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General MacArthur and the Fall of Bataan and Corregidor

Photo courtesy of the National Archives

Seventy years ago, one of the greatest sacrifices of World War II was made by Filipino and American soldiers at Bataan and Corregidor. After a fierce and bitter four-month battle, Bataan fell on April 9, 1942 and Corregidor a month later on May 6. This delayed the timetable of the Japanese from occupying the entire Asia Pacific and gave the Allied forces time to marshal the forces that impeded the Japanese invasion of Australia. And yet, in the United States, this important date is not commemorated, not taught in schools.  It didn't even garner a footnote in major publications on its 70th anniversary. In this country, few people know that most of the fighting and dying were made by Filipinos. On top of this, their rights as veterans were rescinded by the US in 1946. To this day, these rights have not been fully restored.

Approximately 10,000 soldiers were killed in action in Bataan and another 800 in Corregidor.  Another tragedy of Bataan lies in the death of another 15,000 soldiers, mostly sick and emaciated, when they were forced to march some 60 miles away to their prison camp. What led to this unfortunate disaster? 

When I was growing up in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur was lionized and hailed as the savior of the Filipino people during World War II.  His unforgettable words, “I shall return” have been etched in the minds of many Filipinos, and his arrival on Oct. 17, 1944 in the shores of Leyte established his status of the conquering hero. However, if we examine MacArthur's series of decisions regarding the Filipino soldiers, nothing could be further from the truth.

In 1935, MacArthur became Field Marshall of the Philippine Commonwealth Army, as well as its Military Advisor -- with the task of creating an army in preparation for its eventual independence in 1946. So confident was MacArthur of his defense plan, that he declared: "no Chancellery in the World will ever willingly make an attempt to willfully attack the Philippines.”  On July 26, 1941, because of worsening relations with Japan, the US Congress ordered the Philippine Commonwealth Army into the service of the United States. MacArthur was placed in command of the US Forces of the Far East (USAFFE). The new recruits were only provided with a month or two of training using World War I artillery, and many were not provided proper uniforms, shoes or helmets.

A few hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, General Brereton of the Far East Air Force requested permission from MacArthur’s Chief of Staff Col. Richard Sutherland to bomb the Japanese harbor in Takao, Formosa in compliance of Rainbow 5 War Plan.  His multiple requests were withheld by MacArthur and ultimately deferred in favor of a photographic reconnaissance.  As a consequence, Japanese bombers attacked Clark Field, Nichols, and Iba Air Bases --  destroying more than half of the air force fleet that day.  

                    Photo courtesy of the National Archives

Furthermore, instead of enacting War Plan Orange #3, which provided for the prolonged defense of Luzon from the peninsula of Bataan, MacArthur ordered his men to meet the Japanese on the beachhead.  The Japanese army proved to be a formidable match, so that by December 24, MacArthur switched his plan to War Plan Orange. There was not enough time to transfer much-needed food, medicine and ammunition to Bataan. Ten million pounds of rice at Cabanatuan could not be moved out of the province, and by law, had to be destroyed instead of transported to Bataan. General MacArthur’s staff also forbade the transfer to Bataan of Japanese-owned stocks of food and clothing.  As a result, the men of Bataan only had a thirty-day supply of unbalanced field rations for 100,000 men.

Little did the men in Bataan know that their fate was already sealed on December 22, 1941 when Roosevelt and Churchill decided that their prime objective was to save Europe first. But even on February 9, 1942, President Roosevelt continued to reassure President Quezon of his support:  "So long as the flag of the United States flies on Filipino soil," Roosevelt assured Quezon, ". . . it will be defended by our own men to the death."

MacArthur's message to the troops was also a promise of aid and a call to valor. "Help is on the way from the United States," he had said. "Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes are being dispatched. The exact time of arrival of reinforcements is unknown as they will have to fight their way through...." Help and relief never came. MacArthur made only one recorded visit to the Bataan front, earning him the name “Dugout Dug”.  

The desolate men of Bataan called themselves the “Battling Bastards of Bataan”.  A poem was written by American correspondent Frank Hewlett in 1942: 

We’re the battling bastards of Bataan

No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam

No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,

No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces

And nobody gives a damn

Nobody gives a damn.

In 1979, historian Carol Petillo discovered a memorandum from the papers of chief of staff General Sutherland, revealing a conveyance of $640,000 made in January 1942 from the Philippine Treasury to the personal bank accounts of MacArthur and his immediate staff.  Philippine Commonwealth President Quezon provided MacArthur a bonus of 46/100 of 1% of the defense spending up to 1942, and yet the Filipino troops were not provided proper uniforms, shoes, or even helmets.   

Most books written about Bataan are from an American perspective.  Some even deride the Filipinos’ role.  In the April 2007 issue of America in WWII,  a division commander reported, “the native troops did only two things well. One, when an officer appeared to yell attention in a loud voice, jump up and salute; the other, to demand three meals per day.”

The voices of the Filipino soldiers who served in Bataan and Corregidor are slowly fading into silence.  Will they ever receive justice?  Will they ever get their due glory? 

***

Cecilia Gaerlan is a Bay Area playwright based in Berkeley, California.  She has recently adapted for the stage her debut novel In Her Mother's Image. During the past year she has been creating awareness of the Fall of Bataan and the Bataan Death March in a series of lectures.

7 comments

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Peter Parsons wrote 2 years 23 weeks ago

Cecillia Gaerlan's article

While you are spewing the trite invectives on MacArthur, it might do everyone some good to look at the role of Quezon in all this. The recommendations for defense spending were not funded by MLQ. Instead he spent money on monuments to himself and even created a new capital of the country--Quezon City. If the men had no shoes it was more likely a problem that emanated from this colossal ego--the "First of the Worst" Filipino presidents, and the champion of all balimbings. The Filipino soldiers and later the guerrillas wrote a testament to bravery throughout the islands. MacArthur always lauded them. Do not blame this intelligent soldier for problems and faults of politicians. The US president and the Gen Marshall were lying to MacArthur--he was as deceived as the men on Bataan. Gaerlan has merely fallen into the easy trap of revisionists.

Cecilia wrote 2 years 23 weeks ago

MacArthur and Bataan

Thanks so much for your interest on this topic! It is my hope that people will become aware of Bataan and its place in history. MacArthur became Field Marshall of the Philippine Commonwealth Army at the end of 1935 and yet by July 1941 when this army was absorbed the U.S. Army (USAFFE), only 40% of the initial conscription target was reached. The veterans that I have spoken to or whose books I have read all attest to the zeal and patriotism of the Filipinos which more than made up for the lack of training (some were conscripted only a month or 2 before December 8, 1941, some even after!). Please bear in mind that Singapore fell after a week, Indonesia almost immediately. Only the Filipinos stood by the Allied Forces.
Recently, I met a writer who has written about World War II in the Pacific and I asked him why no Filipinos were interviewed on the section on Bataan, even though most of the fighting and the dying were borne by the Filipinos. Most of the film documentaries only feature American perspective. Perhaps, it is high time to examine it from both Filipino and American perspectives.
In fairness, the Philippine Commonwealth government is also to blame for this tragedy, including some government officials who colluded with the Japanese. But the lack of preparation, tactical errors and utter deceit led to the starvation and illness of the soldiers which was the main reason why there were more deaths during the Bataan March than during the actual battle.
Thank you again for your interest. Let us keep the conversation going in memory of the sacrifices in Bataan.

LTE wrote 2 years 24 weeks ago

He did return

"What led to this unfortunate disaster? "
.
The Philippines was considered a lost cause to the United States just as the British considered everything east of India a lost cause. Australia avoided this fate due to the vigorous efforts of it's Prime Minister John Curtin who made the case to Franklin Roosevelt that if Australia is lost the Japanese could easily get to the US west coast.
.
As for the disaster, I am not sure MacArthur could be blamed for the troops not having shoes and for battle plans, any general will tell you they all go to hell once the first bullet gets fired. He felt the bombing of Formosa couldn't be done due to weather and his plan to meet the Japanese on beach faltered when the troops didn't perform as he had hoped. MacArthur himself felt 1941 was not his finest hour and when given the Medal of Valor said he was accepting it as recognition of the courage of the men who fought under him.
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The early days of WW2 went badly for the US and the Philippines was one of several set backs.

Bernard Feder wrote 2 years 24 weeks ago

General Douglas MacArthur

Cecilia--
Thank you for the first accurate appraisal of Douglas MacArthur I have come across.
At the end of WW 2, I was a member of a 50-man team that had been training for two years for a mission that was disclosed to us on the day Japan surrendered. We were to penetrate into the island of Kyushu two days before the scheduled invasion of the Japanese islands on November 2, 1945, and destroy the Japanese radar installations.
Since we had no further mission at the end of the war, we were sent to Tokyo and assigned to various tasks. I was one of the three supervisors of GHQ signal operations. I like to joke that I served directly under MacArthur; his office was on the fourth floor of the Dai Ichi Building; signal operations was on the third floor.
All of this was leading up to a question that somebody in the AHA may be able to answer.
Most communications we received were in code. One day, an operator at one of the radio-teletype stations called me over to see what was being printed in clear English: the letter in which Admiral Chester Nimitz relinquished his command of the Seventh Fleet. I instructed the operator to finish the communication, then ask for a repeat because the original had not come through in its entirety.
I still have the original radio-teletype, which is badly faded and may disappear eventually. I offered to donate the original to the World War II museum, in return for a duplicate of the restored document, but never heard back.
Does anyone have suggestions? I would gladly donate it to some organization for a copy of the restored document.

Victoria Yue wrote 2 years 24 weeks ago

Restoration

Cecilia -- Really wonderful article.

Bernard, you can try contacting Preservation or Conservation staff at the National Archives in return for a restored copy. Email pres...@nara.gov, and hopefully they will be able to help you. Best of luck!

Lin Yang wrote 2 years 24 weeks ago

Corregidor is arguable cooler than Pearl Harbor

Corregidor is definitely one of the most haunting historical sites in the Philippines, with huge guns still mounted in their placements and pointed towards Bataan. Definitely worth a visit, and worth remembering.
Terry Bautista wrote 2 years 24 weeks ago

Keeping History Alive - Filipinos and WWII

Cecilia, many thanks for your great effort to underscore the contributions of the fighting Filipinos during WWII. This war was pivotal in raising our stature as equals to the U.S. after a half century of deferential treatment following the brutal colonization of our homeland, the untenable status of "nationals" who faced racism while striving for Philippine sovereignty prior to the Commonwealth, and finally U.S. citizenship. That war and its horrors have yet to be understood fully by the Baby Boomer generation whose lives were impacted directly at a time when we were taught to be grateful to the Americans. Yet the complexities of world war and the subtext of multi-layered stories cannot be appreciated unless we also tell our stories from our perspective. We became "little brown brothers", we stood tall to defend the Philippines and fought valiantly under the U.S. flag. We gave a damn!

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