FIGHTING FOR MCARTHUR: The Navy and Marine Corps’ Desperate Defense of the Philippines

John Kenneth Galbraith once observed that “immortality can always be assured by adequate error,” and to his list of great  men legendary for their mistakes—Richard Nixon and William Westmoreland come to mind—we must add GEN Douglas MacArthur. Like Westmoreland’s, MacArthur’s sublime gifts as a tactical leader did not translate to success in theater command. America’s defense of the Philippines from December 1941 to May 1942, for which MacArthur was responsible, was a failure.

Author Dr. John Gordon is a retired Army officer and now a defense analyst in Washington; if only he wrote with the eye of the former rather than the plodding detail of the latter. The book neither broadens nor deepens scholarship on the dawn of World War II, but reads as a series of after-action reports linked by action verbs, heavy on endless to-the-last-rifle lists of weapons, men, vehicles, units, radios, hour-by-hour unit movements (though a vexing lack of maps), and precise combat losses. This account is light, though, on insight into the central issue: why did Douglas MacArthur behave as he did?

As with every story in which he is involved, MacArthur is at its center. Recalled to active duty as a three-star in 1941 and placed in charge of the Philippines’ defense, he refused to integrate Army air forces with those of the Navy, sneering to the admirals that his planes would not work for a force of “such combat inferiority as your command.” Japanese bomber pilots proceeded to destroy half of the Army aircraft in the Philippines on the first day of the fight, and by day two the Japanese had combat superiority aloft, at sea, and ashore—Cavite Navy Yard in flames, Luzon abandoned, airfields systematically destroyed, American ships sortied to open sea from the now untenable Manila Bay, admirals covered in blood from rescuing wounded sailors themselves. We forget today that the Japanese were then an amphibious force whose techniques and equipment a young “Brute” Krulak had admired. By the end of December 1941 the Japanese had put nearly 100,000 men across the beaches into the Philippines, and they marched into Manila on 2 January 1942.

The 4th Marine Regiment, the legendary China Marines who had been in Shanghai since 1927, had escaped China just ahead of the Japanese and had moved to the Bataan Peninsula to join the fight. Navy sailors, “perhaps two-thirds of who[m] knew which end of the rifle to present to the enemy,” were sent ashore as a bewildered provisional infantry to work for these Marines under an unusual “naval battalion” fighting construct. Marines are used to going aboard ship, but less accustomed to ensigns as rifle platoon commanders. Those sailors, however, acquitted themselves well, and after only a day or two of training followed Marine units into the hills to take the fight to the Japanese.

As the Philippines fell, MacArthur’s assertions to George Catlett Marshall ranged from the horrifying (“I intend to fight it out to complete destruction”) to the deluded and self-referential (“I broke contact with the enemy without the loss of a man or an ounce of material”) to the outright false (“the situation is now stabilized . . . the immediate danger is over”). In February 1942, in the most infamous action of an infamous career, MacArthur fled the Philippines with wife, child, nanny, and five generals in tow, leaving Army MG Jonathan Wainwright in extremis against both Japan and Washington.

Wainwright, with nowhere else to go, led his North Luzon Force in full retreat south along the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese trapped him against the sea, and Wainwright’s men began ferrying across Manila Bay to the tiny atoll of Corregidor. Of his roughly 87,000 American and Filipino troops, some 12,500 made it across, starving, exhausted, sick, and scared. The rest were killed or, worse, captured on Bataan and marched into the ugliest chapter of the Pacific war. The defenders of Corregidor held until May, and then to the last man met the same fate. In a moment that strikes to this day at the soul of all Marines, the 4th Marine Regiment’s colors were ceremonially burned on Corregidor on 6 May 1942, and at that moment the China Marines ceased to exist.

Douglas MacArthur lost the Philippines, destroyed the relationship between Army and Navy and, foreshadowing Korea, visited the actual battlefield one time. Men under his command starved due to his outright lies to Marshall about his force totals and subsequent insufficient supply. He ignored the Japanese cerclage tightening around the Philippines and drove the senior admiral—who had dared tell the truth to Washington—out of theater and into bitter retirement. MacArthur’s closed inner circle of yes-men and his changing of facts to suit his narrative would reach full ugly flower at Dai-Ichi 10 years later, with many more men at stake.

It is a mark on the legacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Catlett Marshall that MacArthur’s career was not stopped here, before it became unstoppable. Rather than be relieved of his command and forced into retirement in disgrace, as was warranted, Douglas MacArthur was instead awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Philippines. These were thus the errors of an immortal.

The fine and soldierly Jonathan Wainwright almost starved to death in a Japanese prison camp until freed by the Soviets in 1945, whereupon he was awarded a fourth star. He, too, was awarded the Medal of Honor, despite MacArthur’s active and appalling attempt to deny it to him. Today we see Wainwright in the famous 2 September 1945 photo aboard the USS Missouri (BB 63), a skeletal, ghostly figure left of center. Center front, though, is the immortal American proconsul accepting the instrument of Japanese surrender—five-star General of the Army Douglas C. MacArthur.


ISBN 1612510574, 461 pp.
$32.95 (Member $29.65)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Failure Rewarded