The Air Defense of the Philippines 1941-42 Part I

In the Philippines, in the early hours of December 8, USMC Lieutenant Colonel William Clement was the duty officer at the Asiatic Fleet headquarters in the Marsman Building in Manila, when the radio operator rushed into his office.

“Air Raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill.”

Clement looked at the clock. It was 2:30 am local time.

The message was in the hands of Admiral Thomas Hart, the fleet commander, before the minute hand reached the top of the hour. Before another 30 minutes had passed, the message had reached the penthouse apartment at the Manila Hotel that was the residence of General Douglas MacArthur, commander of US Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). Both Hart and MacArthur notified all their subordinate commanders that a state of war existed with Japan.

The man charged with the defense of the Philippine Commonwealth, MacArthur had been the US Army Chief of Staff from 1930 until his retirement in 1935. He had then been invited by Philippines President Manuel Quezon to build the Philippine Army (with the rank of field marshal), but in July 1941 he had been recalled to active duty by President Franklin Roosevelt and named as Commander USAFFE, with headquarters in Manila.

In defense of the Philippines, MacArthur had assigned eight Philippine Army divisions to Luzon, and three to the other islands as the Visayan–Mindanao Force. Four of those on the main island constituted the North Luzon Force, commanded by Major General Jonathan Wainwright, which was expected to take the brunt of any Japanese invasion. US Army units under MacArthur’s command included the Philippine Division (later the 12th Infantry Division), the 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts), and several field artillery units as well as coastal artillery to defend the harbors.

The US Army Air Forces’ Far East Air Forces (USAAF FEAF), commanded by Major General Lewis Brereton and headquartered at Clark Field, north of Manila, had around 100 reasonably modern fighter aircraft and 35 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, with more on the way. At Clark, the epicenter of US airpower in the Western Pacific, they had already learned of the Pearl Harbor attack from commercial broadcasts, and they were on high alert. Plans had previously been discussed about using the B-17s based there for a preemptive strike against Japanese air bases on Taiwan, 500 miles to the north, but such a mission was not executed.

The Japanese began their raid on Pearl Harbor at 7.55 a.m. on Sunday, 7 December (Hawaiian time). In the Philippine Islands this corresponded to 2.25 a.m. in the small hours of Monday, 8 December.3 Admiral Hart heard the news at 3.00 a.m., General MacArthur just after 4.00 a.m. Both men had received the war warnings from Washington, and unlike Admiral Kimmel in Hawaii they would realistically expect some form of direct attack if war broke out.

General Lewis Brereton was C-in-C of the Far East Air Force (FEAF), with his headquarters at Nielson Field outside Manila. At about 5.00 a.m. Brereton presented himself at MacArthur’s offices in the old Spanish Citadel, hoping to urge a heavy-bomber strike with his B-17s against Japanese targets on Formosa. General Sutherland, MacArthur’s Chief of Staff, refused access to his boss, who was involved in making other preparations concerning his ground forces and the Philippines civilian authorities.4

Douglas MacArthur, at this moment in his epic career, possessed only a limited grasp of air power. The decision to base a large B-17 bomber force in the Philippines was made in Washington, and had nothing to do with him. His discussion with the British Admiral Phillips on Saturday had made clear that he did not think the Philippines faced a fatal or immediate threat. He agreed with Phillips that the Japanese could only reach the central Philippines with unescorted bombers, while the Americans could deploy their fighters anywhere.

The inability of an enemy to launch his air attack on these islands [MacArthur concluded] is our greatest security. Most fighters are short ranged. I repeat what I said. Even with the improvised forces that I have now, because of the inability of the enemy to bring not only air but mechanised and motorised elements [sic] leaves me with a sense of complete security.

Even when, two days later, war became a reality in the Philippines, the opening shots did not unduy alarm MacArthur. At 6.00 a.m. a handful of Japanese carrier-based fighters and bombers flying in from the east made a raid against the southern Philippines port of Davao on Mindanao Island, nearly 600 miles south of Manila. They attacked (without result) a small US Navy seaplane tender, but destroyed two patrol planes at their moorings. At the other end of the island chain, Japanese planes from Formosa appeared at 8.30 a.m. and bombed two American army camps in northern Luzon, including one at Baguio that served as MacArthur’s country residence. Neither of these northern raids had much effect; they were carried out by unescorted Japanese Army bombers, flying at their extreme range.

The Americans’ air defence ‘system’, such as it was, ranged across central Luzon. Manila was the headquarters of both MacArthur and of Brereton (at Nielson Field). At Nichols Field, in the suburbs, were based a pair of ‘pursuit’ squadrons equipped with the Curtiss P-40E, the most modern fighter in the USAAF inventory. (The Army had complete responsibility for the air defence of the Philippines; there were no Navy or Marine fighters.) The new Army ‘filter room’ and communication hub, the Air Warning Service (AWS), was also located at Nielson. A rudimentary ground observer system set up by the army in northern Luzon was intended to warn of an approaching air attack over land; the exposed flank on the South China Sea was covered by the coastal airfield at Iba, eighty-five miles northwest of Manila, with a functioning SCR-270B radar and another squadron of twenty-four P-40Es. The main operational bomber base in the Philippines was Clark Field, forty miles inland from Iba, and fifty miles northwest of Manila; Clark was home to about twenty four-engined B-17s of 19th Bombardment Group; Clark was also the headquarters of 24th Pursuit Group.

The Japanese Army’s northern strike in the early morning was detected by the radar at Iba Field, as was a Japanese reconnaissance plane out in the South China Sea. The American fighters were sent up to patrol above their bases. Nearly the whole B-17 force at Clark was put into the air and sent out of harm’s way. The Far Eastern Air Force, as far as it could be, was on alert.

Then disaster struck. At 10.14 a.m., after waiting four or five hours, MacArthur telephoned Brereton, giving approval for an air strike against Formosa. The B-17s were to return to Clark Field and prepare for the attack. Most of the fighters, running low on fuel after their morning sorties, were also ordered to land. There was now no air patrol over Clark, and the B-17s were lined up along the runway. Just after noon, at 12.35 p.m., tight formations of twin-engined Japanese bombers suddenly appeared from the north, flying high at around 20,000 feet, and executed an accurate carpet bombing of Clark Field and its aircraft. After the bombers departed, Japanese single-engined aircraft from the escort dove down to ground level to strafe the air base with their cannon and machine guns. This phase of the attack went on for an hour and caused even more damage. A similar raid hit the fighter field at Iba, five minutes after the strike began at Clark. The attackers destroyed many more US aircraft on the ground and put the Iba radar permanently out of commission.

The few American interceptors that got off the ground from Clark and Iba suffered badly from the attacks of roving Japanese Navy fighters, as did planes that got into the air from other bases. This was a military catastrophe on the scale of Pearl Harbor. In the course of the day FEAF lost as many as fifty-five of its seventy-two modern fighters. Only seventeen of the original thirty-five heavy bombers were operational, and nearly all of these were 500 miles away, at remote airfields in the south.

Meanwhile, however, both IJNAF and IJAAF bombers were already en route from Taiwan, headed for the Philippines. Fearing an attack on Clark, the two squadrons of B-17 bombers were ordered to take off without bombs as a protective measure. Meanwhile, in case the bombers were headed for Manila, fighters were launched from Clark and from Nichols Field, nearer Manila, to intercept them.

It turned out that the bombers were actually targeting locations in northern Luzon, including the mountain resort of Baguio, which was the summer residence of President Quezon. The American aircraft returned to base by 11:30 am to be refueled. At this same moment, however, another wave of Japanese bombers was headed south. This second wave was actually intending to attack the targets that had been feared for the first.

Shortly after noon, the refueling at Clark was being completed, and the B-17s were lined up neatly on the runway as Japanese bombers and fighters came over. As the bombs began to fall, the air raid siren sounded. The base was bombed and strafed for about an hour, and when it was over, hangars and other facilities had been destroyed, fuel supplies were ablaze, and half of the B-17s were totally destroyed. Similar attacks were ongoing at other places across Luzon, including Nichols Field. When it was over, the FEAF had lost 18 B-17s, 53 P-40 fighters, and around 30 aircraft of other types.

The Imperial Japanese Navy had arrived in the skies over central Luzon. This was the third strategic mission of the Navy’s long-range bombers in the Southern Operation; each involved flights – to target and back – of over 1,200 miles. The first had been the fruitless raid on Singapore twelve hours before, launched from Indochina. The second was the raid on Wake Atoll. The Luzon raid, the largest and most successful thus far, came from Formosa. As far as the British and Americans were concerned the Japanese had revealed a ‘secret’ weapon.

MacArthur’s calculations might have been correct had the Japanese Army been his only opponent. Army aircraft were designed for a war on the continent with Russia, and they had limited range. The Army escort fighters could not reach the Philippines from Formosa; the Army bombers could only reach the northern part of Luzon, and there were only about fifty of them available. It was these aircraft that had mounted the early morning raids on northern Luzon on the 8th.

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