Sunday, April 08, 2012

Remembering Ned King

Monday marks the 70th anniversary of the surrender of U.S. and Filipino forces on Bataan, the largest capitulation in American military history. From our post on the subject in 2008:

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.

Eight decades after King's surrender, the decision remains controversial--at least from the perspective of his superiors. Both General Douglas MacArthur (who was evacuated from the Philippines days earlier) and President Roosevelt had issued "no surrender" orders. King, realizing that further resistance was futile--and would result in even more American casualties --ignored their directives and surrendered, hoping to save as many of his men as possible.

Of course, General King had no way of knowing the horrors they would face in captivity, including the Bataan Death March (which claimed the lives of at least 1,000 Americans and 5,000 Filipinos); brutal conditions in Japanese POW camps (where thousands more perished) and for a unlucky few, transport to the enemy homeland on "hell ships" with little food, water or ventilation. Some of the ships were torpedoed by U.S. submarines, which had no way of knowing that their fellow Americans were being held below decks.

When he emerged from a Japanese POW camp, King expected to be court-martialed for failing to obey a direct order. Instead, he was treated as a hero--and deservedly so. As we noted four years ago, the surrender on Bataan was a product of false expectations and poor leadership. Any hope of reinforcing the Philippines ended with the debacle of Pearl Harbor, though MacArthur kept telling his troops that help was on the way.

His defensive strategy was equally flawed; initial attempts to stop the Japanese invasion on the landing beaches were repulsed by the enemy, and as Allied troops fell back in disarray, they were almost cut off before reaching defensive positions on Bataan, where they continued to resist, despite dwindling stocks of fuel, ammunition and food, and diseases that ran rampant through the ranks.

Make no mistake: Douglas MacArthur remains one of the greatest generals in our nation's history. Later in the war, his brilliant use of maneuver warfare resulted in dramatic advances towards Tokyo, without the the heavy casualties that accompanied some of our "island-hopping" campaigns in the Central Pacific. But the months after Japan invaded the Philippines were hardy his finest hour. MacArthur played a poor hand badly, leaving General King to make the only decision he could on that morning in April, seventy years ago.


As we noted four years ago, MacArthur's legendary ego also influenced events on Bataan, before and after the surrender. Not only did "Dugout Doug" issue his no-surrender directive, he also opposed efforts to award the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright, who succeeded him as Allied commander in the Philippines. Wainwright eventually received the honor, but only after his liberation from a Japanese prison camp.

By comparison, Genreal King never received any decoration or recognition for his gallantry, though he was widely admired and revered by his troops. MacArthur refused to speak with him after the war, and even Wainwright questioned his judgment. But in recent years, military historians have begun to reassess King's record on Bataan, concluding that he did as much as he could to slow the Japanese advance, and by surrendering his command, he preserved the lives of thousands of allied soldiers. Eight decades later, many believe that Ned King deserves the Medal of Honor as well. That includes many of the survivors of the Bataan campaign, who understand the courage of King's decision.


El Jefe Maximo said...

Saying that General MacArthur's defensive strategy was "flawed" puts it mildly.

Perhaps the biggest error MacArthur made was to, initially, attempt a beach defense (which would necessarily lead to a maneuver campaign) with an army that was at least a year's worth of training and lots of equipment away from being able to execute such a plan. That was part of the Rainbow 5 war plan -- but MacArthur had been one of that plan's biggest boosters.

Besides commanding an army which (except for Philippne Scouts and his few US formations) was utterly incapable of maneuvering in the front of an enemy, MacArthur's fuel, fodder and supply depots were all set up for this plan, placed far forward, behind the beaches, where his forces were initially deployed following mobilization of the Philippine Army. This would have been a fine deployment for an Army like that MacArthur had in 1944, but in 1941 it was just crazy.

When the Japanese came ashore at Aparri and Lingayen Gulf, and the beach defense plan came apart, it was not possible to move the supplies to Bataan -- even had transport been available, which it was not, loss of command of the air would have made it impossible to move.

The original plan, to muster the USAFFE forces in Bataan to begin with, was better, and within MacArthur's command's capabilities. Had this been done to start with, and the supplies concentrated there, the campaign would have doubtless ended in the same way, but would have gone on far longer.

George Smiley said...

Our problems in the Philippines were compounded by MacArthur's indecision in the early hours of the war. Aware that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, MacArthur refused to consult with his air commander, Maj Gen Lewis Brereton, who wanted to mount a preemptive attack against Japanese forces on Formosa. Brereton pressed the issue, and finally got permission late in the afternoon. Unfortunately, Brereton and his subordinates didn't coordinate the launch of the B-17s and the refueling on his fighters, so all aircraft were on the ground when the Japanese attacked.

For what it's worth, Brereton presided over more disasters than any other air commander of the war, and never got fired. Later in the war, the approved the disastrous Ploesti raid, and delayed aerial reinforcement of airborne forces during Market Garden.

Omar Bradley regarded Brereton as "marginally competent," and that's being kind. MacArthur played a major role in bungling the Philippines campaign in late '41-early '42; had he adopted a proper strategy, Bataan would have held out much longer, forcing to Japan to put more resources into that campaign, and making it easier when our forces went on the attack. But MacArthur also had the misfortune of having Brereton as his air chief. The irony is that when General Brereton was shipped off to the Middle East, he was replaced by one of the great captains of the air war, General George Kenney. It's doubtful that Kenney could have done much with his meager forces against Japan in December 1941, but it's a given that Kenney would not have been caught with all of his planes on the ground and inflicted much of damage on the enemy than Brereton did.