Gen. Douglas McArthur Statue, CorregidorMcArthur’s Role in the Philippines Debacle in 1942-3

by Bill in Oz

In 1934 Quezon president elect of the new Commonwealth of the Philippines in Washington, asked Douglas McArthur if the islands could be defended after independence. MacArthur replied “I don’t think so, I know they can defend themselves.” Quezon was reassured and asked McArthur to be his military adviser for the new republic. Later Quezon made McArthur Field Marshall of the new Philippines defence forces.

How to defend the new Commonwealth of the Philippines was an urgent problem. Starting in the 1890’s Japan embarked on a policy of making war and seizing territory. Formosa was occupied in 1894 and made into a Japanese colony. In 1905 Korea was attacked & occupied. During WW1 Japan seized the German colony ( Tsingtao ) in China’s Shandong province. The Japanese navy seized Germany’s island colonies in the Pacific – the Marianas, Caroline and Marshall Islands. In 1931 Japan attacked the Chinese province of Manchuria and made it a ‘province’ of it’s own empire. In 1935 Japan started an all out war to occupy China and incorporate it into it’s empire. In July 1941 50,000 Japanese troops occupied French Indo-China. The key to Filipino fears was the simple fact of geography. The Japanese colony of Formosa ( now named Taiwan ) with large Japanese army, air force & navy bases, was just 250 kilometers north across the straits of Luzon.

In the period from 1935 till 1941 under McArthur’s leadership the Philippino defence forces developed into a force of one hundred thousand American & Philippine troops. They were largely poorly trained and poorly armed. But McArthur issued press releases and reports saying that that they new Filipino army was an effective defence. In July 1941 after the occupation of French Indo-China President Roosevelt appointed McArthur the commander of US Army forces in the Far East. Thus from 1935 until 1942 MacArthur was thus the man responsible for developing the Philippines defence forces. He also commanded the US forces. McArthur was also responsible for the ‘strategy’ adopted for the defence of the Philippines. This was also a key aspect of what happened. The US defence forces had since the 1920’s adopted a defence strategy of attempting resist any attack by holding on to just the Bataan peninsula & Corrigidor Island at the entrance to Manila bay, until US relief forces arrived. This was the US “Orange Plan”. This strategy required concentrating troops, vehicles, weapons, medicines , munitions & food in these strategic locations.

But in late 1941 McArthur ditched this strategy. He decided that the whole of the Philippines must be defended from a Japanese attack.And so the armed forces started dispersing weapons, vehicles, munitions, medicines and food stocks all over the country. This had enormous consequences once the war started in December 1941. Within weeks it was obvious that it was impossible to defend all of the Philippines from the Japanese attacks.The only available strategy was to try and defend key defendable points like Bataan & Corrigidor island. But by then the weapons, munitions, food, fuel, vehicles & medicines were not there. The attempt by Philippine & Us forces to withstand Japanese attacks at Bataan and Corrigidor in early 1942 were undermined by  MacArthur’s strategic stupidity.

The start of the War

On Sunday morning the the 7th of December 1941 Japanese naval forces attacked the US Navy base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. This attack was a surprise. But the fact that Japan had started the war was not. US cryptographers were already able to decode Japanese radio coded signals. An attack was expected. In early November 1941 the US War Department ordered MacArthur to prepare for hostile action by Japan “at any moment”.

McArthur decided to ignore this warning and order. He announced to his US colleagues that he knew ‘from the existing alignment & movement of Japanese forces” that there would be no attack until the Spring. When the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, happened, in Manila it was Monday the 8th. of December. That morning Japanese air force planes in Formosa and carrier based aircraft were warming up ready to fly and attack. The attacks on the Philippines were supposed to happen simultaneously with the Pearl Harbor attack. Meanwhile in Manila it was the last day of a long weekend. It was the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception. Following McArthur’s ‘knowledge & expertise’ Philippine & US defence personal were all enjoying the last day of a nice relaxing long weekend. The US bomber force having been asked to relocate all it’s planes to Mindanao out of range of Japanese aerial attack, had huge party in Manila on the Sunday night.

But all was not yet lost.There was some time to mobilise the defence forces. The weather early on the 8th was very foggy in Formosa and on the surrounding seas.The planes could not take off to launch their attack at the planned time. They were delayed for over 7 hours by the weather. If McArthur had acted immediately some defence could have been mounted. But this did not happen.

MacArthur was awakened very early on that Monday morning by one of his staff with the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Shortly afterwards at 5.00 am his air commander Major General Brereton attempted to ask McArthur for approval launch an attack on Japanese bases in Formosa and the convoys bringing troops to invade Japan. McArthur’s chief of staff General Sutherland denied him access to McArthur and told him to await further orders.

McArthur stayed in his office that day and saw nobody except Sutherland. Later he said he was studying intelligence reports. There were no orders for 7 hours after he was told of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Then McArthur issued an order allowing an an initial attack o take place at sunset that day. Some aircraft ignoring the lack of orders form McArthur did take off. But It was all too late and too uncoordinated. Clark & the other air force bases were attacked.Virtually all the US air force bombers & fighters in the Philippines were destroyed in these attacks as they were being serviced, before they could get off the ground..

The Japanese air force also attacked the US Naval bases at Cavite. It was a ruin. Faced with no effective base from which to operate from and no air cover, most of the US Navy ships in the Philippines left for the the Dutch East Indies or Australia within a few days. This included the the 27 strong US submarines force. Only a few patrol oats remained. In the space of a few days the US & Philippines lost all their air force and naval power. It was a total disaster.

In the fog of war many things can go wrong. Commanders can lose their nerve just as much as privates. Stalin went missing for 3 days when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. And in these key hours at the start of the Japanese attack on the Philippines, McArthur, the commander, the field marshal, the hero, for the first time since WW1, went ‘missing’ & hid in his office.

Japanese Invasion

The destruction of US Air power & the destruction or withdrawal of US naval power opened the Philippines up to Japanese invasion. There was no way to prevent this invasion. It started on December 22, 1941 when 43,000 Japanese troops landed in Lingayen Gulf 200 Kilometers North of Manila. On the 24th of December a second force of 10,000 Japanese troops landed at Lamon Bay in South Eastern Luzon. A third Japanese force landed at Legaspi in Bicol at the same time. A fourth invasion force landed in Mindanao. It was planned well in advance and the forces well equipped with tanks and artillery..

The Commonwealth of the Philippines armed forces & the US army forces were no match for the Japanese. Philippine & US troops could not defeat the Japanese. Philippine troops were unable to defend the Philippines from the invasion. In a month the Japanese had control of Northern Luzon and of Southern Luzon & Mindanao.

There were a number of reasons for this. One major reason was that McArthur’s policy was to recruit conscripts on low pay from all over the Philippines for the Commonwealth armed forces. This meant that they new troops spoke many different languages or dialects. And the low pay did not attract men with high levels of schooling. Also most did not speak English or spoke very limited English.They spoke Visayan, Tagalog, Illocano, Bicolano etc etc. This was true both among the troops and among the lower officer levels. The higher officer levels were filled by Americans. And while they spoke English well often they had no local language skills. This made for massive communications problems and a lack of understanding or empathy between the troops and American officers. A more sensible, effective policy would have been to offer good pay to selected volunteers with a higher level of education who knew some English language.

A second major reason was that the Commonwealth Philippines forces were very poorly equipped compared to the Japanese.There was a shortage of rifles and light artillery. And many of the rifles sold to the Philippines were old WW1 ex US army vintage. Modern armaments were promised by the US after July 1941.But most did not arrive before the Japanese invasion. Again the cheap defence had a price.

The third reason for Japanese victory was that the Commonwealth Philippines forces were completely inexperienced.They had not fought in battle before. By contrast the Japanese army had been training and engaged in battles since 1932. They were battle hardened.

The fourth reason was that McArthur had committed the stupid strategic mistake of spreading his troops thinly across the islands of the Philippines, instead of concentrating them on the main target of Japanese attack in Luzon and Manila.

The Retreat To Bataan & Corregidor

Faced with defeat in the plains of northern Luzon and Batangas, MacArthur decided to reverse his strategy. On the 24th of December he abandoned defending Manila and the rest of the Philippines. The US army headquarters & the Commonwealth of the Philippines government lead by President Quezon relocated to the Island fortress of Corregidor the small fortified island at the mouth of Manila Bay. Manila was declared an ‘open city’ that is ‘ an undefended city’. He did this to spare Manila being bombed or attacked by Japanese troops .He ordered all US & Philippine troops to retreat to the Bataan peninsular . However he made this declaration without any consultation with Admiral Thomas C. Hart, commanding the US Navy Asiatic Fleet at Cavite. Although most of the ships had already left this uncoordinated action forced the Navy to destroy all their valuable stockpile of military supplies at Cavite.

In the midst of all this major defence activity on the 28th of December 1941, McArthur is reported to have called from Corregidor & asked the mayor of Manila Jorge Vargas to buy $35,000 worth of shares in Lepanto mining company for him. This single special purchase was done the following day. It made McArthur a millionaire by the end of the war.

This fighting retreat to Bataan took three weeks up to the middle of January 1842. By all accounts it was well done. And for this McArthur was given a lot of credit. One wonders why as it was a consequence of his incompetence.

This did not stop him from seeking ‘awards’ for what he had achieved. James Bowen says of McArthur on Corregidor that he

“spent his first two weeks … pestering President Quezon for rewards for his “distinguished service” to the Philippines… Quezon responded to McArthur’s pressure for rewards by granting him the sum of $500,000 from the impoverished Philippine Treasury on Corregidor. MacArthur’s closest staff officers received smaller sums.”

Some may ask also why Bataan ? Why not defend Manila itself and the surrounding plains ? The problem was that the US & Philippine troops were not equipped to defend the city. And an attempt at defending Manila would have meant a huge number of civilian deaths. So But McArthur reverted to the original US “Orange Plan” which he had abandoned in July 1941.

Karnow says that McArthur also

“knew Bataan’s rugged terrain from his days as a young engineer. It’s five hundred square miles, dangling like an ear lobe from Luzon, are dominated by a spine of jungle clad mountains…..Few regions in the Philippines were better equipped for defensive warfare- on condition that it’s defenders had adequate supplies.” ( Karnow page 292 )

A total of 90,000 troops on Luzon reached the Bataan Peninsula in the fighting retreat. They were immediately all put on half-rations. Adequate military equipment and supplies for a lengthy defence of the peninsula were not there. In July August 1941 McArthur had ordered that huge quantities of military equipment, food, and medical supplies be spread across the nine major islands of the Philippines.

US army ‘Plan Orange’ developed in the early 1030’s with the threat of Japan in mind, required the Bataan Peninsula to be stocked with sufficient food and medical supplies to enable 43,000 troops to withstand a siege for six months. In the three weeks of the retreat only enough food was shipped to Bataan by barge from Manila, for a thirty day siege. By contrast enough supplies were ferried by barge to Corregidor, from Manila to supply 10,000 men for 6 months. What made it worse was that MacArthur issued orders forbidding his army commanders from buying or or seizing food & clothing from warehouses, even those owned by Japanese citizens. MacArthur also enforced a law stopping the movement of rice stockpiles across provincial boundaries. MacArthur also stopped army quartermasters buying rice to ship to the troops at Bataan from a stock of 50 million bushels located at the town of Cabanatuan. Later on specialists looking back at this decision came to the conclusion that 20% of this stockpile of rice would have fed the Bataan troops for a year ( Karnow page 294 )

MacArthur’s successor as commander of US & Philippine forces, General Wainwright said after the war when asked about the Bataan siege “ If we had something in our bellies……things might have been a bit more endurable”

Plan Orange was also predicated on the USA being able to come to the assistance of the Philippines.However in early 1942 this was not possible. The Japanese navy & it’s carrier force dominated the seas & air of the Western Pacific ocean. And at a political level the USA was gave a higher priority to assisting Britain against Germany. Reinforcements and supplies could not be sent and no attempt was made to send them.

The troops ill-equipped and poorly fed fought with great courage lead by General Wainwright. For the first 2 months they held off the Japanese attacks. But gradually they succumbed to malnutrition & diseases like malaria & dengue fever. There were also very inadequate medical supplies for the sick & injured. Psychologically they lost hope.They realised they were expendable. And they expressed this feeling is this verse reported by Rovere & Sclesinger ( page 57)

“We’re the battling bastards of Bataan
No momma, no poppa, No Uncle Sam
No aunts, no uncles, no nephews, no nieces,
No rifles, no gums or artillery pieces
And nobody gives a damn”

Rovere & Arthur Sclesinger, page 56, also say this about McArthur :

“Most people when they think of Bataan, think of McArthur.Yet he visited Bataan only once during the months of grim resistance. “ The troops noticed McArthur’s absence from Bataan. They noticed he stayed well fed & safe in the Malinta deep tunnels on Corregidor. The following derisive verse was coined about McArthur in this period by an anonymous GI. It was sung to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic’

“Dugout Doug McArthur lies a shakin’ on the Rock
Safe from all the bombers and from any sudden shock
Dugout Doug is eating of the best food on Bataan
And his troops go starving on…”

Another verse went :

“Dugout Doug not timid, he’s just cautious not afraid
He’s carefully protecting the starts that Franklin made
Four star generals are as rare as good food on Bataan
And his troops go starving on.”

MacArthur was tagged behind his back ‘Dugout Doug’ for the remainder of the war both in Philippines, in Australia, in PNG & Japan.

Meanwhile McArthur was sending communiques back to the USA reporting on the war in the Philippines. These communiques he personally wrote & edited. These communiques made very little mention of the other officers or men fighting in the battle. Richard Connaughton writes in his History of MacArthur in the Philippines:

“In the first three months of the war, McArthur or his staff wrote 142 communiques; 109 of which mentioned one man, McArthur. They carried brave, exciting, heartwarming, gripping though often imaginary accounts as to how McArthur’s guile, leadership, and military genius had continually frustrated the evil intentions of Japan’s armed forces. His picture appeared on the cover of Time at the end of 1941 and, early in the new year, the effect of these press releases upon the American public served to whip them up into a frenzy of fawning adulation of McArthur, American hero.” (page 225 )

They were exercises in self glorification. And as they were published in the US press McArthur became a US national hero.

In late February 1942 President Roosevelt decided to order McArthur to leave Corregidor and the Philippines. He was told to make his way to Australia and take up the role of Commander of US Forces in the South West Pacific. McArthur left Corregidor on a PT boat with his family and aides on the 11th of March. General Wainwright moved to Corregidor & became the commander of US & Philippine troops. Major General Edward King replaced him as commander of troops on Bataan itself.

Although ordered by General Marshall to take only one senior staff officer with him MacArthur took with him a large contingent of 14 of his closest and most trusted staff officers. They included his Chief of Staff, Major General Richard Sutherland who was involved in the stuff on the 8th of December when MacArthur was unavailable to his senior Air force general. . In the opinion of James Bowen these staff officers were notorious for their sycophancy and lack of combat experience. They were known in Australia as the “Bataan Gang”. A week later McArthur was in Australia.

On the 3rd of April 1942 the Japanese renewed their offensive against Bataan with fresh troops supported by heavy artillery, tanks, and air attack. McArthur from Australia ordered a general counter attack. He commanded that under no conditions should they yield. Instead they should seize a Japanese supply dump at Subic bay and then move into the Northern Cordillera and continue the fight as a guerilla war. McArthur also said that reinforcements & supplies were on their way. But it was a lie. Afterwards Brigadier General William E. Brougher, one of the US generals involved in Bataan defence said “A foul trick of deception played on a large group of Americans by a commander-in-chief and his small staff who are now eating steak and eggs in Australia”.  (Bowen )

But by then the Philippine & American troops on the Bataan were unable to offer any effective resistance. Their rations amounted to a 1000 calories a day. They were malnourished & starving. Malaria afflicted almost all the troops and seventy five per cent had dysentery. After 5 days of constant Japanese attacks, King decided to surrender. On the 5th of May Corregidor was also attacked. Wainwright surrendered a day or so later.

In the days & weeks after the surrender the Japanese ordered US & Filipino prisoners of war to walk to Camp O’Donnell about 130 kilometers to the North. This became know as the Death march.In the course of this death march many thousands of prisoners either died from lack of food, dysentery or were wantonly killed due to Japanese brutality.

Bowen says something about the Death March that is absent in all the other sources. More than 60,000 Filipino and 20,000 American prisoners of war were forced into the Bataan Death March to camp O’Donnell.“ That is there were 4 times more Filipinos than Americans fighting the siege of Bataan & the defence of Corregidor. However none of the accounts I have seen name any of the Filipinos who were involved. The only persons named are American.

Sources:

  • James Bowen 2009 : http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Philippines/Philoverview.html. This source is an interesting one as it reflects the Australian view of MacArthur for decades after he was there in 1942-45. The site was developed by James Bowen with the blessing of the Australian Returned Servicemen’s League ( RSL ) Bowen also has an extensive list of sources he used here.
  • Richard Connaughton History of MacArthur in the Philippines (2001) The Overlook Press.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica : http://www.britannica.com/event/Bataan-Death-March
  • Stanley Karnow : In Our Own Image : America’s Empire in the Philippines, Ballantine Books 1989
  • Richard Halworth Rovere & Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: General MacArthur & President Truman : The Struggle for Control of American Foreign Policy. Transaction Publishers, New Jersey 1992
  • Wikipedia : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippines_Campaign_%281941%E2%80%9342%29

Thank you to Bill in Oz for this very interesting article.

Irineo B. R. Salazar, München, 10. February 2016