August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
“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
In 1941, Manila Bay was the focus of United States power in the Orient: all of our war plans emphasized its importance. The Orange—or War with Japan—plan envisaged a naval campaign: if United States and Filipino forces could hold the Bataan peninsula and the fortified islands at the entrance to Manila Bay, thus denying their use to an enemy for a period of three to six months, the Pacific Fleet would fight its way westward from Pearl Harbor and relieve and reinforce the defenses.
But long before Pearl Harbor, this concept had been challenged by some of our military planners. The network of Japanese sea and air bases throughout the western Pacific, and the tremendous strength of Japan, which for years was grossly underestimated, made the hope of relief for the Philippines a chimera. By late 1940 and early 1941 there was at least a tacit understanding in Washington that if Japan struck, the Philippines were doomed to early capture.
Therefore, in January, February, and March, 1941, a new plan, Rainbow 5, grew out of staff talks between the United States and Great Britain. It was a global plan, anticipating war by the United States against both Germany and Japan. Rainbow 5 clearly called for a defensive strategy in the Pacific until Germany should be defeated and, implicitly at least, accepted the loss of the Philippines, Guam, and Wake to the Japanese.
In the summer and fall of 1941, however, the infectious and misplaced optimism and dynamism of General Douglas MacArthur, who at the end of July was appointed Commander, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, was largely responsible for a new plan. MacArthur set forth his belief that the United States should—and in time could—hold the entire Philippine archipelago. The War Department caught his enthusiasm and allowed him to implement this plan, despite its discordancy with Orange and Rainbow 5.
Throughout his career Douglas MacArthur was cast—in his own mind and in history—as a man of destiny; he never doubted the validity of his own views and felt that whatever area he served in should be the focus of American efforts. He had an ability, too, to dramatize, to communicate, and to persuade; his powerful personality, his charm, and his military seniority mesmerized some of his Army subordinates, both in Manila and in Washington. Although, when the crisis came, his plan for the defense of all the Philippines existed chiefly on paper, he nevertheless predicted a strong defense that could turn away any enemy, or at least make conquest of the islands not worth the price. The plan had put more than 100,000 Filipinos into uniforms of some kind, but most of them knew little and cared less about the mechanics of warfare. As late as the summer of 1941, a few short months before castastrophe, a viable Philippine army was still merely a dream. The only well-trained Filipinos were 12,000 Philippine Scouts, an elite part of the U.S. Regular Army officered chiefly by Americans.
Thus at the outbreak of war, the United States had three plans for the Philippines’ defense—Orange, Rainbow 5, and MacArthur’s. None was followed through.
But the change in emphasis in U.S. war plans in the Summer of 1941 was not due wholly to MacArthur. The doctrines of Giulio Douhet, the Italian prophet of victory through air power, and of Alexander de Seversky, were exciting stimuli that summer, and theorists of strategic air warfare—notably General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces—found ready market for their views. Rainbow 5, which planned no increase in U.S. strength in the Far East, was revised to authorize offensive air operations. A strong air reinforcement of the Philippines began, the aim being to have 165 heavy bombers in the islands by March, 1942.
On November 15, 1941, three weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, General George G. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, held a secret press background briefing. He said that war with Japan was imminent, but that the U.S. position in the Philippines was highly favorable. Our strength in the islands, he said, was far larger than the Japanese imagined. Thirty-five B-17 Flying Fortresses were based in the Philippines—Marshall called them the greatest concentration of heavy bomber strength anywhere in the world. The Philippines were being reinforced daily. If war did start, the B-17’s would immediately attack the enemy’s naval bases and would set the “paper cities of Japan on fire. Although the B-17’s did not have enough range to reach Japan and return to Philippine bases, General Marshall (with a political naïveté characteristic of many of our military men at the time) said optimistically that the bombers could continue on to Vladivostok and would carry out shuttle bombing raids between there and the Philippines.
The new Convair B-2A bombers would soon be in production. General Marshall said; they would be able to fly higher than any Japanese interceptors.
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 paper—and 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.
One of Corregidor’s deficiencies was in its water supply. There were some twenty-one wells on the island, but the supply was insufficient even for the peacetime population; water had to be brought in by barge from Bataan. The island's power plant, which provided electricity to pump water from the wells, ventilate the tunnels, run the railroad, preserve perishable foods, and train and elevate the seacoast batteries, was situated in a narrow, low-lying area with no protection against bombing. It was too small for the demands made upon it, and power and communication wires were strung on the surface or so close to the surface that, during the siege, they were severed repeatedly by enemy shells and bombs.
The three fortresses on the islands around Corregidor—Fort Drum on El Fraile, Fort Hughes on Caballo, and Fort Frank on Carabao—were in some ways even more powerful than the Rock itself, but each was too small to withstand a long siege alone. The most heavily protected of all the Manila Bay fortifications was Fort Drum, known as “the concrete battleship.” The top of the tiny island had been shaved off and four 14-inch guns in armored turrets, buried in heavy concrete, covered the seaward approaches.
On Bataan, a twenty-mile main battle line stretched across wild mountains from Mabatang, on Manila Bay, to Mauban on the South China Sea. Major General Jonathan Wainwright commanded the I Philippine Corps on the western, or seaward, side; Major General George M. Parker, Jr., the II Philippine Corps on the east. General MacArthur, from his new headquarters established on Corregidor, commanded both forces.
Eight miles behind the main battle position stretched a rear battle line running between the towns of Bagac and Orion, and at the extreme tip of the peninsula were the service command, supplies, hospitals, and support and maintenance units. Eighty thousand troops plus 26,000 civilian refugees—most of them Filipinos—crowded into Bataan; original plans had contemplated 43,000. Six months’ supplies for that number had once been cached on the peninsula, but because of MacArthur’s last-minute plan to defend all of the Philippines, dumps of food and equipment had been moved to other spots on Luzon and were now lost.
For years our Orange war plan had envisaged withdrawal into Bataan and to the fortified islands of Manila Bay; yet in December, 1941, there were not even field fortifications on the peninsula, while the section naval base at Mariveles, near its tip, was far from finished. There were no mosquito nets, shelter halves, or blankets; uniforms, other clothing, and shoes were in short supply. There was enough food for only twenty to fifty days (depending on the item—e.g., twenty days of rice; fifty days of canned meat and fish, etc.). Gasoline had to be carefully rationed; there was not enough of anything.
Corregidor had long been stocked with food, but the prewar strength of the fortified islands had not exceeded 6,000 men. This cadre was now swollen by a number of high-echelon headquarters—those of the Army, the Navy, the Philippine Government, and U. S. High Commissioner Francis B. Sayre—as well as by quartermaster troops and other units evacuated from Manila, and by the 4th Marine Regiment, evacuated from Shanghai before Pearl Harbor. The Marines brought their own rations with them. Nevertheless, rationing was in effect on Corregidor almost from the first day of war, and two meals a day was the routine. All told, there were some 10,000 mouths to feed on Corregidor.
The first attacks on Corregidor occurred even before the headquarters had shaken down in their new surroundings. A heavy Japanese bombing raid on December 29, the first of more than 300, blasted the Middleside quarters, the barracks of the 4th Marines and of Marine detachments from abandoned Olongapo and Cavite (on the far shore of Manila Bay). The Marines moved out to beach defenses all over the Rock and from then until the end lived in scattered groups near the guns—in foxholes, shelters, tunnels.
The troops on the Rock turned to in the sweltering heat while the guns boomed on Bataan. More than twenty miles of barbed wire were strung in the eastern sector; the miscellaneous pieces of light artillery available as beach-defense guns were adapted, sited, and dug in. Foxholes and tank traps were constructed, concrete trenches poured, homemade land mines fused and emplaced, cable barriers and mines laid off the little harbors of the island.
Some of the defense positions had to be hacked with bolo knives out of the thick jungle vegetation. Monkeys, great pilferers of soap and flashlights, chattered and swung from the long lianas, and there were even a few small deer on the island. But these animals died quickly beneath the shells and bombs, the venison providing a welcome addition to a meager diet.
From December 29 through January 6, the Rock was bombed almost daily. Damage to supplies, buildings, and guns was heavy, and the island’s little above-ground railroad was wrecked. The vulnerable communication wires were continually riddled by fragments; the damage done by one bombing was no sooner cleared up than another compounded it. It was dig and work and toil, and lie flat on the belly and claw the earth when the whoosh of the bombs warned of death.
The Japanese often flew above the range of the three-inch “sky” guns, and at best were within range for only a few seconds. But the gunners fired anyway, to keep up morale, and occasionally a Japanese bomber plummeted into the bay or disappeared above the hills of the mainland, trailing smoke.
There were no great battles on Bataan—except in the newspapers back home. In the communiqués—many of them couched in the rolling phrases that were characteristic of MacArthur’s pronouncements throughout the war—we often “defeated” the enemy, and the size of the Japanese forces and the scale of their attacks were exaggerated.
On January 10, just as the first assaults against Bataan were starting, MacArthur paid his first—and perhaps only—visit to Bataan since Pearl Harbor. The Commander in Chief inspected I and II Corps positions and then returned to his tunnel headquarters on Corregidor.
General Homma started his first assault on Bataan on January 9 with about 25,000 men against a Filipino-American army almost twice that strength. Nevertheless, within one week the Japanese had driven a wedge between the I and II Corps and had turned the II Corps’ inland flank.
So serious was the situation that on January 15 a historic and controversial order was issued:
Subject: Message from General McArthur
To: All Unit Commanders.
The following message from General MacArthur will be read and explained to all troops. Every company commander is charged with personal responsibility for the delivery of this messag. Each headquarters will follow up to insure reception by every company or similar unit:
Help is on the way from the United States. Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes are being dispatched. The exact time of arrival of reinforcements is unknown as they will have to fight their way through Japanese attempts against them. It is imperative that our troops hold until these reinforcements arrive.
No further retreat is possible. We have more troops in Bataan than the Japanese have thrown against us; our supplies are ample; a determined defense will defeat the enemy’s attack.
It is a question now of courage and determination. Men who run will merely be destroyed but men who fight will save themselves and their country.
I call upon every soldier in Bataan to fight in his assigned position, resisting every attack. This is the only road to salvation. If we fight we will win; if we retreat we will be destroyed.
This order briefly raised the hopes of some, but was an ultimate depressant—since its promise of aid could never be kept. One officer wrote that “by the middle of January it had become apparent that ours was a holding scrap out here, with no hope of reinforcement or aid....”
And MacArthur must have known it. For the “thousands of troops and hundreds of planes” (in itself a generalized exaggeration) were being sent to Australia and the Malay barrier—not through the iron ring of the Japanese blockade to the Philippines. On the Rock, the defenders scanned the skies and the tropic seas to the westward, but the only planes they saw bore the “fried egg” insignia of Japan upon their wings, and the only reinforcements they received were the casuals and the stragglers from the broken units on Bataan. Meanwhile, the laterals of Malinta Tunnel were quickly filling up with wounded.
By January 23-24, both 1 and II Corps—their lines infiltrated and penetrated—were in full retreat to the Bagac-Orion position. Against the Japanese combat aggressiveness, will-to-die, and infiltration tactics, the Filipinos and Americans were at a tremendous disadvantage. The Japanese losses were heavy, but I Corps lost most of its field artillery; one regiment—the 51st (Philippine Army)—disintegrated in rout and panic, and MacArthur estimated his losses at thirty-five per cent, with some divisions depleted by as much as sixty percent. Before the end of January, the defenders of Bataan were occupying their final, no-retreat, last-stand positions.
In early February, shells began falling on Corregidor and the other islands from the Cavite shore of the hay. The shelling usually occurred between 8:30 and 11:30 A.M.: the morning haze and the rising sun made it impossible for American gunners to spot the enemy’s gun flashes. Corregidor's garrison quickly accustomed itself to artillery fire and carried on—but the furrows and the gouges and the shadows across the face of the island and the faces of its defenders grew and deepened; slowly damage and casualties mounted; Signal Corps linemen, ordnance repairmen, and medics were busy day and night.
The men shaved when they could, and bathed by crawling through the barbed wire on the beaches and swimming at night in the warm waters of the bay. They found themselves stumbling in the darkness; the lack of vitamin A in their monotonous rations gave them night blindness.
On Bataan, the surging, clashing lines came wearily to rest between Bagac and Orion, and the campaign settled into bloody piecemeal struggles divided and dispersed by the green compartmentation of the jungle.
The Philippines were isolated; the tide of Pacific conquest had spread far to the south, and its backwash eddied, ever rising, about Bataan and Corregidor.
Time worked for Japan. There was not food enough for both the civilians and the fighting men on Bataan. The newly inducted, badly trained, and poorly disciplined Philippine Army privates and corporals, who handled much of the supplies and food, had a habit of disappearing between the quartermaster depots and the front. Some of the Filipino civilians on Bataan lived well off pilfered army rations, and some of the men in the rear areas ate slimly but passably, but from January on, the men at the front had virtually nothing but rice, pieced out occasionally with mule steak, carabao, and the horses of the famous 26th Cavalry....
On Bataan, as the weeks dragged on, the field hospitals were full; many of the patients mumbled in the grip of the shivering ague and the hot delirium of malaria. Although the Philippines lie close to the greatest quinine-producing areas in the world, the supply of that drug on Luzon was grossly inadequate. Dengue and dysentery were spreading; sleeplessness and hopelessness and hunger made potential victims of all of the Army of Bataan. Sleeplessness was part of the Japanese plan; all night long the tropic dark flickered with the lightning of the guns and thundered with the detonation of the enemy’s heavy mortar shells.
There was little reflection of this situation in the papers in the States. The official communiqués spoke vaguely of “heavy Jap losses.” On March 8—in an announcement broadcast throughout the world—MacArthur’s headquarters pictured Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, commander of the forces besieging Luzon, as dying under a hara-kiri knife, “disgraced by his defeats.”
MacArthur's communiqué next day, March 9, said: “The new commander in chief of the Japanese forces in the Philippines is Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita.... General Yamashita succeeds General Homma, who is reported to have committed suicide.” Except for the fact that the Japanese high command was indeed disappointed at the length of time Homma was taking to subddue Bataan and Corregidor, the communiqué was, like so many others, fiction. General Homma conquered Bataan and the Rock, and survived the war, only to be executed four years later for the Death March of the Bataan prisoners and for other alleged war crimes.
As the weeks went on, the communiqués and press releases consistently failed to mention the Marines who participated in the defense, and when at last a radio report from Corregidor casually referred to them, the Navy Department had to assure the people of the United States that the 4th Regiment had been in the Philippines all along, and that this belated mention of Marines did not mean that the fleet had broken through the Japanese blockade with reinforcements.
So widespread was the American illusion that Bataan and Corregidor were doing pretty well, that broadcasts from the States—cast in a cheerful mood of utter unreality—depressed the morale of the beleaguered men of the Philippines who heard them. The Marines on Corregidor usually listened in about 6 P.M. each evening to Station KGEI, broadcasting from the West Coast of “God’s Country.” This station had a particularly brash commentator who flexed his muscles for the benefit of the Japanese, 10,000 miles away, and one night incautiously defied the enemy: “I dare you to bomb Corregidor!” Said a Marine on the island: “I wish I had that s.o.b. in my foxhole.”
In February, several inter-island steamers from Cebu and Panay ran the blockade with small amounts of food and supplies. The Navy, with submarines and seaplanes, maintained an intermittent and precarious communication with Corregidor. The submarine Seawolf delivered thirty-seven tons of ammunition to the Rock on January 27-28. On the night of February 3-4, submarine Trout brought in 3,500 round of 3-inch antiaircraft ammunition. On the night of February 19, Swordfish felt her way into the mouth of the bay, lay on the bottom during the daylight hours, and at dusk surfaced and took aboard President Manuel Quezon of the Philippine Commonwealth, his family, and some Philippine officials. Four days later, she repeated her exploit and took out High Commissioner Sayre and his party.
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.
The Japanese on Bataan were also in a bad way. Because the conquest was taking longer than anticipated, the troops were on twenty-three ounces of rice a day instead of the normal sixty-two, and heavy battle casualties had reduced Homma’s effectives to about 3,000 men at the end of February. Like the Americans, most of the Japanese had malaria. But in March, General Homma’s army was heavily reinforced, and seventy to eighty more aircraft were assigned to the bombardment of Bataan and Corregidor. Japanese general headquarters was irked at U.S. tenacity; the Japanese 14th Army was in disgrace.
As April began, the remorseless cacophony of the Japanese barrage sounded the knell of hope; on Bataan, the II Corps line had buckled. The unequivocal orders of Mac Arthur left no room for local judgment: “When the supply situation becomes impossible there must be no thought of surrender. You must attack.”
The end came in a hideous spectacle which those who saw it will long remember. There were the last and desperate orders to Bataan from the tunnel headquarters on Corregidor—then silence, and the uneasy men in foxholes on the Rock watched the trickling stream of stragglers, watched the end of organized resistance on the mainland of Luzon. Then the night was split asunder by the crashing jar of great explosions; the retreating Americans blew up caches of gasoline, ammunition, and supplies near Mariveles, and from the Rock the defenders saw a whole mountainside dissolve into dust and debris. And nature, too, seemed to mourn. About midnight of April 8 an earthquake caused Malinta Tunnel to “weave like a snake.” Next day a pall of smoke covered the dying army on the mainland, and the noise of explosions, the dull voice of artillery, and the desultory crackle of small arms were the Valkyrian accompaniment to the fall of Bataan.
Major General Edward P. King, Jr., quiet, modest, strong, and able, the commander of all the troops on Bataan, sent a flag of truce to the Japanese commander early in the morning of April 9. His battered units were completely broken; there was only a half-ration of food in the quartermaster stores. “VVe have no further means of organized resistance,” King said. King took the responsibility for the decision—like the strong man he was—without informing Wainwright on Corregidor, who had passed on MacArthur’s “No surrender” order. He felt, he said when he went to meet the Japanese conquerors in his last clean uniform, like Lee at Appomattox. With him, in piecemeal units and in scattered groups, surrendered some 76,000 exhausted men—all but 12,000 of them Filipinos—the greatest defeat for American arms in history. At the time of the surrender Homma had about 81,000 men on Luzon.
On Corregidor, beginning on April 3, empty powder cans had been filled with water and distributed to beach-defense positions, and all possible reservoirs had been stocked. New wells had been dug at the entrance to Malinta Tunnel.
About 2,000 men escaped from Bataan, and for many hours after the surrender they were desperately making their way to the Rock. The Marines watched the frantic attempts of fleeing survivors to cross the North Channel in several small launches. Japanese artillery ranged on them; the men on the Rock, helpless, saw two boats holed and sunk and one grounded on Artillery Point. Some of the gaunt survivors swam through the oil-streaked waters to doubtful security; most of them died in the sea.
Wainwright felt the inevitable sag in his men’s morale and he issued an order: Corregidor could and would be held. On April 12, a Flying Fortress bombed Japanese-held Nichols Field, and it “cheered our hearts tremendously,” Lieutenant Commander T. C. Parker reported.
The Japanese wasted no time. As the coast artillery crews and the Marines stood to their guns, the enemy established forward observation posts in the Bataan cliffs and commenced to plaster the Rock with the greatest artillery barrage the Orient had ever known.
The scarecrows from the mainland—those who could walk—were incorporated into the beach-defense battalions of the 4th Marines. This regiment and its incorporated elements were the only guardians of Corregidor’s beaches, and on April 9 and 10 they slept by their guns, ready for a quick Japanese attempt to overrun the Rock.
Two days after Bataan’s fall, friendly Filipinos from Manila smuggled in at night some $650 worth of quinine and other medicines they had collected from the city’s drugstores. But it was a drop in the bucket. There were more than 1,000 wounded and hundreds of sick. Fifty per cent of the 4th Marines’ 1st Battalion had already undergone an epidemic of acute gastroenteritis, and 114 of the cases had been severe. There were also many cases of malaria and jaundice, and there had been a mild outbreak of tonsillitis.
Many of the Navy’s mine sweepers, local defense and naval district craft, and small boats had been sunk; others clustered close to the Rock, looking vainly for protection from the enemy’s murderous fire. Communications failed frequently. The beach defenses, isolated from the command in Malinta Tunnel and from each other, cached water supplies, rations, and ammunition.
So, facing the end, Corregidor girded for defeat.
From April 10 on, living on the Rock was like living in the center of a bullseye. The fortified islands were under crossfire from Bataan and Cavite, and almost continuous bombardment from the skies.
By April 14, only five days after Bataan’s surrender, all the seacoast batteries on Corregidor’s north shore were destroyed or out of action; confidently the Japanese put up two observation balloons on Bataan, emplaced more guns, and proceeded methodically to range on Corregidor’s big guns and south shore batteries. Japanese bombers in groups of three to nine flew over the Rock every couple of hours from 8 A.M. to sunset. At first, they flew at 20,000 feet, but when the antiaircraft guns opened, Japanese artillery on Bataan spotted their positions and smothered them in deadly fire. Gradually the antiaircraft fire slackened; soon enemy planes were swooping leisurely over Corregidor and dive-bombers were hurtling to within a few hundred feet of Malinta’s crest. The Japanese did not escape unscathed; a few planes were shot down, but far fewer than the American communiqués claimed.
The artillery fire was far more damaging than the bombing. The enemy blanketed the Rock with shells from 80 to 150 batteries, up to 240 mm. in size. Gun emplacements were wrecked, land mines exploded, the little vessels of the Navy’s inshore patrol sunk one by one, wire destroyed, beach defenses—painfully built up in weeks of toil—razed in one crushing barrage.
Corregidor’s response was brave but intermittent; batteries—those that were yet able to operate—fired “blind,” and even in the first half of April the ratio was at best one shell against four. Fifteen antiaircraft guns were salvaged from bombed-out batteries and moved to new locations. The 155's used for counterbattery work were shifted to new positions after each twenty rounds of fire. All mobile guns were moved into one-gun defiladed positions. Ordnance technicians, working steadily, modified the fuses of armor-piercing shells to explode on impact, but their best efforts added only twenty-five rounds a day to the magazines. Ammunition dumps went up in sputtering fireworks; toward sunset, parts of the Rock were sometimes veiled in dust and smoke—a haze so thick that the shores of Bataan and even the skies were obscured. The artillerymen and the 4th Marines, crouching, eating, sleeping, waiting in foxholes or in shallow tunnels dug into the sides of the hills, bore this unending bombardment with dull stoicism. Meals now were haphazard, for kitchens were hit and cooking had to be done in the dark. Some units were on one meal a day. Breakfast was eaten before dawn, dinner after dark.
Toward the end of April many men began to crack; morale sagged and cases of shell shock increased. During all this period, the 4th Marines, Navy personnel, and the splendid cadre of Regular Army men had held together and inspired the whole makeshift garrison. As the gun batteries were destroyed one after another, coast artillerymen became part of the beach-defense organization, and as the Navy’s minesweepers and small craft were sunk, sailors swam ashore to join the defense. At the last, the 4th Marines were the stiffening of a composite force the likes of which had never yet been seen in war—Coast Guard, Navy, Naval Reserve, Insular Force, U.S. Army, Philippine Army, Philippine Scouts, and Philippine Constabulary.
On April 29, two Navy PBY flying boats from Australia landed in the darkness with medicines and antiaircraft fuses—a last despairing gesture. They flew out, barely staggering off the water, with fifty nurses and key officers of MacArthur’s staff.
On May 3, the submarine Spearfish ran the blockade and took off twenty-five passengers, including thirteen women. One of these passengers, Lieutenant Commander Parker, was told by General Wainwright just before the Spearfish left that “they [the Japanese] will have to come take us. … They will never get this place any other way.” It was the Rock’s last personal contact with the outside world.
On May 4, 16,000 shells in twenty-four hours was the culminating blow; there was little left on the Rock—save the rock itself and men with heart and courage. The lovely green-capped hills now lay bare, the earth scourged and flayed and ulcered. All vegetation and all structures and buildings in the open were destroyed; shell cases from burned-out ammunition dumps pocked the landscape. Two more tunnel laterals had been cleared for hospital use, and still the sick and wounded overflowed. And only three or four days’ supply of water remained. Forty-six of forty-eight beach-defense guns had been destroyed and all of the Rock’s great batteries silenced—the mortars, the 12-inch rifles, the 8- and 10-inch disappearing guns, the 155’s. The small supply of star shells was exhausted, the searchlights—except for one or two—were wrecked; of the antiaircraft guns a few remained, but their firecontrol instruments were destroyed, and Japanese planes swept boldly a few hundred feet above the Rock to strafe and bomb. The great 14-inch guns on the other fortified islands were still firing, but except for those on Fort Drum, the “concrete battleship,” only intermittently. A thousand shells struck the deck of Fort Drum in one day, and some fifteen feet of its concrete was chipped away by shellfire during the siege, but its turrets still spoke.
It was time for the coup de grâce. James Ravine and the eastern end of Corregidor were battered all day on May 5; about 10:40 that night a terrific barrage was put down all over the island, particularly on the eastern end. The motors of barges were heard off the north and south shores, and at long last, after four months of siege, suffering, and bombardment, the defenders of Corregidor were face to face with their foes.
The enemy landed first a few minutes after eleven, before the moon rose, near North Point on the low tail of the island, and immediately extended his landings to the west. “On the high ground between the [north and south] shores,” Lieutenant Sidney F. Jenkins, Jr., later wrote, “there was a small landing field [Kindley Field] and on the ridge or hogback, extending westward from the airfield there were several 3-inch A.A. batteries"—among them Battery Denver. Their guns were depressed, and the gunners were ordered to hold the center of the Marine 1st Battalion line.
The 1st Battalion was responsible for everything east of Malinta to the tail of the island, a shore line of at least 10,000 yards. The 3rd Battalion held the middle sector of the Rock, and the 2nd the western end.
In reserve were the headquarters and service company of the regiment and the 4th Battalion of attached supernumeraries—who never before had fought as infantrymen and who would never do so again.
Some Japanese landing boats veered off from the 1st Battalion’s defensive fire and lay to, but the enemy filtered through a weak point to the east and drove in over his own dead. Some of the barges were sunk, and at least one of the landing attempts was turned back. The remaining guns on the outlying islands, answering the call for help from Corregidor, blasted Japanese troops and boat concentrations at Cabcaben on Bataan. Tracers flickered over North Point, Infantry Point, Artillery Point, and all the low tail of the island; shell splashes rose white and shining from the dark waters of the North Channel. But the enemy came on.
Company A of the ist Battalion got the brunt of the attack. The Marines lobbed hand grenades onto the beaches and died in their positions—but the Japanese came on.
Back at Marine regimental headquarters in Malinta Tunnel, communications were bad; the wires to battalions were in and out; field radios, runners, and patrols were used. The Marine commander, Colonel Samuel L. Howard, and the Army’s Major General George F. Moore, commander of the fortified islands, knew only that the Japanese, perhaps 500 or 600 of them, were ashore in the eastern end of the island. About midnight a clearer picture emerged; the hogback in the center extending from Kindley Field toward Malinta was the key. At all costs, Battery Denver, on the hogback, must keep the Japanese clear of Malinta Hill.
Colonel Howard and General Moore did not know it then, but Battery Denver had pulled back, leaving the flanks of A and B companies wide open. The first sergeant of the battery (Philippine Scouts) had been killed by artillery fire, and without a leader his men had gone to pieces. The Japanese had gotten through the hole on the hogback and were in behind the 1st Battalion’s beach-defense positions. Colonel Howard ordered in the reserves, a heterogeneous outfit of all ranks and services.
The 2nd and 3rdl battalions had orders to hold their beach-defense positions in the middle and at the western end of the island against the threat of further enemy landings. Here at the narrow eastern end, some platoons of the 1st Battalion were engaged in counterattacking Japanese troops already ashore; others, in repelling enemy boats still in the water. Some platoons had taken heavy casualties. Before the night was old there were more casualties than there were replacements. One squad had but two men left.
About 4 A.M. General Wainwright received a final message from President Roosevelt in Washington, ending in sad exaltation: “. . . You and your devoted followers have become the living symbols of our war aims and the guarantee of victory.” At about the same time, the last reserves, moving to attack, loaded down with hand grenades and ammunition, walked silently in two single-file columns on either side of the South Shore Road from their bivouac area down through Middleside—which was under desultory enemy shellfire—and then across low ground, where they were held up by an artillery barrage for about fifteen minutes. Then, passing silently, the reserves entered the west entrance to the hot and breathless Malinta Tunnel. Battalion headquarters was set up in the eastern end of Malinta Tunnel, and after a company-officers’ conference, the battalion filed out of the tunnel at 4:30 A.M. to the attack.
It moved out upon a confused and confusing battlefield. The Japanese landing and penetration through the 1st Battalion position had split up elements of A and B companies, and some were isolated behind the enemy lines in the Kindley Field area and to the east. A few Japanese had penetrated in the darkness up toward Malinta. American units were behind the Japanese lines, and vice versa. It was a fire-and-grenade fight with the main lines only thirty yards apart. So closely interwoven were the combatants in the darkness that when the Japanese called for an artillery barrage, it bracketed both sides; the Japanese sent up a rocket to silence their own guns.
While the scrapping was going on for the hogback, Japanese barges, stuttering away in the North Channel, were heading for other beaches. Five or six of them came in toward the outflanked and isolated men at Cavalry Point. The Marines there had only one .30 caliber and one .50 caliber machine gun to meet them. But the Marines were exultant. For four months they had been on the receiving end; now they had a chance to dish it out. They dropped hand grenades down on the beaches; they let the barges have it with pointblank fire. Many Japanese died in the water or on the sand.
There were other brushes along the north shore. One of the 75's that was still functioning (sited far beyond the main action) took some Japanese landing craft under fire and sank a number of them. At dawn, the enemy approached the North Dock area, where a cable barrier and a string of twenty-one 5oo-pound TNT sea mines were awaiting them, but Corregidor’s remaining artillery opened up and drove them off.
The Japanese still clung to the hogback reaching westward toward Malinta from Kindley Field, and they had inched forward in the dark hours, leaving behind them isolated units of Marines still fighting. It was into this scene that the composite reserve—the last vain hope—moved out from Malinta and launched its counterattack.
Exactly what happened in the predawn and morning hours of May 6 on the shell-shattered eastern slopes of Corregidor will never be known in full detail, for most of the men who could tell are dead. And even those who lived saw only segments of action; the fighting was inchoate, wild, vicious.
The counterattack made initial progress—but it was slow and painful. Two enemy guns—one in the ruins of a powder magazine and the other to the right of a road leading to the North Point observation post- held up the advance, but by 6 A.M. these had been knocked out. The line moved on, rooting out determined enemy resistance. But not for long. Heavy machine-gun fire came from a nest by a water tower near Mays Point. Two of the “old breed,” Sergeant Major Thomas F. Sweeney and Quartermaster Sergeant John H. Haskins—Marines from their tough jaws to their big feet—climbed the stone water tower under fire. They lobbed grenades into the Japanese lines and climbed down and up the tower several times to replenish their supply. They knocked out the machinegun nest, but one of them died at the bottom of the tower, and long afterward American prisoners of war, working on Corregidor, found the body of a sergeant on top of the tower. He was one of the great unsung heroes of the war.
There were many others who rose above and beyond the call of duty. A sergeant, assigned to a safe paperwork job in Malinta Tunnel, got permission to leave his job for an hour, organized a voluntary patrol of clerks, typists, and telephone men, knocked out one machine gun and two snipers, and then reported his return, saying, “I’m sorry I’m late, sir; it took me longer than I expected.”
The line moved on; it moved in blood and anguish, but now its progress slowed. The price was too high. Machine guns, mortars, and light artillery had been landed; the enemy came in the thousands. For dead Americans there were no replacements; behind the Japanese were thousands more on Bataan. The hospital tunnels were double-banked with bleeding, unconscious men, and many wounded now lay in the open exposed to the shells.
The Japanese made another landing attempt in the North Dock area, but the cable barrier and fierce defensive fire drove them off. Then, in midmorning, Japanese tanks came into action; the antitank barriers had been blasted to bits and there were no antitank guns to stop them. The Marines began to withdraw to the final defensive line in front of Malinta.
The last messages started to go out from Corregidor. From the Navy—Captain K. M. Hoeffel: “One hundred and seventy-three officers and twenty-three hundred and seventeen men of the Navy reaffirm their loyalty and devotion to country, families and friends....”
The Marines were silent, save with their guns.
From the Army—a soldier named Irving Strobing tapped his key in the depths of Maliuta Tunnel, while America hung on his words: “They are not near yet. We are waiting for God only knows what. How about a chocolate soda? . . . We may have to give up by noon; we don’t know yet. They are throwing men and shells at us, and we may not be able to stand it. They have been shelling us faster than you can count....”
On the torn and blasted battlefield of Corregidor, the shells still fell and the Marines still fought, but an order went out: “Execute Pontiac; execute Pontiac.”
It was the code name for that last bitter order which in their hearts they had known would some day come. It was surrender—by Wainwright’s orders—as of twelve noon, May 6, 1942, a date that will always live in sorrow and in pride.
(At his headquarters on Bataan, General Homma, the Japanese commander, was moaning as he listened to reports of the fighting: “My God! I have failed in the assault.")
Surrender was Wainwright’s decision, but the Marines’ Colonel Howard agreed with it. Japanese tanks were within a few hundred yards of Malinta Tunnel; water was nearly gone. Wainwright thought of his hostages to fortune—more than 1,000 wounded and 150 nurses. MacArthur had said to hold until he returned, but Corregidor was finished.
At the Marines’ regimental headquarters in Malinta Tunnel, Colonel Curtis ordered the adjutant, Captain R. B. Moore, to burn the regimental and national colors. Moore came back with a tear-streaked face.
The psychological and emotional tragedy of surrender, especially to a Corps with the pride of the Marines, is wracking. And for the 2nd and 3rd battalions defending the beaches of the central and western parts of the island, surrender was bitter anticlimax. For months these men with the stoicism born of discipline had been taking it, had seen some of their comrades blown to bits, had watched the gradual destruction of the fortress of Corregidor. And now that the Japanese had landed, they had expected a chance to dish it out. But this was not to be. The enemy had landed in the 1st Battalion area, and the men of the 2nd and 3rd battalions scarcely fired a shot.
Captain William F. Prickett said: “I’ve lived pretty close with you men for the past five months and I’ve grown pretty fond of you all—and proud of you too, mighty proud . . .” Prickett broke down.
They hurled their rifle bolts into the bay, and then while the shells whistled overhead and the smoke from Corregidor curled upward, they washed, scraped the whiskers from their strained faces, donned the cleanest uniforms they had, and prepared to show the Japanese the pride of the Marines.
In Malinta Tunnel, Irving Strobing tapped on:
We’ve got about fifty-five minutes and I feel sick at my stomach. I am really low down. They are around now smashing rifles. They bring in the wounded every minute. We will be waiting for you guys to help. This is the only thing I guess that can be clone. General Wainwright is a right guy and we’re willing to go on for him, but shells were dropping all night, faster then hell. Damage terrific. Too much for guys to take.... The jig is up. Everyone is bawling like a baby.... They are piling dead and wounded in our tunnel.... I know now how a mouse feels. Caught in a trap waiting for guys to come along and finish it up....
On Corregidor, the white flags of surrender were flying; it was noon.
The key chattered on:
My name is Irving Strobing. Get this to my mother. Mrs. Minnie Strobing, 605 Barbey Street, Brooklyn, New York. They are to get along O.K. Get in touch with them soon as possible. Message. My love to Pa, Joe, Sue, Mac, Carry, Joyce and Paul. Also to all family and friends. God bless ‘em all. Hope they will be there when I come home. Tell Joe, wherever he is to give ’em hell for us. My love to you all. God bless you and keep you. Love. Sign my name and tell Mother how you heard from me. Stand by …
The shells still fell. The 14-inch turrets of Fort Drum continued firing to within five minutes of the end. This was the one battery in all the fortified islands that was never out of action. Drum was hammered by at least 1,000 shells on the last day—and its guns still fired.
The earth still shook on Corregidor; the tunnel lights in Malinta still glowed and flickered fitfully at the crash of explosions. And, in parts of the island, Marines and soldiers—because they were tough troops and the orders to surrender had not gotten through—holed up in foxholes and clugouts and fought through the long blistering afternoon to their death.
The messages broke off....
Corregidor was silent.