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  • James Houser

February 3, 1945 - The Battle for Manila begins

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

February 3, 1945. General Douglas MacArthur's American troops enter the outskirts of Manila, capital of the Philippines...but the city's ordeal is just beginning. The Japanese garrison has vowed to defend it to the last. By the end of the month, the city will have suffered a fate second only to Warsaw in non-nuclear destruction from World War II.

When General Douglas MacArthur had been forced to evacuate the Philippines in 1942, he had vowed that he would return. That return ended up taking a lot longer than anyone expected. First, American and Australian forces had to repel Japanese thrusts into the South Pacific that petered out at Guadalcanal thanks to the U.S. Marines and the dense jungle of New Guinea thanks to brave Australian soldiers fighting in terrible conditions. Then, from November 1942 until almost June 1944, Allied forces had skipped their way up the coast of New Guinea and along the island chains and sea corridors that Japan had seized after Pearl Harbor. Only by late 1944 were Allied forces prepared to strike.

The American Invasion of Luzon, 1945

On January 6, 1945, MacArthur's troops had landed on Luzon, the largest of the Philippines and the home of almost half the population. Their target was Manila. Their opponent was the recently transferred Tomoyuki Yamashita, the "Tiger of Malaya," who had been the general that captured Singapore and Malaya from the British. Yamashita may have been the best general the Japanese had, and he had no intention of fighting MacArthur in a stand-up battle where the Americans could bring their superior firepower to bear. The Japanese had set up multiple defenses in the jungles and mountains of the eastern island, leaving the plains and cities open to American occupation.

Street Fighting in Manila, 1945

Yamashita had intended to leave Manila as an "open city" - that is, he would not fight for it and MacArthur would not have to assault it. This is a common humane gesture between warring forces, even in World War II; the Germans allowed Rome to be an open city when the Allies captured it in 1944. MacArthur accepted this offer and had no intention of fighting an urban battle and placing the civilian population in great danger.

Yamashita, however, had not reckoned on the Japanese naval commander in Manila, Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi. Iwabuchi regarded Yamashita's order as weak and cowardly, and decided on his own accord to defend the densely populated city to the last. Iwabuchi's men prepared defenses throughout Manila, determined to exact a heavy price from American forces for the great Philippine capital. Iwabuchi issued an order: "We are very glad and grateful for the opportunity of being able to serve our country in this epic battle. Now, with what strength remains, we will daringly engage the enemy. Banzai to the Emperor! We are determined to fight to the last man."

When MacArthur's troops reached the outskirts of Manila on February 3, his forces came under heavy fire from Japanese forces. Reluctant to allow artillery fire or airstrikes within the city, MacArthur was forced to allow these strikes when the urban fighting became too dense and costly. Caught in the crossfire, many civilians became casualties in the fighting. Thousands of buildings - much of the cultural heritage of centuries of Filipino history - went up in smoke and flames.

Battle of Manila, 1945

The Japanese troops, unable to withstand the firepower and weaponry of the Americans, took out their frustration and rage on the citizens of Manila. These war crimes - the Manila Massacre - included acts of murder, rape, and mutilation throughout the city. Schools, hospitals, convents and cathedrals were not spared the wrathful destruction. Yamashita, even though he had nothing to do with the atrocities, would be tried for war crimes and executed during the American occupation of Japan.

Aftermath of the Battle of Manila, 1945

Despite the efforts of both commanding generals to save the city and its inhabitants, as many as 240,000 civilians may have died in Manila - both from American and Japanese bombardment and Japanese massacres. The city center and its many beautiful buildings were utterly destroyed. To this day the Philippines still mourn the loss of much of their historic landmarks and original Spanish architecture, razed in the bloody fight that was Manila.

For the broader war in the Pacific, nothing is better than Ronald H. Spector's awesome Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Free Press, 1985). For the Philippines Campaign in particular see William B. Breuer, Retaking the Philippines: America's Return to Corregidor and Bataan, 1944-1945 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986).

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