- Historic Sites
The Fall Of Corregidor
“The Rock” was a proud island fortress, impregnable to attack from the sea. Unfortunately, the Japanese didn’t come that way. Its capture climaxed the bitterest defeat in our history
August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
On March 11, General MacArthur, his wife, their four-year-old son, a Chinese amah, and an official party including staff officers and Rear Admiral F. W. Rockwell, Commandant of the 16th (Philippine) Naval District, left, by Washington order, for Australia. In Navy PT boats they slipped through the ever-tightening noose to Mindanao, and then flew to an air base near Darwin. MacArthur designated General Wainsright as his successor—but only for the troops on Bataan. MacArthur personally retained command of the over-all Philippine defense from 4,000 miles away in Australia, and he left behind him on Corregidor a deputy chief of staff. On March 20, the War Department, unaware of these arrangements, made Wainwright lieutenant general and appointed him to the command of all United States forces in the Philippines. He was authorized to communicate directly with Washington but was under the general command of MacArthur—who was designated Supreme Commander, Southeast Pacific Area. But MacArthur, until the end, sent advice and instructions to the Rock from Australia and even tried to influence tactics.
The departure of General MacArthur definitely eased some friction on Corregidor. A bitter and pronounced clash of personalities between MacArthur and Admiral Thomas C. Hart, then commander of the Asiatic Fleet—a clash that predated the war—had marred early Army-Navy co-operation in the Philippines; the aggressive, egoistic personality of General MacArthur’s chief of staff, Major General Richard K. Sutherland, did nothing to relieve the situation. There was a near-crisis on March 9, two days before MacArthur’s departure, when—in a message to the War Department—General Sutherland recommended all units on Bataan and Corregidor, with the exception of the Marines and the Navy, for unit citations. Indignant Marine and Navy questioners were told by staff officers that this was no oversight. Sutherland let it be known that the Marines had gotten their share of glory in World War I, and they weren’t going to get any in this one. This incident was one of the sources of the bitterness that too often disturbed Army-Navy relationships in the Pacific later in the war.
General Wainwright rectified Sutherland’s omission almost immediately after he took over—and Marines and Navy men both got to like this unpretentious commander who inspected the beach defenses and the front lines frequently and dived for foxholes with the rest of them.
Wainwright declared flatly that “if the Japanese can take the Rock they will find me here, no matter what orders I receive.” The remark got around; to fighting men with no hope of escape it represented “loyalty down” by their commander.
As March wore on and spring approached back home in the States, there was little change on Corregidor. The bombs and shell still fell; the work went on; the attrition of time and hunger and disease and bombardment took its slow toll.
There were probably spies on the Rock; sometimes strange lights flickered at night, and once or twice rockets sent up from Corregidor seemed to be answered by enemy rockets from the far shore of the bay. Nor was all the garrison staunch and brave. There were many “tunnel rats” who, despite the heat and dust of Malinta, never left its safety, and who gradually acquired the pallor and the morale of men who dwell forever underground. “Tunnelitis” became an occupational disease. There were shirkers and slackers as there have been in all armies down through history.
On Bataan, meanwhile, the enemy was plainly massing for a big attack, and the weary, desperate defenders had no chance—and knew it. A poem attributed to war correspondent Frank Hewlett summed up their feelings:
At such a time, MacArthur radioed Wainwright that “you should attack” and “advance rapidly” and drive through to Subic Bay to seize Japanese supplies! But these men—who had been moving backward, ever backward, since the war’s start—would never attack again; the I and II Corps were skeletons and scarecrows, some of them scarcely able to hold their rifles.
For the troops on the Rock, the twice-a-day meals consisted of a couple of slices of bread, the inevitable rice, some dried fruit salvaged from wrecked barges stranded on Corregidor’s beaches, occasionally other items—a monotonous and debilitating diet. By the end of March the Corregidor garrison had lost perhaps twenty pounds a man.