The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Manila was known as the ‘Pearl of the Orient.’ Then World War II happened.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur smokes a pipe in Manila in 1945. (AP)

Last week, the world commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Allied firebombing of the German city of Dresden, a historic town that was virtually leveled by the assault, with tens of thousands killed.

But less is remembered in the West about another devastating engagement of World War II that took place around the same time. Between Feb. 3 and March 3, 1945, the United States set about wresting control of Manila from the Japanese. It involved grinding, urban street battles and withering American artillery bombardments. In the process, a beautiful, elegant metropolis -- dubbed the "Pearl of the Orient" -- was laid to waste. Some 100,000 Filipino civilians died amid the fighting.

For the American experience of the war, the Battle of Manila was a stepping stone down the path toward the ultimate victory over Japan later in 1945, punctuated by the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the dropping of the atomic bomb over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But for many in the Philippines, it's a moment wrapped in lingering grief and trauma. Cornered in Manila's old walled city, the Japanese garrison opted to fight to the death and massacred (and raped) thousands of civilians. The American campaign to retake the city the Japanese had captured four years prior led to its virtual destruction; the old Spanish colonial heart of the capital, Intramuros, was reduced to ash and rubble.

"The destruction of Manila was one of the greatest tragedies of World War II," wrote William Manchester, an American historian and biographer of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. "Of Allied capitals in those war years, only Warsaw suffered more. Seventy percent of the utilities, 75 percent of the factories, 80 percent of the southern residential district, and 100 percent of the business district was razed."

MacArthur, who famously proclaimed "I shall return" after being forced to escape the Philippines in 1942, played a direct part in the calamity. Other American strategists had wondered whether the Philippines could be bypassed altogether as the United States pressed toward the Japanese mainland. But MacArthur, according to some accounts, was possessed by the conviction that it was his moral obligation to retake the archipelago.

"Go to Manila, go around the Nips, bounce off the Nips," he is said to have declared, invoking a pejorative term for the Japanese, "but go to Manila."

Fearful of inflicting indiscriminate damage to the city, the American general refrained from ordering airstrikes on Japanese positions within Manila as the battle raged on. But U.S. ground commanders felt compelled to use heavy artillery in parts of the city to dislodge an entrenched enemy.

When the dust settled, there was desolation. "It seems as if it were only yesterday that I beheld the ruins and smelled the carrion in Ermita-Malate, where the Japanese massacred thousands," wrote the great Filipino novelist F. Sionil Jose in 2010, referring to a Manila neighborhood. Ask many Filipinos living in the sprawling capital, and they'll tell you the city never fully recovered.

The government of the Philippines, which is staging a number of commemorations over the course of this month, itemizes a list of Japanese war crimes carried out during the battle. These include:

  • Bayoneting, shooting and bombing of unarmed civilians — men, women, and children — with rifles, pistols, machine guns and grenades.
  • Herding large numbers of civilians — men, women and children — into buildings, barring the doors and windows, and setting fire to the structures.
  • Blindfolding and restraining Chinese and Filipino men, and then beheading them with a sabre on a chopping block.
  • The taking of as many as a hundred girls at a time by force to serve as “comfort women” to Japanese troops.

Curiously, as an article in the Diplomat notes, the subject of Japanese brutality and war crimes seven decades ago -- perennially stirred when a Japanese premier visits the controversial Yasukuni shrine -- does not rile Manila as much as it does governments in China and South Korea. That's likely a consequence of current geopolitical realities, with many in the Philippines more wary of the growing threat of China than that of a nominally pacifist Japan.

But, as painful occasions such as the 70th anniversary of Manila's liberation make clear, the politics of the present is always built upon the bones of the dead.

In the heart of old Intramuros, a visitor to Manila will come across a small black marble memorial to the many civilians who died during the battle. The inscription is worth reprinting in full:

This memorial is dedicated to all those innocent victims of war, many of whom went nameless and unknown to a common grave, or even never knew a grave at all, their bodies having been consumed by fire or crushed to dust beneath the rubble of ruins. We have not forgotten them, nor shall we ever forget. May they rest in peace as part now of the sacred ground of this city: the Manila of our affections.