Mitsubishi G3M "Rikko" were among the first Japanese
planes to bomb the Philippines
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
On December 7, 1941 (December 8 in the Philippines), the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii before a formal declaration of war was sent (presumably a technical error, which the Americans did not believe anyway). Hours later, the invasion of the Philippines, America's only major colony, began. The Far East Air Force (FEAF) wanted to be on air as early as 5:00 AM, barely two hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. An immediate offensive may have been expected as the radar seems to detect enemy craft. Since General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), cannot be reached through available communication lines, a precautionary move to be on air was made by around 8:00 AM. However, they spotted only Japanese scout planes checking the weather. By 11:00 AM, most of the American planes, including most of the B-17 Flying Fortress, were being refueled and serviced at Clark Air Base in Luzon. Within the hour, the radar detected enemy planes once more, but this time, it seemed to be a determined raid, as the first force approached at around 200 kilometers of the air base. However, only some planes of the pursuit squadrons were on air at the time of the attack, and these are not enough to halt the impending raids. Half of around 200 to 300 American planes of good condition were wiped out in 45 minutes. Within a few days, the air force was no more, as the remaining bombers were flown to Mindanao, and then to Australia.

Japanese soldiers landing on Philippine shores
Photo courtesy of World War 2 Database
What went wrong?

Of course, the FEAF command may have not been more wrong. The raids were supposedly scheduled for 6:30 AM, but the likely reason why they only found scouting planes is because the Japanese were stopped by thick fog over the skies of Taiwan (Formosa), where the Japanese planes came from, and the Philippines. The delay proved fortuitous for the Japanese. Anyway, at the outset, the Japanese outnumbered American planes (541 to 300). At the same time, landings began on Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, as a pincer movement was launched to pin down the main Filipino-American force. While MacArthur hoped to stop the Japanese forces, led by General Masaharu Homma, at the beaches and push them back to the sea (War Plan Rainbow), it was simply not accomplished. Homma's two divisions (16th and 48th) total up to 100,000 soldiers, while the combined Filipino-American force (around 130,000 total) had the 100,000-strong Philippine Army and the 30,000-strong Philippine Division, an extension of the United States Army, which included some 10,000 Philippine Scouts. Also, Homma's two tank regiments total up to 100 tanks, composed mainly of the Type 95 Ha-Go, while the two American tank regiments also total up to 100 tanks, which is mainly constituted by the M3 Stuart. Despite the apparent equality in terms of manpower and ground forces, the differences between the two forces are evident. The Japanese had been formally in war since 1937 (with China), and so their training and battle experience would prove much more than that of the Filipinos, which had not been in war for four decades. The hastily mobilized Philippine Army, which was supposed to be at full strength only by 1946, only had little training (six months). Meanwhile, the Philippine Division may have been the only match to the Japanese troops, but another problem bogged them down. The lack of equipment, most of which were bought only for bargain or war surplus, is a major setback to the combined Filipino-American force. The Japanese possessed five artillery battalions with some 50 guns each, while on the opposing side, there was virtually none. The artillery regiment in the Philippines was mainly anti-aircraft, not for support of ground operations. The Japanese also had the advantage of an intact air force and navy to support the invasion. Overwhelmed, MacArthur was forced to revert to the original plan, War Plan Orange, by January 7, 1942. This meant the withdrawal to Bataan. With the Filipino-American force (totaling to some 80,000 troops) cornered, and reinforcements coming steady, Homma thought that the campaign would be over soon. Encouraging reports were also being received, as Japanese objectives begin to be completed one by one. Hong Kong fell on December 25, 1941. Thailand was invaded without a fight. Invasion began in Burma (Myanmar), Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), and New Guinea.

The situation on Bataan as of January 8, 1942
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
What took so long?

By February, MacArthur was called to retreat to Australia, and then to the United States. This is when he delivered his famous line, "I shall return." Of course, few would have believed him at the time. The United States in general may have also been shocked by the course of the war in the Philippines. A defense program has been ongoing since 1935 (though it is mostly underfunded and checked by the US government - for instance, MacArthur's request for an upgrade of M1 Garand rifles from Enfield rifles was rejected), and MacArthur is not an ordinary general. If the Japanese cannot be repulsed, then the situation looked ominous indeed. Nevertheless, the supposedly quick campaign was not realized. Despite the arrival of occasional aid from the United States (which is not enough anyway, as the war plan expected only 40,000 to 50,000 troops to fall back to Bataan) and the absence of the supreme commander, the Filipino-American force managed to hold out. This time, Homma may have been losing his cool. Singapore fell on February 15, and this is where General Tomoyuki Yamashita gained the moniker "Tiger of Malaya." Perhaps if Homma achieved victory earlier, he might be called the "Tiger of Bataan"? Australia was bombed for the first time on February 19. By March 9, the entire Dutch East Indies was conquered, and in the same month, the Japanese have reached India. The Filipino-American force proved tough opponents after all, as seen in the Battle of the Pockets (January 23-February 17) and the Battle of the Points (January 22-February 13), which were Japanese defeats. Bataan would not fall until April 9, an entire month after that of the Dutch East Indies, and only after severe artillery bombardment by some 300 artillery guns. This is when Homma decided that further encounters like that of the Pockets and the Points would cost more of his troops. Some 60,000 to 80,000 troops were taken prisoner and forced by the Japanese to undergo the infamous Bataan Death March, which may have claimed up to 18,000 lives. However, victory was far from achieved, and this pushed Homma. The fall of Bataan is not without cost. Since new fronts were opened with the Japanese campaigns elsewhere, no additional reinforcements are expected anytime soon as troops have to be realigned from the Philippine theater. He is left with around 75,000 Japanese troops.

Filipino and American soldiers surrender at Corregidor
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Meanwhile, some 11,000 to 13,000 Filipino and American soldiers evacuated to Corregidor, a small island at the mouth of Manila Bay, to hold out against the Japanese. The war plan provided only for the protection of Manila and Manila Bay, but with Manila falling as early as January 2, the force in Corregidor seemed like a bird in a cage. Homma resorted to tactics which led to the fall of Bataan, artillery bombardment. Around 12,000 shells fall on the island every day. While Corregidor itself, a formidable base built during the Spanish era, had artillery of its own, it proved to be of no match to the Japanese. Rations were down to fractions, and water is distributed only twice a day. Then, on May 5, the Japanese invasion began. The day after, on May 6, the combined force, this time under the command of General Jonathan Wainwright, surrendered with around 10,000 remaining troops. However, Homma may have been furious to know that the surrender only represented that of the Luzon Force. On May 8, a message to surrender was sent to General William Sharp, commander of the Visayas-Mindanao Force. The troops in Visayas would surrender on May 10, and the troops in Mindanao on May 12. The conquest of the Philippines is complete.

Pacific War Memorial at Corregidor
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
What is the significance of Bataan and Corregidor?

Bataan and Corregidor had been merely sideshows during the Philippine Revolution (1896) and the Philippine-American War (1899), but perhaps owing to War Plan Orange, these two places have been major theaters of the Second World War in the Philippines. With the legendary imprint left by these two battles, Filipinos commemorate the Day of Valor or Araw ng Kagitingan every April 9 and May 6, but more so on April 9, which is even a public holiday. The phrase "Huwag isuko ang Bataan" was engraved as a symbol of not giving up. However, critics may argue that it is inherent in Filipino culture to celebrate defeats than victories, a practice that is not observed in many countries. For instance, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo for the Mexican victory against the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The Turkish celebrate their victory against the combined British-Australian-New Zealander force at the Gallipoli Campaign on March 18, 1915. So on and so forth. However, for the Philippines, we celebrate our National Heroes' Day on a date when Filipino revolutionaries lost to the Spanish (Battle of Pinaglabanan or Battle of San Juan del Monte). Nevertheless, while remembering victories is one thing, recalling our defeats may not be so bad.

Mitsubishi A6M Zero preparing to attack Pearl Harbor
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
In the outset, both MacArthur and President Manuel Quezon figured that the Philippines cannot be defended in case a war does erupt in the Pacific. The defense program, which began in 1935 in accordance to the National Defense Act, provided for the creation of a professional regular force of 10,000 (mainly Philippine Scouts and Philippine Constabulary elements), and a 400,000-strong reserve force to compensate for a small regular force, which paved way for making the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) mandatory. Of course, this looked well on paper, and the Japanese may have actually thought twice if confronted with a Philippine Army at full strength. Japan had already committed more than a million soldiers in China alone, and at the start of the Pacific War, Japan can only devote a million more elsewhere. However, the program was scheduled to finish by 1946, and the Philippine Army was not even half of its projected strength. The limited Filipino budget, which already committed as much as 20 percent to 25 percent of its national expenditure to defense alone, and the limited support of the United States to defense efforts, proved to be disadvantageous to the Philippines. The soldiers had to make do with antiquated weapons and makeshift armor, such as coconut husks for helmets. The air force and navy was a far cry from what the Japanese attacked with. For instance, the P-40 Warhawk (the FEAF main fighter) is no match to the Mitsubishi A6M Zero (the Imperial Japanese Air Force main fighter), more so the P-26 Peashooter (the Philippine Army Air Corps main fighter). The Zero is faster (660 kph maximum speed versus P-40s 580 kph and P-20s 377 kph), and has greater range (3,100 kilometers versus P-40s 1,100 kilometers and P-20s 1,020 kilometers). The Philippine Offshore Patrol only had torpedo boats (codenamed PT) to go against the Imperial Japanese Navy Third Fleet. As for the US Asiatic Fleet, which has a more impressive array than the Offshote Patrol, had two cruisers (one heavy, one light), 13 destroyers, 5 gunboats, 29 submarines, and 6 minesweepers. However, just like the FEAF, the Asiatic Fleet was reduced to half in the opening moments of the war, and just like the FEAF, the surviving components of the Asiatic Fleet were evacuated to Australia.

There is the notion that our performance against the Japanese saved Australia and New Zealand from Japanese invasion. Of course, this may well be speculation. The Japanese invaded Indonesia well before Bataan was surrendered, and true enough, Australia was already under attack from Japanese planes while the Bataan campaign goes on. It would have been a better staging point to invade further south from Indonesia than the Philippines, geographically speaking. Nevertheless, this very notion would be used by war veterans such as President Ferdinand Marcos later on to polish his war record. As cited in the Marcos biography, he received medals for his exploits which did not let "Bataan fall sooner than it did" and "saved Australia and New Zealand."

Are we really into glorifying our defeats? Or perhaps, there is some hidden glory behind them? Looking back, it can well be said that we fought a good fight. Even if the chances of winning are slim, we took the opportunity to fight for freedom. Whether or not Bataan and Corregidor saved this side of the world from Japanese domination, it remains to be seen. There are still a number of factors to consider, such as the Japanese stretched lines of supplies and communication, and so on. The significance and legacy of Bataan and Corregidor is beyond this. The Philippine campaign (December 1941-May 1942) took longer than anywhere else the Japanese ventured during the Pacific War, even Burma (January-May 1942). As popularized during the Korean War, "Freedom is not free." The freedom which our people enjoy today has been founded on the cost of our fighters. As the Bataan and Corregidor battles commemorate its 75th anniversary, may we always remember this.

See the references here.