All About History
PENINSULA, CENTRAL LUZON , 6 JAN – 9 APRIL 1942
US surrenders at the Fall of Bataan
Toughened by years of combat in mainland China, Japan’s powerful military was poised to carve up Southeast Asia during the summer of 1941. Strategists understood that dominating Asia meant seizing the Strait of Malacca on one end together with an archipelagic nation on the other – the Philippines. So the high commands in Tokyo and Washington DC readied themselves for a mighty struggle.
Even after months of frenzied preparation, the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) was completely unprepared for the Japanese onslaught on Luzon, the Philippines’ northernmost landmass. The former Spanish colony had been under American control since the turn of the century. In 1935 it was granted quasi-independence as a ‘commonwealth’ while
garrisoned US forces were responsible for national defence. In the last month of 1941, however, the leadership of General Douglas Macarthur and other highly regarded generals was cast in doubt.
In Clark Field, B-17 bombers and fighters were left outside their hangars for a possible pre-emptive strike on Formosa (now called Taiwan), where intelligence indicated a build-up of Japanese air and naval assets. On the morning of 8 December, just after news of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor reached the USAFFE leadership, bomber formations appeared from nowhere and laid waste to the idle American aircraft. The USAFFE was slow to react, and the Japanese army’s air fleets were able to attack first. From that moment on, the sizable US garrison in the Philippines struggled to mount an earnest defence of the entire archipelago.
In the weeks after the raids on Clark Field and nearby Fort Stotsenburg – a barracks for the US Army – Japanese pilots managed to control much of Luzon’s airspace, and at least two small-scale amphibious landings were carried out to test local defences. On 22 December a fleet appeared in the Lingayen Gulf carrying General Masaharu Homma’s 14th Army. On 17 December 1941 he departed Formosa with his 43,110-strong invasion force, dreading an American counterattack once they reached Luzon.
Macarthur assigned General Jonathan M Wainwright to command the North Luzon Force that enjoyed the lion’s share of artillery and armour – 100 M3 light tanks that had arrived months before. There was also a South Luzon
Force, a Harbor Defence Force in Manila, a Far
East Air Force, a Visayas-mindanao Force, a Reserve Force, and the combined strength of the Philippine Scouts and the Philippine Constabulary. The Philippine army was mobilised as well, with a manpower pool estimated to reach 100,000 men. Unfortunately, in stark contrast to the wellprovisioned Americans, Filipino soldiers lacked sufficient firearms, training and uniforms.
As each of the North Luzon Force’s hastily prepared defensive lines crumbled in the days following the Lingayen landings, Macarthur decided it was best to concentrate his forces in a last-ditch attempt to hold the Philippines until help arrived. This scenario was known to US commanders as War Plan Orange, Plan Orange or simply WPO-3, and
involved using Luzon’s geography to the defenders’ advantage. Rather than disperse the USAFFE over the jungles and mountains in Luzon’s extremities, which is what American-led guerrilla units later did during the occupation years, Plan Orange required a single bastion to withstand a very long siege.
Once Macarthur and his staff, along with an ailing Philippine President Manuel L Quezon, had relocated to the island fortress of Corregidor, which guarded the entrance to Manila Bay, the North Luzon Force fought minor delaying actions until enough supplies reached Bataan. This effort proved wasteful, since nearly all the American tanks and significant numbers of heavy artillery were either abandoned or lost in the process. Entire bases were given up as well, such as the naval depot in Subic Bay and the aerodromes in Clark Field and Nichols Field just outside Manila. Bridges and roads were either dynamited or booby-trapped. Tons of food and fuel were left behind in the headlong rush southward.
In the span of just 15 days, what used to be the North Luzon Force fought a delaying action, reorganised its entire structure and established fortifications in the Bataan Peninsula. As the rest of USAFFE’S manpower poured in, along with countless refugees, Bataan’s territory was reorganised. The peninsula was halved between two new formations, I Corps under General Edward P King in the west and II Corps under General George M Parker in the east. Then each corps subdivided its territory into sectors joined by overlapping fortified lines. The main battle position stretched from the town of Mabatang in the east to the town of Mauban in the west. A physical barrier to offensive operations was provided by Mount Natib, whose peak still remained unoccupied.
Several kilometres behind the main position was the rear battle position, covering the lower half of the peninsula. The rear battle position was the last line of defence for the supplies stockpiled in the service command area, which had access to Corregidor via boat from the town of Mariveles.
Homma’s 14th Army launched its attack on Bataan a week into the new year, but it soon became bogged down with heavy casualties as less experienced Japanese army units were thrown into the maelstrom.
But the initial victories against the Japanese were short-lived. The reality of the situation was that Homma’s troops were exhausted from their sprint across Central Luzon, which had a negative effect on their morale. Homma was aware the 40,000 men in his expedition were stretched thin. It didn’t help that the Imperial Command Headquarters in Tokyo had mandated a 50-day campaign to subdue the entire Philippines. As the dreaded 50th day neared, Homma approved ever more daring tactics.
On 23 January three Japanese regiments departed Subic Bay and the coastal town of Moron to launch an attack on Bataan’s western flank, which formed part of the service command area. A series of coves became landing areas densely held by Japanese infantry. So flawless was the infiltration that it took a few days before the American forces arrived in force to block them.
What became known as the Battle of the Points failed, and Homma’s exhausted 14th Army ceased major combat operations for the rest of February. Homma shortly received fresh manpower and supplies: the elite 4th Division led by Lieutenant General Kenzo Kitano arrived from Shanghai, together with an artillery regiment from Hong
Kong. An additional 60 medium bombers flew into Luzon to cement Japanese air superiority. As a dull stalemate settled over Bataan, hunger and disease began to take its toll. The stocks of food were rapidly diminishing and American servicemen suffered as a result. The Filipinos fared a little better, since they knew how to scavenge around the countryside for sustenance.
Unknown to the famished defenders was Macarthur’s plan for a covert exit from the theatre. As soon as a seriously ill President Quezon was evacuated from Corregidor by submarine and brought to Australia, preparations were underway for Macarthur’s own departure. On 12 March the general and his family, accompanied by his staff, boarded four PT boats and set course for Mindanao.
Command of all operations in the Philippines was to be directed by General Wainwright, who was placed in charge of the newly minted United States Armed Forces in the Philippines, or USAFIP.
SURRENDER AND THE ‘DEATH MARCH’
The hammer fell on the morning of 3 April. Japanese howitzers and mortars opened up on the main battle position’s northeastern sector and were soon joined by medium bombers of the 22nd Air Brigade. The pounding lasted until noon, and brush fires sent tongues of fire swirling in the hellish smoke. Infantry, supported by medium tanks, broke through two demoralised Filipino divisions, which triggered a wholesale collapse of II Corps. Japanese officers had Mount Samat in sight within just a day and a half.
Knowing that Bataan was lost, General
King informed his staff that he would reach out to the Japanese the next morning.
Under no circumstances was his superior,
General Wainwright, who had vainly ordered a counteroffensive, to be informed of this. Accompanied by his aides, King travelled to the Japanese lines around Mount Samat and requested an audience. King was informed that dialogue was only possible with the highest ranking Japanese officers at the front – Major General Kamaechiro Nagano along with Colonel Matoo Nakayama.
The impromptu conference lasted a mere hour, and Bataan was finally lost at midday.
The sudden panic that accompanied the fall of Bataan meant Corregidor’s population swelled as several thousand stragglers sought refuge on the bomb-ravaged island. In an effort to vacate the battle area with utmost haste, the Japanese assembled the prisoners of war for a long trek. It was imperative to incarcerate them as soon as possible, but the makeshift prison in Camp O’donnell was more than 100km away in Pampanga and many prisoners were killed on the way for being sick and injured; or they simply died from starvation, thirst, disease or forced labour.
It was three years before Macarthur took his revenge as commander of the South West Pacific Area. In February 1945 he beheld the ruins of liberated Manila and watched paratroopers retake Corregidor and root out Japanese diehards. At the end of the war Masaharu Homma, who had
been discharged from the military, was arrested and brought back to the Philippines. He stood trial in Manila as the ‘Beast of Bataan’ with sole responsibility for the Bataan Death March. He was executed by firing squad on 3 April 1946.
After the war, Bataan was either remembered as a testament to the Filipino-american alliance or as a sterling example of American heroism and sacrifice in a faraway land. What was less emphasised, of course, was the suffering imposed on those left behind after the battle.
But the lessons of Bataan should never be forgotten. It was the costliest military defeat ever suffered by the US military in a modern conflict. While the debacle at Kasserine Pass in February 1943 is often remembered as an infamous setback against the Axis powers, the loss of the Philippines took a greater toll. In terms of casualties, several thousand Americans and perhaps three times as many Filipinos were killed during the struggle for Luzon. The surrender of Bataan and Corregidor a month apart meant as many as 80,000 prisoners of war were condemned to endure years of brutal captivity and privation, and it’s estimated 20,000 of them died as a result.
The material losses in Bataan, as well as the rest of the Philippines, were severe. Lost to the Japanese were more than 100 tanks and just as many armoured vehicles, 200 combat aircraft, several hundred artillery pieces, tons of fuel and spare parts stockpiled in Luzon’s military bases. Seventeen million Filipinos suffered under the yoke of Japanese rule. To cite other reversals in subsequent wars, such as the Chosin Reservoir in Korea or the siege of Khe Sanh in Vietnam, is moot. These are skirmishes compared to the knockout punch the Japanese army landed on the USAFFE and the USAFIP in 1942. If there are lessons to be learned from Bataan, a few valuable insights stand out. Foremost is the importance of adequate preparation. The Philippine Commonwealth already had a National Defence Act in 1935 that mandated a standing army, yet it wasn’t until 1941 that the army was properly organised under American leadership.
The failure of intelligence-gathering is another factor. Despite evidence of Japanese preparations, USAFFE didn’t anticipate an attack on Luzon. A less apparent factor that contributed to American defeat was the quality of its arsenal. Soldiers were equipped with kit from World War I, including Enfield rifles that were no longer mass produced. The artillery on Corregidor dated to the late 19th century, and except for the P-40B Warhawk, the Far East Air Force flew inadequate aircraft against the Japanese air fleets that descended on Luzon.
Understanding the tragedy of defeat matters, because its lessons are essential for upholding peace in troubled times. With the risk of war among the modern great powers still haunting the Asia-pacific region, the fall of Bataan should serve as a stark reminder to never underestimate one’s enemy.