Much of Admiral Thomas C. Hart's U.S. Asiatic Fleet, already weak, had been withdrawn from the Philippines. Only 4 destroyers, 28 submarines, small vessels, and some torpedo boats remained. U.S. air assets and air warning capability in the islands were woefully inadequate. The Far East Air Force in the islands numbered about 277 aircraft, about half of which were obsolete. There were 35 B-17s and more than 100 modern P-40 fighters. U.S. commander in the Philippines General Douglas MacArthur hoped to use his limited air and naval assets to savage any Japanese seaborne attack and was confident that he could defeat any actual landing force, should the Japanese get ashore.
The original U.S. plan for the defense of the Philippines was based on the premise that troops there could hold out against the Japanese until the Pacific Fleet could force its way across the ocean to their relief. U.S. ground troops were to withdraw into the Bataan Peninsula and fortified island of Corregidor until the fleet could arrive. The plan called for prepositioned depots on the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor sufficient for 43,000 men on Bataan and 7,000 on Corregidor for 180 days.
MacArthur, convinced that he could defeat any Japanese invasion, scrapped this plan in favor of a forward defense, but resources scattered in this effort were insufficient to defend the entire islands. Most significant was Washington's realization that no relief expedition could be sent out immediately after the start of hostilities. The result was a great deal of confusion.
When word was received in the Philippines of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, MacArthur's air force commander, Major General Lewis H. Brereton, sought permission for a strike on Formosa. Brereton was refused permission to see MacArthur, but he received a message from MacArthur's chief of staff, Brigadier General Richard Sutherland, that he was to wait for an overt act by the Japanese. Brereton suggested that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was such an act. Although MacArthur eventually granted his permission for a strike on Formosa, it came too late. At 12:30 p.m. on 8 December 1941, Japanese aircraft from Formosa struck Clark and Iba Airfields. Without an effective air warning system in the Philippines, many U.S. aircraft, including about half of the B-17s and a third of the fighters, were destroyed, most of them on the ground, at a cost of only 7 Japanese aircraft. Unlike the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there never was an investigation into the attacks on Clark and Iba Airfields, despite a loss of life comparable to that at Pearl Harbor.
Tokyo assigned the task of conquering the Philippines to Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu's Fourteenth Army based on Formosa. Many of Homma's 43,100 men had fought in China, and Tokyo was optimistic that victory in the Philippines would be quick. The timetable for conquest of the islands was only 50 days. MacArthur's prewar goal, to be reached by April 1942, was 200,000 men under arms, but on 15 December 1941, he had some 120,000 Philippine army troops in all the Philippines and roughly 31,000 U.S. troops and Philippine Scouts. MacArthur had claimed that he could defend the entire Philippines against Japanese invasion. But most of the regulars were kept back near Manila, with the result that likely landing sites along the extensive coastline were covered only by poorly trained Filipino troops. This meant that the Japanese would encounter little resistance in getting ashore.
On 8 December 1941, the first Japanese troops landed on Bataan Island. On 10 December, Japanese forces invaded Aparri and Viean on northern Luzon. Two days later, they came ashore at Legaspi in southern Luzon. The bulk of Homma's forces landed at Lingayen Gulf beginning on 22 December. Homma commanded in the Philippines a force, at peak strength, of some 65,000 men.
With the Japanese troops ashore and moving on Manila, on 23 December MacArthur reverted to the original Bataan defense plan, without, however, adequate preparation for its implementation, especially in prepositioning of supplies and food. MacArthur directed his North Luzon Force field commander, Major General Jonathan Wainwright, to stage a fighting withdrawal along five preplanned defensive lines into the Bataan Peninsula. On 26 December, Manila was declared an open city. Japanese forces entered it on 2 January 1942.
MacArthur's troops executed an effective withdrawal and were established on the Bataan Peninsula by 6 January. Japanese strength on Bataan was only about 30 percent of their own (some 23,200 Japanese to 80,000 defenders). The Bataan Peninsula is only about 20 by 25 miles in size. MacArthur was handicapped by having to feed more than 110,000 people there and on Corregidor, including civilians, rather than the 43,000 in the original plan. Supplies were totally inadequate, many dumps having been lost in the hasty withdrawal, so that the defenders in the peninsula immediately went on half rations. Moreover, the peninsula was extremely malarial. By late March, barely a quarter of the defenders were able to fight.
Washington decided against attempting to relieve the position. Rather than yield a tremendous propaganda advantage to the Japanese with the capture of the U.S. commander in the Far East, on 22 February President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to Australia. He departed Corregidor on 11 March. Derisively referred to by many of the defenders as "Dugout Doug" for his failure to leave Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor (he visited Bataan but once), MacArthur later received the Medal of Honor. Wainwright assumed the Philippines command.
By early April, conditions in the Bataan Peninsula for the defenders were desperate, prompting the commander on Bataan, Major General Edward P. King, to surrender the Filipino and American forces there against direct orders from Wainwright. After a major Japanese offensive that shattered his army—and facing widespread starvation, disease, and no hope for victory—King surrendered his 70,000 men on 9 April.
The Japanese forced the weakened survivors of Bataan to march 55 to 60 miles to prisoner-of-war camps. Most of the prisoners were sick and hungry, and there was little food. In fairness to the Japanese, they were unprepared for the large influx of prisoners, but it is also true that they behaved with a shocking disregard of the norms of warfare and even denied the prisoners water. Up to 650 Americans and 5,000–10,000 Filipinos died in the Bataan Death March to Camp O'Donnell. Another 1,600 Americans and 16,000 Filipino prisoners died in the camp in the first 6 to 7 weeks of their imprisonment.
The fight then shifted to Corregidor with its fewer than 15,000 defenders. Only 2 miles separate the island from the Bataan Peninsula, enabling the Japanese to bombard it with artillery and attack it from the air. On the night of 5–6 May, the Japanese staged a successful amphibious assault accompanied by tanks. On 6 May, Wainwright, his resources exhausted and with less than 3 days of water remaining, ordered all U.S. forces throughout the Philippines to surrender to avoid unnecessary casualties. Formal resistance ended on 9 June.
The Japanese conquest of the Philippines was a major blow to American morale and assisted the Japanese in their effort to dominate the southwest Pacific and control that region's resources. What was remarkable about the Philippine Campaign was not its conclusion but the skill and determination of the defenders, who held out for six months. General Homma was called home to Japan in disgrace. Perhaps the greatest surprise was the loyalty of the Filipinos to the United States. The Japanese expected the Filipinos to rally to them, leaving the Americans to fight alone. But after its first hasty retreats, the poorly trained and inadequately equipped Philippine army settled down and fought well. That army and the vast majority of the Filipino people remained loyal to the United States during the campaign and the long Japanese occupation that followed.
James T. Carroll and Spencer C. Tucker
Bartsch, William H. December 8, 1941: MacArthur's Pearl Harbor. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003.; Connaughton, Richard M. MacArthur and Defeat in the Philippines. New York: Overlook Press, 2001.; James, D. Clayton. The Years of MacArthur, 1941–1945. Vols. 1 and 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970, 1975.; Morton, Louis. The United States Army in World War II: The War in the Pacific—The Fall of the Philippines. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1989.; Perillo, Carol Morris. Douglas MacArthur: The Philippine Years. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.; Whitman, John W. Bataan: Our Last Ditch: The Bataan Campaign, 1942. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1990.