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Much has been made of the Japanese violations of General Douglas MacArthur’s December 26, 1941, proclamation of Manila as an open city. Americans considered the December 27-28 Japanese bombings deliberate attacks on a defenseless city. The attacks were especially infuriating because they came just after MacArthur had announced that the city was undefended. Actually, there is more than a little doubt as to which side violated Manila’s open city status. Some contend it was the Americans.

MacArthur evacuated his main headquarters from Manila on December 24. At the same time, his two corps-equivalent fighting forces, the North Luzon Force and the South Luzon Force, were involved in a double retrograde movement as they retreated from the beaches and tried to reach the Bataan Peninsula. Two days later, MacArthur issued the following communiqué: “In order to spare the Metropolitan area from ravages of attack, either by air or ground, Manila is hereby declared an open city without the characteristics of a military objective. In order that no excuse may be given for possible mistake, the American high commissioner, the Commonwealth government and all combatant military installations will be withdrawn from its environs as rapidly as possible. The Municipal government will continue to function with its police powers, reinforced by constabulary troops, so that the normal protection of life and property may be preserved. Citizens are requested to maintain obedience to constituted authorities and continue the normal processes of business.”

Manila’s newspapers and radio stations published news of the open city proclamation throughout the day. Two large banners in front of city hall announced “Open City” and “No Shooting.”

The open city proclamation was tested on December 27, the day after the announcement, when Japanese twin-engine naval aircraft flew strikes against shipping in Manila Bay and the Pasig River. The ships lay immediately adjacent to heavily populated areas, especially those docked along the Pasig River. Manila’s docks abutted the city, and the Pasig ran through the heart of Manila, only yards from some of Manila’s most historic shrines.

The Japanese obviously considered the line of small interisland steamers and the U.S. Army minelayer Miley, which were docked along the south bank of the Pasig River, to be military targets. The ships’ owners had not moved their vessels out of the river, despite government orders to do so. The owners had argued that they needed to unload them first. Several merchantmen that lay in the Manila harbor basin and another group of small ships near Engineer Island, where the Pasig River enters Manila Bay, were legitimate military targets. The Japanese also targeted the shops that produced the Philippines’ own motor torpedo boats.

Five waves of bombers in formations of eight to nine aircraft each arrived at about 12:05 p.m. on December 27 and flew leisurely over Manila’s waterfront. In the port area, their first objective, one bomb hit the north end of Pier 7, a second hit the center of the pier and a third hit a mess hall at the north entrance. Bombs sank the Coast Guard cutter Kanlaon and destroyed the steamer SS Samal. The cutter Arayat was hit and set ablaze. Pier 3 was damaged, and Pier 5 took several hits that started cargo fires and rendered the pier unserviceable.

The Japanese changed targets at 2 p.m. and went after the shipping in the Pasig River. The first bombs landed in the river, missing the ships but driving the crews off the vessels in a mad dash for safety ashore. The second attack landed bombs on both sides of the river, yet once again missed the ships. The citizens of Manila watched helplessly in anger and frustration as aircraft calmly circled the city. Nine-plane formations seemed always to be in sight.

Once the aircraft had departed, Manila’s citizens were shocked to discover the damage the bombs had inflicted. San Juan de Letran College, President Manuel Quezon’s alma mater, had burned to the ground, as did a newspaper building, which housed The Philippines Herald and all its press machines. Several bombs had landed inside the old Spanish walled city, the Intramuros, one of which hit Fort Santiago, in the northwest corner of the old city. Two bombs hit the ancient Intendencia, which served as the Treasury, Budget and Mint Building, although it also had been the Spanish governor’s official residence, then home to the first Philippine Senate. The bombs so shook the building that silver coins and broken money boxes buried watchmen.

Smoke billowed from the twin towers of the Church of Santo Domingo, a landmark dating from 1590. The church, built by Dominicans, was filled with relics worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Church documents dated back to the first Spanish landings, as did priceless old robes and dazzling jewels. Firemen rushed in and controlled the flames–until they lost water pressure. Twenty-thousand religious and historical volumes burned. The roof collapsed, bringing down the dome. The upper part of a tower crashed into the Santa Catarina girls’ school, which was also on fire. By the time the fires were extinguished, little of the Church of Santo Domingo remained except its walls.

Bomb blasts blew children’s textbooks and drawings from the Intramuros into the streets. The Santo Thomas Medical College and St. Paul’s Hospital were damaged, and half of Santa Rosa College was destroyed. Bomb fragments penetrated the new Chamber of Commerce building, which Tsunero Yamamoto, the newly inaugurated president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, had hailed as a shelter of international amity only two months earlier.

Broken glass and debris covered the river area. Blasts had torn tin roofs from buildings and iron railings from their mounts. The smells of burned wood, broken sewers and freshly turned earth filled the area. Severed telephone wires dangled from leaning poles, and water mains gushed into cratered streets. Cars had been overturned, and their burning tires choked streets with smoke. Amazingly, the Japanese had failed to hit a single ship in the Pasig River.

MacArthur notified Washington: “The enemy’s present actions can only be deemed completely violative of all the civilized processes of international law. At the proper time I bespeak due retaliatory measures.” A member of MacArthur’s staff believed that the Japanese had deliberately attacked civilian targets after the city had been proclaimed open and American anti-aircraft artillery had been removed.

The relatively small number of casualties (40 civilians killed and another 150 wounded) and the small number of buildings hit argue against any specific Japanese attempt to target civilian areas, however. The overwhelming majority of Manila’s churches, roads, business districts, factories and residential areas stood untouched. Japanese bombing accuracy had deteriorated significantly since their first days of war. Their bombardiers were becoming well-known for missing targets. The bombs that had hit civilian areas were “overs” from the raids aimed at the ships in the Pasig River that had been actively unloading into cargo bulkheads and warehouses along both banks of the river. A strong wind from the north added to the mild inaccuracy of the Japanese aim; all the areas hit were directly south of legitimate military targets.

Manila’s military and civil authorities belatedly took firm measures to clear out the ships that were drawing the bombers. Tugs towed out the last eight interisland ships on December 29. The military began to ship everything they could out of the port area to Bataan and Corregidor. Demolition crews scuttled four immobile ships that lacked crews or mooring or towing lines. They blew up another ship when they could not find the crew. After the ships had been moved or sunk, Japanese bombings decreased.

Despite the righteous outrage some Americans felt over the Japanese attacks on civilian areas of an open city, the moral and legal high ground they attempted to hold was shaky indeed. The Americans themselves were lax in obeying the open city declaration. Some soldiers who worked in Manila went though the farce of taking off their pistols, but they continued to perform their duties. No U.S. military or civilian authorities seriously tried to enforce the proclamation on friendly personnel.

The U.S. Army’s official history of the campaign, researched and drafted when MacArthur was still on active duty and a force to be reckoned with, was as specific as it could be when it stated that, because Manila was used as a base of supply, because a U.S. Army headquarters operated from the city and because troops used the roads, Manila could hardly be considered an open city.

The entire open city concept of the laws of war lacked detail. The Hague Convention of 1907 prohibited the attack or bombardment of undefended towns, villages, dwellings or buildings. There were, however, no details set out on what constituted an undefended city or how an undefended city should conduct itself.

The 1923 draft of Rules of Air Warfare, which was never adopted, stated that attacks on lines of communications and transportation used for military purposes were legal. The 1938 Draft Convention for the Protection of Civilian Populations Against New Engines of War, likewise never adopted, required that all combatant troops, factories, airports, airplane workshops, ships of war, naval dockyards and forts or fortifications used for defensive or offensive purposes be excluded from an open city.

Although specifics were lacking, there were certain conventions about open cities, including the understanding that a defender could not use the city or its infrastructure. Yet the American military continued to use Manila after it became an open city, especially for logistics. The dock area, which the Japanese attacked, was in constant use. Ships had begun carrying supplies from Manila to Bataan and Corregidor on Christmas Day and continued as long as the situation permitted. Truck convoys loaded with food from Manila’s depots drove to Bataan.

The day after the open city proclamation and the first day the Japanese bombed the city, December 27, the Americans had dismantled and crated the interisland radio equipment of the Philippine Commonwealth Telephone Company and sent it off to Corregidor. Communications personnel destroyed the Manila Radio broadcast station on December 28, and radio-intercept personnel evacuated three large radio transmitters on a barge and SS Hyde. Signal personnel destroyed the McKay Radio broadcast station on the 29th, the Globe Radio Company on the 30th and the RCA station on the 31st, then packed salvaged radio equipment and drove off to Bataan.

When MacArthur’s rear headquarters would be evacuated from Manila and the efforts to transfer supplies would end was governed by how long the South Luzon Force could delay the approach of the Japanese. The Army Transport Service directed the force operations from the Customs House opposite Pier 5 until the night of December 31. The freighter Don Esteban made nightly trips to Manila’s docks, picking up military personnel and supplies, then sailing for Bataan or Corregidor.

Troops and trucks hauled military supplies and food out of the city day and night. The Navy vied with demolition troops to salvage fuel oil for the submarine fleet. As one Navy lieutenant roamed Manila destroying fuel, another officer spent three days trying to save the same fuel before it went up in flames. Ultimately, 300,000 gallons left Manila in barges for use by U.S. submarines, all while the city was “open.”

American and Filipino military forces used the roads through the city, talked on the city’s communication’s network and occupied military barracks until the Japanese arrived. Artillerymen bought new tires for their trucks from Manila’s stores. Numerous official and private accounts recorded the pride Americans felt as they moved equipment out of the city just before the Japanese arrived on January 2.

The Motor Transport Service began to evacuate all its motor transport to Bataan on December 29. It sent convoys by land and additional equipment by water. The next day, military and civilian personnel destroyed the last of the Manila Railroad’s locomotives and rolling stock. MacArthur’s logistics rear echelon did not evacuate the city until the night of December 31. Few people had any idea of the rules for a defender’s use of an open city–rules which were, as mentioned, vague–and even fewer people cared.

One man who did not know was 27-year-old Captain Richard W. Fellows. Far East Air Force Service Command had ordered Fellows to evacuate the Philippine Air Corps repair parts depot to Bataan by midnight, December 24. Fellows had no idea how close the Japanese were; the rumor was that Manila would be declared an open city. Fellows did not know what open city meant, but he did know that his materiel was the lifeblood of MacArthur’s air force. He also knew that he could not get everything out by midnight. He had four P-40s under repair, and he hoped to fly them out using city streets as runways.

Fellows and his men stayed near Manila for three days, loading parts into trucks and rebuilding the four aircraft. The 200-ton coaster Dos Hermanos sailed from Manila to Bataan with 18 P-40 engines the night of the 27th. Fellows also stuffed aboard 70 tons of tools and bench equipment, 150 bottles of oxygen, 12 gasoline generators, parts and sheet metal. Three of his planes flew out on December 26 and 27. Trucks shuttled between Bataan and Manila. The last trucks and fourth P-40 left Manila early on January 1.

All this happened while the city was open, while it was “without the characteristics of a military objective.” Fellows’ activities were not the least bit unusual. He was just one of many aggressive, active soldiers who saved supplies while the city was considered open.

The declaration of Manila as an open city had no significance to the campaign. It did not matter tactically (except to prolong the subsequent Bataan campaign) whether one side or the other violated the city’s status. It is, however, interesting to note that after the war, the United States executed the Japanese invasion commander, General Masaharu Homma, for, among other reasons, not supervising his men or controlling their treatment of Filipino and American prisoners during the Bataan Death March.

Regardless of his motives, MacArthur, too, failed to control his men when he allowed them to violate his open city proclamation. Luckily for MacArthur, his side won the war.

John W. Whitman is a retired Army lieutenant colonel of infantry, an airborne Ranger with overseas tours in Vietnam, Korea and Panama. He is a graduate of the Fort Leavenworth Command and General Staff College and holds an Army secondary specialty of historian. For further reading try: They Fought with What They Had, by Walter D. Edmonds; United States Army in World War II, by Louis Morton; or Bataan: Our Last Ditch, by John W. Whitman.