The Buzz

Rising Sun, Descending Darkness: How the Philippines Fell to Japan in World War II

“Finally at Corregidor there was only a little crowd of American soldiers and Filipino soldiers and American nurses at the beaches, with nothing at their backs but the waters of the Pacific, and the flag came down. Bataan and Corregidor became symbols, like Valley Forge.”

So wrote a Yank magazine correspondent in 1942, shortly after the Philippine Islands fell to the Japanese on May 6. Despite much hope, heroism, and heartbreak, in the end it was numbers that counted more than courage; Japan simply overpowered the brave defenders. It was a disaster unfolding in slow motion. The Japanese seemed unstoppable, unbeatable.

How did this all come about?

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First, the backstory. At the outbreak of World War II, the Philippine Commonwealth was an American possession and had been since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Responsibility for defending the islands fell to U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) and the fledging Philippine Army under the command of the controversial American General Douglas MacArthur.

On paper, MacArthur’s army looked strong. There were 22,000 American troops in the islands, 12,000 Filipino Scouts (who were part of the American Army), and the 1st Regular Division. There were an additional 10 Filipino reserve divisions of 7,500 men each.

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Arguably the best unit was the Philippine Division comprising the American 31st Infantry Regiment and the 45th and 57th Filipino Scout Regiments. There were also two tank battalions—the 192nd and the 194th (both National Guard units)—as well as the U.S. 4th Marine Regiment, which had recently arrived from China.

The artillery itself was old; most of the guns dated from World War I or earlier. However, the artillery officers and crews were well trained and highly motivated and during the course of the upcoming campaign would inflict severe losses on the Japanese.

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The army was divided into two important formations, the North Luzon Force, consisting of four divisions under Maj. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright IV, and the South Luzon force, two divisions commanded by Maj. Gen. George M. Parker. Another force, Maj. Gen. William Sharp’s Visayan-Mindanao Force, was composed of three divisions, almost entirely of Philippine Army soldiers. The air force defending the islands consisted of 35 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Bombers, 107 Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters, and scores of outdated planes spread over six Luzon airfields.

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, American planners correctly assumed that the main Japanese thrust in the Philippines would be directed against Luzon. Under War Plan Orange 3, American and Filipino forces were to hold Manila and Bataan, denying the harbor to the Japanese until reinforcements arrived, which was expected to take six months. Later revisions demanded by MacArthur, under a new plan called Rainbow 5, called for him to hold the entire archipelago, harass Japanese communications, mount air raids against nearby enemy bases on Formosa and in Southeast Asia, and work with the Netherlands and Great Britain to hold off the Japanese. It was an ambitious—and totally impossible—plan.

The American units were, by and large, peacetime garrison troops while, aside from the Scouts, the Philippine troops were inadequately trained. Responsibility for the Filipinos’ poor training lay with MacArthur and his staff, who trained recruits in small camps scattered throughout the islands and then sent them home rather than forming them into battalion and regimental cadres.

If MacArthur’s training schedule was bad, his vision for defense of the islands was worse.

Upon taking command in 1935, he believed he had until 1946 to build the planned army of 12 divisions and 120,000 men. More naïvely still, MacArthur stated that an invasion could be stopped with a force of 100 bombers and 36 torpedo boats. But American and Filipino troops were poorly armed, undertrained, and led by a general who failed to understand that situation. They would pay dearly.

The Japanese force tasked with taking the Philippines was not much better. The Fourteenth Army, commanded by General Masaharu Homma, numbered just two divisions supported by one brigade and one regiment—43,000 men in all. Like the Filipinos, these troops were undertrained, poorly armed, and aging. Many were, in fact, Taiwanese.

The Fourteenth Army did enjoy strong air support and a fleet of more than 60 ships, including nine cruisers and two battleships.

On December 8, 1941, the Japanese followed up their successful raid on Pearl Harbor by hitting the Philippines. A Japanese aerial force of 108 bombers and 84 Zero fighters of the 11th Air Fleet attacked Clark and Iba Airfields on Luzon. Because MacArthur had ordered his planes to be armed and fueled for an attack on Formosa, the Japanese found the airfields jammed with B-17s and P-40s. The ensuing attack destroyed 18 of the bombers and 53 fighters and as many as 30 other aircraft. The Japanese lost only seven of their own planes to American interceptors.

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