Key point: The archipelago was a lonely outpost close to Japan and far from the United States.
“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?
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.
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.
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the islands consisted of 35 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Bombers, 107 Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters, and scores of outdated planes spread over six Luzon airfields.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.
The amphibious invasion began with a landing by one regiment of the 16th Division in at Aparri on the north shore and at Vigan on the northwestern coast. A halfhearted response by a half dozen B-17s and their Boeing P-26 Peashooter escorts failed to do any damage to the invasion fleet. Two days later, a brigade of the 16th Division put ashore at Legaspi, far to the south.
These were just preliminary moves meant to establish a beachhead and, if possible, draw American and Filipino forces away from the main landing beaches. But MacArthur would not be fooled and instead concentrated on mobilizing his army and getting his forces into the field.
After the Japanese ships easily sailed through a screen of 21 outdated American submarines, the invasion began in earnest on December 22. The 16th Division landed at Lamon Bay to Manila’s southeast, while the 48th Division landed at Lingayen Gulf, 100 miles to the north, a move anticipated by the Americans.
Facing the northern landing force was General Wainwright with the 11th and 71st Infantry Divisions (both Philippine Army) and the 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts). The Japanese easily stormed the beaches, turned the flank of the 11th Division, and advanced inland. The first heavy fighting began later that day as the 26th Cavalry entered the town of Damortis and attempted to block the Japanese advance.
The Japanese, supported by tanks and aircraft, pushed the horse-mounted 26th Cavalry out of Damortis with heavy losses; a morning muster revealed that only 175 men were left out of more than 700. The next day the Japanese moved on Rosario, which was defended by the 71st Division. It took one concerted attack by two infantry battalions and an armored regiment supported from the air to punch through the raw Filipino troops.
On December 22, 2nd Lt. Benjamin Morin’s tank platoon of the 192nd Tank Battalion (made up of National Guard members from Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Kentucky) attacked enemy forces in the first U.S. tank engagement of World War II. With his main gun inoperable, his tank disabled and on fire, the other tanks in his platoon withdrawing, and four enemy tanks bearing down on him and his crew, Morin was forced to surrender himself and his soldiers; those who survived spent the rest of the war in captivity.
By this time MacArthur had decided to fall back to the Bataan Peninsula and ordered the Philippine Division to take up positions there. In an attempt to delay the invaders, Wainwright deployed fresh troops just north of the Agno River. From right to left they were the 21st, 11th, and 91st Divisions. From this position, Wainwright conducted a successful fighting withdrawal.
A two-pronged Japanese attack with two infantry regiments on the right with the other infantry regiment and a tank regiment on the left pushed the Filipino troops behind the Agno River. The next day saw the Japanese press Wainwright hard but, dug in behind the river, the Filipinos held for two days before withdrawing on December 27. By January 1, 1942, American and Filipino forces were concentrated in the towns of Porac and San Fernando, about 15 miles north of Bataan.
While Wainwright’s North Luzon force was conducting a successful withdrawal, the South Luzon Force, now under the command of Maj. Gen. Albert Jones, was doing the same. On December 24, the Japanese 16th Division landed at Lamon Bay, linked up with units already in Legaspi, and marched north.
These forces were opposed by the 51st Philippine Infantry Division and the 1st Philippine Regiment supported by American elements, including the 192nd Tank Battalion; Jones’s South Luzon Force fell back in good order. After the 192nd conducted a successful attack against one of the Japanese tank regiments, the South Luzon Force passed through Manila en route to Bataan.
As American and Filipino forces poured into Bataan, Wainwright fought a holding action just north of the peninsula on a line running from Borac to Guagua. His main units were the battered 11th and 21st Philippine Divisions and the remains of the 194th Tank Battalion, a National Guard outfit from California.