Japanese Marines use flame thrower against American Filipino army bunker in the battle of Bataan 1942.

In the Second World War, General Douglas MacArthur’s defence of, and subsequent retreat into, the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines, while plagued by tough conditions and the furious assaults of the Japanese, was a dramatic test of human endurance. The inexperienced American and Filipino forces were cut off without any hope of relief, assailed from several directions and fixed in vulnerable positions that the Japanese artillery could easily pound. When the American lines collapsed, the survivors were herded into a pocket on the peninsula and eventually, after many weeks of resistance, were taken prisoner in large numbers. Hundreds of these exhausted men were then compelled to march without respite for some 60 miles (100 km) under the bludgeoning of contemptuous guards. Any stragglers, or wounded who could go no further, were executed. The Bataan Death March (as it would come to be known) of April and May 1942 would later be judged a Japanese war crime.

Five months earlier, at precisely the same moment that Japanese aircraft swarmed over Pearl Harbor to cripple the US Pacific Fleet, a surprise attack had been unleashed on the American garrison in the Philippines. The Japanese were hoping to secure the islands rapidly in order to press further into the resource-rich Malay Archipelago of Southeast Asia. The attack began with air raids on the American bases, destroying many US planes while they were still on the ground. The raids were accompanied by landings at several locations around the Philippines by an advance guard of the Imperial Japanese 14th Army. Resistance to these landings proved difficult to coordinate, as the situation was confused and communications badly disrupted. There was, however, a spirited – if ultimately futile – series of sorties made by American pilots that damaged a number of Japanese ships and sank a minesweeper. With such minor losses, the Japanese could afford to be thorough: they spent 12 days making a detailed reconnaissance of the islands and consolidating their beachheads before the main assault forces arrived on 22 December 1941 at Lingayen Gulf in Pangasinan province, and (two days later) at Lamon Bay in Tayabas.

The initial American defensive plan was for three divisions of the Philippine Army to contain the beachheads while more deliberate operations were launched to neutralize each one. The Japanese gave no respite, however, launching themselves into the assault straight off the beaches. Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers flooding ashore, and facing Japanese air superiority, the Filipino troops were quickly driven back.

MacArthur grasped the gravity of the situation immediately and initiated the pre-war defence strategy known to commanders as War Plan Orange-3. This provided for the concentration of all US and Filipino forces within Bataan and the nearby island of Corregidor, while the rest of the Philippines was abandoned in order to stabilize the situation, withstand attacks and await reinforcements from across the Pacific. MacArthur could muster 19,000 regular US troops and 11,000 Filipino soldiers. There was a nominal reserve of Filipino conscripts, but many of these deserted at the first opportunity. The chief problem was that the Pacific Fleet – on which their relief depended – had been significantly damaged at Pearl Harbor. It had previously been calculated that the Philippine garrison might be able to hold out for six months, but it was now estimated that the US armed forces would need up to two years to reassert their control of the Pacific in order to reach the islands. MacArthur and his men were on their own.

From the beachheads, Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, the commander of Japan’s 14th Army, had ordered a pincer attack to defeat the Filipino troops and next pressed on to Manila from both the north and south. With the forces of the preliminary landings also joining the advance, the Japanese overran almost the entire country in days. Manila fell on 2 January 1942. The Americans and Filipinos tried to stem the Japanese advance in order to buy time to organize the defence of the Bataan Peninsula. However, this meant fighting on unsuitable terrain for defence – as the 11th and 21st divisions discovered. They were forced to deploy in open ground and simply await the offensive. The Japanese bombarded them with artillery and airstrikes, before tanks accompanied by infantry made a ground assault. The Americans gave a good account of themselves at a terrible cost, managing to inflict significant casualties on the Japanese infantry. The problem was that each of the delaying actions was organized on a series of east–west lines (extending in depth to the south) that were easily turned on either flank. Repeatedly, the Japanese compelled the Americans to fall back to another line by utilizing a series of turning manoeuvres. For US forces, the only consolation was that the North Luzon Force, as it was styled, had enabled the South Luzon Force (the rest of the garrison) to withdraw in good order into the Bataan area.

The American defence of the peninsula was also organized into two sectors (east and west), with Mount Natib, a 4,222-foot- (1,287-m-) high peak, dividing them. A reserve of divisional strength (10,000 strong) was created to reinforce any threatened part of the perimeter. Ironically, the Japanese believed that the Philippines campaign was virtually over, and steps were taken to withdraw their 48th Division and some squadrons of aircraft while the rest of the forces were left to mop up. It therefore came as a shock to Lieutenant General Susumu Morioka, commander of the 16th Division, when his men were repulsed in an assault on the US defences around Abucay on 9 January. The Japanese had begun their attack with typical determination and fighting spirit: officers wielded samurai swords and the infantry made bayonet charges, having worked their way forwards under cover of intense fire. The Americans fought just as resolutely, making local counter-attacks to throw the Japanese back.

On 14 January, the Japanese tried again, this time attacking the US 51st Division and part of the 41st Division. They were held once more, but elements managed to slip around the flank and rear of the 51st. Japanese infantry used the valley of the Salian River to make their advance, but the movement was discovered by a foot patrol. Reinforcements rushed to fill the gap and a close-quarter battle broke out that resulted in a Japanese tactical withdrawal. Further east, a similar infiltration along the Abo-Abo Valley proved more successful. Under pressure from in front and behind, the American line collapsed and reinforcements had to rush to plug the breach. In the close country, establishing a coherent ‘front line’ was problematic, and consequently the fighting was intense.

The next day, the Japanese again penetrated the lines of the American forces, exploiting the relatively undefended slopes of Mount Natib. They established posts on the Mauban Ridge and beat off the desperate counter-attacks of two US divisions. Further Japanese night attacks and infiltrations brought them into the American rear areas, and later in January the decision was taken to abandon the peninsula’s first line of defence. As the frontline elements tried to extract along a route known as Trail 2 they were assaulted, and it took a hastily organized defensive action to stem the Japanese attack. While the main assault was checked, a detachment of Japanese infantry, perhaps 2,000 strong, succeeded in getting behind the US lines via the valleys of the Tuol River and the Gogo-Cotar River. To eliminate these elements, a series of attacks was made by American troops between 23 January and 17 February – an action known as the Battle of the Pockets. The fighting was particularly savage, even by the standards of the campaign, and it is thought that perhaps as few as 377 Japanese soldiers escaped to their own lines. The fighting had thus far left both sides exhausted, and Homma ordered a pause in the offensive to reorganize. The brief suspension of Japanese attacks allowed the Americans to reoccupy some of the ground lost and to restructure their own defences.

To regain the initiative, the Japanese made amphibious landings on the west coast of the Bataan Peninsula on 22 January 1942. The Americans managed seriously to disrupt these plans when a pair of motorboats intercepted the Japanese during the landings: two barges were sunk and the rest scattered up and down the coast. The Japanese were now divided and had to try to consolidate their beachheads. The only personnel available to resist the landing force were men of the Philippine Constabulary, a single US infantry battalion, some aircrew and sailors, and marines from an anti-aircraft battery near by. In reaction to the new threat, some machine guns were removed from aircraft and mounted on specially built platforms, while the sailors attempted to stain their white uniforms khaki to blend in with the local countryside. Counter-attacks were ordered, and the Japanese troops were unable to break out of their perimeters. The ensuing firefights, later known as the Battle of the Points, were as close-fought as any of the campaign. Eventually the Japanese (who had numbered perhaps 2,000) were entirely wiped out, save for a handful of survivors who escaped to their own lines. It took the troops three weeks to regain control of these beaches.

The fighting continued to drag on for some weeks before the Japanese commanders realized they needed to reinforce 14th Army and make a final attempt to destroy the American garrison on Bataan. Throughout March, a variety of heavy guns, including monster 240 mm howitzers, were brought in. By 3 April, 300 guns had been assembled to pulverize American dugouts, and Japanese bombers added to the storm of fire. Foliage was stripped from the trees and soil and rock were blasted into the air. After the bombardment, Japanese infantry and armour began to drive forward, systematically working their way into and through each position over three days. The entire American and Filipino line was driven back and Homma brought forward his plans for the final annihilation of the defenders. Flanking attacks were successful and a thrust into the centre of the American line penetrated deeply enough to reach all of its objectives. Anticipating counter-attacks, the Japanese positioned themselves to receive them and inflicted predictably heavy losses. When the American and Filipino reserves were committed, they failed to hold any of the ground that they had retaken. American communications broke down, and units began to fall back in a disorganized way.

The American and Filipino forces were now close to collapse. They had resisted without external supplies for over three months and were tired, hungry and outfought on every front. There seemed to be a collective realization that the game was up. Major General Edward King organized negotiations in order to save his men from complete destruction, although Corregidor held out for another month. Overall, the efforts of the beleaguered ‘Battling Bastards of Bataan’ had cost the Japanese time, effort and lives by disrupting their plans for the swift conquest of Southeast Asia. Perhaps most important was the sense of moral victory. Although taken by surprise, the Americans had not yielded, even when their position was hopeless. They had defied the Japanese and exhibited a determination that was to characterize the entire American Pacific campaign. The ensuing mistreatment of American and Filipino prisoners during the Bataan Death March deepened a sense of disgust for their adversary that galvanized resistance.

MacArthur had evacuated from Bataan before it fell to the Japanese in 1942, vowing to return. He did so, along with an American task force, and retook Bataan on 8 February 1945. Nevertheless, the Japanese continued to fight in other parts of the Pacific theatre with extraordinary courage and tenacity. Many of their troops willingly sacrificed themselves to save their country, their Emperor and their honour. Despite this, the Japanese imperialist mission seemed doomed to failure against the sheer scale of American power, and had even faltered in the Philippines faced with the grit and determination of American servicemen and their allies, stranded without resources, hope of relief or a place to run. We should not ignore the fact that the fall of Bataan was a defeat, and the mistreatment of those taken into captivity reinforced the sense of humiliation that had first stung the Americans at Pearl Harbor. The resolve to recover the Philippines was driven by the desire to avenge the defeat of 1942 and to reassert American supremacy in the Pacific. There had been only one redeeming feature in the action in the Philippines: the American troops at Bataan had battled on against all odds knowing they were merely staving off the inevitable, but their spirit had inspired respect and set the standard for the fighting in the future.

The final broadcast from the Philippines before its fall summed up that spirit: ‘The world will long remember the epic struggle that Filipino and American soldiers put up in the jungle fastness and along the rugged coast of Bataan. They have stood up uncomplaining under the constant and grueling fire of the enemy for more than three months. Besieged on land and blockaded by sea, cut off from all sources of help in the Philippines and in America, the intrepid fighters have done all that human endurance could bear.’