Book Review: Undefeated, by Bill Sloan

Undefeated: America’s Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor, by Bill Sloan, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012, $28

Author of three other histories of World War II Pacific battles, Sloan uses official histories and personal letters, journals and interviews with survivors to deliver a lively, thoroughly professional description of the final act of the American-led resistance to Japan’s invasion of the Philippines.

In December 1941 General Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, had some 30,000 U.S. troops and about 80,000 Philippine army soldiers with which to defend the islands. He had repeatedly proclaimed that Japan would not invade, and Sloan expresses dismay at the general’s baffling inaction following Pearl Harbor, leaving U.S. planes and ships sitting ducks. He agrees with the universal condemnation of MacArthur’s order to defend the beaches after the main invasion began on December 10. Japanese forces landed easily and quickly swept across Luzon. Only after two weeks of retreat did MacArthur order the long-planned withdrawal to Bataan. Every scholar agrees the delay was disastrous, leaving too little time to move adequate supplies. MacArthur gave priority to his base on Corregidor. Bataan received no food until Corregidor’s quota was filled; starvation and disease hampered the defense from the beginning.

Sloan follows with gripping accounts of the fight for Bataan, the siege of Corregidor and our soldiers’ ghastly suffering that followed the largest surrender in U.S. and Filipino history. Even the Japanese were stunned at the number of prisoners; despite MacArthur’s press releases describing vast hoards of enemy attackers, Bataan’s defenders actually outnumbered the Japanese.

The obligatory optimistic coda claims that our troops’ sacrifice bought “precious time” for American forces, “tied down” essential Japanese troops and disrupted Tokyo’s “timetable” of conquest. These are myths, writes Sloan.

Tokyo’s goal was oil and raw materials from Southeast Asia and Indonesia, a goal so easily achieved that exhilarated Japanese leaders proceeded to overreach themselves. The Philippines (which had few raw materials) was a sideshow. Its stubborn defense irritated Japanese leaders but disrupted no timetable. Adequate supplies might have allowed Bataan to hold out for six months—the original plan. Readers will recall that the Battle of the Coral Sea raged even as Corregidor surrendered, Midway erupted a month later, and two months after that the Marines landed on Guadalcanal.

Sloan follows tradition in criticizing MacArthur’s conduct through December 1941 but falls silent when the general moved to Corregidor, making a single trip to Bataan but leaving the fighting to subordinates. One can argue MacArthur’s generalship represents the greatest example of military incompetence in American history. A few writers—including R.M. Connaughton and Thomas Ricks—come down hard on MacArthur, but most give him a free pass. None seem puzzled that, while every other British and American commander during the debacles of 1940 and 1941 left in disgrace, MacArthur emerged a national hero.

—Mike Oppenheim

One Response

  1. Tom

    “None seem puzzled that, while every other British and American commander during the debacles of 1940 and 1941 left in disgrace, MacArthur emerged a national hero.”

    That’s because unlike most of the other defeated generals, MacArthur made up for his defeat. He organized and led one of the most brilliant (and less publicized) campaigns of the war. Operation Cartwheel and the recapture of the Phillipines were remarkable for the way they rocked the vaunted IJA and IJN onto their back. You can’t argue with that kind of success.

    It’s funny that for all those who call Mac a prima donna and vain they forget that of all the campaigns of WW2, those in the SW Pacific are not as well known as those in the Central Pacific by the (equally publicity hungry) USMC.

    Reply

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