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 Armed Forces in the 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, with mini­mal resis­tance encountered. 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. No other effort to resupply the Philippines was carried out.

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, asking Philip­pine Presi­dent Manuel L. Quezon to pro­claim his capi­tal an “open city” (i.e., a demil­i­ta­rized zone) to “spare the Metro­poli­tan area from pos­sible ravages of attack.” (Manila had already been heavily bombed for 2 days.) On the back foot, 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, trapped like a cat in a sack in the words of one of Homma’s generals.

Japanese units followed the Allied defenders into the penin­sula on Janu­ary 2. 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. “Skinny” 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, senior field comman­der of the Amer­i­can and Fili­pino forces, com­manded the North Luzon Force, which defended both the most likely sites for Japa­nese amphib­ious attacks and the Central Luzon plain.

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: The “Battling Bastards of Bataan,” U.S. and Filipino POWs after their surrender on Bataan Penin­sula on April 9, 1942. (Amer­i­can hold­outs embraced the title after Mac­Arthur, his wife and 4‑year-old son, and some of his staff “aban­doned” the Philip­pines in a PT boat on the night of March 10, 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 sickened with dysen­tery, mala­ria, scurvy, hook­worm, and beri­beri—were forced into the infamous Bataan Death March. (Fili­pinos com­mem­orate the anni­ver­sary of the march every April 9 as “Araw ng Kagitingan,” or Day of Valor.) Mac­Arthur largely blamed the tiny 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 doomed 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 long, dank 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, reinforced on April 3 with fresh divi­sions from main­land China, the Dutch East Indies, and Malaya. Correg­idor’s 56 big Coastal Artil­lery guns and mortars and 3 forti­fied 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. Skinny in build like his nick­name suggested and mal­nourished from 3 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, April 1942Japan invades Philippines: Bataan Death March dead

Above: U.S. prisoners of war on the “death march” from Bataan to their prison camps, April 9–17, 1942 (left photo). Hom­ma’s 14th Area Army was respon­sible for the har­rowing 80‑mile forced march of U.S. and Fili­pino POWs following Bataan’s sur­render. In April’s searing heat and sun­shine the Bataan Death March was accom­panied by wide­spread mis­treat­ment (the death-march guards, them­selves thirsty and hungry, stripped many of their charges of their can­teens and food rations), verbal and physi­cal abuse (berated their captives for sur­ren­dering; applying beatings and bayo­neting), and murder by “clean­up crews” who killed cap­tives too exhausted to con­tinue (right photo). (The POWs had sur­vived on quarter rations or less before sur­rendering to the enemy, their pro­tein needs partially sup­plied by meat from horses, mules, and mon­keys.) An esti­mated 5,000 Fili­pinos and 750 Amer­i­cans (one estimate puts the U.S. figure as high as 5,000) perished on the arduous trek before they could reach their desti­nation. Over the next 2 months more than 16,000 cap­tives, including 1,600 Amer­icans, suc­cumbed to star­va­tion, dis­ease, and bru­tality in the Japa­nese secon­dary intern­ment area at Camp Caba­na­tuan. 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

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