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'I have done all that could have been done to hold Bataan, but starved men without air and with inadequate field artillery support cannot endure the terrific aerial and artillery bombardment that my troops were subjected to'
MHQ, Summer 2005
The outcome was no longer in doubt. Units of the Japanese Fourteenth Army had landed on the northern tip of Corregidor and were approaching Malinta Tunnel, the headquarters for the United States command in the Philippines that doubled as a hospital for more than 1,000 American and Filipino wounded. Having concluded that there was no alternative to surrender, Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright, the American commander, had repeatedly radioed the Japanese that he was prepared to capitulate, but until midday on May 6, 1942, he had received no acknowledgment. Then, at about 1 o'clock, three U.S. Marines who approached the Japanese lines under a flag of truce were told that Wainwright must come to Gen. Masaharu Homma's headquarters for any surrender negotiations.
Wainwright and three aides drove to the Japanese line in a battered Chevrolet staff car. From there they were taken to a dock where disdainful Japanese officers saw them aboard a launch that would take them across the strait to Bataan. When Wainwright asked one officer why the Japanese were still firing at his positions, he was told that the American offer to surrender had not yet been accepted.
On the mainland, Wainwright and his aides were taken to a small frame house almost obscured by jungle. There they waited, in stifling heat, until a photographer appeared, followed by three Japanese staff cars in a cloud of dust. When General Homma emerged, the contrast between victor and vanquished was striking. Homma was a barrel-chested 200-pounder, while Wainwright, whose nickname had always been "Skinny," was hollow-cheeked and wasted. The contrast seemed an omen of the new order in Asia.
The Americans followed the Japanese to a table on the veranda, and the two parties took seats on opposite sides. There were no preliminaries. Homma nodded to Wainwright, expecting him to begin. Wainwright had hoped, optimistically, to limit the surrender to the troops he commanded on Corregidor. But Homma knew that there were still 20,000 U.S. and Filipino troops on Mindanao and other islands in the southern Philippines. When the interpreter indicated that Wainwright intended his surrender to apply only to Corregidor, Homma interrupted. He would accept no surrender that did not apply to all forces in the Philippines. When the American general protested that forces in the south constituted an independent command, Homma brushed the statement aside. If he was not negotiating with the commander of all U.S. forces, the meeting was at an end. He rose, called for his car, and drove away.
Wainwright was at the end of his tether. There was no hope of relief from America, and an attack on Malinta Tunnel could only result in a bloodbath. He told the senior Japanese officer still present, Homma's operations officer, that he was prepared to sign the comprehensive surrender demanded by the general. Back on Corregidor, at a Japanese command post, Wainwright signed a document that ended the first phase of the war in the Philippines. Some 70,000 American and Filipino troops had capitulated on Bataan a month earlier, and the surrender now of the remaining 13,000 on Corregidor made the 1941–1942 Philippines campaign the worst debacle in American military history.
Back in 1938 the new U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, had sought to improve the service's senior leadership. Not only was his army small but it also included a fair amount of deadwood in its top ranks. Marshall was determined that no one over age 50 should be promoted to general, and that superannuated generals on the active list should be encouraged to retire.
One general on Marshall's hit list was Jonathan M. Wainwright, a tough, wiry cavalryman who had been first captain in his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point. After graduating in 1906, he had served at a number of posts along the United States–Mexican border before serving two years in the Philippines, fighting dissident Moro tribesmen. There, Wainwright won praise for his courage, tactical skill, and initiative.
During World War I, Wainwright had served in France on the staff of the 82nd Division. He had heavy logistical responsibilities during the Meuse-Argonne offensive of October 1918, during which his division rescued the famous "Lost Battalion." After the armistice, Wainwright had stayed in Europe with the Allied occupation until 1920.
If Wainwright ever considered leaving the service in the dull postwar decades, the record does not show it. He was very much at home in the peacetime army, and once turned down a teaching assignment at West Point because he preferred life in a cavalry regiment. Between the wars, he alternated between cavalry postings and attendance at army schools, including the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Army War College in Washington, D.C.
In 1936 Wainwright was given command of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Myer, Virginia. It was a prestigious posting in the peacetime army, and Wainwright and his wife, Adele, enjoyed the social life of the nation's capital. The cavalry had long been known as a hard-drinking outfit, but at Fort Myer, Wainwright gained a reputation as a notably heavy drinker, a distinction that did not sit well with General Marshall. Just months after he became chief of staff, Marshall posted Wainwright to command a cavalry brigade at Fort Clark, Texas, one of the most remote posts in the country. His successor at Fort Myer would be an officer more interested in tanks than horses, Colonel George S. Patton.
Wainwright thought that Fort Clark might be his last posting, but in September 1940 he was ordered to Luzon to command the Philippine Division there. With this command came the second star of a major general.
Japan's offensives into Southeast Asia in December 1941 had a variety of strategic objectives. In attacking the Dutch East Indies and Malaya, Japan sought to secure the oil and rubber required for its war machine. Singapore and the Philippines, in contrast, had to be captured in order to prevent their use as bases by the enemy. The Philippines in particular were envisioned as part of a defensive perimeter that would prevent the United States from threatening Japan's Home Islands.
The task of capturing the Philippines was assigned to the Fourteenth Army, commanded by the Western-educated Homma. Under him were 43,000 veterans of the war in China. The Japanese invaders would have to cross 500 miles of ocean from bases on Taiwan, but they would be supported by a massive naval flotilla, including two battleships and eight cruisers. Despite the complexity of the amphibious operation, Japanese plans called for the occupation of the Philippines within a month of landing.
United States forces in the archipelago consisted of about 16,000 troops, including the regiments of Wainwright's division, and were scattered throughout the islands. Having promised independence to the islands, the United States had begun training 10 Philippine divisions, but the pace was slow. Part of the problem, predictably, was budgetary, but communicating was also a challenge. Few Filipinos were proficient in English, and still fewer Americans spoke any of the local dialects. There was also a problem of attitude, for in the tropical torpor of the Philippines the Japanese threat seemed somehow remote.
So it was that on December 8, 1941—about eight hours after the U.S. commander on the islands, Lt. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor—Japanese aircraft destroyed most of the U.S. air force in the Philippines on the ground, the result of blunders that continue to be debated today. Earlier, MacArthur had pigeonholed the War Department's plan for defending the Philippines—Plan Orange—under which U.S. and Philippine forces, in the event of war with Japan, would have the limited mission of securing the area around Manila, including Bataan, until the arrival of reinforcements. MacArthur, who assumed that the Philippine army would be fully trained before Japan attacked, viewed Plan Orange as defeatist. He planned to defend all of Luzon, if not the entire archipelago, and told Wainwright a few days after Pearl Harbor that the northern Luzon beaches were to be held "at all costs."
Homma's veterans made short work of the beach defenders and moved down Route 3 toward Manila. By the afternoon of December 23, Wainwright realized that the Japanese could not be stopped unless he formed a new defensive line. The first natural barrier was the Agno River, which ran east to west some 20 miles south of the Lingayen beaches. Wainwright received permission from MacArthur's chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Richard Sutherland, to withdraw to the river, but was denied permission to bring his one regular unit, the Philippine Division, to the Agno River line.
That evening MacArthur phoned Wainwright to advise that Plan Orange was being reinstated: Defending forces both north and south of Manila would withdraw to Bataan. As part of this movement, the Southern Luzon Force, commanded by Maj. Gen. George M. Parker Jr., would move north of Manila and join Wainwright on Bataan. In theory, Bataan and the offshore bastion of Corregidor were to be defended until reinforcements arrived from the United States. Any assumption of reinforcements was ridiculous, however, because planners in Washington had long since decided on a Europe-first policy in the event of war. And even if the Philippines had enjoyed the highest strategic priority, destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet had made supply by sea virtually impossible.
MacArthur's reversion to Plan Orange put heavy burdens on Luzon's defenders. Besides stipulating an orderly withdrawal to defensive positions on Bataan, it required the stockpiling of supplies and the preparation of new defenses. To allow time for supplies to be moved to Bataan and for Parker's force to work its way north, MacArthur ordered Wainwright to withdraw south through a series of defensive lines. Each was to be held long enough to force the Japanese to halt and deploy; when the enemy attacked in force, the defenders were to withdraw to the next line. The entire operation required close timing, and MacArthur wanted it completed in two weeks, by January 8.
MacArthur's biographer, D. Clayton James, would call the entire operation a bold gamble:
Somehow the troops on two fronts, originally over 160 miles apart, would have to be supplied, while the undermanned service units would try simultaneously to get provisions into Bataan depots. Somehow divisions with only a third of their authorized strength would have to hold critical positions for long hours…. Somehow commercial buses and trucks, along with private vehicles, would have to be found, commandeered, and promptly gotten to the numerous units that lacked military transportation. Somehow, despite enemy air supremacy, vital bridges would have to be protected until the [defending] troops were across, and then be demolished before the arrival of enemy forces who often were close behind.
The retreat to Bataan would be Wainwright's finest hour. Traveling with one or two aides in a battered staff car, he made his rounds of the lines, offering advice and encouragement. He was a quick study in tactical matters, and could immediately recognize any weakness in frontline dispositions. Wainwright often carried a rifle, and on one occasion shot a Japanese sniper out of a tree. The troops became so accustomed to seeing Wainwright that on days when he did not appear it was simply assumed that he was visiting another portion of the line.
The Bataan Peninsula—30 miles long, 15 miles wide, and heavily forested—pointed like a swollen thumb toward the island-fort of Corregidor to the south. Properly equipped, it might have resisted Homma's assaults for many months, since the defenders outnumbered the attackers. Instead, starvation became the most persistent enemy. The great number of soldiers and refugees on Bataan constituted a weakness because the supplies on hand could not support such numbers. In a critical error, MacArthur's staff had overlooked a huge stockpile of rice—as much as 50 million bushels—that could have been moved to Bataan. After MacArthur took stock of the food supplies available, he placed his entire command on half rations.
In part out of faith and in part as a result of some optimistic cables from President Roosevelt and Marshall, MacArthur believed that it was just a matter of time before reinforcements arrived. "Help is definitely on the way," he told his officers. "We must hold out until it arrives."
Nine days later both corps were the targets of renewed Japanese attacks. Skilled in infiltration, the Japanese forced the defenders to withdraw, occasionally in some disorder. When things went badly, MacArthur was not disposed to accept excuses. Although the troops had been fighting on half rations for two weeks, MacArthur told his commanders that he was "very much displeased" at reports that the troops were in need of relief, and that he wanted such reports to cease. They would not cease, however, in part because of a perverse reality of the campaign: The island fortress of Corregidor represented the best hope for holding out until help arrived, and for that reason MacArthur had already begun withdrawing food stocks from Bataan to the island. The growing gap between the rations available on Corregidor and those that reached the trenches on Bataan had a corrosive effect on morale.
In late January, the Japanese managed to infiltrate Wainwright's new line and create enclaves behind his eastern flank. Here, however, the Japanese overreached. In a series of sharp engagements, the Americans and Filipinos eliminated the pockets, with heavy losses to the Japanese. For most of February and much of March, Japanese pressure eased, as Homma had supply problems of his own. The Americans, for their part, had time to prepare an intricate system of tunnels and defensive entrenchments for the attacks they knew would come.
When the Japanese renewed their offensive, it was against a weakened enemy, because the supply situation that had been serious in January was critical at the end of February. Nevertheless, on March 2, MacArthur—over the objections of Wainwright and Parker—ordered a reduction of the daily ration on Bataan to three-eighths of a standard ration. Brig. Gen. Mateo Capinpin, commanding the 21st Division, tried to prevent "food patrols" but eventually gave up, reporting that his men believed it would be preferable to die from an enemy bullet than from hunger and disease.
At home, few Americans had heard of Jonathan Wainwright and most were blissfully unaware of the desperate situation on Bataan. The only name associated with the fighting there was Douglas MacArthur, whose communications were invariably self-serving. William Manchester, in his biography of MacArthur, reported that of 142 communiqués issued by MacArthur in the first three months of the war, 109 "mentioned only one soldier, Douglas MacArthur."
This very fame, however, was worrisome to Roosevelt and Marshall in Washington. With no means of sending anything but token supplies, defeat in the Philippines seemed inevitable. In that case, should not the charismatic MacArthur be evacuated before he fell into enemy hands? On February 22, Roosevelt sent MacArthur an order to leave Corregidor for Australia, where he was to take command of the as-yet-unformed Southwest Pacific theater. On March 11, MacArthur, his wife and son, a Chinese amah, and several staff officers left The Rock by PT-boat to Mindanao, and from there flew to Darwin, Australia.
Before leaving the Philippines, MacArthur designated Wainwright as his successor, but only for those troops on Bataan and Corregidor. Because MacArthur hoped to direct a defense of the Philippines from Australia, he had established four separate commands for Bataan, Corregidor, and two groups of southern islands. This arrangement not only reflected MacArthur's insistence on personal control, but also held out the possibility that the surrender of one command would not be binding on the others.
Outside a tunnel on Corregidor, MacArthur met with Wainwright for the last time in the Philippines. The cavalryman, even more gaunt than usual, stood mute as MacArthur presented him with a box of cigars and some 11th-hour wisdom. He wanted Wainwright to make clear to the soldiers that he was leaving only on the direct order of the president. He would return with reinforcements as soon as he could; meanwhile, the Americans must hold out. Wainwright, his eyes full, shook hands for what might be the last time with a commander he greatly admired.
As for the new U.S. commander, he was not going anywhere. Word also got around that Wainwright had declared, "If the Japanese can take The Rock they will find me here, no matter what orders I receive."
On March 28, Wainwright told the War Department that food stocks on Bataan would be exhausted by April 15. (MacArthur, who received a copy of the message, commented to the department, "It is of course possible that with my departure the vigor of application of conservation may have been relaxed.") On April 4, MacArthur cabled Wainwright that "under no conditions" should he surrender. "If food fails, you will prepare and execute an attack upon the enemy." Wainwright replied that his troops were "so weak from malnutrition that they have no power of resistance."
The physical weakness of the defenders was not entirely a reflection of the food shortage, although by the end of March the soldiers were fighting on 1,000 calories per day. Because of the shortage of quinine, malaria was endemic; commanders reported hundreds of new cases each day. Scurvy was another threat. Bataan had been picked clean of vegetables, and a priority request for a supply of vitamin C had gone unanswered. Dysentery was widespread.
But orders were orders, and Wainwright passed on MacArthur's demand for an attack. The commander on Bataan was Maj. Gen. Edward P. King Jr., a hard fighter and a good friend of Wainwright's. King knew the pressure on his superior, but he also knew that his soldiers could barely hold their rifles, much less attack. On the night of April 8–9, King told his senior officers that he was going to surrender. He was not going to inform Wainwright, King said, because he did not want his superior saddled with the responsibility. On the morning of April 9, King approached the Japanese under a flag of truce to arrange the surrender of his Luzon force, more than 70,000 U.S. and Philippine troops.
MacArthur was furious when he heard of the surrender and demanded an explanation. Wainwright acknowledged that King had not raised the subject of capitulation with him, but described the chaotic situation on Bataan and refused to criticize King. He cabled President Roosevelt, "I have done all that could have been done to hold Bataan, but starved men without air and with inadequate field artillery support cannot endure the terrific aerial and artillery bombardment that my troops were subjected to."
Corregidor was next. There was a lull in April while the Japanese moved their heaviest artillery to positions close to the island. Then began three weeks of intense bombardment that destroyed most of the U.S. artillery emplacements. On the night of May 5, Homma landed a regiment on the northern tip of the island. Although the defenders inflicted heavy losses, the invaders were able to consolidate their beachheads and bring tanks and artillery ashore. On May 6, Wainwright ordered a white flag hoisted above his headquarters. "It is with broken heart," he cabled President Roosevelt, "and head bowed in sadness but not in shame that I report…that I must go today to arrange terms for the surrender of the fortified Islands of Manila Bay." To one of his commanders, Gen. George Moore, Wainwright confided, "I feel I have taken a dreadful step."
With the surrender, Wainwright began a period of more than three years as Japan's highest-ranking American prisoner. He and his staff were spared the Bataan Death March; they were lodged in Manila while the surrender of U.S. forces in the southern Philippines was implemented. Then, Wainwright and 180 other officers were trucked to a prison camp in northern Luzon's Tarlac province, where they were housed in barracks designed for 80 Japanese. As a general officer, Wainwright had a cot of his own, but all the Americans were put through humiliating rituals intended to underscore their lowly status as prisoners. If hatless, they were required to bow to every Japanese soldier. If wearing a hat, they were required to salute. Years later, Wainwright would recall with anger his lesson in bowing from a Japanese sergeant.
Wainwright would have been even more bitter had he known of MacArthur's reaction to the surrender. When first informed of his subordinate's action, MacArthur had cabled the War Department that he believed Wainwright to have become "temporarily unbalanced." That view was not shared in Washington, and on July 30, 1942, Marshall advised MacArthur of the citation with which Wainwright was to be awarded the Medal of Honor. MacArthur was furious, informing Marshall that such an award would be an injustice to unnamed generals who had "exhibited powers of leadership and inspiration to a degree greatly superior to that of General Wainwright." Neither Marshall nor Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson was impressed by this response, but neither wished to precipitate a row with MacArthur. The issue was quietly shelved, but not forgotten.
At Tarlac Wainwright and his fellow prisoners attempted to stay alive on rice and water. They were moved to a camp on Taiwan in August 1942, where any prospect of rescue vanished. The American officers, along with British officers captured at Singapore, spent nine months at the Karenko camp. Three times a day the prisoners were served a single cup of rice and a bowl of hot water from great cauldrons; not until March 1943 were they allowed to receive food packages from the International Red Cross. Hunger made for irritability, and as the senior American officer, Wainwright was often obliged to arbitrate squabbles.
In the fall of 1943, the prisoners were allowed to supplement the rice ration by growing tomatoes and sweet potatoes. The soil was rocky and the hoes were crude; as a concession to their age, officers over 60—Wainwright included—were taken out of the fields and given responsibility for a herd of goats.
Although the Japanese sought to humiliate their prisoners at every opportunity, physical abuse was infrequent until late September, when Japanese civilians who had been interned in Australia and the United States returned to Japan. They brought tales of mistreatment, as well as news that American citizens of Japanese heritage had been interned. Wainwright and his British and Dutch counterparts were called before the camp commandant and told that they could expect rough treatment themselves. "Right after that," Wainwright would recall, the Japanese "commenced knocking people around—hitting them over the heads with guns, kicking them, and putting on a regular reign of terror."
The nine months at Karenko represented the nadir for Wainwright. In April 1944, he and other American prisoners were moved to an interim camp and then to a more permanent facility on northern Taiwan. At the latter, near the town of Muksaq, their treatment markedly improved, and prison rations sometimes included treats such as poultry and pork. Japanese officers occasionally sought to socialize. In November Wainwright was shown a copy of the English-language Nippon Times that included a wire service dispatch listing promotions in the U.S. Army. To his amazement, Wainwright saw that he had been promoted to major general in the Regular Army.
Perhaps he was not in such disgrace after all.
The Japanese, meanwhile, decided to move the American prisoners yet again. In October 1944, Wainwright and other American officers were moved from Taiwan to Manchuria by way of Korea. At Sian the skeletal Wainwright survived a bitterly cold winter, speculating with his fellow prisoners regarding which islands U.S. forces must seize before they could assault the Japanese mainland. On August 15, however, there was a rap on the door of Wainwright's cubicle. A fellow prisoner informed the general that the war was over—Japan had surrendered!
On the afternoon of August 31, a plane carrying Wainwright and other released prisoners landed at Yokohama. Wainwright's limousine led a motorcade to the New Grand Hotel, while Japanese onlookers bowed in respect. MacArthur was at dinner when Wainwright's party entered the main dining room. Those present—mostly Americans—fell silent, all eyes on Wainwright. MacArthur was shocked by his appearance, and by the fact that he could walk only with a cane. "His eyes were sunken," MacArthur would recall. "His hair was white and his skin looked like old shoe leather."
MacArthur rose, strode over to Wainwright, and the two old soldiers embraced. Both men seemed close to tears. They sat down to dinner, and Wainwright told a little of his three years as a prisoner. He spoke of the humiliation of the surrender, and of his fear that his military career was over. MacArthur sought to ease his mind, asking what assignment he would like. Wainwright asked to command a corps under MacArthur. "Why Jim," he replied, using one of Wainwright's nicknames, "you can have a corps with me any time you want it."
But Wainwright would never again serve under MacArthur. He left for home after the surrender ceremonies, and in Washington was treated like a returning hero. General Marshall met him at the airport, as did Wainwright's wife, Adele. The Wainwrights were whisked to the Pentagon—a building Jonathan had never seen—for a call on Secretary of War Stimson. Then Wainwright led a motorcade to the Capitol, through crowds that were estimated at 400,000. There, a man who just weeks earlier had been required to bow to Japanese soldiers addressed a joint session of Congress. "From desperate days we have returned to a world at peace," Wainwright told the legislators. "I thank God for our liberation and for the sympathy and high respect in which you have held us through the long ordeal."
From Capitol Hill the Wainwrights drove past cheering crowds to the White House. In the Rose Garden, President Harry S. Truman exchanged pleasantries with his guests before stepping up to a bank of microphones and reading a citation. It spoke of Wainwright's bravery on the firing lines of Bataan, of his fight against overwhelming odds, and of his "courage and resolution" in defeat. When the president finished, Wainwright realized that he was being awarded the Medal of Honor.
He owed it in part to General Marshall. The chief of staff had not forgotten how the proposed award had been laid aside in 1942. A few days after the ceremonies on Missouri, Marshall had briefed Secretary Stimson about MacArthur's objections, and asked Stimson to decide whether to award Wainwright the country's highest honor. Stimson studied the file and concluded that MacArthur's objections were untenable, "and…on their face untrue." President Truman was not hard to convince, for he harbored doubts about MacArthur long before their clashes during the Korean War.
The ceremonies in Washington were only the beginning. Promoted to full general, Wainwright spent the better part of a year reviewing parades, delivering speeches, and accepting honorary degrees. His modest talks rarely went beyond endorsing a strong defense. But he favored universal military training and the unification of the armed services—the latter a controversial position in 1945.
Wainwright should have gracefully retired in 1945, at the zenith of his career. But he knew no life outside the army, and in January 1946 he was made commander of the Fourth Army, with headquarters at San Antonio, Texas. There he resumed his old drinking habits, but his staff took care that there were no embarrassing incidents. He retired from the service in August 1947 and briefly took a position with an insurance firm. He remained a celebrity at reunions, where veterans of Bataan would often introduce themselves and ask to shake his hand. On such occasions Wainwright's eyes would mist over, and he would find some way, even in a crowd, for a quiet word of encouragement.
Jonathan Wainwright died on September 2, 1953, exactly eight years after the Japanese surrender. Loyalty was high on his list of virtues, and he went to his grave as firm an admirer of Douglas MacArthur as he had been in 1941. As a soldier, Wainwright would never be remembered for his global vision or strategic insight. Yet the old cavalryman—tough, brave, and always mindful of his men—in many respects embodied the cardinal virtues of the Old Army. It was his tragedy that he never got over his responsibility for the largest surrender in American history.
John M. Taylor is the author of numerous books of history and biography, including a biography of his father, An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor (Presidio Press, 2001).
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