At work I’m known for talking about Philippine history, especially in World War II, so I’m occasionally joked about over it. Awhile back some of my juniors and I were looking over news stories from around the Navy and one of them was from the USS Bataan.
I said the ship’s name out loud with proper pronunciation, “USS Bah-tah-ahn.”
One of my juniors corrected me, “It’s ‘baton.’”
“Bah-tah-ahn is its proper Filipino pronunciation,” I explained.
He asked sarcastically, “What, was it some battle in the Philippines?”
I told him with dead seriousness, “Yes. It was the largest surrender of American troops in history.”
I can’t fault him for not knowing though, as the battle is largely forgotten in the United States and isn’t taught in school history books. I was only vaguely aware of it myself until about four years ago. When it comes to the Pacific War we’re taught about Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, Coral Sea in May and the turning point at Midway in June and that’s all there is to be said about the early part of the war. But while all that was going on Americans and Filipino fought on the other side of the Pacific in what was an American territory, the Commonwealth of the Philippines. From January until April 9, 1942 they held the Bataan peninsula, tying up Japanese troops and denying them use of Manila Bay.
Today is the 72nd anniversary of the end of that battle. 80,000 troops of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), composed primarily of untrained Filipino conscripts rushed into service right before the outbreak of war, combined with Sailors without ships, airmen without airplanes, some Shanghai Marines and an elite unit of combat troops, Philippine Scouts, who had yet to fully do away with horse cavalry, fought together for four months.
The original plan for the defense of the Philippines was War Plan Orange-3. In the event of Japanese invasion it called for allowing the Japanese to take the islands without contest, immediately withdrawing all Fil-Am forces to the Bataan peninsula and holding out for six months until the US Navy and 100,000 US Army troops could swoop in and take back the islands. This plan hinged on the US Navy having ships enough to move 100,000 troops which it didn’t.
General Douglas MacArthur, USAFFE commander, instead preferred a plan of beach defense. He could raise a 100,000 man Filipino army capable of repelling the Japanese on the beaches. All he needed was time to train them. He felt by April 1942 they would be ready for the invasion whenever it came.
When the invasion came in December 1941 most Filipino troops had never fired a weapon before as mobilization didn’t begin until September. Their weapons were World War I vintage from the rifles to the artillery. Many of the old rifles had broken extractors, essentially rendering them single shot weapons like muskets. Their grenades and mortars were extremely unreliable as roughly 80% failed to explode.
MacArthur fell back on WPO-3 and his forces collapsed back into Bataan. His one real combat unit, the Philippine Scouts, took heavy losses as they played vanguard to the army’s retreat.
Writers and historians can’t seem to agree on the precise day the Battle of Bataan began, but the first rounds fired in that province were at Layac Junction on January 6, 1942. A temporary line had been formed to slow the Japanese as the main line of defense, the Abucay line was prepared. It was here in an artillery duel that Sgt. Jose Calugas, a Philippine Scout mess sergeant, earned the Army’s first Medal of Honor in World War II.
Calugas saw a battery go silent after losing its crew, so without orders he gathered some volunteers to put it back into action. He charged across 1,000 yards under intense enemy artillery fire to the cannon. The original gun crew had been hit and took casualties, it could have easily happened to Calugas but he got the gun firing again and kept firing it for the rest of the afternoon. Calugas became the first of three Scouts to earn the Medal of Honor for their bravery at Bataan.
Though they had bought time at Layac the situation in Bataan wasn’t good. The rush into Bataan was a giant disorganized mess in which it was every unit for itself. The peninsula supplies were initially set up to support a force of 40,000 troops. They had more than 100,000 military and civilians who either lived on Bataan or followed the military in, to take care of. At full rations they would have 20 days of food. The only upside to the supply situation was that there was 16 million rounds of ammunition to fight with.
Low supplies, poor training and backed into a corner with rescue three years away as opposed to the already unrealistic six months, this was only the beginning for the defenders. During the battle Bataan would receive no fresh troops and no resupply. (Submarines did bring in negligible amounts from time to time until it was deemed unsafe.) With “Europe first” and the Philippines far behind enemy lines that stretched across the Pacific, the islands and its defenders had been written off by the United States. In February President Roosevelt even ordered out their commanding officer, General MacArthur.
The Imperial Japanese Army, though numerically inferior, had superior training to their Filipino and American counterparts, ammunition that tended to detonate when fired and uncontested controlled of the air. Despite this, the defenders proved difficult to dislodge. They attempted an amphibious landing behind the USAFFE lines and were annihilated at the ‘Battle of the Points.’ When they pushed the defenders back at the main line they fell back to a secondary one, the Bagac-Orion Line. They attempted to infiltrate the line at the ‘Battle of the Pockets’ but were rooted out in close quarters combat.
An interesting footnote to the battle is that it was the last time American cavalry would charge into combat on horseback. The 26th Philippine Scouts performed the final horse cavalry charge on January 16, 1942 at the village of Morong. Their attack was successful and pushed the Japanese out of the village.
The terrain may have favored defense but disease is an equal opportunity killer and dealing with tropical ailments such as malaria and beriberi took a toll on both sides. Gen. Homma, the Japanese commander on Bataan, said that if the Fil-Am troops had counter attacked in February they could have rolled through his forces with little opposition. Unfortunately the defenders were physically incapable of mounting a counter-attack. They suffered from the same ills as the Japanese but had also been living on half then quarter rations. They stripped the province bare of edibles and any creature that wasn’t human was meat for sustenance.
There was a lull in fighting in which the Japanese received fresh troops and supplies while the defenders were slowly starved out. Some Japanese military officers argued to continue the stalemate and allow the defenders to die of starvation but Homma was already far behind his timetable. He was given 50 days to take the Philippines. It had now been four months. His failure to take the islands in a timely manner would ultimately see him forced into retirement.
The final push came April 3 with air raids, heavy artillery barrages and armor supported infantry attacks. The sick and malnourished defenders held out until April 8 with some of the last fighting at Mt. Samat. General Edward P. King, commander of the Fil-Am forces on Bataan decided there was nothing further to be gained from continued fighting and to spare his troops unnecessary death and suffering surrendered April 9, 1942. A date already significant as it was the 77th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
The exact number of troops surrendered is not known but it was in the area of 74,000-78,000. Sadly these men who’d already been through Hell would continue to suffer on the Bataan Death March. At least 70,000 men started the march, but only 54,000 made it to the POW camp, Camp O’Donnell. Nearly half the Filipinos prisoners died at O’Donnell and less than 4,000 of the 12,000 Americans there would come home alive at war’s end. They were pressed into service as slave labor, worked to death, indiscriminately killed, massacred at POW camps such as Palawan, died aboard the Hell ships and on the Japanese home islands.
Though mostly forgotten stateside there is still some memory of what happened in the Philippines, though history, no matter where you are, is mostly ignored by kids today. There is a shrine at the site of Camp O’Donnell, a memorial at Layac junction, the Shrine of Valor atop Mt. Samat where the battle ended and the Death March is uniquely remembered. It’s hard to forget what happened here when every kilometer of the Death March (mostly on Old National Road) in marked with an obelisk depicting two weary soldiers and a number denoting what kilometer of the March you’re on. In my travels I’ve had the good fortune to visit all these places and the island fortress of Corregidor too.