Douglas MacArthur’s “Strategic Withdrawal”

By February 17, effective resistance to the Japanese invasion on Sumatra ceased. Two days later, Japanese troops from the Celebes came ashore on Bali. That same date, the 19th, Japanese began landings in Portuguese Timor, and Nagumo launched his massive strike toward Port Darwin, Australia. One hundred fifty aircraft, including shore-based bombers stationed in the Celebes, struck their targets on the north coast of the continent during midmorning with devastating effectiveness.

With the Australians reeling from the attack, the Japanese returned their attention to finishing off Java, the last hope the Allies had in halting the Japanese juggernaut. It was to Java via Australia that many of the aircraft originally promised to MacArthur were destined.

The Philippine defenders who were privy to the incoming news about the fate of the P-40s aboard the Langley and the Sea Witch knew with little doubt they were on their own.

By the end of February, MacArthur no longer sent hopeful messages to the front. He was no longer in denial. The promises made by Washington would not come to fruition. But MacArthur continued to send them a flurry of cables. A total of 142 communiqués sent by the general pleaded for help and recounted the success he was having in holding out. Of those, 109 mentioned only one soldier, Douglas MacArthur. In reality, given the gloom all over the region, the general had to consider the worsening strategic situation in all of the South Pacific as hopeless. He now looked to the future, his own, by browbeating sickly President Quezon into agreeing to rehire him as Philippine field marshal after the war at the same inflated pay and allowances he was currently receiving.

In March, the U.S. Navy sortied again. Vice Admiral Halsey took the Enterprise to sea, and on March 4 struck the Marcus Islands, 650 miles west of Wake and only 1,000 miles from Tokyo. Meanwhile, not a single ship was making its way west to support the Philippines.

Somehow, through all of this chagrin, MacArthur’s men were making a better stand of it than had the British in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Sumatra, and now Java. Both Percival in Singapore and MacArthur in the Philippines had the advantage of manpower over the Japanese, but MacArthur had fewer aircraft, and his munitions and arms were inferior as was the level of training and experience of his men. Percival’s warehouses had been full of food, and reinforcements had arrived. The Americans and Filipinos on Bataan, however, were putting up a gallant effort while on starvation rations and without military reinforcements. Several steamers, the Legaspi among them, did bring four days of rations to Corregidor,4 but additional food reserves intended for the starving infantry fighting on Bataan were diverted by MacArthur to Corregidor, where no time was wasted consuming them.

The U.S. Navy was still unwilling to risk sending a convoy, opting only to send in a meager supply of munitions via submarine. Part of the reason the troops were holding out on the peninsula was due to the confidence they had that help was coming according to the directions that emanated from Lateral No. 3. Now, that confidence was beginning to falter.

Three times MacArthur refused to evacuate Corregidor, electing to remain in command on the Rock. Roosevelt and the Washington general staff knew they could abandon the Filipinos, but to have MacArthur, a national hero, go down with them would not sit well with the public. As for MacArthur, he had no illusions about his own chances of surviving in defeat. He was 62 years old, the war was just beginning, and the Allies were losing on all fronts. It would be many, many years before he might be released from captivity. To remain to the end on Corregidor and surrender to the Japanese augured a likely death sentence for MacArthur. But his stock purchase, acceptance of the $500,000 bonus (which he kept secret at the time), and his request to Quezon that he be rehired at the end of the war indicate that at least somewhere in MacArthur’s thoughts was the idea that he had no intention of going down in glory with his troops.

General Marshall radioed from Washington that a submarine would be sent for Jean and little Arthur along with the Quezons. Upon hearing of the plan, Jean rejected it. Speaking about her relationship with Douglas, Jean remarked to Mrs. Quezon, “We have drunk from the same cup.” Then indicating her son, Arthur IV, she added, “We three shall stay together.” When she made her wishes known to Douglas, he radioed Marshall that his family would share “the rigors of war.” Then he asked his advisor Huff to find some ammunition for a small derringer MacArthur had inherited from his father. Somehow Huff soon came up with two of the odd-sized rounds needed. Though MacArthur might flee, he was prepared to avoid capture.

During the third week of February, the Quezons and High Commissioner Sayre departed Corregidor via submarine. MacArthur sent along a footlocker filled with personal family items, some stocks and bonds, photographs, and several magazine articles about himself which Jean had saved. The locker was addressed to the Riggs National Bank of Washington, where it was to be held until the general or his heirs claimed it.

It was one thing to lose a heroic leader in a lost cause, but by adding his family to it, MacArthur had upped the political ante. General Marshall in Washington now pushed for the evacuation of MacArthur, no matter what the method. The legendary general had to be saved

On February 23, a cable was received ordering the general to proceed to Mindanao, where he was to investigate the feasibility of defending that island, then depart for Melbourne to assume command of all U.S. troops in the South Pacific. MacArthur debated his response, then replied that he would agree to his withdrawal, but asked for a delay to choose the right “psychological time.” Washington concurred. Four days passed while MacArthur considered his exit. If he left by submarine, there would be room for precious few aboard, namely he, his wife and son, and possibly a few others could be squeezed aboard. But whom would he choose? In the end, he would be saving his own skin. To slip a B-17 onto the island or one of the Bataan fields would have an even worse effect, a highly visible departure. If nothing else, MacArthur was a great tactician, and a plan began to jell in his mind.

On March 1, he ordered his entire remaining P-40 force at Kindley Field on Corregidor, four aircraft, to fly top cover over Manila Bay while he tried out his theory. He then had his remaining Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three commander sail the three miles to Corregidor in one of his PT-boats from the small fishing dock where they were moored at Sisiman Bay, Bataan. At the North Dock of the Rock, bearded lieutenant commander John D. Bulkeley arrived, looking for all the world like a swashbuckling privateer. He and his crew picked up MacArthur and Jean. Together they made a quick circuit of the relatively calm waters of the bay, while the general determined how Jean might deal with a long voyage in the boat. Though she got queasy, she insisted she could make it. That sealed the deal. MacArthur forbade future sorties by any of Bulkeley’s PT squadron.

There were four PT-boats available. If all were utilized, they would be a force to be reckoned with should they encounter surface resistance in the form of Japanese warships, and more importantly, they could carry a large contingent of personnel. If MacArthur showed up in Australia, virtually alone, he would assume command of a staff of strangers, many of whom would likely consider him a leader who had deserted his troops, regardless of his having been ordered to do so. On the other hand, if he brought his key staff with him, two things would result. First he would be able to insert loyal subordinates into key positions within his new staff, men who had also cut and run from the Philippines. Second, every single one of them would take over knowing MacArthur had saved each from a brutal future. What better way to ensure loyalty, empathy, and unquestioning subservience in his new power base?

Eight days passed, during which time Java capitulated on March 8. There was virtually nothing of consequence left to defend beyond Australia except the Philippines and New Guinea, the latter being an Australian concern. On March 9, Roosevelt raised the departure issue again, and MacArthur set the date for March 15. However, back came a vexing message that a submarine was on its way, arriving on the 13th. Determined to leave on his own terms, MacArthur chose to be on his way before the submarine appeared. He and his entourage would depart on the 11th via torpedo boat, go by sea to Cagayan, Mindanao, then board B-17s at nearby Del Monte airport for Australia. Based on how many of the PT-boats got through, MacArthur would be able to demand a suitable number of planes for the effort. He radioed Lieutenant General George H. Brett, commander of U.S. Army Air Force assets in Australia, requesting three B-17s be readied for a ferry flight to Del Monte Field.12 No one in Washington was informed of this new plan in any detail.

Early on March 11, MacArthur’s chief of staff, Richard Sutherland, sent an order to General George requesting a reconnaissance flight of the waterways south of Corregidor as far as the Cuyo Islands, 250 miles south of the Rock. No explanation was given. Lieutenant Wilson Glover was selected to fly the mission, during which he spotted one Japanese cruiser southwest of Ambulong Island, as well as a destroyer off the northwest coast of Mindoro.13 The cruiser was well east of MacArthur’s intended route, but the destroyer could present a problem.

MacArthur summoned General Wainwright from Bataan the afternoon of the 11th. He arrived by boat, all skin and bones. MacArthur explained that he was leaving under protest, following orders from the president. He wanted Wainwright to make that known to the troops. Though MacArthur had sent a message to Washington that he intended to remain in overall command of the Philippines even after his departure, someone senior in authority had to stay on Corregidor, and someone else needed to run things over on the peninsula. He placed Wainwright in command on the Rock, allowing the 58-year-old lieutenant general to endure what otherwise would have been his own fate. Major General Edward King, also 58, was left in charge of the Bataan defense. Their wives and families had been evacuated the previous year along with military families stationed throughout the Philippines. If it came to it, these two flag officers were expendable.

Though Roosevelt had authorized the departure of MacArthur and no one else, General Marshall sent a follow-up communication adding the general’s wife and son. MacArthur ignored both messages. Instead, he assembled his entourage, planning to set sail at dusk. Included in the party were Jean, little Arthur, his nanny, and 16 members of his military staff, including Admiral Rockwell and generals Sutherland and George. None of the hospital nurses were permitted aboard any of the four PT-boats led by Bulkeley. Even MacArthur’s Filipino aide-de-camp, Colonel Carlos P. Rómulo, was denied an early exit. Just as had occurred at every Allied bastion, the more-senior leaders (with the notable exception of General Percival in Singapore) were abandoning the troops.

The account of what took place in the Philippines next would become the stuff of legend. The four PT-boats gathered just outside the small bay, then went single file through Corregidor’s minefield. Once clear, the squadron of skippers opened the throttles on all three Packard engines. Four thousand horsepower was unleashed on each of the boat’s three screws. Rooster tails rose behind the craft as they swept into rough seas and took up a diamond formation. MacArthur’s boat, PT-41, was sequestered at the rear, protected by the other three. Via prior agreement approved by MacArthur, the three “escorts” would engage any enemy that came at them while MacArthur’s PT-boat fled the scene. His staff knew they were all expendable if it meant ensuring the general’s survival.

The night was moonless, the swells high and whitecapped. The Packard engines, roaring in and out of synchronization, caused teeth-chattering vibrations. The boats bulled their way through swells, hulls slamming against whitecaps. Below decks, almost everyone became ill, the general included. Jean, who oddly seemed least affected, knelt beside MacArthur, rubbing his hands as his dry heaves continued unabated.

As the four craft approached Cabra and the Apo Islands, their engines were heard by the occupying Japanese. Bonfires sprang up along the coasts to signal that an attempt to break the blockade was underway. The formation turned westward until the islands were over the horizon, then swung south again, the seas more brutal than before. Salt spray billowed over the bow. Everyone above deck was soaked from head to toe. Soon the boats got separated. Hours were spent trying to regroup, such that reaching their first intended stop at Tagauayan was no longer possible before daylight. MacArthur’s boat and two others eventually anchored at an alternate island after dawn, three hours short of Tagauayan. The fourth had broken down with fouled fuel strainers. One of the boats barely made the inlet and was no longer fit for travel. The skippers discussed the situation with MacArthur and decided to depart in the afternoon rather than wait until dark.

Down to two boats, they were 15 minutes out when they encountered a Japanese cruiser, most likely the one observed earlier near Ambulong Island by the reconnaissance flight. But the Japanese Navy had not fitted their capital ships with radar. Due to high whitecapped seas, Japanese lookouts did not spot the small boats as they wheeled away and increased separation. Later, a destroyer came into view and it, too, was avoided. MacArthur may well have owed his life to Yamamoto, who did not push for the inclusion of on-board radar in his haste to build a powerful Navy.

As the two torpedo boats swept past the Negros Islands just after sundown, their Packard engines were again heard. The island’s occupiers must have thought the noise was from aircraft, since searchlights began scanning the skies.

Below deck, MacArthur was once again ill, with Jean comforting him at his side. Bulkeley and his skipper mate kept the boats running at top speed through the night. By dawn they had covered 560 total miles and made landfall, sighting the Del Monte pineapple plantation at 6:30 a.m. A half hour later, they rounded Cagayan Point and entered the bay. By now, MacArthur had recovered his sea legs and stood ramrod on the prow. Ashore at Cagayan, staff officer Colonel William Morse was among those awaiting the arrival. The image Morse beheld reminded him of Emanuel Leutze’s painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Once billeted in the guest lodge at the Del Monte plantation, MacArthur decided four B-17s would be needed to safely get his entourage to Australia. After squabbling over the request was resolved at Allied headquarters in Australia, four B-17s took off for Del Monte. One crashed off the Australian coast; two others turned back with engine problems. On the morning of the 13th, the lone remaining B-17 appeared on final approach at Del Monte Field. It made a less than smooth landing and taxied up, engines coughing, to where the general was waiting. MacArthur took one look at the young lieutenant who peered from the cockpit of the worn and battered plane and lost his temper. No way was he or anyone else boarding such a “dangerously decrepit” aircraft flown by “an inexperienced boy.” Not mentioned was the problem of flying through Japanese-controlled airspace in a lone aircraft. There was safety in numbers, and plans could be made to sacrifice one or more aircraft to save another. MacArthur sent a blistering radio message to Australia and Washington demanding “the three best planes in the United States or Hawaii.” No matter that word was out that MacArthur had reached Mindanao and Japanese sympathizers were everywhere. No matter that Japanese planes were seen daily in the skies looking for Del Monte Airfield. MacArthur was not leaving until transportation satisfied his ego and plan. It took until the 16th to finally launch three new B-17s for Del Monte. Two made it; one turned back with mechanical problems.

MacArthur’s entourage boarded that night and the planes took off for the 1,579-mile journey.22 They skirted Borneo, the Celebes, Java, Timor, and Bali, all now in Japanese hands. Though the planes slipped through unscathed, nothing in this odyssey came easy. As the planes approached Darwin, a radio message was received that the field was again under Japanese air attack. The B-17s diverted to Batchelor Field, 50 miles away. Upon his arrival that Monday, March 17, MacArthur made his oft-quoted pronouncement, “I came through, and I shall return.”

The men left on Bataan were not impressed. Instead they were hungry, tired, sick, and dispirited. They came up with pithy sayings, “I am going to the latrine, and I shall return.” Now they began to sense that all who remained were expendable.

At this point in time, the Japanese were able to free up some of the air assets that had been used or held in reserve for the Sumatra and Java campaigns. A slew of Betty bombers from the Takao Ku, originally out of Formosa, arrived at Clark on March 16, along with two squadrons from Saigon and Phnom Penh containing 85 new Ki 21-II Sally bombers. A dozen F1M Pete float planes needed to blockade Manila Harbor also arrived on seaplane tender Sanuki Maru. The noose was tightening.

The inter-island steamer Legaspi had brought many of the Allied troops to Bataan from the Manila piers, then made two dangerous resupply missions from Mindanao to Corregidor before being sunk on its third run. On Bataan, the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts had made the last cavalry charge in history on January 16, at Morong, then turned in their mounts. The remainder of the U.S. Army’s 250 cavalry horses were eventually slaughtered for food along with 48 pack mules. Included was General Wainwright’s prized jumper. Also slaughtered were the native water buffalo.

Soon the media touted MacArthur’s “I shall return” pledge. Upon learning of his departure to Australia, MacArthur was described by Germany’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels as a “fleeing general.” In Rome, Benito Mussolini called him a “coward.” The Japan Times and Advertiser accused him of being a “deserter who fled his post.”

General Honma learned of MacArthur’s departure and saw it as an opportunity. He ordered his planes to drop beer cans adorned with ribbons containing an ultimatum to Wainwright to accept “honorable defeat” and surrender by noon, March 22. By now, less than a handful of fighter aircraft remained in American hands. One patched up P-40 flew a recon mission out of Bataan Field and reported increasing troop movement near the front lines on Bataan. Wainwright rejected the ultimatum.

On the 22nd, Honma fulfilled his threat, beginning with a widespread artillery bombardment. The salvos continued day and night.

In Washington, Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall decided that the best counter to negative propaganda surrounding the impending loss of the Philippines was to take the initiative in the media. He suggested MacArthur receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Dwight Eisenhower, who had served seven years under MacArthur and was now on Marshall’s staff, opposed the award. Marshall sent the recommendation on to Roosevelt anyway. It must have come as a painful decision on the part of Roosevelt, who was well aware that MacArthur’s affiliation was hardcore Republican, but decide he did, in favor of the award. The citation read, for “gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty” and for “utter disregard of personal danger under heavy fire and aerial bombardment.” Although true that MacArthur had spent more than two months along with everyone else on Corregidor during the height of the bombing, his personal level of heroism was not at issue. Propaganda was. Thus, shortly after fleeing his command and abandoning his troops to their fate, MacArthur was awarded the medal on March 26, 1942, at a dinner hosted by the Australian prime minister in Canberra.

There can be little doubt regarding MacArthur’s bravery, but bravery is tested when challenges arise and there is little time to consider the consequences. With courage, there is time to dwell on one’s impending fate. Most medals are given out for bravery, not so many for courage. Should there be more acknowledgment for courage, in this instance for staying to the end? In MacArthur’s case, courage seems to have been in short supply, and that is the way his men on Bataan interpreted it.

While the dinner affair was underway, three more B-17s arrived at Del Monte to gather up President Quezon, his family and aides, all of whom had finally arrived there via submarine, steamer and patrol boat. When the planes took to the air for Australia, the Philippines became officially leaderless.

On April 1, the daily artillery barrage on Corregidor and Bataan by the Japanese increased in intensity, augmented by the air arm, which bombed and strafed. Up until now, the sight of American planes mixing it up with the Japanese had given the men on the ground a sense of encouragement. The defenders still had an air force. But now, friendly planes overhead were a rare sight, and much as had happened in Malaya, Singapore and Sumatra, the demoralizing effect was pronounced.

The next big offensive began on Good Friday, April 3, at 10:00 a.m., starting with a five-hour artillery barrage on Bataan. Nearly 150 sorties by Japanese bombers and fighters pounded the front lines. A black pall of smoke blew over the peninsula as bamboo and cogon thickets ignited. The Japanese, augmented by troops newly arrived from Singapore, surged ahead. American and Filipino forces drew back from the Bagac-Orion line, while Japanese fighters swooped in to strafe. The defenders were down to two P-40s, which served only to harass the Japanese. Then Japanese tanks and infantry of the newly arrived 4th Division moved forward. As a soot-shrouded sun dipped to the horizon, Japanese forces churned down the eastern side of the Bataan peninsula nearly to the base of Mount Samat. To the south of the mount rose Mariveles Volcano. Beyond it beckoned Corregidor and the sea.

MacArthur, upon learning that surrender was being contemplated, sent a message to General Wainwright announcing, “I am utterly opposed under any circumstances or conditions to the ultimate capitulation of this command. If food fails, you will prepare and execute an attack upon the enemy.” President Roosevelt agreed with MacArthur and issued his own “no surrender” orders.

Wainwright forwarded the orders to Major General King on April 4. One can only imagine what thoughts went through the two generals’ minds upon reading the messages from these two leaders who had written them off as expendable.

The Bataan defenders continued to fight and fall back, but by April 8 it was clear that the show was nearly over. Ammunition and fuel dumps were blown up, including the British ammunition vessel Yu Sang, which had been taken over by the U.S. Navy. The last remaining P-40 was flown out by Lieutenant Joseph H. Moore, while the last P-35A departed in the hands of Captain O.L. Lunde, with another pilot squeezed into the baggage compartment. Men began to flee to Corregidor via any means possible. A number began to swim the three miles to the island. Friendly skiffs went about plucking them from the water.

Though MacArthur forbade it, General King crossed the lines to surrender on April 9, 1942. At 12:30 p.m., King handed over his pistol to Colonel Motoo Nakayama, General Honma’s senior operations officer.33 King and 12,000 fellow Americans plus 67,500 Filipinos began stacking their arms. They represented the largest force in American military history to succumb to an enemy.

During the final days of the Bataan defense, over 2,000 men made their way to the Rock, where Wainwright was determined to fight on. With 13,000 men bunkered inside the tunnels and caves, they represented a force to be reckoned with.

With the fall of Bataan, General Honma was presented with a new problem: prisoners of war. In spite of the assurance given by Colonel Nakayama to General King that “the Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians,” the prisoners were assembled on Bataan, then marched north without food or water in intense heat toward San Fernando, 66 miles north. Those who fell out of formation were bayoneted, beheaded, or shot. For the first five days, no food or water was provided by the Japanese. The only sustenance received during that period was whatever was secretly tossed by local Filipinos who at great peril took pity on the men as they staggered through the hamlets. On the sixth day, one cupful of rice was given to each of the prisoners. Water was scrounged from ditches and buffalo wallows. The trek took nine days, and Japanese guards took every opportunity to take vengeance on any prisoner who gave them the slightest provocation. On the ninth day, the men were crammed into railroad cars, 100 to a coach. Men fainted from the heat and lack of air and water. Many who had struggled through the march now died. By the time the survivors reached the prison at Camp O’Donnell, over 8,000 American and Filipino prisoners had perished. These deaths represented only the beginning.