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Holding out longer than any other Allied garrison attacked on December 7, 1941, the Philippines were an important target for the Imperial Japanese High Command. Navy and Army bombers from Formosa attacked in the late morning, and achieved the same success their comrades were enjoying over Pearl Harbor.
The war warning of December 6 had put US Army General Douglas MacArthur into action. When Pearl was being bombed, his planes were in the air, his shore defense were manned, and he thought the first attack would come his way, as the war plans expected. Unfortunately for MacArthur and the War Department, the Japanese had written their own war plans that called for the attack on the Philippines in late morning. The Americans and Filipinos were stunned when the attack came as the planes were on the ground and refueling. Most of the US Army Air Corps was destroyed on the ground. Bombers hit Cavite Navy Yard very hard, and the bleeding of the US Asiatic Fleet began.
MacArthur had spent twelve years in the Philippines, and had recently returned to the US Army after commanding the Filipino Armies wearing an elaborate gold braided uniform. He failed to provide the needed training, but was also hampered by a corrupt Filipino government and little assistance from the United States.
His army in December 1941 was made up of many different units that were not coordinated or had trained together on any useful basis. He had a huge force of almost 130,000 men, but the majority were Filipino units, only one of which was considered combat-ready. MacArthur planned for the expected Japanese attack using standard military doctrine for defense of the Philippines: retreat into prepared fortifications on Bataan peninsula and Corregidor, expecting a landing in Manila Bay.
But the speed of the Japanese advance prevented that mode of defense. Imperial Army General Masaharu Homma landed on northern Luzon on December 9 and moved quickly through little resistance. Eseentially Homma landed behind the Allies, leaving their supplies between the Japanese and Macarthur's men. By December 20, Homma was landing on Mindanao and driving for Manila. The Philippine Government declared Manila an open city, but the Japanese bombed it anyway. MacArthur retreated to Corregidor and Bataan without telling his Navy counterpart in Manila Bay. His men called him “Dugout Doug.”
Homma moved to occupy Manila, giving the Allies time to set up some sort of defensive line. Roosevelt could see that the Philippines could not hold, because there was no relief available. MacArthur was ordered to evacuate to Australia in March; he left via PT boat, creating a romantic myth about the plywood craft, to a remote airfield and flew to Darwin. Upon arrival, he remarked to reporters "I shall return," which became his battle cry.
Homma surrounded US Army General Jonathan Wainwright and 100,000 Americans and Filipinos on Bataan and Corregidor. They were able to hold out until May 7, 1942, when Wainwright tried to separate his command so that his Southern subordinate, Army General King, could continue resistance. Homma insisted on complete surrender, and Wainwright decided he had no choice. Via radio, he ordered all Allied troops to surrender on May 8. Some Americans and Filipinos retreated into the mountains to begin the kind of warfare that was so infuriating to the Spanish and Americans during their colonial occupations.
King complied, but he had little fight to offer anyway. He was surrounded and continued resistance would have resulted in thousands of deaths. However, thousands died anyway. King’s and Wainwright’s forces were marched several miles in four columns to Camp O’Donnell, which the Japanese were using as a POW camp. 3,000 Americans and 10,000 Filipinos died within days, and thousands more died during the course of their captivity.
Parts of the Philippines were occupied until the end of the war, but their liberation began in October 1944. During that time, the Japanese hoped to incorporate the Philippines into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, but the harsh treatment of Filipino civilians resulted in a sustained and growing guerrilla war.
Some of the Americans held by the Japanese were shipped to work camps around the Empire in unmarked ships, nicknamed "Hell Ships" by their captives. They were overcrowded and underfed, and the unmarked ships were torpedoed by US submarines. Those that did reach Japan, Korea and Manchuria were put to work in impossible conditions, in collapsing mines and dangerous construction.