The Philippines

This collection of some 7,000 islands, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, was ceded to the United States by Spain after the Spanish-American War. The battles of Bataan and Corregidor fought in the Philippines were two of America's greatest losses to Japan at the beginning of World War II, but the territory was eventually liberated in 1944.

As a commonwealth, the Philippines relied on the United States for its defense. Retired general Douglas MacArthur, former U.S. Army chief of staff and onetime commander of the army's Philippine Department, was made the territory's military adviser.

In July 1941, as the Japanese threat grew more imminent, MacArthur was recalled to active duty and made commander of all U.S. and Philippine troops in the Philippines.

MacArthur believed that the troops under his command were up to the task of keeping the Japanese at bay, and he pretty much ignored the official war plan for defense of the commonwealth, known as War Plan Orange, Revision Three. This plan called for forces to withdraw to the mountainous Bataan peninsula at the mouth of Manila Bay, which was protected at the rear by the fortified island of Corregidor, until reinforcements could arrive.

The plan looked good on paper, but the reality of the situation was quite different. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces immediately turned their attention to the Philippines with an unexpected air attack on U.S. bases that wiped out nearly half of the 200 aircraft stationed there. The following day, December 9, the Japanese made an amphibious landing on Bataan Island off Luzon and seized the airstrip. More Japanese forces arrived the next day, going ashore at two points on northern Luzon. Additional airstrips were quickly seized with almost no opposition because most of MacArthur's forces were 800 miles away in Mindanao at the southern tip of the Philippine chain.

The Japanese continued gradually increasing their control of the Philippines, finally landing at Mindanao on December 20. They were met by approximately 3,500 U.S. and Philippine troops, but they quickly overwhelmed them. Meanwhile, a major Japanese landing force went ashore at Lingayen Gulf on Luzon's west coast on December 22, with a secondary landing on the east coast, south of Manila. The Philippine capital became their next goal.

MacArthur hoped to save Manila from destruction by declaring it an open city (meaning it was undefended) on December 26; then he began a withdrawal to the Bataan peninsula, where he hoped to either be rescued or receive reinforcements. Meanwhile, the Japanese disregarded MacArthur's open-city declaration and began bombing Manila, which fell on January 2, 1942. Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, the supreme Japanese commander, chose to take Manila as originally planned rather than chase MacArthur and his small army to Bataan. He wouldn't turn his attention to MacArthur until January 9. This delay gave MacArthur's troops time to establish a defensive perimeter, though the chances of a rescue were bleak because of the heavy losses the Pacific Fleet had suffered in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

On February 20, Manuel Quezon, president of the Philippines, and several other U.S. and Philippine officials were evacuated by submarine. Once in Washington, Quezon quickly established a government in exile. Meanwhile, President Roosevelt acknowledged the loss of the Philippines and ordered MacArthur to escape to Australia, which he did via PT boat on March 17.

The Battle of Bataan

MacArthur's forces put up a formidable defense in Bataan, but it wasn't enough to hold off the much larger Japanese army. On January 9, Homma unleashed a heavy artillery barrage on the defenders, then ordered his men across the Calaguiman River to within 150 yards of the defensive line. Then, he ordered a suicide run by his troops, which pushed the American and Philippine soldiers farther down the peninsula.

But MacArthur's troops didn't roll over. Instead, they fought with tremendous ferocity, throwing everything they had at the attacking Japanese. Though continually pushed back, the defenders were able to prevent the swift Japanese victory that Homma had anticipated.

Ordered to evacuate the Philippines by President Roosevelt, MacArthur placed Jonathan Wainwright, newly promoted to lieutenant general, in command of the Philippine army. Boarding the PT boat that would take him to Australia, MacArthur uttered his now-famous farewell: “I shall return.”

Members of the Provisional Naval Battalion, who fought the Japanese during the battle of Bataan, tried to turn their white uniforms khaki for better camouflage using coffee. However, rather than turning brown, the uniforms came out yellow. As a result, one Japanese officer wrote in his diary of seeing “a new type of suicide squad dressed in brightly colored uniforms.”

By this time, the defending army consisted of approximately 500 American sailors and their officers, who formed the Provisional Naval Battalion. Knowing that their task was ultimately futile, the men nonetheless vowed to do everything in their power to hold off the Japanese as long as physically possible.

Homma's forces received reinforcements in early April, and on April 3, he launched a brutal assault against the weakened American and Filipino defenders. Wave after wave of Japanese soldiers threw themselves at the defensive line with little regard for casualties. Yet despite overwhelming odds, the American and Filipino troops continued to defend themselves with everything at hand, fighting past the point of exhaustion. A week later, on April 9, the valiant fighters, exhausted and out of supplies, finally surrendered.

Before the fall of Bataan, a handful of survivors, including Lieutenant General Wainwright, joined the small contingent of servicemen and nurses on the fortified island of Corregidor, which was next in the Japanese campaign for the Philippines. The Japanese won, but the victory was bittersweet for Homma, who had been given fifty days to take the Philippines. Because he went over schedule, Homma was relieved of command on June 9.

For the survivors of the Battle of Bataan, the worst was yet to come. Taken prisoner, they were forced by the Japanese to march sixty grueling miles from Bataan to San Fernando.

The Bataan Death March

The Bataan Death March — involving 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers taken prisoner after the capture of Bataan — is one of the most infamous atrocities committed by the Japanese against Allied servicemen.

During the Bataan Death March, an American prisoner — a former Notre Dame football player — had his 1935 class ring taken from him by a Japanese guard. It was later returned to him by an apologetic Japanese officer who politely explained, “I graduated from Southern California in thirty-five.”

The march began on April 10, 1942, when thousands of prisoners were searched and stripped of personal belongings by Japanese guards. Some of the prisoners were summarily executed, supposedly because they possessed Japanese money. The prisoners were then placed in groups of 500 to 1,000 and forced to march without food or water to a camp under construction at San Fernando in Pampanga Province.

Figure 6-3 American POWs in the Bataan Death March, May 1942.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (127-N-114541)

The march was an exercise in brutality. One soldier reported having his canteen confiscated, the water given to a horse, and the canteen discarded in the bushes. Prisoners who fell behind because of exhaustion were bayoneted and left at the side of the road. The stronger prisoners were not allowed to help.

According to the U.S. War Department, nearly 5,200 Americans died during the twelve-day march, and many more died after reaching the camp. Conditions were so harsh that the death rate at San Fernando reached 550 a day.

The Bataan Death March was a well-kept secret. Word of the atrocities didn't get out until three years later, when three American officers escaped from the prison camp and revealed the truth. After the war, General Masaharu Homma received much of the blame for the death march. He was convicted of war crimes and executed.

Philippine Resistance

The Japanese began the next phase of their conquest — reorienting Filipinos to view the Japanese not as enemies but as friends eager to help them against the colonialists. The teaching of Japanese became mandatory in Philippine schools, and radios were adapted so they could not pick up American broadcasts. All political parties were abolished, and a new party loyal to the Japanese was started to select members of a pro-Japanese puppet government.

The Japanese had hoped to bring the Philippines into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere after they conquered it. However, vehemently anti-Japanese forces took to the hills and began an aggressive guerrilla campaign against the invaders. The fighting forces were frequently reinforced and given weapons and supplies via submarine drops, and many of the secret military forces were led by U.S. officers under MacArthur's command. The movement solidified quickly, and by 1944, the guerrillas had a working recruitment program, communications system, political organization, and even their own currency. Nearly 60 percent of Philippine territory (most of it outlying regions) came under guerrilla control over the course of the war.

Figure 6-4 General MacArthur wades ashore during the initial landing at Leyte following the invasion to liberate the Philippines.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (111-SC-407101)

MacArthur was eager to keep the promise he had made to the Filipino people on his evacuation to Australia, and after his forces made major gains in New Guinea, he started lobbying for the liberation of the Philippines. After much debate, President Roosevelt finally agreed.

The invasion began on October 20, 1944. With two assault forces and 500 ships at his disposal, MacArthur landed more than 200,000 troops on Leyte, which was an important steppingstone to Mindanao and Luzon. The U.S. forces wasted little time in their campaign to retake the island chain. On October 21, they captured the harbor and airfield at Tacloban, the provincial capital of Leyte.

MacArthur had wanted to make the liberation of the Philippines an army operation, but it was the navy that helped propel him to victory as a result of the decisive naval battle of Leyte Gulf, which devastated the Japanese fleet and left the Japanese forces in the Philippines with little air support or supply line protection.

During the naval battle of Leyte Gulf, which enabled General Douglas MacArthur to retake the Philippines by severing Japanese forces' supply lines, Commander David McCampbell of the carrier Essex shot down at least nine Japanese fighters. McCampbell became the navy's top fighter pilot in the war with thirty-four confirmed kills.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf

The three-day battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the greatest sea battles in history, was Japan's desperate attempt to disrupt the landing of American troops in the Philippines, as well as drive away the U.S. warships that supported them. Almost the entire Japanese fleet took part in the battle, which started badly for the Japanese with the sinking of two of the first cruisers sent to the region; the ships were torpedoed off the north coast of Borneo, claiming 582 sailors.

Both sides took heavy losses in the battle. When the American carrier Princeton was hit and sunk by a single Japanese bomb, the destruction was so massive and immediate that more than 500 sailors drowned. However, U.S. forces gained immediate and uncontested air superiority and quickly changed the course of the battle by sinking the Japanese battleship Musashi.

During the engagement, the Japanese lost thirty-six warships and the United States lost six. The battle signaled the end of Japanese aggression in the Pacific and introduced a last-ditch weapon from the Japanese: the suicide corps known as the kamikaze, or “divine wind.” On October 25, the last day of the battle, one kamikaze pilot plunged his plane into the flight deck of the American escort carrier St. Lo, igniting the bombs and torpedoes stored below. The ship went down less than a half hour later.

Even though the invasion force met little resistance at Tacloban, the landing at Ormoc on December 7 was a different story. Japanese soldiers hiding in caves and carved-out pillboxes threw everything they had at the Americans while kamikaze raids inflicted heavy damage on U.S. support ships just off shore. A week later, nearly 16,000 U.S. troops and 15,000 construction and army air force personnel landed at Mindoro, quickly overwhelming the 500-man Japanese garrison there. Leyte was secured by Christmas, and MacArthur turned his attention to Luzon, which was being protected by nearly 250,000 Japanese troops.

The Landing at Luzon

The initial landing forces at Luzon met very little resistance, a situation that perplexed the U.S. commanders. It was later learned that the Japanese had opted to let the beach landing take place unopposed so the Japanese defenders would not lose men to the aerial bombardment that usually accompanied such an action. The Japanese, entrenched in a maze of tunnels and pillboxes, fought hard, hoping to prevent an invasion of Luzon and the Philippines' other main islands.

However, on January 31, 1945, U.S. troops pushed into Manila, beginning a battle that lasted more than a month and involved intense house-to-house and hand-to-hand combat with Japanese defenders unwilling to give up. In Manila, U.S. rangers, backed by Filipino guerrillas, freed a large number of American POWs, including many survivors of the Bataan Death March.

On March 3, MacArthur proclaimed Manila a secure city and returned civil control of the territory to the former Philippine government.

American forces liberated the Philippines piece by piece, with fighting that continued throughout the islands for several more months. General Tomoyuki Yamashita led his force of 65,000 into the hills around Luzon and continued to harass American and Filipino forces until the end of the war.

Aftermath of Occupation

Four years of war took a horrible toll on the Philippines. The Japanese destroyed countless homes, buildings, infrastructures, and farmland. Reconstruction had to be postponed because the Philippines were a primary staging area for a planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. (The Japanese surrender after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki eliminated the need for the invasion.)

After the war, the United States gratefully thanked its ally with eight years of free trade, generous quotas on imports, and a $400 million fund for the payment of war-damage claims. The United States also provided a $120 million public works program and turned over $100 million in surplus properties to the Philippine government. The greatest gift of all came on July 4, 1946, when the Philippines was granted its independence.

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