The Philippines' Archipelago, which includes some 7,000 islands, had been under American rule since 1898, when the United States conquered the country from the Spanish. Since the beginning of the century the Americans had not invested much in protecting the Philippines despite the potential of conflict with Japan at the turn of the century when Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. Moreover the US supported China throughout the war with Japan from 1931, when the latter occupied Manchuria.
The American strategy throughout that period did not consider the Philippines as an asset to be protected from a general attack. In the event of such a development, a defensive plan called "Plan Orange was prepared. According to this plan, the small forces in the Philippines would defend themselves against an enemy attack and would gradually withdraw to the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island and where they would wait for the US Navy, which would have organized itself in the meantime in Hawaii and would make its way to the Philippines to rescue the soldiers there.
In 1935, the US Congress decided to grant independence to the Philippines. It was decided that Independence would be granted after 10 years (until 1946). During this period, the United States would help establishing self-rule and democratic governmental institutions in the Philippines. Among other things, it was decided that an army would be formed for the future state, and in the meantime, it was called the Commonwealth of the Philippines and Manuel Quezon was elected President.
At that time, Douglas MacArthur had finished his term of service as US Army Chief of Staff and was asked by President Roosevelt to assist the Philippine government to establish its own army, with the goal that in 1946 not a single American soldier would remain on Philippine soil.
MacArthur moved to the Philippines (together with his aides, the Majors James B. Orde and Dwight D. Eisenhower) and prepared a 10-year plan to build the army. It consisted of a regular formation on the basis of the formation that the Americans had already built and called the Philippine Scouts with the strength and composition of a 10,000-man division and 10 reserve divisions of about 400,000 personnel in total. A small navy and air force were planned too.
Establishment of the Far East Command
This situation did not change until July 1941, despite the war that broke out in Europe and the escalating tension in relations with Japan since its invasion of China in 1937 and American activity, which included the establishment of an air force for China including a unit of American pilots and under American command (“The Flying Tigers“) and imposing an embargo on Japan.
Only after Japan signed the Tripartite Agreement with Germany and Italy and its takeover of Indochina (with the consent of the Vichy French authorities) did the US Supreme Command decide to take action.
In July 1941, a new Command of the United States Army, the Far East Command, was set up with its Headquarters in Manila and commanded by General MacArthur, who was reinstated from his retirement and his post was integrated with his function then as chief military adviser to the Philippine government and Army (which he had filled for six years) and was now responsible to the U.S. Army. With the establishment of the new command, talks began between the General Staff in Washington and General MacArthur about the functions of the army in the Philippines, and MacArthur convinced the General Staff and Chief of Staff General Marshall that given adequate resources the whole of the Philippines could be defended. He claimed that he had sufficient infantry forces,(he - rejected the proposal to receive the 41st National Guard Division because he said that he already had such a unit - the Philippine Division)and with the mobilization of the entire Philippine Army he had sufficient forces, but what he needed urgently were air and armor.
And indeed, in the coming months, the PPhilippines were given first priority in military reinforcements, and every request by MacArthur was immediately answered with the only limitation being the number of ships available for the delivery of equipment and weapons.
The main task of the new command was to recruit, train and equip the Philippine army’s10 divisions. MacArthur set the date of September 1st as the start of the recruitment process. Over the next three months, US military personnel in the islands were mainly engaged in building up the forces which, included recruitment, housing, training and equipping the Philippine army. In addition, new equipment and weapons that arrived during this period from the United States were absorbed.
These reinforcements enabled the establishment of a Provisional Tank Group of 108 M3-Stuart light tanks (two battalions of 54 tanks each), reinforcement of artillery to protect the coasts and ports amounting to nine battalions, and an anti-aircraft regiment –the 200th - Coastal Artillery Regiment to protect the three airfields that were quickly built and expanded on the northern island of Luzon -the largest and most important island in the Philippines. However the main reinforcements that MacArthur received were 35 B-17 bombers and 108 Curtiss P-40 “Kittyhawk” fighter planes that were the newest types in the US Army, bringing the Air Force strength up to 277 aircraft in addition to 64 Philippine Air Force planes of which 50 of them were training planes. This air power which was, organized as the Far East Air Force, (FEAF) in four wings under the command of General Louis Brereton, was the largest and most advanced air concentration of the United States in the Pacific and East Asia Zones.
The total Order of Battle in the Philippines in early December amounted to 11 divisions with about 120,000 troops, with more than 30,000 Americans and the rest local troops.
The defense plan
In early August, General MacArthur received the General Staff's plan for the forthcoming war called "Rainbow 5." According to this plan, Europe would take precedence over East Asia and the Philippines could be given up after carrying out defensive operations for a period of time that would delay the Japanese. According to the traditional “Plan Orange” the American forces would be evacuated by the navy coming from Hawaii. MacArthur expressed his reservations about the approach reflected in this plan, in which the Filipino army - his proud creation – was regarded only as a delaying and cover force that could be done without after a certain period for the sake of more valuable goals. He claimed that his 11- division army, augmented by the latest American weapons, could defeat any Japanese attack and even attack Japanese bases and transport lines within the range of the B-17 bombers from the Philippines, such as Formosa, for example and thus make the Philippines a key strategic area in East Asia in the overall war against the Japanese.
Moreover, his army did not need the withdrawal plan to Bataan and Corregidor because it could protect the entire country.
At the beginning of November, the US Chief of Staff, General Marshall, informed MacArthur that the General Staff accepted his plan, cancelled “Plan Orange" and introduced the necessary changes in “Plan Rainbow". MacArthur organized his forces in four tactical commands on all the islands, with the strongest command set for Luzon Island in a four-division order of battle under the command of General Jonathan Wainwright. The Far East Fleet under Admiral Hart, which included 2 cruisers, 8 destroyers and 29 submarines, was to provide security of the sea lanes to the island, and the area close to it, and to prevent any enemy landing.
The Japanese plan
The Japanese assigned an attack on the Philippines to the 14th Army under the command of General Masaharu Homma. This army was subordinate to the Japanese Southern Command (The Southern Army) under the command of General, Count Terauchii, who was responsible for conquering all of Southeast Asia, including Malaya, Burma, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and the Philippines. The Order of Battle of the 14th Army consisted of two divisions, the 16th and the 48th and one brigade -the 65th. But the Japanese prepared a coordinated inter - arm operation to conquer the Philippines the Order of Battle of the 14th Army was composed of two divisions –the 16th and 48th as well as one brigade -- 65 Brigade. However the Japanese prepared an inter-arm operation to capture the Philippines in which in addition to the 14th Army, there was also the participation of the 5th Air Force under Lt. Gen. General Obata and the 3rd Fleet under the command of Admiral Tsukahara, who brought to the battlefield his own air force, the 11th Air Fleet.
The first stage of the Japanese plan was to cut the Philippines off from the American bases in the Pacific Ocean (Pearl Harbor, Hawaii) by conquering the islands of Wake and Guam.
These conquests were carried out during the first days of the war and from 22nd December, the nearest Japanese base to the Philippines was more than 2,000 km away.
In the second stage, it was necessary to destroy the American Far East Air Force as well as the Asian Fleet and attain naval and air supremacy over the battle zone - this mission was assigned to the 11th Naval Air Fleet from its bases in Formosa.
The third stage was the capture of airfields in the Philippines where the Japanese 5th Air Fleet could deploy to provide close air support to the army.
In the fourth stage the main landings would be carried out by the 48th Division in Luzon and the 16th Division in the south, with the aim of isolating and destroying the majority of the American forces in the Philippines.
The opening of the offensive - the destruction of half of the American air force.
On the afternoon of 8 December 1941, the Japanese Navy’s 11th Air Force, taking off from bases in Formosa attacked the Far East American Air Force at Clark and Iba airfields on the island of Luzon and achieved perfect tactical surprise when most of the American planes were lined up on the ground.
This attack, which was carried out by 108 twin-engine bombers and 84 Zero fighter planes, destroyed 18 B17 bombers, 53 P40 fighter planes and 30 aircraft of various types, causing 80 dead and 150 wounded, all for the loss of only 7 aircraft, and eliminated the US Far East Air Force as a combat force capable of dealing with the Japanese air forces.
This impressive success, which took place 9 hours after Pearl Harbor, can be explained by the attack conception of the American Supreme Command in the Far East, which led to more than half of their air force to be located in Luzon the northern island of the Philippines, within the range of a raid from the Japanese bombers in Formosa. They also had the difficulty in making a decision to carry out a pre-emptive strike by B17’s on the Japanese bases in Formosa (according to their operative plan), When the decision was finally made to carry out such a strike it was planned to take place in the last light of December 8th and the first light of the 9th, the aircraft were thus caught on the ground in stages of refuelling and rearming with the crews eating lunch when the Japanese attacked.
This loss and the continuation of the Japanese bombing raids in subsequent days that completed the destruction of the ground installations (hangars, workshops, radar systems) forced the Air Force to withdraw the remainder of its B-17 bombers to Australia and the Navy to evacuate most of its forces as well except for submarine and seaplanes to the south and to distant bases
Thus even before the start of the main land battle, MacArthur found himself without a fleet and air force, cut off from the US bases in the Pacific Ocean with the Japanese enemy enjoying absolute aerial and naval superiority.
The preliminary landings
The first Japanese landing on Philippine soil took place in the small island of Batan, halfway between Formosa and Luzon. It was the first of six preliminary landings of the Japanese 14th Army. The others were carried out in Aparri and Vigan (in the north and northwest of Luzon), Legaspi (south of Luzon, on the land strip linking the island to the rest of the Philippines), in Davao, the main port of the large southern island of Mindanao and in the island of Jolo between Mindanao and Borneo. The purpose of these landings was to take control of airfields from which the air force could assist in the main landings. The landing in Legaspi was intended to cut-off the forces in Luzon from the south and the landing in Davao and Jolio were intended to develop the offensive against the Dutch-East Indies (Indonesia).
The Japanese took a calculated risk of using relatively small forces to land in unprotected places - the largest force in these preliminary landings was no more than a brigade. A battalion of naval troops of 490 men landed on Batan Island on the evening of 8th December without encountering resistance. Two days later, this force advanced southwards and took over the island of Camiguin, where it prepared a landing strip for naval aircraft about 70 kilometers north of Luzon Island.
In the last light of December 10th, Task Force Tanaka (named after 2nd Formosan Brigade Commander) with a strength of 2,000 soldiers, landed in Appari and Gonzaga (35 km to the east) without being discovered.
The remaining battalion and half of this brigade, which composed the Kanno Task Force, landed simultaneously in Pandan near Vigan. Here the Japanese were out of luck, they were discovered by an American air patrol that alerted the Far East Air Force. The remnants of the B17 bombers, accompanied by P40 fighter planes, attacked the landing ships during the landing and the Japanese planes failed to cover the landing forces. Two of the transport ships were hit and had to beach themselves. However the landing on a whole was successful despite the difficult sea conditions and the air strikes. The next night a small combat team captured the town and airfield of Laoag. With three airfields captured and with no significant counterattacks or resistance, the Japanese commanders decided to unify the entire brigade and advance southward toward the expected main landing area of the 14th Army in the Lingayen Gulf.
There were a few delays due to the need to repair a number of bridges and short clashes with Philippine forces in the area of Bakuntan. The brigade arrived in the landing area a few hours after it began. The 3rd Battalion of the 12th Philippine Brigade was responsible for the defense of the Appari-Gonzaga coastal section, but it quickly retreated inland towards the Cagayan Valley without showing resistance. On the evening of December 12th the airfield of Tuguegarao was lost and the Filipino-American forces offered no resistance in the Vigan sector. In the south of Luzon, in the Legaspi region, the landing was carried out without any resistance, as the nearest defensive force was about 280 kilometres north of there.
General Jones, Commander of the South Luzon Command, ordered the detonation of bridges and sections of the road and railway northward, and prepared a number of positions along the route of the Japanese advance. In Davao, a 101 Brigade machine gunner managed to cause a number of casualties, but was immediately silenced by a ship's shell and the Japanese completed their mission on the 20th of the month. On the island of Jolio, the Japanese were attacked by B17 bombers who came from Australia but they didn’t hit anything. The island was captured on Christmas Day.
The landing of the main force
The early landings carried out by relatively small forces did not alert the American Command, and the tactic adopted by it was to carry out a withdrawal and delaying of the enemy forces in the central area of the country and moving towards the mountainous areas of the northern center of the island of Luzon. The forces would take up positions to defend the vital passes in this area. Meanwhile, the time was utilised to prepare for the landing of the Japanese main force, which was expected to land in the Lingayen Gulf. In this sector of the coast there were two Filipino divisions (with American tutelage) which were reinforced by General Wainwright's Northern Luzon Command, whose mission was to push the invaders back into the sea.
Within two weeks, the achievements of the Japanese, under the command of General Homma exceeded all expectations; they occupied the airfields in northern and southern Luzon, in Mindanao and in Jolo. They almost completely destroyed the Far East Air Force, and the main landing force approached the landing beaches in total security. With the first light of December 22nd, the 48th Division began to land in the Lingayan Gulf. What was supposed to be the main defense zone of the Filipino-American forces proved to be the weakest, with the Filipino soldiers running away in every encounter with the Japanese.
Although the Japanese landing force was made up only of units of the 48th Division in the face of two reinforced divisions of the Philippine Army, it soon became clear that the Filipino troops recruited a few months before and being without aerial cover or assistance from the sea, were no match for the Japanese coordinated forces which enjoyed close air support as well as support of naval artillery. It took MacArthur 36 hours to realize that his whole concept regarding the fighting capability of the Philippine army had collapsed. On the evening of December 23rd, he gave orders to switch to the old "Orange Plan" defense program. The meaning of this order was the breaking –off of contact by the forces protecting the coasts and to retreat towards the Bataan Peninsula and the island of Corregidor, all under enemy fire and pressure
The problem was that In spite of the all the feverish preparations that began in order to change the defense plan, the previous decision - --defending all the islands, and all the beaches - allocated in advance many resources that were designated according to "Plan Orange" for Bataan and Corregidor, and were spread out all over the islands. In the new circumstances created it was now impossible to turn the wheel back. In this way, it came about that for the tens of thousands of soldiers now concentrated in Bataan there were provisions and medical equipment sufficient for only 30 days (and not 90 days to six months according to the original plan). Thus, the Allied army suffered from a severe maintenance shortage from the beginning of the fighting according to “Plan Orange“.
Bataan and Corregidor
The basic premise of "Plan Orange" was that the mission was only temporary until reinforcements / rescue forces arrived from Hawaii. However, despite the American attempt to send such a convoy of reinforcements, called the "Pensacola Convoy" (after the battleship around which the convoy was formed), it soon became clear to the US High Command in Washington that in light of Japan's total control of the air and sea, the convoy had no chance of reaching the defenders of the Philippines, so it was diverted to Australia. Thus, the Philippine Army was condemned to continue to fight without any chance of reinforcement or rescue.
This futile situation did not influence MacArthur to operate according to a more flexible plan such as retreat to the south of the islands. He continued to bombard Washington with demands that had no chance of realization. However, Bataan's defense was successful initially, and the Japanese were forced to withdraw after suffering 7,000 casualties of which 2,700 were killed and another 12,000 fell ill with various tropical diseases. In this situation, when a certain respite happened, MacArthur received a direct order from the President to evacuate to Australia and transfer command to General Wainwright (despite MacArthur's protests that he wanted to continue to command from Australia). In early March, MacArthur and his wife and son and a small group of staff officers managed to slip away under the noses of the Japanese with motor torpedo boats and arrive in Australia to continue the fight from there.
The forces in the Philippines managed to hold out, but the Japanese launched a new offensive on April 4th that broke and destroyed the American defences. Within a day, 78,000 soldiers surrendered of which more than 20,000 were Americans. It took another month for the final surrender of the last defenders of Corregidor with their commander, General Wainwright, on 6th May 1942.