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The Conquest of the Philippines, December 1941 – May 1942

More than any other Allied garrison attacked on December 7, 1941, the Philippines were an important target for the Imperial Japanese High Command. Japanese Navy and Army bombers from Formosa attacked in the late morning, and achieved the same success their comrades were enjoying over Pearl Harbor.

The war warning of December 6 had put United States Army General Douglas MacArthur into action. When Pearl was being bombed, his planes were in the air, his shore defense were manned, and he thought the first attack would come his way, as the war plans expected. Unfortunately for MacArthur and the War Department, the Japanese had written their own war plans that called for the attack on the Philippines in late morning. The Americans and Filipinos were stunned when the attack came as the planes were on the ground and refueling. Most of the United States Army Air Corps’ Fifth Air Force was destroyed on the ground at Clark and Nichols Field. Bombers hit Cavite Navy Yard very hard, and the bleeding of the United States Asiatic Fleet began.

MacArthur had spent twelve years in the Philippines, and had recently returned to the United States Army after commanding the Filipino Armies wearing an elaborate gold braided uniform. He struggled to provide the needed training, but was also hampered by a corrupt Filipino government and little assistance from the United States.

His army in December 1941 was made up of many different units that were not coordinated or had trained together on any useful basis. He had a huge force of almost 130,000 men, but the majority were Filipino units, only one of which was considered combat-ready. MacArthur planned for the expected Japanese attack using standard military doctrine for defense of the Philippines: retreat into prepared fortifications on Bataan peninsula and Corregidor, expecting a landing in Manila Bay. Most of the Allies’ weapons faced the bay.

But the Japanese landed north of Manila along the east coast of Lingayen Gulf. The speed of the Japanese advance prevented that mode of defense. Imperial Army General Masaharu Homma landed on northern Luzon on December 9 and moved quickly through little resistance. Essentially Homma landed behind the Allies, leaving their supplies between the Japanese and Macarthur’s men. By December 20, Homma was landing on Mindanao and driving for Manila. The Philippine Government declared Manila an open city, but the Japanese bombed it anyway. MacArthur retreated to Corregidor and Bataan without telling his Navy counterpart in Manila Bay. His men called him “Dugout Doug.”

Homma moved to occupy Manila on December 25, and MacArthur declared it an open city, giving the Allies time to set up some sort of defensive line. United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt could see that the Philippines could not hold, because there was no relief available. MacArthur was ordered to evacuate to Australia in March; he left via PT boat, creating a romantic myth about the plywood craft, to a remote airfield and flew to Darwin. Upon arrival, he remarked to reporters “I shall return,” which became his battle cry.

Homma isolated United States Army General Jonathan Wainwright and 100,000 Americans and Filipinos on Bataan and Corregidor. Edward P. King, Wainwright’s Commanding General of the Philippine-American forces, surrendered Bataan on April 9, 1942. He had little fight to offer anyway. He was without food and continued resistance would have resulted in thousands of deaths. However, thousands died anyway due to Japanese handling of the prisoners. King’s forces were marched several miles in four columns to Camp O’Donnell, which the Japanese were using as a POW camp. 3,000 Americans and 10,000 Filipinos died within days, and thousands more died during the course of their captivity. Some escaped and the scope of the tragedy was withheld from the American public until 1944. The atrocity became known as the “Bataan Death March.”

Wainwright and the remaining Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen were able to hold out on Corregidor until May 7, 1942, when Wainwright tried to separate his command so that his Southern subordinate, Army General King, could continue resistance. Homma insisted on complete surrender, and Wainwright decided he had no choice. Via radio, he ordered all Allied troops to surrender on May 8. Some Americans and Filipinos retreated into the mountains to begin the kind of warfare that was so infuriating to the Spanish and Americans during their colonial occupations.

Parts of the Philippines were occupied until the end of the war, but their liberation began in October 1944. During that time, the Japanese hoped to incorporate the Philippines into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, but the harsh treatment of Filipino civilians resulted in a sustained and growing guerrilla war.

Some of the Americans held by the Japanese were shipped to work camps around the Empire in unmarked ships, nicknamed “Hell Ships” by their captives. They were overcrowded and underfed, and the unmarked ships were torpedoed by United States submarines. Those that did reach Japan, Korea and Manchuria were put to work in impossible conditions, in collapsing mines and dangerous construction.

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