Treachery by US Army Generals in World War II: how incompetence and bad decisions led to US defeat and Japanese occupation of the Philippines

Carlton Meyer, “Treachery by US Army Generals in World War II” (Tales of the American Empire, 1 October 2021)

While many people know that Japan dealt the British Empire its worst defeat in Singapore in February 1942, not many know that a few months afterwards in May 1942, Japan also defeated the United States in the Philippines after a five-month campaign (it began on 8 December 1941, just after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii) that led to 23,000 US soldiers and 100,000 Filipino soldiers dead or captured. Those captured ended up being shipped off to Japan in infamous “hell ships” (where they were crammed into cargo holds with little air, ventilation, food or water) to work as slave labour in factories or mines for as long as three years. Much of the blame for the disastrous US defeat can be laid upon the US Army generals in charge of the combined US / Filipino forces for their incompetent – and at times inexplicable – decisions that allowed much smaller Japanese forces to attack and lay waste US airfields and destroy valuable US aircraft and ships.

In this episode of his “Tales of the American Empire” series, Carlton Meyer concentrates on three examples of incompetent actions by US Army generals in the Philippines. In the early months of Japanese invasion of the Philippines after December 1941, General Douglas MacArthur withdrew US forces to Bataan Peninsula, allowing the Japanese to seize Manila which forced the colonial US government to retreat to the island of Corregidor. MacArthur’s withdrawal included the abandonment of Fort Wint on Grande Island at the entrance of Subic Bay. Japanese forces bombed Corregidor and after a long siege, starved and still waiting for reinforcements, US defenders surrendered to Japan. While Macarthur, Filipino leader Manuel Quezon and other high-ranking military officers and diplomats escaped capture and left the Philippines, others were not so lucky: at least 17 US Army generals became POWs.

One of the these officers was William F Sharp, in charge of the Visayan-Mandanao Force. Believing that Japan would execute US soldiers and other Americans captured in Corregidor, Sharp surrendered to the Japanese though many Americans and Filipinos under his command refused to give up and became guerrilla fighters. Another officer, Jonathan M Wainwright, had also surrendered in the belief that his action would minimise casualties and save hostages from being executed.

The actions of Wainwright and Sharp, to whom Wainwright transferred his command of all US and Filipino troops (at least until the Japanese insisted that all US and Filipino troops had to surrender, forcing Wainwright to pressure Sharp to surrender also), might be seen as being under duress, both generals perhaps not aware that the Japanese were not planning to execute their Corregidor hostages. The actions of MacArthur though, in following a pre-war plan to compel his troops to retreat to Bataan Peninsula, enabling the Japanese to capture Manila and Luzon Island and to cut off supplies to the Americans, beg for explanations as do also the actions of US President Franklin D Roosevelt in failing to send appropriate reinforcements to US forces in the Philippines. Why did MacArthur defer to a plan and not go on the attack against Japanese invaders? What do MacArthur’s failures and Washington’s disregard for US troops in the Philippines – never mind the Filipinos – say about US attitudes towards Japan, the Philippines and East Asia / Southeast Asia generally that might still be relevant to current US attitudes towards East Asia and China in particular?

Unfortunately Meyer’s narration, sticking to the chronology of the details of the US retreat to Bataan Peninsula and the actions of MacArthur, Wainwright and Sharp, does not dig into the motivations or reasoning of these men for making decisions that do not reflect well on their competence or ability as military leaders. What Meyer does though is tell a very well researched and detailed account of American error and Japanese determination and zeal, with plenty of archived film and photographs to flesh out the story.

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