Donald J. Young. The Fall of the Philippines: The Desperate Struggle against the Japanese Invasion, 1941/1942. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015. 220 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-9820-8.
Reviewed by Harold Winton (Air University, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies)
Published on H-War (January, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
This book’s title suggests that it is about how and why the Philippine Islands fell to the forces of Imperial Japan in the months following Pearl Harbor. It is actually a collection of seventeen stories drawn from that experience. The stories range from the first Japanese air attacks of December 8, 1941, to the surrender of the American/Filipino garrison on the island of Negros on June 3, 1942. Ten deal with ground action, five with air action, and two with naval action. Young has written previously on the pre-Midway period of World War II in the Pacific, having penned works on the surrenders of Wake Island, Bataan, Corregidor, Hong Kong, and Singapore, as well as a comprehensive history of the battle of Bataan. The present work is apparently drawn from research conducted for the earlier studies.
The author intended the various vignettes to stand alone, and they do. Each is an interesting story of the fall of the Philippines, told in the spirit of “tales around the campfire,” long on description and short on analysis. The reader, however, can tease out themes that provide unity and coherence to the book not evident in its formal structure. Among others, such themes include friction in war, courage in the face of virtually certain defeat, and the moral dilemmas of surrender.
From almost the very first moment, the defense of the Philippines was plagued by friction--the term Clausewitz uses to embrace accident, imperfection, and the unexpected in war. The American air forces in the Philippines were clearly expecting an attack. This expectation was heightened when news was received at 4:30 a.m., December 8, 1941, Manila time, that Pearl Harbor was being attacked. The 20th Pursuit Squadron was on alert at Clark Field when radar detected a flight of incoming aircraft just over a hundred miles from Luzon. Reading the approach vector, the interceptor command aircraft-warning officer judged the target to be Manila, some fifty miles southeast of Clark. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to intercept this flight. As the Japanese aircraft came closer, the warning officer deduced that both Manila and Clark Field would be attacked and sent a warning message to the 24th Operations Group at Clark. But the group commander, having previously ordered his squadrons to scramble to no avail, hesitated to order them into the air again. Thus, when fifty-three Japanese bombers arrived over the field a few minutes later, the planes on the ground were literally sitting ducks. The bombers destroyed twenty-three of the 20th Pursuit Squadron’s twenty-six planes and killed four pilots. And unlike Pearl Harbor, the infrastructure at Clark Field was ravaged.
But there was also great courage in the air fight. Six days after the devastating attack on Clark, several B-17s from the southern island of Mindanao attacked a Japanese invading force at the south end of Luzon. One, piloted by Captain Hewitt Wheless, developed engine trouble and showed up late to the fight. When he arrived the Japanese defensive air cover was fully alert. Despite this signal disadvantage, Wheless entered the fray and was almost immediately attacked by a large number of Zeros, estimated variously from fifteen to eighteen. A harrowing engagement ensued. One crew member was decapitated by enemy fire, another had a leg shredded from knee to thigh, a third found his right hand dangling loosely from his arm, and a fourth manned two guns though also wounded. Despite these casualties, the crew kept fighting, bringing down seven of their assailants.
Valor abounded on the ground as well. After the Japanese assault at Lingayen Gulf on December 22, the American/Filipino forces were inexorably forced back to the Bataan Peninsula. The question of Philippine defense in the 1920s and 30s had presented a virtually impossible conundrum. American policy required that the islands be held, but the country’s military resources were inadequate for the task. Thus, the perennial hope that the Army would be able to hold out until the Navy arrived was just that--a hope, and a forlorn one at that. The odds of success were significantly diminished by Douglas MacArthur’s calamitous decision to meet the Japanese on the beaches, rather than moving immediately to the Bataan Peninsula as called for in previous war plans. This meant that the supplies that had been so assiduously stockpiled on Bataan for a long siege had been moved north to support a forward defense. Only a small fraction made it back to the peninsula. Thus, early January 1942 found the defenders of Bataan facing what they knew would be inevitable defeat. But they fought back in the face of terrible odds, perhaps out of the discipline that made them soldiers, perhaps for the honor of their arms, and perhaps because they had little choice. One singular exemplar of this fiery spirit was Lieutenant Arthur Wermuth. Wermuth led a patrol into enemy territory to burn a village the Japanese sought to use as a staging area, led a similar effort to torch a cane field that provided concealment for an expected assault, and organized a Philippine Scout force to do the dangerous work of hunting down and killing scores of snipers who stayed behind American lines after Japanese attacks had been repulsed.
The most poignant theme of the work is the hard moral choices commanders must make when facing the decision to surrender. After the Korean War, the US Army developed a code of conduct, one article of which read in part, “I shall never surrender my men while they still have the means to resist.” This was the uncodified but operative philosophy of American commanders in World War II. It sounds straightforward--you fight until you can no longer do so, but then you may honorably surrender. One problem is determining what constitutes being no longer able to resist, and it is a complex question demanding very fine judgments. But another important consideration also intrudes in the question: “Who, exactly, are my men?” On April 8, 1942, after three months of remorseless Japanese pressure, it became clear to Major General Edward P. King, the local American commander on Bataan, that his starving, emaciated men had lost all sense of tactical cohesion and were beyond the limits of human endurance. But the authority to surrender was vested in Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright, who had succeeded MacArthur as commander of American forces in the Philippines. Thus, the soldiers on Bataan were not King’s to surrender. But in an act of tremendous moral courage, King made them so. Acting on his own initiative and without informing Wainwright, he dispatched two staff officers under white flag to make contact with the Japanese. This led to the forces on Bataan capitulating the next day. After the fall of Corregidor on May 7, Wainwright tried valiantly to limit the scope of his surrender by declaring that the American/Filipino forces on the islands to the south were under local command, not his. The Japanese would have none of this attempted evasion. Over the next month, they effectively used the soldiers and nurses captured on Bataan and Corregidor as hostages to compel the surrender of the remaining American/Filipino forces in the archipelago. During this period of intense drama and tension, each of Wainwright’s subordinate commanders faced real crises of conscience in determining the right thing to do. Perhaps nothing in war tests a commander as much as facing the decision to surrender.
In summarizing the book, one could perhaps look on it derisively as a collection of scraps left over from previous research. But as every good cook knows, a little imagination can transform scraps into a delightful meal. And so it is here--the reader has to supply much of the imagination, but the ingredients for a good read are at hand.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Harold Winton. Review of Young, Donald J., The Fall of the Philippines: The Desperate Struggle against the Japanese Invasion, 1941/1942.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|