December 8, 1941
Japanese tanks rolling over Bataan.
Japan didn’t just hit Wake Island within hours of destroying Pearl Harbor.
They also attacked the Philippine Islands, where thousands of American service personnel were stationed.
However, the man in charge of the American forces in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur, expected Japan might attack. So he had already MacArthur created a plan to deal with an invasion. It was called War Plan Orange and it should have protected his 45,000 troops stationed in the islands.
Only one problem: War Plan Orange depended on reinforcements arriving from Pearl Harbor. And an air fleet.
Japan had wiped out both in its surprise attack.
Hours after Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes swooped over MacArthur’s fleet of B-17 bombers and P-40 fighters. Once again, Japan destroyed about half the fleet before it even left the ground.
Japan kept up the attack for five days.
Before December was over, Japanese General Masaharu Homma was landing his troops on the island of Luzon, where most of the Americans were stationed. Homma cleverly placed his troops in three different locations, hoping to encircle MacArthur's forces.
Realizing this new predicament, MacArthur withdrew his entire force, which also included about 65,000 native Filipinos who were fighting with the Americans. MacArthur sent everyone to the Bataan Peninsula. Look at the map below. Bataan sits on the island’s south end. From there, MacArthur hoped to launch the rest of War Plan Orange by positioning his defensive lines in five different locations.
Each line was one day’s march from the next. On paper, War Plan Orange looked brilliant. But the sudden withdrawal to Bataan had left behind many supplies that the troops desperately needed--things like food, fresh water, ammunition, gasoline, and medical supplies. MacArthur planned to hold out for six months. But now that time-frame looked very uncertain because Japanese warships had encircled the islands, blocking any help from reaching the Americans.
The Philippine Islands are located north of Australia and south of China and Japan.
Another problem for the Americans were its own forces. The troops consisted of 30,000 army and marine personnel and 15,000 air force—not nearly enough to defend against the massive Japanese military. The native Filipinos fighting on the American’s side weren’t well-trained and they lacked modern weapons—or weapons that even worked. One-quarter of the Filipino hand grenades refused to ignite. Two-thirds of their mortar rounds were duds.
But the Japanese were determinedly marching toward these men who were isolated on a southern stretch of the island.
Within a month the lack of supplies was evident. The American forces were suffering from hunger and exhaustion.
On January 8th, Japanese forces assaulted the eastern flank of one defensive line. However, the Army’s 91st Division and the 57th Infantry pushed back. Platoon leader of the 57th, Alexander R. Ninninger, even fought his way into the Japanese foxholes, armed only with a rifle and hand grenades. Fighting hand-to-hand against the enemy, Ninninger helped his unit retake the line.
When Japanese forces burst through the tropical foliage, Filipino fighter Narcisco Ortilano fired a water-cooled heavy machine gun until it died. Then he grabbed his .45 pistol and kept shooting. One Japanese soldier stabbed Ortilano with a bayonet. Ortilano continued trying to grab the enemy’s gun, even after the soldier sliced off his thumb. Finally Ortilano stabbed the enemy in the chest, swinging the bayonet just as another Japanese soldier came upon him. Ortilano shot him dead.
The Japanese continued their ruthless attacks through January and February, but the Americans fought relentlessly against them. With food running low, the Americans were placed on quarter-rations, which meant one half-meal a day. Extreme hunger drove men to eat mules that died in battle. Other men were suffering tropical diseases such as malaria and dysentery that made even standing a struggle.
Japan continued sending fresh reinforcements into the battle, growing stronger as the Americans grew weaker.
Japanese flame-thrower assaulting a bunker in the Battle of Bataan.
In Washington DC, President Roosevelt became concerned. MacArthur was America’s most experienced general in the Pacific, but he could not win against the Japanese right now. So Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave the Philippines. At first, MacArthur resisted. But finally on March 12th, the general, his family, and some other officers were shipped to Australia aboard Patrol Transport boats, or PT boats.
That left Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright in command.
As the fight for Bataan continued, Japan grew frustrated. The Americans were not giving up. Determined to end the battle, Japan added 190 artillery pieces, including field howitzers and 150-mm cannons. On April 3rd, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Japan bombed the Bataan Peninsula from one side to the other. Many parts of the peninsula turned into fiery infernos. Over the next three days—Good Friday to Easter Sunday—Japanese tanks and infantry attacked what remained of the defensive lines. Weak and ravaged, the American forces pushed back. But Japan crushed every maneuver.
On April 7th, American commanders lost contact with their forces. Roads around Bataan were crowded with fleeing refugees and retreating Filipino troops. Field commander General Edward King was looking at men so weakened from months of hunger, disease, and nonstop fighting, that they barely could lift their rifles.
On April 8th, disobeying orders, King discussed terms of surrender with Japan.
But General Homma said he would accept no terms. Either the Americans would surrender unconditionally, or the battle would continue.
On April 9th, realizing the fight could not be won, General King surrendered.
But the fight wasn’t over.
NEXT STOP: CORREGIDOR
The Malinta Tunnel headquarters in Corregidor during the Battle of Bataan
Called the “Rock,” Corregidor Island sits just off the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula. As Japanese forces stormed Bataan, America’s main command moved to Corregidor, specifically, Malinta Hill. This complex of tunnels was built in the 1920s and was basically an underground village large enough to hold the army command center, a hospital, barracks, storage facilities, and even an officer’s club.
On April 9th , when King surrendered Bataan, the Japanese forces immediately headed for the Rock. There, they employed seventy-five heavy artillery pieces, raining explosive terror on Corregidor.
Life inside the tunnel turned grim.
Supplies of drinking water were running low. Communications came and went in sporadic bursts. Japan’s constant bombardment shook the dugout walls. Surgeons resorted to using flashlights to operate because the lights inside the tunnel flickered on and off.
In just one day, the Japanese fired 16,000 artillery rounds.
By the first week of May, the American defenses were down to only a few machine gun positions and two coastal guns. Then the Japanese tanks came roaring across the island and stopped at the tunnel’s entrance.
Inside were more than 1,000 wounded men, laying in the underground hospital. General Wainwright knew that if the Japanese tanks fired on the entrance, the resulting fireball would kill everyone inside. As it was, the fighting on the island had descended into to hand-to-hand combat.
Wainwright wanted a cease-fire.
Runners were sent out with the message, telling the American soldiers to destroy all weapons.
Marine Private Ernest J. Bales was furious. “Was this what we’d spent all these damned days and nights dodging bombs for?” he later said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Wainwright also wrote to President Roosevelt:
“It is with broken heart and head bowed in sadness, but not in shame, that I report to Your Excellency that I must go today to arrange terms for the surrender of the fortified islands of Manila Bay…. There is a limit of human endurance, and that limit has long since been passed… Goodbye, Mr. President.”
The Japanese demanded unconditional surrender.
Wainwright wanted to avoid it because American troops were still fighting in other parts of the Philippines. Unconditional surrender would give Japan total control of all the islands. But with tanks armed with flamethrowers stationed right at the tunnel’s entrance, ready to fire, Wainwright had little choice.
“I was desperately cornered,” Wainwright later said. “My troops on Corregidor were almost completely disarmed, as well as wholly isolated from the outside world.”
Wainwright accepted unconditional surrender.
“That was it,” he said. “The last hope vanished from my mind.”
As Wainwright was removed from the tunnel by Japanese guards, he passed hundreds of his men. Wounded, dying, and defeated, many of them still tried to console him.
“It’s all right General,” they said. “You did your best.”
Private Edward Reamer stood near Wainwright as he was taken away.
“I could see tears on Wainwright’s cheeks,” he said. “You couldn’t look in any direction outside the tunnel without seeing a dead body. One guy was holding a Tommy gun with half his head blown off. Those guys fought right up to the tunnel, right up to the headquarters.”
After nearly five months of fighting, The Battle of Corregidor ended on May 7, 1942.
Wainwright, along with the other American forces, was taken to a Japanese prison camp, where he remained for the rest of WWII.
Douglas MacArthur was probably the most famous, and most controversial, general of WWII.
Raised in the military, MacArthur graduated first in his class at the West Point military academy. He immediately joined the US Army and quickly rose through its ranks. He served during WWI, and the, in 1924, went to the Philippines where he helped quell a rebellion.
In 1937, MacArthur retired from the army and became a military advisor to the Philippine government. But the US army called MacArthur back in 1941 and named him commander of the forces in the Far East. That same year Japan attacked the Philippines.
When Roosevelt pulled MacArthur from the Philippines, many servicemen resented the general leaving the battlefield. MacArthur realized this and soon after his departure gave a speech, addressing the issue. That speech is now known as the “I Shall Return” speech:
“The President of the United States ordered me to break through the Japanese lines and proceed from Corregidor to Australia for the purpose, as I understand it, of organizing the American offensive against Japan, a primary objective of which is the relief of the Philippines. I came through and I shall return.”
General Douglas MacArthur (front and center) when he kept his word and returned to the Philippines during WWII.
FIND OUT MORE:
Baby of Bataan: Memoir of a 14 Year Old Soldier in World War II by Joseph Quitman Johnson
Resolve: From the Jungles of WW II Bataan, The Epic Story of a Soldier, a Flag, and a Promise Kept by Bob Welch
Douglas MacArthur: Brilliant General, Controversial Leader by Ann Graham Gaines
Watch the battles in the Philippines as they unfold in this animated chronology. You’ll also hear the live news reports that were broadcast over American airwaves.
This is a video about the Battle of Corregidor, with recollections from the veterans who served there.
Back to Bataan