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The Sacrifice of Bataan

Repost of original article by Mark Willey

The loss of the Philippines was the greatest defeat of the United States Army but it has not received the attention that such distinction deserves. How was it possible, with perfect knowledge of the enemy's plans and greatly superior forces, that the U.S. lost a strong defensive position?

There were four critical steps. (1) The U.S. bombers were sacrificed on the ground. (2) MacArthur prevented food, ammunition, gas and other supplies from being stored on Bataan. (3) The remaining U.S. air forces were sent away December 17 just as the main Japanese force approached in convoy without air-cover. (4) Forces had to be misplaced at Lingayen Gulf.


On the morning of December 7 (December 8 local time), hours after Pearl Harbor, MacArthur prevented air commander General Brereton from bombing Formosa. Dougout Doug further gave three conflicting orders that kept the B-17s at Clark Field on the ground most of the morning - bomb up, bombs off, bomb up. The Japanese attack was delayed because of fog. At 11:20, at the same moment that radar at Nichols Field near Manila reported a large mass of enemy planes approaching Clark from 140 miles out, MacArthur gave his final bomb-up order. MacArthur had about one hour to warn Clark and Iba Fields of the coming Japanese air attack and he did not. Instead he issued "Field Order Number One: Attack South Formosa at the latest daylight hour that visibility will permit." This order, time-stamped 11:20 A.M. but delivered at 11:45, is the one that kept the bombers on the ground at the critical moment. The bombers had to bomb up, be serviced and the crews rested for the late afternoon flight. This was the order that lost our airforce, given with full and complete knowledge that a large flight of Japanese bombers were coming in. MacArthur in his autobiography admits that "at 11:45 a report came in of an overpowering enemy formation closing in on Clark Field." *1 At 11:56 Brereton had to give a full report to MacArthur's Chief of Staff General Sutherland by phone, a way to keep both Brereton and the single phone line tied up in the critical few moments before the attack (note that Sutherland could have warned Brereton of the radar report but did not). MacArthur could control the teletype and radio but there was a danger that spotters would telephone Clark Field and warn them of the approaching planes.


MacArthur said he was going to fight on the "beaches, beaches, beaches," but this plan which is sometimes attributed to MacArthur actually was imposed on him on 18 October 1941 by General Marshall. The plan to fight on the beaches was preposterous in October but after the Navy left and the air forces were knocked out on December 8, it was suicide. On December 8, MacArthur told his Chief of Staff General Sutherland they would have to "remove immediately to Bataan." He told the same thing to Quezon four days later. *2 President Quezon also spoke against the plan to fight on the beaches. In the two weeks prior to the main Japanese invasion, MacArthur, knowing that he would have to retreat to Bataan and told this also by General Wainwright and President Quezon, refused to move supplies there. The Orange and Rainbow war plans since 1909 had included plans to move supplies to Bataan - that had been changed by Marshall on 18 October 1941. This change of defense to a plan of defending all beaches against superior forces, was not just nonsense on its face, but a deliberate sacrifice of all U.S. troops in the Philippines and of the Philippines themselves. Even on its own terms it was no plan at all. It was smoke to cover the sacrifice of the Philippines. The plan required a very large concentration of U.S. warships to defend the Philippines and Washington had ordered the Pacific fleet south, indicating that there was no plan to defend the beaches. The plan required air superiority which had been lost the first day. Early on the Japanese invaded both in the north and in the south - December 10 at Apparri and Vigan and December 12 at Legaspi. MacArthur did not even attempt to repel them, proving the "beaches" plan was a farce. That slogan was simply a ruse to prevent the supplying of Bataan. When the Japanese landed at Lingayen, MacArthur abandoned the beaches plan within two days. Some strategy! MacArthur also wouldn't invoke the Orange plan WPO-3 until December 24th after the Japanese had landed in force at 9 points. He lost 500,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, and 3,400,000 gallons of oil and gasoline plus food, clothing and medicines on the beaches. At the single depot at Cabanatuan, he left fifty million bushels of rice, enough to feed all the troops on Bataan for four years. Just 70 miles from Bataan quartermasters found 2000 cases of canned fish but were ordered directly and repeatedly by MacArthur's headquarters to abandon them or face court-martial. Besides not supplying Bataan, MacArthur went to extraordinary lengths to make sure no food was taken there. He deliberately starved his men. *3


On 24 January 1942, Bataan was ordered to send food to the already well-stocked Corregidor which had a six-months supply for 10,000 men. The men on Bataan were starving. This order was to further reduce them. *4

On February 23rd FDR made a radio address to the troops on Bataan to discourage them and inform that they would receive no relief. While Soviet Communists were being rushed billions of dollars of supplies, nothing, not even food, could be spared our men on Bataan. They were left to starve and rot. This is in stark contrast to what happened on Guadalcanal just a few months later. There submarines and fast destroyers supplied our forces and even tankers full of gasoline were sent in and grounded so the troops could be well stocked. It would have been easy to break the "paper blockade", as MacArthur called it, around the Philippines especially since we were reading the Japanese fleet code and could avoid interception. Not only submarines could have supplied Bataan, and the Asiatic Fleet stationed at Manila had the largest submarine force in the U.S. Navy, but large supply ships could have stood off in the south islands and fast coast-runners could have brought the supplies to Bataan at night. MacArthur wrote, "Since the blockade was lightly held, many medium-sized ships could have been loaded with supplies and dispatched along various routes. It seemed incredible to me that no effort was made to bring in supplies." Japanese records show that commanding General Homma, who had about half as many troops as MacArthur, was ready to give up: "If only help could have reached the Philippines, even in small form, if only limited reinforcement could have been supplied, the end could not have failed to be a success." (It is incongruous for MacArthur to complain about lack of supplies when he was responsible.) Obviously, since ships were frequently sent out from Corregidor and Bataan in the spring of 1942, MacArthur himself leaving with a flotilla of PT boats on March 11, ships could have equally well have been sent in. However, saving the 31,095 Americans on Bataan was not going to happen - it was the last thing Roosevelt wanted. Some clue to his thinking was his suggestion of surrender to MacArthur rather early on in February, "I authorize you to arrange for the capitulation of the Filipino elements of the defending forces..." This discloses intent. This was at a time when President Quezon controlled seventy-five percent of his country, the Japanese really only controlled the cities and the Japanese general was ready to give up. MacArthur did not think it was a good idea partly because Roosevelt, in typical fashion, had worded his letter so that MacArthur would take the blame. *5


The Japanese main invasion on December 22 at Lingayen Gulf consisted of three transport echelons. "The first was composed of twenty-seven transports from Takio under the command of Rear Admiral Kensaburo Hara, the second of twenty-eight transports from Mako under Rear Admiral Yoji Nishimura, the third of twenty-one transports from Keeling under Rear Admiral Sueto Hirose." This force of seventy-six transports carried the main part of Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma's 80,000 strong Fourteenth Army. MacArthur correctly predicted the landing site long in advance, probably through decoded JN-25B messages. Homma's transports were surprisingly given no air support or cover whatever. *6

With perfect timing, Washington ordered all bombers to Australia on December 17th just as the invasion forces embarked. It was vital to prevent the American bombers from wreaking havoc on this invasion force when in their vulnerable transports. As it was, the Philippine Army greatly outnumbered the Japanese and there was danger of strong resistance, particularly in light of the marked inferior quality of Japanese artillery and tanks. To give some idea of the devastation that heavy strategic bombers would have caused to the Japanese transports, MacArthur mentions that of the twelve transports that approached the Philippines on December 10 (after Clark had been wiped out), four were sunk and three damaged. The horrific slaughter our bombers would have wreaked on defenseless transports is almost unimaginable. The invasion would have been a total debacle.


MacArthur, armed with perfect intelligence of enemy intentions from codebreaking, had from December 8 to December 22 to place his troops. He misplaced his troops at the head of Lingayen Gulf and left the obvious landing zone of the 120 mile Eastern Shore lightly defended by two Filipino divisions, one of which had no artillery. Fortunately for the Japanese, when they landed they were unopposed because the Japanese landing ships foundered horribly in the surf and it took them a long time with extreme difficulty to get their men and especially tanks and artillery ashore. When the Japanese landed, MacArthur demonstrated how hollow and false the "defend the beaches" joke was and immediately ordered the retreat to Bataan on December 24.


The destruction of MacArthur's air forces on the ground after nine hours warning and direct orders to bomb Formosa was the greatest blunder the history of war and his loss of the Philippines was the greatest defeat of the U.S. Army. It is remarkable how MacArthur escaped any reprimand, kept his command and got his fourth star on December 17th and a Congressional Medal of Honor for "gallantry and intrepidity" at Bataan where he spent part of only one day, 10 January 1942, on inspection. He was awarded the medal after he had already fled and deserted his troops. His ultimate reward was orders to leave the Philippines with his family while his soldiers were subjected to the deadly brutality of the Bataan Death March.

The defense of the Philippines cannot be understood in terms of conventional military strategy. In those terms it was one incomprehensible blunder after another, done with due deliberation and afterward profusely rewarded. Just as Clauswitz said war is politics by other means, the sacrifice of the Philippines can only be understood in the larger political context. Analysis of local decisions by MacArthur, miss the point that FDR was actually calling the shots. His motivations, not MacArthur's are at issue. The sacrifice of the 31,095 Americans and 80 thousand Filipino troops with 26 thousand refugees on Bataan is a separate issue from the sacrifice of the Army Air Corps at Clark and Iba.

The bombers were sacrificed, not only to facilitate the loss of the Philippines, but more immediately to sucker Hitler into declaring war on the United States and events in the Philippines are analogous to Pearl Harbor which happened the same day. However, Hitler did declare war on December 11th and therefore obviously the sacrifice of Bataan proper springs from other motives. To understand Roosevelt's strategy we have to ask a very basic question: Cui bono? "Who benefits?" Who benefited from Japan's temporary ascendancy and the war dragging on? It was obvious that when the Japanese Empire collapsed that there would be a power vacuum in Asia. The ultimate question of the Pacific War was who would fill that vacuum. Who would take China? Roosevelt wanted Russia to fill the vacuum (cf. his actions at Yalta and How the Far East Was Lost, Dr. Anthony Kubek, 1963) and therefore had to prolong the war so the Soviet Union could pick up the pieces. Because the Soviet Union had its hands full fighting Germany and could not dominate Asia until the war in Europe was under control, delay in the defeat of Japan was necessary. Bataan was a pawn in a larger game. The Battling Bastards of Bataan never understood enough to ask the critical question - "who was their real enemy?" It was Franklin Roosevelt.

The orders to fight on all beaches and not supply Bataan were nothing less than the deliberate sacrifice of 31,095 Americans.


1 Reminiscences, Douglas MacArthur, p 117.

2 "remove immediately", Philippines the Continuing Past, R. and L.

Constantino, page 46.

3 American Ceasar, William Manchester, knew he had to go to Bataan, p 196;

Cabantuan, ibid, p 215; war plans ibid p 194; January 10, ibid, p 235;

Supplies lost, 4th star, Blood, Tears and Folly, Len Deighton, pp 570, 571;

fish, Our Last Ditch, John Whitman, 1990. pp 46-47.

4 The Continuing Past, R. and L. Constantino, p 46.

5 Reminiscences, MacArthur, p 133, 128; Guadalcanal contrast, Oil and War,

Robert Goralski and Russell Freeburg, p 157; FDR to MacArthur, Reminiscences,

p 139.

6 No air cover - Fall of the Philippines, Louis Morton, 1953, official

Army History, p 128.

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