Is MacArthur to blame for the bloodbath that destroyed the Philippine capital?
By March 3, 1945, after a month of the worst urban combat in World War II’s Pacific Theater, Manila – the capital city of the Philippines and once renowned as the gleaming “Pearl of the Orient” – was reduced to rubble. Aerial photos of post-liberation Manila might easily be mistaken for images of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing.
An appalling 17 percent of General Douglas MacArthur’s attacking force of 35,000 U.S. troops and 3,000 Filipino guerrillas were killed or wounded during the liberation of Manila. Yet the toll on the 16,000 Japanese sailors, naval infantrymen and soldiers who made a last-ditch stand inside the city was much worse. Virtually all of the defenders fought to the death.
Manila’s civilian population suffered even more ghastly carnage: 100,000 Filipino men, women and children lay dead in the city’s ruins. Although some of these civilians, likely thousands, died as a result of being caught in the intense crossfire between the attackers and defenders, most were deliberately murdered by Japanese troops in the aptly named “Manila Massacre.”
Some historians, eager to believe the worst about MacArthur, place the sole blame for Manila’s destruction squarely upon the general’s ego and hubris. In their versions of the story, MacArthur needlessly and callously prematurely launched the assault on Manila so that he could personally trumpet the city’s liberation as his crowning achievement in fulfilling his “I shall return” pledge at the earliest possible moment.
The “blame MacArthur” theme also has been seized upon by Japanese apologists who have spent the postwar decades either outright denying the well-documented atrocities committed by Japan’s World War II military forces or searching for any mitigating factors that might provide them with even the remotest possibility of excusing Japan’s countless war crimes.
Indeed, the “blame MacArthur” crowd has even convinced many of today’s Manila residents that the man who liberated the Philippines from brutal Japanese occupation was actually responsible for the city’s destruction in 1945.
Yet, is MacArthur really to blame for the bloodbath that destroyed the Philippine capital?
Those who claim that MacArthur’s ego fueled his decision to liberate Manila ignore the strategic situation on Luzon and the sound military logic underpinning his order for the operation:
Yamashita’s Army. MacArthur’s forces still had to fight and defeat the main Japanese army defending Luzon, at least 200,000 soldiers under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Yamashita, known as the “Tiger of Malaya,” had withdrawn his defenders into the remote, rugged region of northern Luzon, where he prepared for a last stand. However, a force under Imperial Japanese Navy Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi remained in Manila. Only a foolish commander would have willingly left this major opposing force at his back when setting out to confront the main enemy army – and MacArthur was anything but foolish.
Logistics. After the Luzon campaign began with the January 9, 1945, U.S. amphibious invasion at Lingayen Gulf, a top priority for MacArthur’s forces was to open a major port to handle the massive logistics requirements necessary to fully support combat operations. Until this could be accomplished, MacArthur would face the same problems that plagued General Dwight Eisenhower’s armies in France for months after D-Day, when sufficient supplies could not be brought over the invasion beaches to meet operational requirements.
Manila Bay is the finest natural harbor in the Orient, and although the Japanese had demolished much of Manila’s port facilities, MacArthur realized that U.S. engineers could quickly repair them to get the port functioning. In fact, they did, and the port was opened to Allied shipping March 1, 1945.
Rescuing Internees/POWs. Inside Manila, the Japanese held nearly 6,000 captives – American and Allied civilian internees (men, women and children) at Santo Tomas campus, and U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war at Bilibid Prison. These individuals had endured abominable treatment since the Japanese occupation began in 1942, but by 1945 they were at great risk of being murdered or used as hostages.
MacArthur recognized that it was vitally important to free the captives as soon as possible to save their lives, later writing, “I knew that many of these half-starved and ill-treated people would die unless we rescued them promptly.” In the first days of the Manila fighting, 5,800 internees and POWs were rescued at Santo Tomas and Bilibid Prison.
Returning the Capital to the Legitimate Philippine Government. After three years of brutal and exploitative Japanese occupation, another major priority for MacArthur was expeditiously re-establishing the legitimate Philippine government. As the capital of the Philippines, Manila was the most important symbol of governmental authority. Therefore, returning the city to the legitimate Filipino government would fatally undermine any lingering claims of legitimacy asserted by the collaborationist-run Japanese puppet government the occupiers had set up in 1943 (called the Second Philippine Republic). On February 27, 1945, as the fighting for Manila raged, MacArthur gathered Philippine legislators at the capital’s Malacañang Palace and announced that “full constitutional government” was restored to the Filipinos.
Clearly, despite the claims of the general’s detractors, MacArthur had sound politico-military reasons for his decision to order the liberation of the Philippine capital. However, the commander whose ruthless decision turned Manila into an abattoir was not Douglas MacArthur.
“BANZAI TO THE EMPEROR!”
In fact, Manila was doomed by the deliberate choice of the Japanese commander left in charge of the city’s defenses, Rear Admiral Iwabuchi. Yamashita, concentrating his forces in northern Luzon to fight the main battle against MacArthur’s forces, had decided not to defend Manila. However, Iwabuchi ignored Yamashita’s order to evacuate the capital after destroying its bridges and vital installations.
Given the abysmally poor relations between Japan’s army and navy during the war, it was not unusual for a naval officer to disobey or ignore a senior-ranking army officer’s orders. Yet Iwabuchi had a more personal reason for deliberately turning the Pearl of the Orient into his own private funeral pyre.
Feeling shamed and disgraced ever since November 15, 1942, when U.S. battleships sank his Japanese battleship Kirishima during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Iwabuchi was determined to redeem himself by fighting to the death – along with his 16,000-man command – while killing as many American troops as possible and ruthlessly murdering Manila’s Filipino population. (Although it does not mitigate his guilt for the Manila Massacre, instructions to “systematically murder” the city’s civilians may have come directly from Tokyo, as Time magazine reported in its August 20, 1945, issue).
As MacArthur’s forces approached Manila in early February 1945, Iwabuchi told his men, “We are very glad and grateful for the opportunity of being able to serve our country in this epic battle. Now, with what strength remains, we will daringly engage the enemy. Banzai to the emperor! We are determined to fight to the last man!”
On February 26, 1945, several days before the last of his force was annihilated, Iwabuchi committed suicide with a grenade. He therefore escaped postwar justice, but the commander whose order he disobeyed did not. Between October and December 1945, Yamashita was tried in Manila and convicted of war crimes committed by his troops, including the Manila Massacre. He was executed February 23, 1946.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Armchair General thanks Romulo “Mo” Ludan for assisting with this article. Read his web article on the Kiangan region of northern Luzon, the site of Yamashita’s final surrender September 2, 1945, at armchairgeneral.com/trek-tokiangan-and-back.htm.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Armchair General.