THE VAST PHILIPPINE Archipelago
became an American possession after the Spanish-American War. We had pledged full independence for the islands in 1946, but until that time we assumed responsibility for their military defense. Until Japan launched military moves in the Far East in the early 1930s, this was not a matter of any pressing concern. But as Japan became ever more bellicose during the late 1930s, it became increasingly obvious that the islands were highly vulnerable. In fact, sitting ducks.
No one in the U.S. government appeared willing or even capable of facing this stark reality. The plans that ultimately evolved read like pages mixed up from King Arthur and the Round Table and Gilbert and Sullivan. A small U.S. Army garrison was stationed on Luzon, near Manila. A collection of ancient and toothless naval vessels, including six World War I submarines, grandly known as the Asiatic Fleet, was assigned to Manila Bay. In the event of Japanese attack, the Asiatic Fleet was to (suicidally) absorb the initial blow while the Army garrison withdrew into the Bataan Peninsula and the island fortress Corregidor, whose big guns would deny the Japanese Fleet Manila Bay. Meanwhile, like a water- borne cavalry, the U.S. Pacific Fleet would steam out to the rescue, decisively defeating the Japanese Fleet and relieving the Corregidor garrison. Such was the plan for two decades.
Enter General Douglas MacArthur. After retiring from the job of U.S. Army Chief of Staff, he went out to the Philippines to serve as military adviser to President Manuel Quezon. He quite rightly judged the defense plan unrealistic and with the help of his chief planner, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sold Washington on what appeared to be a more realistic and aggressive scheme. He would recruit and train (and the United States would equip) a Philippine army which would meet any Japanese invasion at the beaches and destroy it. Responding to MacArthur's infectious enthusiasm, in 1940-41 the War Department began sending to Manila military equipment and aircraft, including the latest fighters and the super-weapon B-17 Flying Fortress. Not to be outdone, the Navy Department put real teeth in the Asiatic fleet by sending out 23 additional late-model submarines, which were equipped with super-secret torpedoes, believed capable of breaking the backs of armored battleships and carriers. With all this new stuff, MacArthur thought he would be ready to repulse the Japanese by April, 1942.
THE REST GOES TO PAGE 2, except the id of course But the Japanese didn't wait around that long. They hit the Philippines, first by air attack, about eight hours after Pearl Harbor, December 8 Manila time. Although MacArthur had that valuable eight hours warning, he blundered it away and most of his new air power was caught on the ground and destroyed, the rest chewed up piecemeal in the next few days. The vaunted submarine torpedoes did not work as designed. When this fact slowly dawned on the submarine skippers, most became less than heroic. Owing to this technical failure and to abysmally poor tactical deployment, the Asiatic submarine force became less than useless. Having lost its teeth, the Asiatic fleet ran for cover in Java. When the Japanese amphibious forces landed unopposed by our naval power, the embryonic Filipino army, poorly equipped, undisciplined and as yet only partly trained, bolted for the hills.
Because of all these failures and follies, MacArthur was compelled to revert to the original, dream-like plan of falling back to Bataan and Corregidor. Since the Pacific Fleet had been mauled at Pearl Harbor, there was no hope it, or anything else, could come to his rescue. The U.S. Army garrison was foredoomed to death or capture. To make matters worse, in reverting to the original plan, MacArthur somehow failed to get enough food and medical supplies to Bataan and Corregidor, so while awaiting death or capture, the garrison, swollen by Filipino Army troops and refugees, suffered hideously from disease and starvation. MacArthur, on orders of President Roosevelt, escaped from Corregidor, taking his wife, son, amah and too many of his staff, leaving the doomed garrison to his Number Two, Jonathan M. ("Skinny") Wainwright IV, a colorful, hard-drinking old cavalryman, who was finally forced to surrender all the troops on May 6, 1942.
The Japanese were brutal to the American POWs. Hundreds died on the legendary "Bataan Death March" en route to POW camps on Luzon; many hundreds more died of disease and starvation in the Luzon camps; thousands more died when unmarked POW prison ships transporting POWs from Luzon to slave labor camps in the Japanese home islands were unwittingly sunk by U.S. submarines whose torpedoes now worked all too well. (Am estimated 5,000 POWs died on these hell ships.) Still more died in Japan from American bombing attacks.
Two solid, worthwhile new books attempt to recount these Philippine adventures and misadventures in very different ways. Hero of Bataan, by psychology professor-turned-military historian Duane Schultz, is the first soundly-researched biography of poor, sad Skinny Wainwright, who was left holding the bag but who survived POW camps and returned a "hero" only to drink himself to death. This will certainly be the standard work on Wainwright for a long time to come, but unfortunately it lacks the grace and grandeur of first-rate biography. Schultz occasionally writes clumsily and ungrammatically, foreshadows too much too often and needlessly strains to make Wainwright a "hero." He does not seem to grasp the naval defense plan (the submarine role) and why it failed. He does not go beyond the conventional sources to explain the as-yet-unexplained: why, with all the warning he had, MacArthur's planes got caught on the ground and why MacArthur failed to get more food and medicine to Bataan when he had the time. There are occasional minor factual lapses: the Bataan Death March (estimated 600-650 Americans and 5,000-10,000 Filipinos died) was not "the greatest atrocity of the Pacific War." That dubious distinction goes to the Burma-Thailand Railroad-- 12,568 British and Australian dead; an estimated 250,000 Asian natives dead. General Courtney Hodges had not been "in the Pacific War." He was one of Ike's principal ETO Army Commanders and was transferred to the Pacific to serve MacArthur in like capacity after V-E Day.
Death March by Donald Knox covers the same ground, but from the GI point of view. It is a remarkable and riveting compilation of interviews with about 70 survivors of the ill- fated garrison. Do not be misled by the title. The horror story so vividly and candidly told in these oral histories begins with the onset of the war and goes straight through to final liberation from POW camps. Although the introduction, bridges, transitions and footnotes leave much to be desired, the whole tragic story emerges through the first-person narratives with compelling poignancy. Knox is to be congratulated for tracking down these survivore and getting their valuable historical accounts.