19 December 2011

After Pearl Harbor, Part Two: The Philippines

US and Filipino troops surrendering at Bataan
Part One

Barely ten hours after the strike at Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces attacked the Philippines. While the defeat of American and Filipino forces, so far away from reinforcement and home in the former case, was inevitable, it certainly wasn't easy for the Japanese.

For the Allied POWs afterwards, it was horrific.


The Philippines consists of 7,107 islands in the Western Pacific, forming the eastern edge of the South China Sea and a valuable springboard for any force going from China to Indonesia and Malaysia. When I think of the islands and their people (who are currently dealing with a horrific typhoon), I think of the large number of merchant mariners that hail from the country and also of au pairs - the Philippines is a country that a lot of people leave to get work and then send money back to. I also think of Imelda Marcos and her shoes.

Of course, much of this was in the future. When war broke out, the Philippine Islands, as they were then, were an American-ruled autonomous territory, having been gained from Spain in 1898 in a war perhaps best remembered for William Randolph Hearst's sensationalising and "yellow journalism". A Commonwealth at this point, the islands were heading for independence, which was going to get rather delayed.

Certainly there had been an idea that an attack on the islands was possible in the light of US sanctions on Japan. Certainly far more possible than an attack on the United States proper at Oahu. Douglas MacArthur was called out of retirement, given $10m and 100 B-17s, then got told to prepare for an attack. He parked his bombers on the northern part of the islands, where US politicians believed they would deter Japanese aggression and allow an attack on Tokyo if required, recovering to Soviet airbases around Vladivostok.

Not a smart move, that one. Even less smart was the delay in moving the B-17s out of Japanese attack range so the bomber pilots could have a party. As they were recovering, the Japanese attack arrived and took out half of MacArthur's air force on the ground. Bad hangover doesn't quite cut it.

On the same day, the Japanese landed at three sites (Lingayen, Lamon Bay and Mindanao), taking airbases to support their drive south. The American response, which should have been a delaying action and arguably guerilla warfare, basically started off by putting inexperienced Filipino troops on the beaches against combat-hardened (in China) Japanese. Naturally, they got routed.

The advance was quick. On Boxing Day, the capital Manila was declared an open city, not that it stopped Japanese bombing and the city fell on 2 January 1942.

The Americans and Filipinos eventually retreated down the Bataan peninsula on Luzon to Corregidor, fighting delaying actions along the way including the last cavalry charge in US history. They tried to hold out for a relief force which would not show up. They certainly fought valiantly, but to no avail. 9 April 1942 would see the largest surrender of US forces in history and another month of bloody fighting saw the rest of the islands taken.

For the Americans and Filipinos that surrendered, it was the start of hell on earth. 76,000 POWs were forced to march 60 miles in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Travelling in high humidity, with little food or water, those who collapsed were often killed by bayonets, shot or even driven over. Thousands died, viewed by the Japanese as not human just because they had surrendered. It was rightly judged a war crime.

Just one of many that Imperial Japan would commit in South-East Asia, as we shall see.

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