MacArthur's Failures in the Philippines, December 1941 - March 1942
By Robert C. Daniels
The 7 December 1941 Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by
Japanese Admiral Chichi Nagumo's naval strike force suddenly and fully thrust
the United States into World War II, a war which would last for nearly four
years and cost 407,316 American military lives and wound another 671,846.
Nearly every year since this attack, on its anniversary, Pearl Harbor has been
commemorated by veterans and non-veterans alike, and rightly so.
What is not as well known is that the attack on Pearl Harbor was just a part of
the Japanese offensive planned for 7 December. The overall plan called for
simultaneous attacks not only on Pearl Harbor, but also on several other
American and Allied locations throughout the Pacific. Most of these
simultaneous attacks went as planned. However, due to bad weather over the
Island of Formosa—the location of the airbases from which the Japanese were to
launch their bombers and fighter planes against the Philippines—the initial air
strike on the American protectorate of the Philippine Islands was delayed for
Expecting an imminent attack by the Japanese and armed with the knowledge of
the Pearl Harbor attack, prudent actions by those in command in the Philippines
should have alleviated the chance of a total surprise attack in the
Philippines, and the initiation of proper defensive, if not offensive,
operations could possibly have saved the Philippines. However, the failure of
General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of United States Army Forces Far East
(USAFFE), to initiate these and other actions directly led to the defeat of the
American-Filipino forces in the Philippines during the initial phases of the
Second World War, causing thousands of American and Filipino military and
civilian personnel to suffer through years of brutal captivity at the hands of
It had been well known and expected that an attack by the Japanese against
American Pacific possessions was imminent. Diplomatic relations between the
United States and Japan had been increasingly deteriorating since the 1 July
1937 ‘China Incident' in which Japanese soldiers of the Kwantung Army opened
fire on Chinese National troops. On 12 December of that same year, the
an American naval gunboat flying an "outsized" American flag,
was bombed by Japanese Imperial Navy bombers on China's Yangtze River, killing
an Italian journalist and two American sailors. Within a year, most of the
fertile portions of China had fallen to Japan and by 1940 tensions in
Shanghai, China between the several European contingencies and the Japanese,
including the Americans, were close to powder keg proportions.
As a member of the United States 4th Marine Regiment stationed in Shanghai to
protect the American interests, Corporal Edmond Babler recalls:
During the latter months of 1940 and early 1941 we began experiencing trouble
with people infiltrating into the American sector and starting riots. It was,
incidentally, the Japanese who were creating many of these disturbances,
including the starting of strikes and setting of fires….In the early spring
months of 1941 the fires, rioting, robberies, and murders began occurring more
frequently. The daily newspapers were filled with stories of these incidents
and I could feel the tension mount among the Chinese. They became worried and
nervous because of the fear they had for the Japanese, who would not hesitate
or stop at anything at intimidation, even resorting to murder.
Author Eric Morris writes that "The International Settlement [in Shanghai] had
been coming apart at the seams ever since the outbreak of the war in
Europe." In addition, from across the Soochow Creek, a tributary of the
Whangpoo River and the same creek at which Corporal Babler manned his guard
post, "the Japanese had been waging a ceaseless campaign to undermine and
intimidate the position of the Western powers."
26 July 1941, after hearing that 30,000 Japanese troops had landed at Saigon
and Haiphong in Indochina, United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
signed a decree freezing all Japanese assets in the United States, denying the
Panama Canal to Japanese shipping, and placing a crippling embargo on the
export of strategic raw materials to Japan. That same day, MacArthur was
recalled to active duty and made commander of the USAFFE. With the prospect
of war with Japan in the winds, operations were soon put in motion to reinforce
and consolidate the American bases in the Pacific, including the Philippines.
To bolster the air arm in the Philippines, in July, Major General Henry ‘Hap'
H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces, proposed reinforcing the Philippine
Army Air Corps by sending four heavy bombardment groups and 2 pursuit squadrons
to the Philippines. General George C. Marshall, United States Army Chief of
Staff, echoed this concern when on 1 December he stated, "We must get every
B-17 to the Philippines as soon as possible." However, by the time hostilities
broke out 6 days later, only 107 P-40 Tomahawk fighters and 35 B-17 bombers
were in place in the Philippines.
Besides the air forces in the Philippines being bolstered, so were those of
both Wake and Midway Islands. During the Pearl Harbor attack the aircraft
carriers USS Enterprise and USS Lexington were to find
themselves at sea on their return trips from ferrying Marine fighter aircraft
to Wake and Midway Islands, respectively.
In addition, after spending the last fifteen years protecting the American
interests in Shanghai, Corporal Babler's 4th Marine Regiment, affectionately
known as the "China Marines" and commanded by Colonel Samuel L. Howard (USMC),
had just recently been transferred from Shanghai to the Philippines under a 14
November order from President Roosevelt. The Regiment, consisting of
approximately 800 Marines and attached naval personnel comprising two small
battalions, the 1st and 2nd, arrived at the Olongapo Navy Yard on Subic Bay on
the northern end of the Bataan Peninsula onboard the two ex-cruise liners
and the SS President Harrison on 30
November and 1 December 1941, respectively—just 6 days prior to the attack on
To this Marine force would eventually be added, as the 3rd battalion, the
approximately 700 Marines and attached naval personnel of the 1st Separate
Marine Battalion, already stationed in the Philippines. This separate
battalion, led by Lieutenant Colonel John P. Adams (USMC), was organized as
both a base defense and an infantry battalion manning several antiaircraft
defense batteries in and around the Cavite Navy Yard, located on Manila Bay a
few miles south of Manila, and at the Sangley Point Navy Radio Facility,
located on a promontory on the perimeter of the navy yard.
The radio facility included several radio towers, one of which was a
low-frequency tower used to communicate with the American Asiatic Fleet's
submarines while the subs were submerged. If destroyed, radio communication
with the subs would be limited to only when the subs were surfaced; placing the
subs in very vulnerable positions.
As this build-up was going on, other preparations in the Philippines were
taking place, including evacuating non-essential personnel. As Clarence K.
Larson (United States Air Force, Retired), who was stationed at Nichols Field
just south of Manila, writes, "In Late 1941 most military families were
returned to the United States, which was a sure sign of a possible war." At
the same time, the local troops and populace were also keenly aware that war
was not only possible, but could be expected at any time. As Larson continues:
The Manila paper said that several Japanese had closed their businesses and
left the Philippines. We had been on alert since December 1, which meant that
all personnel were restricted to base. It had been reported that Japanese
planes had been seen flying reconnaissance missions for two weeks over northern
With these preparations, including the arrival of the 4th Marine Regiment, the
forces in the Philippines consisted of approximately 19,000 American troops,
150 aircraft, sixteen surface ships and twenty-nine submarines. Added to this
was the 60,000 fledgling and under trained Philippine Army, of which only the
11,000- to 12,000-man American-trained Philippine Scouts Division was actually
combat-ready; the other ten Philippine divisions were still effectively in
training, and not yet fit to fight.
In comparison to the vast majority of the Filipino troops at MacArthur's
command, the 19,000 American forces in the Philippines were well-trained.
However, the majority of these 19,000 well-trained American forces were not
actual front-line combat troops but mostly artillery, aircrew and aircraft
mechanics, sailors, and support staff. Therefore, besides the Philippine Scouts
Division and the 4th Marine Regiment, MacArthur could only realistically count
on the United States Army's 31st Infantry Regiment, which had been assigned to
the Philippines for many years, as actually fully-trained front-line combat
units. To support these three units were the 192nd and 194th Tank
Battalions, "an amalgamation of National Guard units from across the United
Nonetheless, if handled properly these trained combat forces, backed up by the
artillery, would amount to a comparatively strong defensive force, with or
without the assistance of the ill-trained Filipino divisions. In addition, even
though many of the aircraft in the Philippine Army Air Corps present in
December—P-26s, P-35s, B-10s, B-18s, A-29s, C-39s, and various observation
planes—were "considered to be largely obsolescent and [were] described…as,
‘…unable to withstand even a mildly determined and ill-equipped foe,'" and only
54 of the P-40s and 33 of the B-17s were actually operational when hostilities
broke out on 7 December, the P-40 and B-17 were America's newest and most
advanced fighter and bomber, respectively. Properly utilized, these
aircraft could prove quite effective as both offensive and defensive weapons.
MacArthur also had at his disposal "the largest submarine force ever assembled
by the United States." Like the available aircraft, if employed properly,
these submarines could prove quite effective as both offensive and defensive
weapons. Therefore, on 8 December 1941 (7 December Hawaii time) MacArthur
possessed a relatively strong, well-trained ‘defensive' force.
addition, MacArthur had the Orange Plan to fall back on. This strategic plan,
which assumed that the Japanese would attack the Philippines as a principle
target, had been devised and studied by students at the United States War
College since 1926. It called for the abandonment of the Philippine capital and
the withdrawal of all American and Filipino forces to the Bataan Peninsula.
According to historian E. Bartlett Kerr, "(orange was a color code for Japan;
other potential enemies had different colors.) The [Orange] plan assumed a
Japanese surprise attack on Luzon, the principle island of the Philippine
group." Kerr furthers that on the "heavily jungled, mountainous [Bataan]
landmass…The troops…would provide land protection to nearby Corregidor and the
three other heavily fortified islands whose big guns dominated the sea
approaches…" With its thick jungle and rocky volcanic terrain and with the
proper amount of supplies and pre-invasion preparations, the Bataan Peninsula
would make for an ideal defensive position. It was commonly thought that with
prior defensive positions properly developed, manned, and supplied, the
combined American-Filipino forces could hold out for six months or more until
relieved by the United States Navy.
Although there was some concern by the Navy—due to its current size—of being
able to relieve the defenders in the Philippines within this timeframe, along
with isolationists bidding to abandon the Philippines, as author John Costello
contends, the Orange Plan "remained the cornerstone of the U.S. military
strategy because,…there was no acceptable alternative." Nonetheless, with
the forces MacArthur had at his disposal, the Orange Plan was actually a sound
defensive plan—if orchestrated and implemented properly.
MacArthur, however, did not want to abandon Manila, the capital of the
Philippines. Instead, if attacked, he wanted to fight the Japanese on the
beaches. After all, President Quezon did make MacArthur a field marshal in the
Philippine Army and MacArthur felt a great loyalty to the Filipinos. As Morris
sums it up:
His [MacArthur's] was an impossible position for a man of honor, for he had to
serve the Presidents of both the United States and the Philippines, and they
had conflicting demands. A premature retreat into the fortress of Corregidor
and the mountain fastness of Bataan might serve the needs of the Americans—but
would mean the abandonment of the Philippine Army and people. Such a move was
unthinkable to MacArthur, the officer and gentleman, however expedient
MacArthur was determined, therefore, to deny the beaches to the enemy. Giving
up without a fight was against his nature as a ‘red-blooded American.' His plan
was to use Admiral Hart's submarines to hound the ships of the invasion force,
hitting them at their weakest point and then defeating the Japanese on the
beaches as the remnants came ashore.
As Costello states, General MacArthur "was so carried away by the prospect of
all the bombers, tanks, and guns [that General Marshall had promised to send
and was in the process of sending]…that on October 1 he reported confidently he
could soon have 200,000 armed men ready for combat." He also claimed that
the arrival of the B-17s—although only 35 had actually arrived by early
December—"has changed the whole picture in the Asiatic area," thus encouraging
him to call for a change from the Orange Plan to the much riskier strategy of a
beach defense with "exaggerated promises that his Filipino troops stood ready
to turn back any invader at the beachhead." Admiral Thomas Hart, Commander
of the Asiatic Fleet, who was not on the most of cordial terms with MacArthur,
was "pressed into supporting the change in the Philippine war plan."
However, according to Morris:
MacArthur believed that the Japanese would not attack until the hot season. He
had therefore until April 1942 to prepare his defenses. By then, he reasoned,
his excellent Filipinos, with the promised stiffening of American combat units,
would be more than a match for the Japanese, whose fighting qualities, in his
arrogance, he dismissed.
With the currently planned reinforcement schedule for the Philippines, even as
high a priority as it was, it was not until that same timeframe, April 1942,
that would finally see all of the reinforcements, both in troop strength and
armaments (including tanks and additional B-17s and P-40s), present in the
Philippines that might allow for a proper beach defense strategy.
Therefore, although meeting the Japanese on the Philippine beaches may have
proven to have been a good strategy in April 1942, in December 1941 MacArthur
had nowhere near the troop or armament strength needed to adequately repel a
On 27 November, after numerous war warnings had developed throughout the waning
days of 1941 into a strong belief that war with Japan was now imminent, an
alert was radioed to all commands, including MacArthur's, stating that
NEGOTIATIONS WITH JAPAN APPEAR TERMINATED…JAPANESE FUTURE ACTION UNPREDICTABLE
BUT HOSTILE ACTION POSSIBLE AT ANY MOMENT. IF HOSTILITIES CANNOT REPEAT CANNOT
BE AVOIDED THE UNITED STATES DESIRES JAPAN COMMIT THE FIRST ACT.
Appended to MacArthur's message was instructions stating, "SHOULD HOSTILITIES
OCCUR YOU WILL CARRY OUT THE TASKS ASSIGNED IN REVISED RAINBOW 5," a war plan
that called for, among other things, MacArthur "to conduct air raids against
enemy forces and installations within tactical operating radius of available
bases…" Clearly, this was not only a warning that war was imminent at any
moment, but also an instruction to MacArthur to attack Japanese forces as soon
as Japan ‘committed the first act' of aggression. Nonetheless, even in receipt
of this message, MacArthur had changed his defensive plan based on the forces
he ‘expected' to have several months in the future, not based on the forces he
On 7 December the first act of aggression occurred. At 7:56 a.m. the first wave
of Japanese dive bombers struck Hickam Field south of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
while torpedo planes hit the battleships moored at battleship row in Pearl
Harbor itself. News of the attack quickly reached the Philippines, and all
the American-Philippine forces were put on war alert.
According to historian J. Michael Miller, this news arrived at the Asiatic
Fleet Headquarters via message at 2:57 a.m. on 8 December 1941 (7 December
Hawaii time) and at 3:15 a.m. notifications of the attack and instructions went
out to all military ships and stations in the Philippines. At 3:40 a.m.,
Brigadier General Leonard T. Gerow, Chief of the Army's War Plans Division,
called MacArthur to confirm the news of the attack and tell the general the he
"wouldn't be surprised if you get an attack there in the near future."
According to Corporal Babler,
On December 8th the air raid sirens began blowing. After several minutes we
heard the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor. Expecting to be hit next the Cavite
Navy Yard and all the airfields in the area were immediately put on alert and
air raid drills were practiced night and day.
Although with all the warnings of an imminent attack, the actual Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor had taken nearly all Americans by total surprise. None
the least was MacArthur, who when informed of the attack was reported to have
exclaimed, "Pearl Harbor! It should be our strongest point." As a seasoned
commander and ex-Chief of Staff of the United States Army, MacArthur should
have been one of the most stalwarts of the stalwarts in the Philippines.
Instead, as Costello states, MacArthur was in an "apparent cataleptic state,"
and that "The shock of events seemed to have clouded his [MacArthur's]
judgment, leading him to believe, according to President Quezon, ‘that the
Philippines would remain neutral and would not be attacked by the
Japanese.'" Morris supports this when he relates that, "An air of unreality
gripped MacArthur at his headquarters in the ‘House on the Wall,'" a
penthouse on top of the palatial Manila Hotel built for him by Philippine
President Manuel Quezon.
Unlike MacArthur, however, Major General Lewis H. Brereton, Commander United
States Far East Air Force, was quick to react. Upon hearing the news of the
Pearl Harbor attack, he immediately put his planes on alert and headed for the
Manila Hotel. Arriving at MacArthur's headquarters at approximately 5:00 a.m.,
Brereton requested permission to launch a preemptive strike against the known
concentration of Japanese aircraft on the island of Formosa. Unfortunately,
the shock and confusion that reigned in MacArthur's headquarters would prove
fatal to Brereton's air forces, and the Philippines. As Costello relates, "a
fatal paralysis gripped MacArthur's command that morning. His Chief of Staff
[General Richard Sutherland] insisted on a preliminary reconnaissance mission
because there was little information about what they were going to find to bomb
However, half an hour later MacArthur received a cable from Washington with
directions to implement the Rainbow 5 War Plan at once. This should have
made it clear to MacArthur that his duty was to attack the Japanese, and
General Brereton's B-17s were MacArthur's means of doing so. But Brereton's
request was refused. As Major John Mamerow of the Adjutant General's Office,
Philippine Department, recalls:
Major General Brereton arrived from MacArthur's headquarters and gave us as
much of the story about the bombing at Pearl Harbor as he knew….The next thing
I knew we got a call from General Sutherland,…saying the Formosa plan had been
disapproved, but to make sure our airplanes were secure.
Meanwhile, the Japanese Navy's 11th Air Fleet and Army's 5th Air Group
aircraft, which were planned to have been striking MacArthur's air force, were
grounded on Formosa due to ground fog.
Brereton, however, did not give up. According to Morris, at approximately 7:15
a.m., after two hours of waiting for MacArthur to order the attack, Brerenton
again went to General Sutherland's office with a prepared strike mission.
"After a few minutes, the Chief of Staff came out of the general's office
[MacArthur's], shut the door quietly behind him, and turned toward Brereton.
‘The general says "No,"' he said. ‘We must not make the first overt act.'"
Apparently, MacArthur's state of shock and cataleptic condition hampered him
from realizing that the Japanese had already made the first overt act when they
attacked Pearl Harbor.
After receiving a telephone call from General Arnold in Washington telling him
not to get his planes caught on the ground like the planes at Pearl Harbor had
been, at 9:00 a.m., Brereton scrambled 36 P-40s and all but one of his B-17s to
circle the skies aimlessly. It wasn't until forty-five minutes later, at
approximately 9:45 a.m., that Brereton finally received phone calls from
Generals Sutherland and MacArthur instructing him to send a
photo-reconnaissance flight over Formosa and, if the aerial pictures identified
targets, a bombing raid later that afternoon. To accomplish this, Brereton
ordered his planes to land, refuel, arm, and prepare for the assault. In the
meantime, the aircrews rushed to the respective chow halls for a quick meal
prior to launching the attack on Formosa.
It was at this vulnerable time, at a little after 12:00 noon on 8 December,
approximately eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor and after the
weather front over Formosa had cleared, that the same Formosa based Japanese
aircraft that MacArthur refused to give Brereton permission to bomb, attacked
the Philippines. As Private First Class Victor Mapes of the 14th Bombardment
Squadron stationed at Clark Field recalls,
About noon the B-17s came in to re-gas. They lined them up on the runway and
the crews cut out for chow. I was listening in the barracks to a very
loquacious radio commentator…when all of a sudden he said that Clark Field was
being bombed….some of us went outside to the back of the barracks. Coming in
over the mountains from the China Sea, up in the silvery clouds, were these two
beautiful "V" formations of twenty-seven planes each….We had our gas masks with
us and were trying to get them on when the bombs began walking up the runway,
like a big giant stepping down the line….The fighters came in next and their
machine guns were going through the air, cutting all around….Everything was a
holocaust. It seemed like it went on forever.
In a matter of minutes, like at Hawaii earlier in the day, nearly all of the
American combat aircraft stationed at Clark Field, the vast majority of the
aircraft then stationed in the Philippines, were caught on the ground parked
close to each other and destroyed in the first waves of Japanese air strikes,
along with many of the aircraft crewmen. Although the pilots of the few
surviving American aircraft made gallant attempts with some effect, the
Japanese aircraft greatly outnumbered and out-machined the overwhelmed American
pilots, leaving the skies over the Philippine Islands in nearly uncontested
control of the Japanese Air Forces. MacArthur's refusal to allow Brereton
to attack the Japanese air bases on Formosa directly led to the
American-Filipino loss of control of the skies over the Philippines.
On 10 December, the Japanese bombed the Cavite Navy Yard practically into
oblivion, as well as a nearby fuel depot. Without air cover, the
American-Filipino forces were literally helpless to prevent this and the many
other air attacks that were soon to come. So damaged was the navy yard that it
was evacuated and the 1st Separate Marine Battalion was ordered to destroy all
remaining usable equipment and facilities in the yard. The next day, 11
December, saw the Japanese airfields on Formosan again closed by monsoon rains.
However, on 12 and 13 December, as Morris puts it, "the Japanese Air Force
returned with a vengeance. Army and Navy bombers struck at targets throughout
Luzon." Included in these targets were the radio towers at the Sangley
Point Navy Radio Facility. As Morris furthers, the loss of the low-frequency
radio tower "was a most grievous loss, for it meant that the submarines could
be contacted only on the surface and at night."
On the same day the Cavite Navy Yard was bombed, 10 December, General Masaharu
Homma, the commander of the Japanese invasion force attacking the Philippine
Islands, began landing his troops on the main Philippine Island of Luzon and
launched his advance towards Manila, the Philippine capital. Soon afterwards,
Homma landed additional troops on the southeastern portion of Luzon and brought
his main landing force ashore north of the capital on 21 December, along with
still another force ashore west of the capital on 24 December.
Having decided not to initiate the Orange Plan but to instead fight it out on
the beaches, and especially now that his air forces were destroyed, MacArthur
was now relying solely on the Navy's submarines to pare down the attacking
forces enmass by sinking the transports they were riding on before they got to
shore. His hopes, however, proved to be flawed, though not of his making.
Although the twenty-nine submarines assigned to the Asiatic Fleet constituted
"the largest submarine force ever assembled by the United States," for a
plethora of reasons—faulty torpedoes, poor training, inept commanding officers,
and just plain bad luck—the submarines caused little if any damage to the
Japanese. Adding to the above was the loss of adequate communications with
the subs due to the destruction of the low-frequency radio tower at Sangley
Even with the failure of the submarines and the loss of his air forces,
MacArthur still refused to initiate the Orange Plan. Instead, he sent his
troops towards the beaches to repel the Japanese. However, his crack troops,
the Philippine Scouts, the 4th Marines, and the 31st Infantry, the troops that
had the training and élan to have effectively met the Japanese, he kept waiting
"passively in the South," sending, instead, his ill-trained Filipino Army to
the beaches, many of who soon fell back in disorder.
The 4th Marine Regiment, now with the 1st Separate Marine Battalion merged as
the 3rd Battalion, and after several arguments between Admiral Hart and General
Sutherland against such a move, was sent to the island of Corregidor as a
"Praetorian Guard." According to Miller, after Colonel Howard was sent by
MacArthur to General Sutherland for orders where he "asked that his regiment be
allowed to guard the western beaches on Bataan. Sutherland replied that he
wanted ‘the 4th Marines to take over the beach defenses [of Corregidor] as soon
as possible.'" According to MacArthur, the "Marines had no tactical
training and were not suitable for use as a tactical combat unit."
Therefore, MacArthur effectively placed one of his only three combat-trained
regiments out of harms way as beach guards on an isolated island instead of
sending them directly against the advancing Japanese where they might have done
some actual good. As Corporal Babler recalls,
It had been agreed that the Marines would be transported to the island of
Corregidor to provide a vital part of the island's defense. It was intended
that we would establish a beach defense there, and it was to this end that we
had been steadily working our way through the Mariveles [Bataan] jungles."
Many of these Marines would be forced to surrender without even firing a shot.
During the fighting that would eventually ensue on Corregidor, because of the
layout of the island and the location the Japanese chose to attack, only one
battalion out of the three would actually be engaged against the Japanese.
Finally realizing that holding the Japanese at bay without using his three
combat-trained regiments was not working, and still refusing to commit them, on
the evening of 23 December, after "forty hours of setbacks, [MacArthur] radioed
to his commanders: ‘WPO [War Plan Orange] is in effect.'" However, by this
time Brigadier General Charles Drake's supply corps, although desperately
attempting to move tons of food, ammunition, fuel, and medical supplies to the
Bataan Peninsula, were hampered by air raids, lack of vehicles, lack of
personnel, and, most importantly, lack of time, even with General Jonathan
Wainwright's Northern Corps fighting a delayed retreat. As a result, they
were only able to relocate a portion of the much needed supplies to the
peninsula. In addition, the pre-invasion construction of the planned Bataan
fortified defensive positions had also been neglected. The effects of
MacArthur's failure to quickly implement the Orange Plan soon became evident
when, with the arrival of approximately 100,000 additional people on the Bataan
Peninsula—83,000 soldiers and 26,000 Filipino civilian refugees —rations
soon ran short and few, if any, defensible positions were available.
Concerning Bataan, historian John Keegan writes that "Properly defended, it
should have resisted attack indefinitely, even though the garrison was short of
supplies." However, as Keegan furthers,
In forming their line on the first mountain position,…MacArthur's troops made
the same mistake as the British were simultaneously making in Malaya. They
failed to extend their flanks into the jungle on the mountain's slopes; in
consequence their flanks were quickly turned by Japanese infiltrators.
Learning from their mistake, upon retiring to their second line they avoided
the error. Nonetheless, they had lost nearly half of their area, now being
crowded into a ten mile square sector.
Help, promised from Washington, was not only hoped for, but expected by both
the American and Filipino forces. However, senior military and government
personnel knew otherwise. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had, as recently
as June 1941, signed the secret ‘European first strategy' pact with British
Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This pact, which was turned into Rainbow 5
War Plan, committed the United States forces to defeating the Axis Powers in
Europe first, while fighting a defensive war in the Pacific. Unbeknownst to
the American and Filipino forces on Bataan and the offshore coastal garrisons
of Corregidor and her sister fortress islands, Rainbow 5 War Plan doomed the
defenders to annihilation, starvation, or surrender. A lucky few, including
General MacArthur, would be evacuated. The others would be sacrificed. As
Morris so aptly states, the Europe first strategy "was a rather polite way of
saying that the Philippines would be abandoned to the enemy."
Estimates vary, but due to dwindling supplies on Bataan, on 9 April 1942
General Edward King was forced to surrender nearly 70,000 American and Filipino
military personnel to General Homma's forces (Keegan places the number at
79,300). Many of these were sick or wounded; all were near the starvation
level due to the severe shortage of rations. These prisoners were marched into
captivity on what became known as the infamous ‘Bataan Death March.' Again,
estimates vary, however, many thousands of Americans and Filipinos died on this
march due to the Japanese open brutality towards their captives—Costello lists
over 7,000, while Keegan lists 25,000. Many of the prisoners who were
already nearly emaciated by the time they surrendered died of sickness and
fatigue along the way; others succumbed from wounds received during the battle
of Bataan. Still others were beaten to death or outright executed by
bayoneting, shooting, or beheading by the Japanese.
On 6 May 1942, after sustaining shelling for 27 straight days and feverishly
attempting to fend off an invasion, the forces on Corregidor, under General
Jonathan Wainwright, surrendered, leaving the Philippine Islands entirely in
Japanese hands and adding several thousand additional American and Filipino
troops to the rolls of Japanese held POWs. Corporal Babler and 1,486 of his
fellow 4th Marine Regiment, the "China Marines," were among these additional
American and Filipino forces forced to surrender on Corregidor. Among all
those that surrendered in the Philippines, nearly forty percent would die while
in brutal Japanese captivity, compared to one percent that died in the hands of
the Nazis. Corporal Babler was one of only 1,013 of the 4th Marines that
returned after 1,220 days, nearly 40 months, of captivity—474 of his fellow 4th
Marines died in the hands of the Japanese.
Had MacArthur, having been whisked away from Corregidor on 12 March 1942 and
three days later flown out of Mindanao, and now safe in Australia, better
reacted first to the impending, and then to the actual Japanese attack, the
Philippines may not have fallen. Not only was the attack, at least on the
Philippines, long been expected with plans devised to defend the Philippines
until help arrived, reinforcements had been en route to the Philippines to
bolster its defenses since before President Roosevelt had signed the fateful
Japanese embargo decree on 26 July 1941. Even without the vast majority of the
Filipino forces being combat-trained, MacArthur had enough fully-trained
American troops available on 8 December 1941 to successfully implement the
Orange Plan, which was a sound plan and could conceivably have supported the
100,000 troops and civilians on half rations for a considerably long period of
However, due to MacArthur's loyalty to the Philippine President, his
unwillingness to abandon the Filipino capital, and basing and maintaining his
defensive plans on his unrealistic ‘future' troop and equipment strengths,
MacArthur scrapped the age-old Philippine defense plan—the Orange Plan—and sent
his troops against the Japanese at the beachheads. Even in this MacArthur
failed. Instead of sending his crack troops against the Japanese, he kept them
well back from the fighting, sending in their place the ill-trained Filipino
MacArthur also failed to properly utilize his air forces. Had he sent
Brereton's B-17s against Formosa when Brereton requested, and as ordered by the
Rainbow 5 War Plan, Japanese Admiral Nishizo Tsukahara's planes may have been
caught on the ground—the bulk of Admiral Tsukahara's planes would not be able
to launch until 9:00 a.m., more than enough time for Brereton's planes to fly
the 600 miles from Clark Field to Formosa. Instead, directly due to
MacArthur's procrastination, Brereton's air planes and their crews were caught
on the ground and destroyed enmass by the Japanese. As Costello aptly states:
The Philippines might not have been saved if Brereton had been allowed to make
the preemptive raid, but the Japanese bombers were grounded by weather, sitting
ducks for the American B-17s whose attack might have disrupted the Japanese
In his own defense, MacArthur, as Morris relates, "would later insist that ‘my
orders were explicit not to initiate hostilities against the Japanese.'"
However, Japan had clearly already initiated hostilities when they attacked
Pearl Harbor. MacArthur would also later claim, in denying that he had even
been informed of Brereton's request—although Army records show that he had
been—that "he had not the slightest doubt he would be attacked."
It is debated, however, due to the weather front over Formosa that was keeping
the Japanese air fleet on the ground, whether Brereton's B-17's could have even
seen the Japanese airfields in order to bomb the planes. Nonetheless, if
MacArthur had allowed the attack to be pursued when Brereton had requested,
Brereton's aircraft would have at least been in the air and not caught as
sitting ducks on their own airfield.
Even after losing his air forces, which doomed his troops to nearly unrelenting
air assaults, and after the Navy's submarine forces failed him, MacArthur still
refused to revert to the Orange Plan until it was too late to realistically
move all of the medical, food, and other military supplies to the Bataan
Peninsula, directly resulting in his troops suffering from malnutrition and
severe medical problems while attempting to fight off the Japanese.
In MacArthur's defense, Morris states that "Despite the losses and the
confusion, General MacArthur had masterminded an operation that has rightly
entered the gallery of classic fighting retreats." But, as Morris continues,
"It is true, however, that the Japanese did not seek a decisive engagement, and
it was largely [Japanese General] Homma's tactical misconceptions that allowed
MacArthur's forces to have a relatively easy time in the retreat."
Nonetheless, had MacArthur instituted the Orange Plan when he was expected to,
his forces would not have had to fight a delaying retreat. They could have just
waited and been rested and well fed in their fortified positions on Bataan for
Ironically, on 1 April 1942 when MacArthur was safe in Australia and seven days
before General King was forced to surrender ‘MacArthur's' forces on Bataan to
the Japanese, the President of the United States awarded General Douglas
MacArthur the Congressional Medal of Honor for the defense of Bataan. The
For conspicuous leadership in preparing the Philippine Islands to resist
conquest, for gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in
action against invading Japanese forces, and for the heroic conduct of
defensive and offensive operations on the Bataan Peninsula. He mobilized,
trained, and led an army which has received world acclaim for its gallant
defense against a tremendous superiority of enemy forces in men and arms. His
utter disregard of personal danger under heavy fire and aerial bombardment, his
calm judgment in each crisis, inspired his troops, galvanized the spirit of
resistance of the Filipino people, and confirmed the faith of the American
people in their Armed Forces.
General Douglas MacArthur may have been a good general…he may have even been a
great general…but the defense of the Philippines in late 1941 and early 1942
was not his shining moment. Nonetheless, America, in the early part of 1942,
badly needed a hero to rally around…and MacArthur was a ripe candidate.
Written by Robert C. Daniels. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Robert Daniels at:
About the author:
Robert C. Daniels, a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer, holds a BA in History from Old Dominion University (ODU), Norfolk, VA, and a MA in Military Studies, Land Warfare from the American Military University (AMU), Manassas Park, VA.
He has written and published two books telling the exploits of both WWII era veterans and civilians: 1220 Days and World War II in Mid-America and several military history articles published on http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com.
He currently is writing a book about the Black Hawk War, and teaches U.S. History, World Civilization History, and Western Civilization History at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, VA, as an adjunct professor.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.