The Battle of Bataan: America's Incredible World War II New Year's Defeat

January 7, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: PhilippinesWorld War IIJapanDefenseHistoryMilitaryTechnology

The Battle of Bataan: America's Incredible World War II New Year's Defeat

The forgotten “day of infamy.”


Last month, in a solemn ceremony at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, President Obama and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe revisited the scene of what in America is known as the “Day of Infamy,” in which 2,400 American service members lost their lives and the United States plunged into the Second World War. At the event, President Obama said that “the sacrifice made here, the anguish of war, reminds us to seek that divine spark that is common to all humanity.” Emphasizing the same point, Prime Minister Abe warned, “We must never repeat the horrors of war again.” As bad as U.S. casualties were at Pearl Harbor, the first real carnage was suffered by U.S. troops in the Philippines began seventy-five years ago this week, January 2, 1942, with the fall of Manila. The Philippine capital’s loss baptized the United States into its first experience with the “anguish of war” that President Obama referred to: the battle of Bataan.

The Japanese strategic plan had been to strike a crippling blow against the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor that would prevent the effective operational use of the Navy for a long time, allowing Japan’s forces to run the table capturing the rest of the Pacific rim without interference from the U.S. Navy or planes. To keep the American war effort reeling, the Japanese launched a coordinated strike against the U.S. base in the Philippines beginning the day after Pearl, December 8, 1941. Japanese ground troops landed on December 22 and began driving on the capital city, Manila.


The American ground and air forces defending the island were woefully unprepared for modern warfare. They had been given mostly obsolete equipment, and insufficient quantities even of that. U.S. commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur had approximately nineteen thousand U.S. troops defending the island nation, yet most of these were artillerymen, air crews, mechanics of various types, sailors and support staff—very few trained infantry or armor troops. The Philippine troops that defended their nation alongside the U.S. troops were brave and fought heroically, but they were ill-trained and equipped even more poorly than the U.S. soldiers.

The Japanese maneuver units that invaded the Philippines, however, were high quality combat troops, had been thoroughly trained for the mission prior to debarking, and were fully equipped with effective and modern weapons. Further, because of the devastation suffered at Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops had virtual air supremacy and unrivaled naval support. In short, however gallantly the Americans and Filipinos fought, they had virtually no chance. Just how badly they would be mauled in the initial attack, however, is still hard to fathom.

As the Japanese had sought to destroy the U.S. Navy in a surprise blow on Pearl, they sought to destroy the U.S. airpower on the ground in the Philippines. Given that U.S. military intelligence had been aware for many weeks prior to the attack that a Japanese strike was possible, it was troubling how unprepared the defenses were. Moreover, there was almost a half-day between the attack on Pearl and the initial assault on the Philippines’ Clark Air Field. Yet in addition to inadequate training and poor equipment, a series of blunders served to doom the United States to the opening attacks.

Early in the morning on December 8, a force of 108 Japanese bombers and eighty-four Zero fighters attacked Clark Field. Most of the U.S. fighters and bombers were on the ground, freshly refueled. When the first waves of Japanese attacks began, U.S. antiaircraft batteries opened up—but their shells exploded between two thousand and four thousand feet below the enemy planes. Some of the American’s three-inch guns, stocked with ammunition manufactured in 1932, had as many as five misfires in every six shells fired. The United States Army Center for Military History published a painfully detailed after-action report, entitled “The Fall of the Philippines,” in 1952. Of the initial attacks, the authors wrote:

After the warning of the Pearl Harbor attack, and after the loss of several valuable hours because of bad weather, the Japanese pilots did not expect to find so rich a harvest waiting for them. But they did not question their good fortune. . . . Then came the explosions, hundreds of them, so violent that they seemed to pierce the eardrums and shake the ground. Throwing aside momentary disbelief and stupefaction, the men rushed to their battle stations. The scene was one of destruction and horror, unbelievable to the men who only a few minutes before had been eating lunch or servicing the planes.

The United States would not recover from the blow in time to prevent the Japanese from taking the entire island. After just the first day of battle, “the [U.S.] Far East Air Force had been eliminated as an effective fighting force,” lamented the Army report. After the Japanese air wings returned to their bases, eighteen B-17 bombers had been destroyed, fifty-three P-40s and three P-35s had been destroyed, and approximately thirty other aircraft. Even the fighters and bombers that had survived the day were badly damaged and in need of repairs. The total cost to the Japanese air forces? Seven fighters.

Once the U.S. Navy and Air Forces had been crippled, the Japanese ground forces could not be stopped from capturing the remainder of the Philippines. Despite the many heroic actions of the U.S. and Philippine troops, they finally succored in April 1942 when the United States surrendered to the Japanese. This did not stop American and Filipino suffering, however.

An estimated thirty thousand Americans were killed or wounded during the battle for the Bataan peninsula, culminating in the fall of Manila. A staggering seventy-five thousand U.S. and allied Philippine troops were taken prisoner by Japan and sent on the infamous death march from Mariveles, on the southern end of the peninsula, to San Fernando, some sixty-five grueling miles away. During the trip as many as twenty-six thousand Philippine soldiers and 1,500 more Americans died of starvation, dehydration, malaria, or just being beaten to death by sadistic Japanese guards.

The Japanese victory would be short-lived, of course, as General MacArthur returned to lead an American-Philippine counterattack that liberated the country in 1945. But one has to wonder what might have happened in the Pacific War had the U.S. defenses been better manned, equipped and trained in the months prior to the attack.

If the air forces had likewise placed themselves in a better defensive posture, it is conceivable the Philippines might never have fallen. Had the Americans retained control of that strategic location, the Japanese advance throughout the Pacific might never have extended as far as it did, and the war in the Pacific culminated much sooner.

Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.

Image: Mk.A Whippet tanks used by Imperial Japanese Army. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain