World War II: Pacific Theater--The Philippines (December 1941 - May 1942)

Figure 1.--Arthur MacArthur and his mother accompanied General MacArthur when they evacuated Manila and was a rare ray of sunshine in the gloomy tunnels on Corregidor. They were evacuated along with the General. Other Americvan families in the Phiilippines were not so lucky.

A glance at the map of the Pacific makes it clear that if Japan was to have an empire in Southeast Asia, it also needed the Philippines which sat astride the sea routes, Japan thus only a few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor attacked the American forces in the Philippines. Bombers from Formosa (Taiwan) destroying most of the Air Corps planes on the ground at Clark Field, the center of American air power on the Philippines. Even though MacArthur had reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor several hours before the Japanese struck, no measure were taken to prepare for the Japanese attack. The Philippines was considered to be beyond the range of Japanese land-based air craft. As a result, the American and Philipino forces were able to offer little resistance to the Japanese invasion ar Lingayen Gulf to the north of Manila. MacArthur decided to base the defense of the Philippines on Bataan. He declared Manila and open city and concentrated his forces there. Tragically there was no time to transfer the needed supplies for his forces. The American and Philippino forces in Batan put up a valliant defense, but ran out of food and amunition. The devestated Pacific Fleet was unable to resupply them. Many military historians believe that the Japanese conquest of the Philippines was the most important American military defeat in American military history. President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to Australia before General Wainright was forced to surrender. America soon learned of Japanese attrocities during the Bataan Death, further fueling American hatred of the Japanese.

Strategic Importance

A glance at the map of the Pacific makes it clear that if Japan was to have an empire in Southeast Asia, it also needed the Philippines which sat astride the sea routes,

Commonwealth of the Philippines

The Philippines was the largest American colony. It ws acquired from Spain in the Spanish-American War (1898). It was made a Commonwealth (1935). This was the first step in a 10-year plan to grant independence ti the Islands.

General MacArthur

General Douglas MacArthur had served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. army. The rise of the militarists in Japan and their increasing beligerence posed a threat to American interests in the Pacific, especially the Philippines's. President Roosevelt sent MacArthur to the Philippines to organize the defence of the Islands. MacArthur retired in 1937 but stayed on the at the request of the Commonwealth Giovernment to become the country's military adviser. The Philippine Department was the most distant U.S. Army command in the Pacific. The Japanese joined the Axis and their actions in Indo-China and the American resonse caused a steady spiral in relations. American-Japanese negotiations broke down (June 1941). the War Department established a new command to organize the defense of the Philippines (July 26, 1941) and named the United States Armed Forces, Far East (USAFFE, or AFFE). President Roosevelt recalled MacArthur to active duty as a major general. Congress approved $10 million to mobilize the Philippine Army. The Army sent 100 B-17 Flying Fortress to bolster Philipino defenses. ¨

Indo-China (November 1940)

The fall of France to the Germand (June 1940) created opportunities for the Japanese. The Japanese joined the Axis (September 1940) and with the consent of their German partners forced Vichy authorites in Indo-China to make concessions. The Japanese deployed troops to Indo-China (November 1940). The Japanese essentially seized southern Indo-China (July 1941). The American reaction to these aggressive steps by the Japanese was to move the Pacific Fleet to Pear Harbor and embargo strategic materials. In the meantime Indo-China provide Japan forward bases in case of war. The Philippinos felt increasingly threatened.

General Tojo (November 1941)

General Tojo becomes Primeminister (November 1941). He was a leading voice for the Japanese militarists who now had complete comtrol of the Giovernment. He calls for the emd to British and American influemce in the Far East.

Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)

A Japanese carrier taskforce composed of six carriers on December 7, 1941, executed a surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. It was a brilliant tactical victory for Japan, but perhaps the greatest mistake in modern military history as it brought a suddenly united America with its vast industrial capacity into the War. The Japanese launched 360 aircraft which in 2 hours struck Peal Harbor just as the American sailors were waking up on a sleepy Sunday morning. The strike sunk or heavily damaged six of the eight American battleships, three cruisrs, three destroyers, and most of the Army Air Corps planes on the island. America was at war.

Air Attack on Clark Field (December 8, 1941)

Japan only a few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor attacked the American forces in the Philippines. (It was only a few hours later, but because of the internatioinal date line, it was December 8.) Bombers from Formosa (Taiwan) destroying most of the Air Corps planes on the ground at Clark Field, the center of American air power on the Philippines. Fort Stotsenberg was also attacked. Naval facilities were also damaged. Even though MacArthur had reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor several hours before the Japanese struck, no measure were taken to prepare for the Japanese attack. The Philippines was considered to be beyond the range of Japanese land-based air craft.

American Preparations

Military historians have to ask the question of why General MacArthur was so unprepared for the Japanese attack when it came. Not positioning the air assetts lost December 8 was bad enough, but MacArthur also did not properly prepare for the subsequent Japanese invasion of the Islands. MacArthur's force, especially after the loss of his air assetts was not sufficent to defend the Philippines indefinitely. It was adequate to resist the Japanese for more than a fews months if it had been properly managed. The forces at his disposal were no inconsequential. MacArthur failed to position supplies and munition in the Bataan peninsula. This location had been identified in War Plan Orange and the unrevised Rainbow-5. The American and Filipino forces on Bataan in fact resisted valiantly and were finally forced to surender only because they were starving and out of amunition. Immediatley after Pearl Harbor there was still time to move supplies into Baatan. Many military historians believe that the Japanese conquest of the Philippines was the most important American military defeat in American military history.

Invasion (December 10, 1941)

The destruction of American airpower at Clark Field combined with Pear Harbor, made it impossible for the American and Philipino forces to offer significant resistance to the Japanese amphibious invasions. The Japanese wasted no time in following up on their inintial strike. They landed at Aparri and Vigan on the northern coast of Luzon (December 10). The principal invasion force began landing on Luzon at Lingayen Gulf (December 22). Smaller landings were made south of Manila and on other islands in the Philippines.

Manila (January 2, 1942)

MacArthur saw that he did not have the forces to stop the Japanese drive south to Manila. Rather than have the city destroyed, he abandoned the city and declared it an open city (DEcember 24). The Japanese occupied the city (January 2).

Bataan (January 7, 1942)

Bataan was a small peninsula west of Manila. MacArthur decided to base the defense of the Philippines on Bataan, Corregidor and three small islands in Manila Bay. He concentrated his forces there and was in place (January 7). He hoped that he could hold out until relieved by the Pacific Fleet. He did not fully appreciate the extent of the damage to the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the full power of the Imperial Navy, especially the Japanese carriers. Supplies were not pre-positioned in Bataan. Tragically MacArthur did not properly use available time to transfer the needed supplies for his forces. The Americans and Filipinos lost most of their supplies during the withdrawal. The Japanese naval blockade prevented resupply or the landing of reinforcements. The American and Fhilipino forces in Bataan put up a valliant defense, but ran out of food, amunition, medical supplies. The devestated Pacific Fleet was unable to resupply them. The starving men on Bataan held out against an overwhelming Japanese force. They in fact performed more than could be reasonably asked.

MacArthur Ordered to Australia (March 12, 1942)

General MacArthur commanded the defense of Bataan from Corregidor. President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to Australia (March 12). MacArthur had insisted on a personal order from the President. Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright was left in command. He left Corregidor on PT-Boats and was neerly intercepted by the Japanese. Reaching an American base in the southern Philippines he was able to board a plane which broyght him to Australia. MacArthur was ordered to command Allied ground forces in the South Pacific. He was shocked to find that such forces were virtually non-existent. Most of the Australian Atmy was in Egypt ans American forces had not yet begun to arrive. When he arrived in Mebourne he annoinced, "I shall return." Notably he said "I" and not "We".

Bataan Surrender (April 1942)

U.S. troops on Bataan were reduced by hunger, disease, and casualties. They were no longer capable of resisting the well-supplied Japanese. Maj. Gen. Edward P. King, Jr. surrendered the forces on Bataan (April 9, 1942).

Bataan Death March (April 10, 1942)

The Japanese forced the Americans and Filipinos who surrendered on Bataan on a grueling march. General Homma ordered that the men who surrendered be moved to Camp O'Donnell in central Luzon, about 100 miles to the north. Information is sketchy. There is no evidence that I know of that Homma intentially ordered a death march, however, it is demonstrable that he was extrodinarily callous and felt no real responsibility toward the welfare of POWs. Healthy troops provided with food and water would not have found this a horendous undertaking to march this distance. The men who surrendered on Bataan, however, were not healthy. The major reason they surrended was they had run out of food and munitions and were starving. Many were sick. The Japanese underestimated the size of the American force and disregarded efforts by General King to organize an orderly movement of his men. From the beginning, the Japanese harshly treated the POWs. Beatings were common. Men were killed for even minor enfractions and sometimes for no real reason. The Japanese searched the POWs and any man with Japanese items were immediately executed. [Daws, pp. 73-74.] Personal property of any value was stollen. The actual march began at Mariveles on April 10. General King offered to provide vehicles which was rejected out of hand by the Japanese. [Dyess, pp. 69-71.] The POWs had to travel on foot, even the sick. Stranglers and those who collapsed along the way were kliiled, many bayoneted. [Groom] The Japanese soldiers conducting the march randomly beat the POWs. They were denied food and water for several days. The lack of water in the tropical heat was especially harrowing. Food tht was provided was inadequate. The POWs were allowed a few hours tgo sleep, but under conditions that made real rest difficult. Finally the POWs were cramed into suffocating box cars. A few men escaped to fight as guerrillas. The survivors suffered 3-1/2 years of inhumane treatment as prisoners of war. Men perished in both the prison camps and in prison transports. America soon learned of Japanese attrocities during the Bataan Death, further fueling American hatred of the Japanese.

Corregidor (May 6)

Corregidor is a small rocky island just south of Bataan. Corregidor was small, but strategically placed. It is located at the entrance of Manila Bay, one of finest natural harbors in the Pacific. It was like a cork in a bottle. Corregidor dominated Manila Bay. After the retreat to Baatan, the defense of the Philippines was conducted from Corregidor. Corregidor also became the seat of the Philippine Commonwealth government. The Japanese first bombed Corregidor (December 29) and intensive attacks continued for about a week until the focus shifted to Bataan. Japanese artillery began to target the island (early-February). It was from Corregidor that Philippine President Manuel Quezon and General MacArthur departed for Australia (March 1942). General MacArthur was replaced by Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright.l He commandeed what was left of U.S. Forces in the Philippines (USFIP) (March 21-May 6, 1942), . General MacArthur remained the nominal commander. After the fall of Bataan (April 9), the Japanese concentrated on Corregidor. The surface of the island and fortification was blasted to pieces. The garrison retreated into the island's caves and tunnels. After a month of daily shelling, General Wainwright sent a message to MacArthur in Australia, “Situation here is fast becoming desperate.” (May 3) MacArthur failed to admit how serious the situation was or show any willingness to order surrender. The Japanese started landing (May 5). The first wave was cut up by small arms fire and the few artillery pieces still in action. Additional landings gradually overwealmed the American defenses. Wainwright finally decuded to surrender (May 6 at noon). He ordered the American flag lowered and a white flag raised. He radioed General Sharp of the Visayan-Mindanao Force to release command of the Visayas and Mindanao islands to him. Wainwright only wanted to surrender Corregidor so that resistance could continue in the south. He sinaled the report to President Roosevelt, “with head bowed in sadness but not in shame,” that he was surrendering Corregidor. This was the beginning of the end of organized American resistance in the Philippines. The Japanese took Wainwright to Cabcaben, Bataan, to formally surrender to General Homma. Wainwright insisted he only had control over Corregidor, but Homma refused to accept this. He threatened Wainwright to torture and kill the American POWs. Wainwright was especially concerned about the Army nurses on Corregidor. Wainwright signed the surrender agreement (May 7). He was brought to a radio station to inform all of the American forces in the Philippines. MacArthur safeky in Australia was furious and never forgave Wainright. The Corregidor garrison was not involved in the Bataan Death March. They Japanese took them to Manilla where they were paraded through the streets. They were then transorted by train to Prison Camp Cabanatuan.

Japanese Occupation (1942-45)

The Japanese behaved barbarically when they entered Manila. Many went on a drinking spreee and raped or otherwise abused Filipino girls and women. The Japanese conducted celebrations and parades in Manila to honor their stunning victory. The Manila residents were ordered to attend. The Japanese quickly rounded up American civilians who were interned in camps. The treatment of the internees varied widely. The pro-Japanese Filipinos who cooperated with the occupation authorities. To many it seem that the Americans were gone for good. Gradually as opinion turned decisively against the Japanese, collaborators were targeted. The Japanese seized the banks which were put in the hands of Japanese bankers who attempted to convince Filipinos to deposit their dollars. Authorities ordered the theaters to operate 24 hours a day. The best seats were reserved for the Japanese military. Soldiers went into shops and bought all sorts of items with occupation money which had no real value. Shop owners had no choice as to refuse to accept the Japanese script was to rusk death. Eventually Japanese authorities ordered Filipinos to hand in their dollars in exghange for Japanese military yen. The Philippino people suffered greviously under Japanese occupation. The Japanese press ganged large numbers of Filipinos into slave labor camps. Filipino women were forced to work in brothels operated by the Japanese military.

Filipino Republic (1943-45)

Supreme Court Justice Jose P. Laurel who had been wonded in an attempted assasination became the president of the Japanese-sponsored Republic. The National Assembly voted for him (September 25, 1943). Benigno Aquino Sr. the father of Ninoy and the head of Kalibapi, was elected Speaker. The Japanese flew the three most prominent Fhilipino leaders (Laurel, Aquino, and Jorge Vargas) to Tokyo. They were decorated by Emperor Hirohito. Premier Hideki Tojo briefed them on the plan for Philippine Independence within the Japanese Co-Propsperity Zone. Premier Tojo demanded that the Philippine Government declare war on the United States and Great Britain. Dr. Laurel with considerable courafe refused to comply and explained to Tojo that few Filipinos would support this and that it would weaken his government. the Japanese-sponsored Republic was installed (October 14, 1943). It is often seen as a puppet government. There were, however, instances in which Laurel stood up to the Japanese. He insisted the Japanese remove soldiers and advisers from Malacanang.He also demanded custody of Manuel Roxas, the popular Filipino leader. The Americans landed on Leyte (October 1944). Gwneral MaacArthur proclaimed that he understood the Philipino government officials were operating under duress (October 23, 1944). The Japanese began arming pro-Japanese elements among Filipinos, led by Benigno Ramos, Pio Duran and General Artemio Ricarte (December 1944). President Laurel refused to draft Filipino soldiers to fight with the Japanese. Ramos organized the Makapili (Makabayang Pilipino) to take over the Government and sideline or dispense President Laurel. He thought he could rally young Filipinos to the Japanese. Laurel defied both General Yamashita and Ramos. American troops landed at Lingayen Gulf and began the drive south to Manila (January 1945). In town after town they were jououdly received bybthe Filipino people. The U.S. First Cavalry backed by Filipino guerrillas reached the UST (February 3). They freed 4,000 Americans and detainees. Later that night they reached Malacanang Palace. The Japanese flew Laurelvand some of his family to Tokyo. After the Japanese surender (Augusy 1945) the Americans arrested Laurel and returned him to Manila. He was charged with treason. Manuel A. Roxas, who has been saved by Laurel was eklected president of the Philippines (April 23, 1946). Laurel pleased not guilty to the treason charges (September 2, 1946). He told the court, "I am neither pro-Japanese nor pro-American, I am pro-Filipino... There is no law that can condemn me for having placed the welfare of my people over and above that of America." Laurel's trial was scheduled for July 1947.

Fhilippino Resistance

The Filipino resistance movement Hukbalahap developed throughhout the Japanese resistance. General MacArthur ordered Lt. Col. Claude A. Thorpe to evade Japanese patrols with some USAFFE officers and moved into the rugged Mt. Pinatubo area (January 1942). This was the birthplace of the Filipino guerilla movement on Luzon. Thorpe accepted recruits for underground warfare. Men from all over the lowlands joined Thorpe. Thorpe sent commando units to locations in Luzon even before Bataan fell. The organization was called the USAFFE Luzon Guerrilla Army Forces, part of which was Western Luzon Guerrilla Forces (WLGF) under the command of Capt. Ralph McGuire was an explosives expert. The WLGF’s operated around Zambales. Many other groups formed in other areas. Purely Filipino guerilla organizations appeared throughout the Philippines. Some were led by pro-US Filipino officers others by the Communist-led Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap). They did not only fight the Japanese, but also fought each other. One of the most important groups on Luzon was the Hukbalahap led by Luis Taruc. The brutality of the Japanese occupation helped fuel an effective Resistance campaigns carried out by guerillas which had achieved control of substantial areas. The Japanese, however, controlled the population centers, especially on Leyte and Luzon. The Americans delivered some supplies to the Fhilipino guerillas by submarine as well as operatives to help coordinate the canpaign. Most Filipinos were steadfastly loyal to the United States. This was in part because even before the Japanese invasion, America was moving toward Filippino independence. More than any thing it was the stark Japanese brutality that drove the Filippino to resist the Japanese.

Liberation (1944-45)

The U.S. Navy preferred targetting Formosa (Taiwan), but MacArthur eventually prevailed with his insistence that America must retun to the Philippines. He considered his vow to return a pledge to the Philippinp people that had to be honored. Some how his vow, "I shall return" seems less approaptiate than "We shall return", but it was pure MacArthur and he convinced President Roosevelt. Reports from resistance fighters and American pilots revealed that the Japanese were not heavily defending large areas of the Islands. The inasion of Mindanao was considered unecessary and the decession was made to strike first further north at Leyte. It was in this engagement that the Kamakazis first appeared, although still in relatively small numbers. MacArthur President Sergio Osmeña waded ashore with the invasion force at Leyte Gulf (October 20, 1944). The American Army forces advanced steadily. The Japanese resisted, but could not match American fire power. The most serious Japanese resistence occurred at sea. The resulting naval engaement following on Battle of the Philippones Sea is commonly referred to as the Battle of Leyte Gulf. It was the largest sea battle ever fought and resulted in the destruction of the Japanese fleet as an effective fighting force. This opened the way for the land campaign. Further landings occurred at Ormoc (December 7, 1944). Then the fighting moved to Luzon. The Americans finally reach the main island of Luzon with landings at Lingayen Gulf (January 9, 1945). The initial American landings were unopposed. Japanese Imperial Army General Tomoyuki Yamashita had been tasked with the defense of the Philippines.


Daws, Gavan. Prisoners of the Japanese: POWS of World War II in the Pacific (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1994)

Dyess, Wm. E. The Dyess Story: The Eye-Witness Account of the Death March from Bataan and the Narrative of Experiences in Japanese Prison Camps and of Eventual Escape (New York: G. P. Putnams Sons, 1944).

Grroom, Winston. 1942: The Year that Tried men's Souls.


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Created: 4:20 AM 10/14/2005
Last updated: 4:34 AM 4/9/2006