Sixty-six years ago this week, Major General Edward King, U.S. Army, set off on a bitter mission. Wearing the best uniform he could muster, King and a small entourage headed north along the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines, searching for Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, commander of the Japanese 14th Army.
For more than three months, Homma's forces had been advancing slowly south, pushing U.S. and Filipino forces into an ever-shrinking section of the rugged peninsula. Now, the battle was drawing to a close. With food and medical supplies exhausted--and many of his soldiers sick or injured--King carried the white flag of surrender. Further resistance would be futile, he decided, and likely result in the wholesale slaughter of the troops that remained.
After being strafed by Japanese fighters as they drove north, King and his party finally reached Japanese lines. On the morning of 9 April 1942, the American general discussed terms of surrender to Homma's subordinate, Maj. Gen. Kameichiro Nagano. Several hours of negotiations ensued; at their conclusion, King agreed to the Japanese terms, and ordered his surviving soldiers--75,000 Filipinos and Americans--to lay down their arms.
General King, a Georgia lawyer-turned-artillery officer and the son of Confederate veterans, fully understood the irony and humiliation of his actions. Not only did the Bataan surrender represent the largest capitulation in U.S. military history; it came on the 77th anniversary of Robert E. Lee's surrender to U. S. Grant at Appomattox.
King's decision did not enjoy the support of his superiors. Six days earlier, General Douglas MacArthur, still in command of allied forces in the Philippines, stated that "no surrender should be considered," and if necessary, remaining units should "charge the enemy. Make one last stand." President Franklin Delano Roosevelt echoed MacArthur's sentiments, issuing his own "no surrender" orders.
Of course, FDR was far removed from the fighting, but so was General MacArthur. At the direction of the Commander-in-Chief, the general had left the Philippines almost a month earlier, moving to a new headquarters in Australia. From that location, he urged top commanders, Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright and General King, to fight on. King, understanding that the end was near, surrendered his command on Bataan. Wainwright and the U.S. garrison on Corregidor capitulated a month later.
Seven decades later, MacArthur's actions during the Bataan campaign have left an (understandably) bitter taste among his former troops. Bataan survivor Lester Tenney penned an op-ed for the yesterday's edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune, noting the contradictions between the general's rhetoric and his actions.
While such criticism is hardly new, it is justifiable, based on the historical record. While MacArthur is among the greatest generals that American has produced, his leadership during the early days of the war was less-than-inspiring.
Despite having eight hours' warning of a possible Japanese attack--and being urged to commence operations--MacArthur was, by some accounts, paralyzed during the early stages of the conflict. His recently-appointed air commander, Major General Lewis Brereton, urged him to launch a B-17 attack against Japanese bases on Taiwan, but MacArthur declined. Meanwhile, Brereton had failed to disperse his forces, or camouflage key facilities. When the attack came, most of MacArthur's air assets were destroyed on the ground.
After the Japanese invasion, General MacArthur delayed a planned withdrawal into Bataan, believing that he would still receive supplies and replacements from the United States, despite the debacle at Pearl Harbor. When his initial defense lines in northern Luzon failed, U.S. and Filipino troops made a hasty retreat into Bataan, barely escaping destruction.
Making matters worse, supplies that were supposed to be transferred to Bataan fell into Japanese hands. By the time MacArthur left for Australia, his soldiers were eating mules, monkeys, snakes and iguanas in order to survive. Toward the end, allied troops were subsisting on just 1700 calories a day, hardly enough to sustain soldiers in combat.
Despite increasingly grim conditions, MacArthur held out hope of rescue and reinforcements. On 15 January 1942, the general told his men that "Help is on the way from the United States...thousands of troops and hundreds of planes are being dispatched." Later, he told his men on Bataan "our supplies are ample," encouraging them to hold out until help arrived "any day now." And they fought on, against desperate odds, until General King made his fateful decision.
MacArthur was reportedly angered by King's decision, and he was furious when Wainwright surrendered Corregidor a month later. When General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, nominated Wainwright for the Congressional Medal of Honor, MacArthur protested angrily. Stunned, Marshall withdrew the nomination. Wainwright eventually received the medal, but only after being liberated from a Japanese prison in 1945.
Both King and Wainwright were treated brutally by the Japanese, as were other members of their command. General King's surrender was followed by the Bataan Death March, which claimed the lives of at least 1,000 Americans and more than 5,000 Filipinos. Many were too sick or weak to walk to their prison camp, and Japanese guards brutally executed men who fell out of the column.
As for General MacArthur, he received the Medal of Honor for his defense of Bataan, just eight days before King was forced to surrender. The citation reads:
For conspicuous leadership in preparing the Philippine Islands to resist conquest, for gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action against invading Japanese forces, and for the heroic conduct of defensive and offensive operations on the Bataan Peninsula. He mobilized, trained, and led an army which has received world acclaim for its gallant defense against a tremendous superiority of enemy forces in men and arms. His utter disregard of personal danger under heavy fire and aerial bombardment, his calm judgment in each crisis, inspired his troops, galvanized the spirit of resistance of the Filipino people, and confirmed the faith of the American people in their Armed Forces.
As historian Robert Daniels noted last year (with only a touch of understatement), Douglas MacArthur may have been a good general…he may have even been a great general…but the defense of the Philippines in late 1941 and early 1942 was not his shining moment. Facing a difficult situation in defending an area with poorly equipped troops and a lack of air cover, MacArthur exacerbated a grim situation with his flawed decision-making.
And thousands of American soldiers--and their Filipino allies--paid the price.