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 Lively, cosmopolitan and beautiful, the city of Manila drew upon the cultures and histories of many nations. Flavored by Asian, European and American influences, the Philippine capital was known as the “Pearl of the Orient.” It was a prime posting for American diplomats, soldiers and sailors in the years between the world wars–except, perhaps, for a young U.S. Army major named Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was assigned to the U.S. military mission there in 1935. He found the casual rhythms of life in Manila infuriating, and the work ethic of Filipinos lacking. Eisenhower, unlike his boss General Douglas MacArthur and most of his colleagues, was not happy in Manila.

The lovely pearl itself was soon to be tarnished. Between July 1941 and March 1942, the Japanese overran and occupied the great cities of Southeast Asia, and Manila was not spared. In fact, the city eventually suffered worse than the rest of them. By the time the Japanese had been overwhelmed by MacArthur’s liberating forces in 1945, the once-beautiful capital was a smoldering wasteland filled with the sickly stench of death.

When the British Fourteenth Army advanced on Rangoon, Burma, in March 1945, the Japanese evacuated the city. Four months later, they surrendered Singapore, Batavia, Hong Kong and Saigon to British forces. But Manila was different, and the enemy defended the city against the advancing U.S. Sixth and Eighth armies. Between February 4 and March 3, 1945, Manila was subjected to the fury of American bombers, artillery and armor and was leveled. All that remained in the end were heaps of smoldering rubble and charred bodies. So many buildings had been razed that GIs and Filipino troops could see from one edge of the city to the other. Army Sergeant Paul P. Rogers said: “This was not Manila. It was simply hell.” The destruction of Manila was on the scale of Stalingrad, Warsaw and Berlin.

The battle for Manila was the only occasion on which American and Japanese forces fought each other in a city, and it was the largest action of its kind yet waged by the American or Japanese armies. MacArthur had made his legendary vow to return to the Philippines, and when he did, the liberation entailed wholesale destruction and the loss of thousands of lives. Some 100,000 Manilan civilians fell. The military casualties were heavy–6,500 Americans and up to 20,000 Japanese.

Yet, strangely, this costly battle has been overlooked by most historians. Now, in The Battle for Manila, by Richard Connaughton, John Pimlott and Duncan Anderson (Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 1995, $24.95), the startling story of the rape of Manila has been told by three Britons: a British Army veteran and two professors at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Drawing on interviews with survivors and newly found archival material, they have pieced together a powerful record of the “unwanted battle,” long a subject that both Americans and Japanese have preferred not to dwell on. Thoroughly documented and crafted with insight and balance, The Battle for Manila is the first comprehensive study of this horrific but neglected chapter in the history of the war in the Pacific.

Manila, the authors point out, was an understandable goal for the Americans, who were still smarting from their humiliations of 1941­-42. Its recapture would symbolize their determination to smash Japanese power in the Western Pacific while freeing the Filipinos. Manila was seen by many American officials as the key to the Philippines–the military “center of gravity” whose liberation would unhinge the enemy grip on the Philippines as a whole.

The city drew MacArthur like a magnet, but it also clouded his military judgment, the authors claim. His decision to surround the Japanese, leaving no avenue of escape, ensured that the city would be defended to the death. Once the trap was closed on February 12, 1945, Manila was doomed. In so doing, the authors assert, MacArthur disregarded an integral maxim of the art of war pointed out by Sun Tzu, the great Chinese strategist: “Leave a way of escape to a surrounded enemy.”

Nevertheless, the authors conclude, the Americans achieved all of their strategic objectives, holding naval and air bases for the projected invasion of the Japanese home islands. Although costly and conducted with excessive force by MacArthur, the battle for Manila was a vital part of the Philippine campaign. In strategic terms, say the authors, this was “a major success.”

Connaughton served in the Far East, was the British Army head of defense studies, and has written books about the Russo-Japanese War and Australia during World War II. Pimlott heads the War Studies Department at Sandhurst. He is an international expert on counterinsurgency operation. Anderson is a senior lecturer at Sandhurst and has written about General MacArthur.