Sound decisions helped create a roadblock to Japan’s Pacific blitzkrieg.
The Japanese offensive that began World War II in the Pacific targeted the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, British and Dutch possessions in resource-rich Malaysia and Indonesia, and America’s most advanced Pacific base, the Philippines. Quickly seizing the Philippines was particularly vital to Japan’s plan of conquest, as it would eliminate the U.S. military threat to the country’s vital supply lines between the home islands and the conquered southern resources region and provide a forward staging area for current and future Japanese military operations.
Standing in the way of Japan’s conquest of the Philippines was General Douglas MacArthur’s U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) – 135,000 troops, of which 85 percent were inadequately trained Filipino soldiers armed with World War I rifles – supported by Major General Lewis H. Brereton’s Far East Air Force (FEAF) and the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Fleet under Admiral Thomas C. Hart.
Once the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor started the war, several events rapidly transpired that had a significant impact on MacArthur’s mission of defending the Philippines. Pre-war U.S. plans assumed that a successful Philippines defense would require MacArthur’s forces to be greatly augmented by reinforcements once war began, but the crippling of the U.S. Pacific Fleet essentially eliminated the means of getting additional troops and weapons to the defenders. Then, eight hours after the Pacific Fleet was struck, egregious decisions made by General Brereton resulted in Japanese airstrikes destroying most of FEAF’s offensive capability – its B-17 bombers – while it was still on the ground. (See Hard Choices, May 2011 ACG.) And when Admiral Hart withdrew the Asiatic Fleet from Philippine waters after Cavite Naval Base was bombed December 8 (he left some submarines, PT boats and a few support ships), MacArthur’s ground forces faced the imminent Japanese amphibious invasion with no reasonable hope of reinforcements and bereft of effective air and naval support.
MACARTHUR’S DECISION: With defeating a Japanese invasion now unlikely, MacArthur adjusted USAFFE’s mission to that of delaying a Japanese victory as long as possible. Although his forces opposed the Japanese amphibious landings December 22 at Lingayen Gulf and two days later in southern Luzon, the efforts were ineffectual. On December 24, MacArthur decided to implement War Plan Orange 3, the withdrawal to and defense of the rugged Bataan Peninsula.
RACE TO BATAAN
By December 30, the Japanese realized MacArthur’s intention was to mount his main defense from the mountainous, forbidding terrain of Bataan Peninsula – if the main American-Filipino force could arrive there in time. Thus, with two powerful invasion forces converging on central Luzon (one from Lingayen Gulf, the other from south of Manila), the Japanese sought to cut off and destroy USAFFE before the bulk of MacArthur’s defenders reached the peninsula. If the Japanese could win the “race to Bataan” their rapid conquest of the Philippines was assured.
MACARTHUR’S DECISION: Establishing five successive lines from which to delay the Japanese advance, MacArthur skillfully maneuvered his USAFFE units in a phased withdrawal that avoided enemy attempts to cut them off and which successfully brought most of his army to Bataan Peninsula ahead of Japanese spearheads. Meanwhile, he had ordered Brigadier General George M. Parker Jr. to begin preparing defensive positions on Bataan and to start stocking the peninsula with as much food and provisions as possible. By January 6, 1942, MacArthur had won the race to Bataan, getting about 80,000 of his troops into defensive positions on the peninsula.
USAFFE’s January 7 to April 9 defense of Bataan was characterized by countless small unit actions as American and Filipino troops reacted to continuous Japanese attacks. MacArthur’s forces were organized as I Corps under Major General Jonathan M. Wainwright and II Corps commanded by Major General Edward P. King. Despite appalling conditions, rampant disease, heavy casualties and increasing shortages of food and ammunition, Wainwright and King’s beleaguered U.S. and Filipino troops managed to create a stubborn defense of Bataan that, for several crucial months, proved to be a roadblock to Japan’s opening war blitzkrieg. Inevitably, however, Japanese strength and firepower overcame the defenders. USAFFE forces on Bataan surrendered April 9, and the fortress island of Corregidor in Manila Bay was captured May 6.
MACARTHUR’S DECISION: Given the nature of the fighting on Bataan – small unit tactical actions without the opportunity for large-scale maneuvers – MacArthur decided to delegate control of the fighting to his on-scene subordinate commanders. Although he remained in overall command from his headquarters on Corregidor (and later Australia), he wisely left the fighting on Bataan to Wainwright and King.
When the Philippines finally fell, however, MacArthur was in Australia. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a crafty politician always sensitive to public opinion, realized the devastating blow that the capture of the senior U.S. commander in the Philippines would inflict on homefront morale. Moreover, MacArthur was a national hero, revered by the American people as the most well-known and popular U.S. military figure of the day. FDR could not take the personal political risk of letting the Japanese capture the general. In February, he therefore directed U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall to order MacArthur to escape. MacArthur, following orders, departed Corregidor by U.S. Navy PT boat the night of March 12, 1942, and proceeded to Mindanao, where a B-17 flew him to Australia.
Although MacArthur was not in the Philippines during the March 12 to May 6 fighting, the five-month defense that he planned, executed and oversaw that began with the Japanese attack in December shattered the invaders’ Pacific War opening offensive timetable. More than any other Allied combat during the war’s opening months, MacArthur’s Philippines defense bought the Allies the vital time necessary to prepare and mount counteroffensives that began rolling back Japan’s conquests in mid-1942.
Yet MacArthur realized the valor and sacrifice of his American and Filipino troops deserved the credit. In an April 1942 ceremony in which he was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading the Philippines defense, MacArthur acknowledged: “This award was intended not so much for me personally as it is a recognition of the indomitable courage of the gallant army which it was my honor to command.”
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Armchair General.