Manila, Philippines December 10, 1941

At 3:40 a.m. on December 8, 1941 (Manila time), one hour and 40 minutes after the start of Japan’s unpro­voked air and naval attack on U.S. mili­tary instal­la­tions at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 62‑year-old Lt. Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur awoke to a terrible day of his own. Within three hours Mac­Arthur learned that Japa­nese carrier fighters and bombers had attacked an air­field in Min­da­nao, the southern­most island in the Philip­pine archi­pel­ago. (The largely self-governing Philip­pines was a U.S. terri­tory from 1898 to 1946.) Soon the Com­manding General, United States Army Forces, Far East was noti­fied of more strikes by enemy bombers to the north, on Luzon, the largest, most popu­lous island where the Philippine capital, Manila, was located.

Later in the day, 50 miles north of Manila at Clark Field, much of Mac­Arthur’s puny air force of bombers and fighters became twisted burning metal, having served as sitting ducks for 200 Japa­nese Zeros and Mitsu­bishi bombers flying out of Japa­nese-occupied For­mosa (Taiwan), the Chi­nese island 500 miles to the north. Instead of acknow­ledging that his air force has been caught flat-footed on the ground (it was lunch hour, pilots were in the mess hall, and their planes were being fueled), Mac­Arthur in a report to Army Air Forces Chief of Staff Hap Arnold in Washing­ton, D.C., ascribed the dis­aster to “the over­whelming supe­ri­ority of enemy force.” Com­pounding the dis­aster was the absence of any spare parts on the islands to repair salvageable aircraft.

Two days later, on this date, December 10, 1941, the first ele­ments of Lt. Gen. Masa­haru Homma’s Japa­nese 14th Army began splashing ashore at Luzon’s Lin­ga­yen Gulf, 100 miles north of Manila; more men and equipment followed on Decem­ber 22. Also on December 10 Japa­nese landings near the south­ern tip of Luzon seemed intent on thwarting any Amer­i­can rein­force­ments from reaching Manila from the south. In fact, a Philip­pines-bound con­voy of seven cargo ships carrying 4,600 men and much-need war mate­rial, dis­patched from Pearl Harbor on Novem­ber 29 under escort of a heavy cruiser, was diverted in mid-ocean to Bris­bane, Australia, to avoid Japanese naval and air attacks.

On December 24, Japanese landings at Lamon Bay on Luzon’s east coast, a 50‑mile forced march from the capital, effec­tively cut off Southern Luzon from Manila. Despairing of over­seas rein­force­ments and out­matched by Japa­nese air and naval supe­ri­ority, Mac­Arthur on Christ­mas Eve chose to aban­don efforts to defend Manila, pro­claiming the Philip­pine capital an “open city,” i.e., a demil­i­ta­rized zone. Mac­Arthur ordered his troops to “retire” (Mac­Arthur’s euphe­mism) to the moun­tainous, thickly forested Bataan Penin­sula, a 100‑mile-long, 30‑mile-wide dead-end land mass that forms the western side of Manila Bay. This they reached in January 1942.

The beleaguered garrison on Bataan held out until April 9, and troops on the tad­pole-shaped “rock” of Cor­regi­dor in Manila Bay held out until May 6. It was the single-largest defeat in Amer­i­can mili­tary history, matched only by the Brit­ish surren­der of their island for­tress, Singa­pore, on the southern tip of the Malay Penin­sula on Febru­ary 15, 1942. Nearly 80,000 U.S. and Fili­pino troops were sent into a cruel cap­tivity, many of them dying on the sub­se­quent “death march” out of Bataan. Mac­Arthur, who was person­ally ordered by Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt in late-Febru­ary to leave Cor­regi­dor to assume com­mand of Allied forces in Aus­tra­lia, promised Filipinos, “I shall return,” which he famously did before photo­graphers and the news media on Octo­ber 20, 1944, striding con­fidently through knee-deep surf toward the beach on Leyte Island.

Japanese Conquest of the Philippines, December 8, 1941, to May 6, 1942

Generals Wainwright and MacArthur, Philippines, October 1941Japan invades Philippines: Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma, Japanese 14th Army Commander

Left: Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East, and, to his right, Maj. Gen. Jonathan M. Wain­wright, Octo­ber 10, 1941. The USAFFE com­prised four tacti­cal com­mands and were a mixed force of U.S. and Fili­pino non-combat-experi­enced regu­lar, national guard, constab­ulary, and newly created Common­wealth units. Wain­wright com­manded the North Luzon Force, which defended both the most likely sites for Japa­nese amphib­ious attacks and the central plains of Luzon.

Right: Brushing off ineffective Amer­ican resis­tance, Japa­nese Lt. Gen. Masa­haru Homma, 14th Army Com­mander, came ashore at Lin­ga­yen Gulf, Luzon Island, on Decem­ber 24, 1941, 1941. On Novem­ber 6, 1941—one month and a day before the Japa­nese sur­prise attack on Pearl Harbor—Homma’s 14th Army, one of four corps-equi­valent armies comprising Japan’s South­ern Expedi­tionary Army Group, was formed for the specific task of invading and subduing the Philip­pines in two months. Within days of landing, Homma had 43,000 troops in position and poised to besiege Manila, 100 miles to the south.

Japan invades Philippines: Bataan POWs following surrender, April 9, 1942Japan invades Philippines: Corregidor POWs following surrender, May 6, 1942

Left: U.S. and Filipino POWs after their surrender on Bataan Penin­sula on April 9, 1942. The Japa­nese vic­tory following the Battle of Bataan (Janu­ary 7 to April 9, 1942) has­tened the fall of the thousand-acre bastion of Correg­idor Island, 2 miles away, a month later. More than 60,000 Fili­pino and 15,000 Amer­i­can pri­soners of war—exhausted, starved, and diseased—were forced into the infamous Bataan Death March. Mac­Arthur largely blamed the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Fleet, which with­drew from the Philip­pines (per plan!) on Decem­ber 26, 1941, for the Japa­nese victory in 1942. The painful truth was, the efforts required of the nation to regain its strategic equilibrium following the shocking Decem­ber 7 disaster at Pearl Harbor, plus the uncer­tainty of what lay in store in the Euro­pean theater of war and else­where in South­east Asia, reduced MacArthur’s Philip­pine command to a tacti­cal side­show. Side­show or not, for months it remained the only place Amer­i­cans were actively fighting an enemy power.

Right: Surrender of U.S. forces at the Malinta Tunnel on Correg­idor, May 6, 1942. The Battle of Correg­idor (May 5–6, 1942) was the cul­mina­tion of the Japa­nese cam­paign for the con­quest of the Philip­pines. Correg­idor, with its net­work of tun­nels and formid­able array of defen­sive arma­ment, along with the forti­fi­cations across the en­trance to Manila Bay, was the remaining obstacle to Hom­ma’s 14th Japa­nese Army. Correg­idor and the neigh­boring islets denied the Japa­nese the use of Manila Bay, but the Japa­nese Army brought heavy artil­lery to the south­ern end of Bataan and pro­ceeded to block Correg­idor from any sources of food and fresh water. On May 6, 1942, Japa­nese troops forced the sur­ren­der of the last Amer­i­can and Fili­pino hold­outs, which were under the com­mand of Mac­Arthur’s man-on-the-spot in the Philip­pines, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wain­wright. Thin and mal­nourished from three years of mis­treat­ment during enemy captiv­ity, Wain­wright would be present aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Septem­ber 2, 1945, when a Japa­nese delegation signed their nation’s Instrument of Surrender.

Japan invades Philippines: Bataan Death March POWs, c. May 1942Japan invades Philippines: Bataan Death March dead

Above: U.S. prisoners of war on the “death march” from Bataan to their prison camp, c. May 1942 (left photo). Hom­ma’s 14th Area Army was respon­sible for the har­rowing 80‑mile forced march of U.S. and Fili­pino pri­soners following Bataan’s sur­render. The Bataan Death March was char­ac­terized by wide­spread mis­treat­ment (lack of food and water), physi­cal abuse (beatings and bayo­neting,) and murder by “clean­up crews” who killed pri­soners too exhausted to con­tinue (right photo). (The pri­soners had sur­vived on quarter rations or less before their capture.) Approx­i­mately 2,500–10,000 Fili­pinos and 100–650 Amer­i­cans died before they could reach their desti­nation. Homma, after being con­victed by the post­war U.S. mili­tary tribunal for war crimes in the Philip­pines, was exe­cuted by firing squad. In his role as Supreme Allied Com­mander of the Pacific Theater, Mac­Arthur approved the tribunal’s findings of guilt and Homma’s execution.

Anti-Japanese U.S. Army poster

Above: The Bataan Death March and other Japanese actions were used to arouse fury in the United States, as reflected in this U.S. Army poster. Inter­estingly, it wasn’t until Janu­ary 27, 1944, that the U.S. govern­ment informed the public about the death march. U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war who survived the death march suffered 41 months of unparal­leled cruelty and savagery during captivity.

Japanese Invasion of the Philippines, 1941–1942