recently inducted, untrained, and often unequipped Filipinos. In the very first days of fighting it became obvious that the defenders could not hold the Japanese back.

Despite MacArthur’s brave rhetoric about fighting the Japanese on the beaches, Major General Jonathan Wainwright’s two Philippine divisions could not contain the landing force.

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.

Life magazine photographer Carl Mydans watched from the Bay View Hotel as the first Japanese entered Manila on 2 January: ‘They came up the boulevards in the predawn glow from the bay riding on bicycles and on tiny motorcycles. They came without talk and in good order, the ridiculous pop-popping of their one cylinder cycles sounding loud in the silent city.’

Only a portion of the American plan could now be implemented. While many of the Filipino troops had fled or surrendered, others fought bravely and these, together with most of the American soldiers, staged a successful fighting retreat into Bataan, forming a line across the peninsula to hold back the Japanese and deny them use of the great harbor of Manila Bay as originally intended. But the related portion of the original plan, the stocking of supplies on the peninsula to support the beleaguered garrison, could not be implemented as quickly. The troops arriving in Bataan found themselves without adequate food, munitions, and medical supplies.

The American-Filipino forces held defensive lines long enough to avoid encirclement and also to enable the southern Luzon force fighting the Lamon Bay landing to pull back through central Luzon into Bataan. Now that many of the untrained Filipinos had fled, the rest fought hard, and the Americans learned quickly. Homma did not push his forces forward as rapidly as he might have, and the Japanese Air Force rested on its laurels instead of attacking the Americans crowding the roads into Bataan. American and Filipino determination and Japanese hesitations would lead to a far longer campaign than Tokyo had imagined.

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.

From the outset, the defenders were also hot and hungry, with 110,000 people to be fed – 85,000 US and Filipino troops and 25,000 civilian refugees. The Corps of Engineers set about gathering and threshing rice in the fields. Fish traps operated along the coast until destroyed by enemy fighters, and farm animals were slaughtered. Malaria swiftly reached epidemic proportions. Nurse Ruth Straub wrote in her diary: ‘I guess we are all self-imposed prisoners-of war. All we’re doing is protecting our own lives.’

One unit was forced back to the sheer cliffs of Quinauan point. ‘Scores of Japs ripped off their uniforms and leaped, shrieking, to the beach below,’ wrote Captain William Dyess. ‘Machine-gun-fire raked the sand and surf for anything that moved.’ When Japanese infantry punched through the perimeter and seized two salients at Tuol and Cotar, after bloody fighting the line was restored. Bombing inflicted remarkably little damage on American artillery positions.

MacArthur’s principal goal was to galvanize Washington into sending him reinforcements; his pleas, which soon brought him into direct communication with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, contained all sorts of threats and charges of duplicity in Washington. MacArthur also bombarded the world with press communiqués that misrepresented his own role and hid the dire condition of his army while exaggerating the plight of the Japanese.

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.

Soon outnumbered four to one and now completely blockaded in Bataan and Corregidor by the Japanese Navy, MacArthur was personally ordered by President Roosevelt to leave the Philippines, which he managed to do by a hair’s breadth – at one point his motor torpedo boat came ‘in the shadow of a Japanese battleship. I have come through,’ he said on reaching Australia, ‘and I shall return.’

MacArthur told Roosevelt that he planned to win or die on Corregidor. The schemer in the White House had no intention of allowing the schemer of Malinta Tunnel to become a martyr. FDR ordered MacArthur off the island, an order the general obeyed with the help of the navy’s surviving PT boats. Left with little more than MacArthur’s spare cigars and shaving cream, Wainwright took command of US Army Forces Far East.

FDR’s decision to save MacArthur carried opportunities and risks. Roosevelt saw that MacArthur might rally a disheartened Australia, which now faced direct Japanese attack, and might provide the leadership time to organize the American forces gathering in Australia to defend the Malay barrier. FDR’s decision also created a political challenge. The ‘Asia First’ media — a coalition of powerful Republican senators and many voting Republicans — had made MacArthur their favorite general. Consequently, the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed with reluctance to create a new theater for him, the Southwest Pacific, based in Australia, where he could prepare for some as yet ill-defined counteroffensive.

MacArthur’s own goals were not ill-defined: ‘I shall return!’ he said. He didn’t plan to return to Washington. Having enjoyed unbroken success on the battlefield in World War I, he had now tasted defeat. He knew about the Germany First strategy, but he had no intention of letting it go unchallenged. Roosevelt, in fact, advanced MacArthur’s deification by awarding him the Medal of Honor, an award MacArthur’s general-father had won in the Civil War.

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.

In civilian refugee camps behind the perimeter, according to Lt. Walter Waterous, conditions were ‘the most deplorable I have ever seen and the death rate was appalling’. Bombing wrecked almost every facility above ground on the fortress island of Corregidor; thousands of sick and wounded were crowded into its Malinta Tunnel.

Thirty year-old Texan nurse Lt. Bertha Dworsky found that one of the worst aspects of her work was personal acquaintance with many of the terribly wounded men brought in: ‘They were usually people that we’d been with at the Officers’ Club, or they were our friends. It was a tremendously emotional experience. We just never knew who they were going to bring in next.’

The wounded often asked if they were going to survive, and doctors disputed whether it was best to tell them the truth. Dr Alfred Weinstein wrote: ‘The argument raged back and forth with nobody knowing the correct answer. Most of us followed a middle course, ducking the question … If a patient looked as if he might kick the bucket, we called in the chaplain to give him last rites, collect personal mementoes and write last messages … More often than not they didn’t have to be told.’

There were during the lull of February and March the beginnings of those signs of collaboration with the Japanese which later came to be widespread, at the same time as other Filipinos began a guerilla movement; and the Philippine President, Manuel Quezon, toyed with the idea of pulling out of the war. President Roosevelt dismissed all such projects and ordered continued resistance.

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.

Massing his best regiments against the shadow of the Philippine II Corps on the eastern sector, Homma pressed the attacks home with ample fresh troops until the front collapsed. The renewed Japanese offensive quickly broke the famished and diseased American and Filipino soldiers, who had no choice but to surrender.

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.

Scores of Filipinos were casually killed, with some being used for bayonet practice. An American private soldier saw a weakened compatriot pushed under an advancing tank. Blair Robinett said: ‘Now we knew, if there had been any doubts before, we were in for a bad time.’ Sgt. Charles Cook described seeing captives bayoneted if they tried to get water. Staff-Sergeant Harold Feiner said: ‘If you fell, bingo, you were dead.’

The 1942 Philippines campaign served no useful strategic purpose: the islands were indefensible by the small forces available, far from friendly bases. If the garrison had held out longer, domestic public opinion might have forced some doomed venture to relieve the siege of Bataan. The US Navy would have suffered a catastrophe, had it attempted to assist Wainwright in the face of overwhelming Japanese air and naval strength.

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.’

On 3 May Wainwright reported to MacArthur in Australia that every structure above ground had been levelled, the island denuded of vegetation. Conditions became unspeakable in the hot, stinking Malinta Tunnel, packed with fearful humanity. That night the submarine Spearfish evacuated the last party to escape safely to Australia, twenty-five strong, including thirteen women.

An American navy doctor among the garrison, George Ferguson, sat down and wept, ‘just so disappointed in the good old USA’. Amid emotional and physical exhaustion, however, many men were simply glad the battle had ended. Only later did they discover that the ordeal had scarcely begun.

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.

At home in the US, news commentators squeezed every ounce of glory from Bataan, from skirmishes at sea and manifestations of America’s embryo mobilization. But in the Pacific, no one was fooled. Every Allied soldier, sailor and airman knew that the enemy was making the weather in every corner of the theater. Lt. Robert Kelly of MTB Squadron 3, which evacuated MacArthur from Corregidor, said: ‘The news commentators had us all winning the war. It made us very sore. We were out here where we could see these victories. There were plenty of them. They were all Japanese. Yet if even at one point we are able to check an attack, the silly headlines chatter of a “victory”.’

A pioneer in army public relations even before World War I, MacArthur had already established his credentials as a hero of the Republican Party, an opponent of American subversives from the Right and Left (mostly Left), a champion of the Chinese and Filipinos, and an outspoken critic of British influence on American foreign policy. His behavior under stress — including combat — confounded worshipers and detractors alike: he could be absolutely insensitive to danger, yet he also shrank from direct contact with combat troops, especially the sick and wounded.

American dismay in the face of those early defeats was assuaged by skilful propaganda. The United States had much less to lose in the east than did the British Empire. The epic of Bataan and MacArthur forged by Roosevelt and the US media was serviceable, even precious to the American people. The general was a vainglorious windbag rather than a notable commander. But his flight from Corregidor was no more discreditable than those of many wartime British commanders from stricken fields, including Wavell’s from Singapore. During the years that followed, MacArthur’s status as a figurehead for American endeavors in the southwest Pacific did much for morale at home, if less for the defeat of Japan.

Without doubt, MacArthur understood American politics and the role of media manipulation in shaping policy. FDR once characterized MacArthur as one of the two most dangerous demagogues in American politics, the other being Huey Long.

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.

Dwight Eisenhower, who had served unhappily under MacArthur a few years earlier, wrote in his diary: ‘Poor Wainwright! He did the fighting … [MacArthur] got such glory as the public could find … MacArthur’s tirades, to which … I so often listened in Manila … would now sound as silly to the public as they then did to us. But he’s a hero! Yah.’

MacArthur always knew he was at the center of the world stage, and he had no intention of allowing the Philippines to fall without a struggle. The very real difficulties he faced were daunting enough, and it is doubtful that he or any other American general could have saved the islands, but his own and others’ errors put his forces at grave risk from the very first day of war.

The tens of thousands captured had before them a terrible death march in which thousands of American and Filipino soldiers died or were slaughtered, followed by four years of privation in the most wretched prisoner of war camps. But by the time of the last surrender in the Philippines, the Pacific War had changed and the great tide of Japanese victories which had lapped around as well as over the Philippines was already being halted.

MacArthur’s own role in the Battle of Bataan demonstrated his unique leadership style: when he was good, he was very, very good, and when he was bad, he was horrid. Once he ordered the withdrawal to Bataan, he entered a world of his own, living in his headquarters in Malinta Tunnel underneath the island bastion of Corregidor. He made only one trip to Bataan, and on that trip he avoided any personal contact with his army; he communicated with Wainwright by phone and radio or called him to Corregidor for meetings.