Thursday, November 8, 2012

Bataan - Road of Horrors

Long before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, bringing the United States into the war, hostilities were in the works. Although the December attack on the Hawaiian naval base was a surprise in terms of its exact timing, both sides knew that war was probable, if not inevitable. Military planners had been anticipating some such conflict since the mid-1930's.

Even earlier, military preparedness planners had considered it necessary to be ready for a Pacific naval war. Historian Russell Weigley notes that U.S. unpreparedness for such a war was considered to be so problematic,

especially after the Washington Treaty of 1922, that the planners of the twenties and thirties never had much confidence in their handiwork. The Army planners felt little hope that the garrison of the Philippine Islands could hold out, even in such a restricted area as the Bataan Peninsula and the island of Corregidor, until the fleet arrived with reinforcements.

Almost twenty years in advance, it was known that American and Filipino forces would face almost certain defeat in the face of Japanese attack. And that's what happened. Timed to happen quickly after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines began on 8 December 1941. Historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski write that

the defense of the Philippines depended upon the Asiatic Fleet, the Far Eastern Air Force of about 140 aircraft, 31,000 American and Filipino regulars, 100,000 Filipino levies, and the fertile brain of Douglas MacArthur. None proved adequate to meet the Japanese invasion. Through command lapses that still defy explanation, the majority of the AAF bomber and fighter force burned to junk on the ground from a bombing attack on December 8. The remaining planes and the Asiatic Fleet could not stop invasions throughout December in both northern and southern Luzon, and the Navy fell back to join the Anglo-Dutch squadron defending the Malay Barrier. MacArthur himself did not enjoy one of his finest hours in command, for, alternating between romanticism and despair, he threw his feeble ground forces against the Japanese army rather than retreat immediately to the Bataan peninsula according to plan. By the time his battered forces eventually reached Bataan, they had already suffered serious losses; more importantly, they had abandoned their food, supplies, and munitions that might have prolonged their resistance or at least reduced their subsequent suffering. Under field conditions that beggar the mind, the Philippine army fought until early April 1942. Disease, malnutrition, and ammunition shortages doomed Bataan's staunch defenders. Their comrades on Corregidor Island resisted an additional month, then General Jonathan Wainwright, who assumed command after FDR ordered MacArthur to Australia, surrendered the remaining forces throughout the Philippines. Thousands of American and Filipino servicemen and civilians faded into the mountains to form guerilla units that harassed the Japanese for four years. Wainwright cabled Washington, "With profound regret and with continued pride in my gallant troops, I go to meet the Japanese commander. Good-bye, Mr. President."

The American-Filipino force had held out as long as possible. Indeed, very quickly after Pearl Harbor, the senior officers in the United States military knew that they would need to devote maximum effort to the defense of the Philippines, and they knew exactly as certainly that such a defense was doomed to failure. Historian Michael Korda describes how two brilliant minds, Eisenhower and Marshall, stood at the center of this complex, stressful, and historic moment. General Eisenhower, at that time reporting to General George Marshall, drafted a strategic overview of the situation in the Pacific for Marshall:

He faced the painful facts: no major reinforcements could reach the Philippines without the protection of the battleships of the Pacific Fleet, which still lay smoldering at Pearl Harbor. The first priority must therefore be to set up a secure base in Australia, and "to procure a line of communications leading to it," which meant moving instantly to save Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, and New Caledonia, even at the risk of further Japanese advances elsewhere. (This conclusion may seem obvious now, since we know that the plan succeeded, but nobody else at that time had reached it, stated it clearly, or proposed to make it America's first and most immediate priority.) In the meantime, every effort had to be made to supply the American and Philippine troops by air and submarine for as long as possible, "although the end result might be no more than postponement of the inevitable."

Committing effort to what was probably a lost cause had two reasons: first, a moral statement to the civilians and soldiers of the Philippines and to the American troops; second, it kept the Japanese military tied up. General Eisenhower presented his ideas to General Marshall:

When Ike went back in to present Marshall with his conclusions, he finished by saying, "General, it will be a long time before major reinforcements can go to the Philippines, longer than any garrison can hold out with any driblet assistance, if the enemy commits major forces to their reduction. But we must do everything for them that is humanly possible. The people of China, of the Philippines, of the Dutch East Indies will be watching us. They may excuse failure but they will not excuse abandonment."

American forces, already reduced by the Pearl Harbor attack, were stretched thin, attempted to establish a base in Australia, protect lines of communication and supplies across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean, and strengthen the defenders of the Philippines. Marshall agreed with Eisenhower's assessment of the situation, and agreed to Eisenhower's plan of action:

Marshall merely replied, "I agree with you. Do your best to save them," and sent Ike off to begin the process of building up a base in Australia, while getting anything he could to the Philippines. In effect, Marshall had asked Ike for his recommendations, and then given him the task of carrying them out.

The various branches of the United States military do not automatically operate in harmony. Different officers have conflicting ideas of what should be done. It is incumbent on the high command to create harmony, hopefully by persuasion, but if necessary by direct orders.

One of Ike's first moves was to overrule the Navy, which after Pearl Harbor had wanted to recall all the supply ships on their way to the Philippines to United States ports, and send them on to Australia instead, guarded by the cruiser Pensacola. Ike worked closely with Marshall, drafting many of the Chief of Staff's most crucial messages, many of which dealt with the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Philippines. MacArthur's plan to "stop the enemy on the beaches" of the Philippines had failed from the first moment - at the first sight of the Japanese landing on the beaches, the Philippine soldiers threw down the newly issued Enfield rifles that Ike had procured for them, and ran.

Prior to working for Marshall, Eisenhower had worked for MacArthur in the Philippines, and so understood the situation exactly.

Ike was, unsurprisingly, clearheaded on the subject of MacArthur. The Philippines was a lost cause, and in his opinion MacArthur should fight it out to the end, with whatever help could reach him - Ike, when the time came, would be against evacuating MacArthur from Bataan, and also against awarding him the Medal of Honor - and then surrender. He drafted Marshall's calm and fact-filled replies to MacArthur's complaints that no supplies were reaching him and that he and the Philippines were being abandoned. Ike also had a hand in drafting Roosevelt's reply to an angry, anguished plea from President Quezon - with the support, rather surprisingly, of MacArthur, who had swung from improbable optimism to describing the situation as "about to be a disastrous debacle" - to let the Philippines be granted immediate independence and be "neutralized," with the immediate removal of both American and Japanese troops.

The end was inevitable, and clear to everyone except FDR. While even MacArthur saw the defeat coming, Roosevelt would be shocked to learn of it. The exchange with the Filipino president, and the agreement between Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Marshall about the fate of the Philippines

brought home at last, even to optimists like the president, "the very somber picture of the Army's situation" and the possibility of a major defeat there. This picture was shortly to be confirmed by the news that Manila had fallen and that MacArthur had retreated to Bataan, where 15,000 American and 65,000 Filipino troops were trapped. In his reply to Quezon, Roosevelt rejected Quezon's proposal as unacceptable, and pledged that "so long as the flag of the United States flies on Filipino soil ... it will be defended by our own men to the death," an answer which infuriated Quezon. Roosevelt's cable to MacArthur ordered him to fight on "so long as there remains any possibility of resistance," and said, even more uncompromisingly: "The duty and necessity of resisting Japanese aggression to the last transcends any other obligation now facing us in the Philippines." MacArthur's belief that he had been "betrayed" by Roosevelt, Marshall, and Ike, who had promised reinforcements and supplies and then withheld them or routed them elsewhere is not borne out by the facts. True, the president made optimistic promises; and true, Marshall did his best to make the tone of his messages more encouraging than Ike's very much bleaker drafts. But in the absence of a fleet and an air force to protect them, no significant number of supply ships could have reached the Philippines in time to change the outcome, and it seems unlikely that so experienced a commander as MacArthur did not know this.

MacArthur, in any case, seemed to waffle back and forth between accepting his fate and denying it. After the inevitable defeat of American and Filipino forces, and the fading of those in the heart of the larger islands into guerilla forces, the most tragic fate, as the Washington Times reports, befell the force on Bataan,

the 30-mile peninsula that bounds Manila Bay on Luzon, largest of the 7,000-island Philippine archipelago, a U.S. dependency in 1941. Within hours of striking Pearl Harbor, Japan launched another surprise attack here. Unable to repel the invaders, American and Filipino defenders soon fell back to the natural bastion of Bataan and its island redoubt, the “rock” of Corregidor.

The Japanese had an easy time defeating the Americans who had retreated to a peninsula, without any naval craft for evacuation. It became clear at this point that the POW's would receive treatment which was neither humane nor human.

Then came the inevitable, humiliating surrender and infamous Death March, in which GIs were herded north for 60 miles — nonstop without food, water or rest en route. Prisoners who fell by the wayside were dispatched by bayonet. They were beaten, stabbed, shot, beheaded, chained together and toppled into a ravine.

This was merely the prelude to torture and atrocities which are almost beyond description. The American soldiers who

fought valiantly against suicidal waves of Japanese troops — and against starvation, fatigue, jungle heat, tropical diseases and volcanic terrain

would now face more painful, more humiliating, and more dispiriting circumstances, sadistically inflicted upon them by the Japanese.

Japan’s high command, driven by monocultural certitude, regarded westerners as a race apart, a race beneath. Further, since Japan never signed the Geneva Convention, she ignored its proscriptions against torture and executions.

The Bataan peninsula fell into Japanese hands on April 9, 1942, when the Americans surrendered. More than 60,000 Filipino and 15,000 American prisoners of war were forced into the infamous Bataan Death March. Thousands of Filipino soldiers, and hundreds of American soldiers, died as they marched to the camp where they would be held as POW's. The route was approximately 80 miles, and the prisoners received neither food nor water nor rest. At the end of the march, they were herded into boxcars and taken the last few miles by train to the camp.

The Bataan Death March came to symbolize many of the other atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers during WWII in the Pacific. The torture and inhumanity remains shocking and gruesome to this day.