• James Houser

January 7, 1942 - MacArthur Retreats into Bataan

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

January 7, 1942. Douglas MacArthur's American army in the Philippines withdraws into Bataan. Surrounded by Japanese forces on land and sea, they will hold out for three more months.

The MacArthurs had a long history in the Philippines. Douglas' father, Arthur MacArthur Jr., was a war hero in his own right; he was awarded the Medal of Honor after serving in the Union Army as an 18-year old (!) Colonel at Missionary Ridge. Arthur MacArthur commanded U.S. forces in the Philippine Insurrection from 1899-1902, when the United States subdued the Filipino guerrillas and turned the country into a relatively peaceful imperial possession. Douglas MacArthur was Commander-in-Chief of the Philippine Army from 1935 onward, and led all Filipino and American forces in the Philippines in 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and brought World War II to the Pacific.

Douglas MacArthur may be one of the most controversial figures in American military history. Depending on who you ask, he was either a military super-genius and great leader, or a narcissistic, power-hungry demagogue who thought too highly of himself, his abilities, and his destiny.

Douglas MacArthur (right) in the Philippines, 1941

The answer is probably both. But few can deny that he bungled the defense of the Philippines.

First mistake: even though MacArthur's headquarters received word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, they took no active measures to prepare a defense against the Japanese. Seven hours later, Japanese airstrikes destroyed much of MacArthur's air force on the ground.

Second mistake: MacArthur had assured the Army high command, and President of the Philippines Manuel Quezon, that he could defend the entire country. This was not even close to possible. MacArthur had nowhere near enough troops to cover the coastline of even main island Luzon, let alone the other islands. He purposely deceived and overstated his own abilities.

Japanese tanks in the Philippines, 1942

Third mistake: Because he believed that he could defend the whole island, MacArthur spread his troops thin. When the Japanese came knocking on the beach at Lingayen Gulf, December 21, they quickly broke through the fragile Filipino line with sharp, well-disciplined attacks.

Here's Bataan. Not exactly friendly country.

Fourth mistake: When MacArthur realized that the Japanese could not be contained, he was forced to retreat to a tiny peninsula on the southern coast of Luzon called Bataan. By sealing off his forces there, he could hold out until (hopefully) the US Navy came to rescue his army. This meant, though, abandoning most of the supplies that he had stationed across the Philippines because Bataan had not been part of his grand plan, and there was not enough time to move the supplies into Bataan. This meant no food and ammunition for the troops filtering into the jungle of Bataan.

Fifth mistake: MacArthur and his staff accepted payments in cash as gifts from Manuel Quezon and the Philippine government, widely believed to be bribes for their continued defense of the country. This only came out after the war, but definitely altered his reasoning.

Sixth mistake: MacArthur made his headquarters on Corregidor, an island off the coast of Bataan. During this time, he never visited the soldiers on Bataan.

Douglas MacArthur (center) on Corregidor, 1 March 1942

All these leadership factors, combined with the poor equipment of American and Filipino forces, lack of food and medicine, the harsh weather, and the skill and tactical ability of the Japanese condemned the soldiers on Bataan to wait for months in miserable conditions, fighting desperately, waiting for rescue that would never come.

On March 12, MacArthur himself was ordered to evacuate by President Roosevelt.

On April 9, the forces on Bataan surrendered. It remains the largest surrender in American history, though we cannot forget that most of the soldiers were native Filipinos fighting for their homes. The sick, starving, dehydrated, and fatigued men who went into Japanese custody, months after their terrible ordeal had begun on January 7, believed their immediate future to be grim. They had no idea how right they were.

Not a lot of people have heard of Bataan for any other reason than what followed: the Bataan Death March.

For MacArthur himself, the most famous biography is William Manchester's American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978). While it's a great work of literature, Manchester's biography is a bit too...fawning. Take it with about twenty grains of salt. The Philippines Campaign has been the subject of recent Army University Press documentaries. For the broader war in the Pacific, nothing is better than Ronald H. Spector's Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Free Press, 1985). This book is awesome.

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