The Fall Of Corregidor


The General summed up the then-current Army optimism in one of the most amazingly mistaken appraisals in history. By about mid-December, he said, the War Department would feel rather secure in the Philippines. Flying weather over Japan was good; our high-flying bombers could quickly wreak havoc. There would not be much need for our Navy; the U.S. bombers could spearhead a victory offensive virtually singlehanded (or, to paraphrase General Marshall, without the use of our shipping). Our Pacific fleet would stay in Hawaii, out of range of Japanese air power.

To the Japanese, Malaya, Singapore, and Indonesia were the No. 1 objectives; the Philippines were a secondary goal. Tokyo had become somewhat alarmed, however, by the buildup of American air strength, and had been informed that the United States had 900 planes in the islands. But a Japanese photo-reconnaissance plane—apparently flying at such height that it was never detected—spotted and photographed our principal plane concentrations in the islands, and as a result the Japanese revised their estimates of U.S. air strength there downward to 300 planes and made careful plans for destroying our aircraft on the ground in the early morning of December 8 (December 7, Pearl Harbor time). Bad weather intervened, and the first actual bombing attacks were made between noon and 1 P.M., several hours after Pearl Harbor. In spite of the delay, the result was the same: surprise, and unprecedented destruction among our “sitting ducks.”

Thus, in the first day of war, U.S. air power in the Philippines, upon whose wings so many hopes had been air-borne, was mortally hurt—indeed, by the end of the first week, it had been virtually destroyed, at a cost to the Japanese of thirty planes.

Land invasions quickly followed the first aerial attacks. The thoroughly trained Japanese 14th Army, based on Formosa, witli Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma in command, came ashore in northwestern Luzon unopposed.

More enemy landings soon look place on southeastern Luzon, Mindanao, and Lingayen Gulf. MacArthur's forces were woefully inadequate in number, equipment, and training for defense of the vast Luzon coastline, and now they were threatened by the pincer move of the enemy from north and south. Many of the ill-trained Filipino “divisions,” from which so much had been hoped, virtually melted away into the hills.

By Christmas, the principal Japanese landings had been easily made good, and no American supplies or reinforcements had reached the Philippines. On Luzon, MacArthur ordered a withdrawal into Bataan, and moved his headquarters to Corregidor....

Until December, 1941, the rugged little island of Corregidor, covered with tropic verdure, stood out green and glowing against the lovely background of Manila Bay. Lying two miles from the tip of the Bataan peninsula, Corregidor is almost four miles long, and a mile and a half wide at its broadest point. It has three hill masses—the highest rises to 649 feet—and is shaped something like a tadpole, the “tail” being low and flat. “The Rock” (as Corregidor was known in the services) was a famous fortress“The Gibraltar of the East"; but, like Singapore, it was designed to resist assault from the sea only. The fortifications of Fort Mills, Corregidor’s military installation, had been built in a vanished era of warfare, before the airplane brought new peril to fixed emplacements. And a stroke of a pen in 1922—when the Washington Naval Treaty was signed—had condemned the “Gibraltar of the East” to increasing obsolescence. For the United States agreed in that treaty not to construct additional fortifications or naval bases in the western Pacific or to modernize those already built on Guam, Wake, Midway, and the Philippines.

Corregidor’s defenses were formidable on paperand in some respects formidable in fact. Its batteries, of World War 1 design, mounted a total of fifty-six coast-defense guns and mortars, plus some twenty-eight 3-inch antiaircraft guns and forty-eight .50 caliber machine guns. These were mounted behind concrete barbettes, in open pits, or in sandbagged positions, all vulnerable to air attack. There were virtually no star shells for illumination at night. High explosives or shells useful against land targets, as well as the mechanical fuses for the 3-inch antiaircraft high-explosive shells, were critically short. The antiaircraft guns themselves, with an obsolescent fire-control system, were loo few, too small, and too old to be very effective against modern high-flving bombers.

Corregidor had an extensive tunnel system, providing bombproof and shellproof protection for stores, ammunition, communications, headquarters, and medical spaces. Malinta Tunnel, 1,400 feet long and thirty wide, gouged through the 400-foot mass of Malinta Hill, gave a protected route of access from the eastern to the western portions of Corregidor. A small electric railroad ran through it. Laterals 400 feet long opened off the main tunnel, and there was also a network of connecting tunnels. The weakness was the air supply; in the humid, hot Philippines, the tunnels, when crowded with men, could become stifling.