World War II in the Pacific Part II – MacArthur and the Philippines

The key to arresting the Japanese offensive early in the war, as far as U.S. territories were concerned, hinged on the defense of the Philippines. The islands, which gained independence from the United States on July 4, 1946, were the largest of all the U.S. territories at the time. When Japan launched her war of conquest on December 7, 1941, the bulk of U.S. armed forces in the Far East were garrisoned in the Philippine Islands. Had the U.S. been able to hold out in the Philippines and tie up the Japanese in a prolonged fight, it is possible that they could have been delayed long enough for Allied forces to strike back in force.

War Plan Orange – U.S. Foreign Policy 1939-1940

A serious issue in the years leading up to the war was the lack of guidance from American civilian leadership regarding official U.S. policy toward Japan. This hampered potential steps that military planners could have taken to really be prepared to meet Japanese aggression. There was little communication between the State Department and the military. At one point military planners began to base strategic planning on the public statements of high profile government officials.[1] One byproduct of this lack of direction was that even though Army and Navy had agreed up to 1939 that Imperial Japan was the most likely adversary of the United States, and had developed War Plan Orange to confront that threat, they never agreed on its viability or effectiveness.[2] The plan, created during the interwar period, was revised several times. The importance of the Philippines was not altogether lost on American strategists. When they began working out the details of Plan Orange, they realized that holding the Philippines against a Japanese assault would be difficult at best. Navy planners initially believed that in the event of war with Japan that the islands would be “doomed.”[3] The first version of the plan adopted called for the Army garrison and Philippine territorial forces to hold out until superior American naval forces arrived to relieve them.

Army strategists also did not believe it realistic to try to hold out in the Philippines long enough for relief to arrive. However, there were some serious strategic disagreements between the services leading up to the war. In a posture that seemingly reflected the isolationist sentiments prevalent in post-World War I America, the Army suggested that the Navy should deploy defensively in the Pacific to secure a line that ran from the Panama Canal to Hawaii to Alaska, while the Army would focus on homeland defense. This suggestion irked Naval strategists who, as a lot, were disciples of the late Admiral Alfred T. Mahan’s theory that Naval assets should be used to achieve a decisive victory on the high seas and then blockade enemy ports. Even after President Franklin Roosevelt got involved and War Plan Orange was revised for the last time, it was so vague that each service got what it wanted with the Army planning to withdraw ground and air forces and assuming a strategic continental defense role and the Navy planning for essentially an offensive role with an “advance to the western Pacific from a secured defensive line.”[4] With regard to the Philippines, Orange call for the Army and Filipino forces to hold and defend the heavily fortified entrances to Manila Bay, including the Bataan Peninsula, until relief arrived rather than defend all the islands.

The events that unfolded in Europe and the Atlantic in 1939-1940 brought war clouds closer to home. The Tripartite Pact, Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact, and continued Japanese aggression in China that expanded into French colonies in Southeast Asia after the fall of France in 1940 were cause for grave concern. In July 1941 FDR called General Douglas MacArthur back into active service and gave him command of the newly created U.S. Army Forces, Far East which consisted of the Philippine Army and all U.S. Army units in the islands.[5] MacArthur had served since his retirement from the U.S. Army in 1937 as chief of the Philippine Commonwealth Army. The flamboyant general went on to become the only field marshal ever commissioned in that force.


MacArthur, whose ego would not be satisfied to serve merely as the commander of a doomed outpost in the Pacific, successfully argued that he could defend all the Philippine Islands with the 200,000-man native Filipino army that he would build, train, and arm with modern military equipment supplied by the United States.

Douglas MacArthur in his self-designed Philippine Army Field Marshal’s cap (he wore it for the duration of the war), iconic corncob pipe, and five star General of the Army rank insignia. 1945, U.S. Army photo.

Visions of martial grandeur arose before the general as he contemplated this impressive paper army. He could, he assured Washington, undertake an effective defense of all the islands rather than cling futilely to the defense of Manila Bay, as contemplated in the Orange Plan. MacArthur planned to meet the main enemy attacks on the beaches and fling the invaders back into the sea. There was to be “no withdrawal from beach positions. The beaches were to be held at all costs.”

Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan

In 1941 the forces that MacArthur would use to hold the beaches “at all costs” existed largely on paper. Most Filipino troops in service had never fired a rifle or received training in the usage of modern equipment such as radios and motor vehicles. With war imminent, those in high command were suddenly disinclined to simply write off the Philippines; MacArthur’s braggadocious claims were just what Secretary of War Stimson and General Marshall wanted to hear.[6] A flow of supplies and equipment began to feed MacArthur’s army. Even so, on December 7, 1941, MacArthur’s 200,000-man army was largely a “paper tiger” with the bulk of the forces under-trained and poorly equipped locals rather than regular army soldiers. He did, however, have a significant regular U.S. Army force and some fully trained Filipino units.

Despite the subpar state of many of his troops, it is possible that if MacArthur had acted differently that he could have held out longer and even forced the Japanese to divert additional forces to the Philippines. MacArthur, contrary to his blustery promises, committed numerous errors in the defense of the Philippines; the following were critical:

  1. Dispersing his troops in a futile attempt to defend the entire chain of islands in his “defeat them at the beaches plan.” MacArthur should have concentrated his forces on Luzon and been prepared to counter-strike the main enemy landing at the Lingayen Gulf before a secure beachhead could be established. MacArthur knew that the main Japanese attack would fall in that area, yet he left it sparsely defended by inexperienced Filipino units.[7] On December 22, 1941, Japanese General Masaharu Homma landed the main Japanese effort (six regiments) on the Lingayen beaches virtually unopposed and in rough seas. MacArthur had adequate regular forces to have stymied the Japanese landing.
  2. Allowing the bulk of his air assets to be destroyed on the ground after he received specific instructions from General Hap Arnold not to let that happen.[8] Nine hours after receiving news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, seventy-five percent of MacArthur’s fighters and over fifty percent of his heavy B-17 bombers were destroyed on the ground.[9] MacArthur took no measures to harden air assets; the Japanese airmen found American aircraft at Clark Field lined up like targets in a shooting gallery. This had grave consequences. Due to the lack of Army Air Force support, the Navy’s Asiatic Fleet was forced to abandon the Philippines. Had MacArthur been able to preserve his air force, it could have acted in concert with the Navy’s Asiatic Fleet to thwart an attempted Japanese landing at the Lingayen Gulf.
  3. Not allowing the commander of the Far East Air Force to attack the Japanese airfields at Formosa on December 7, 1941. The U.S. Army Air Force commander in the Philippines, General Lewis Brereton, repeatedly urged MacArthur soon after receiving news of Pearl Harbor to allow him to launch an attack against Japanese airfields on Formosa. Had MacArthur allowed Brereton to do this, U.S. pilots would have found, coincidentally, the same Japanese bombers which destroyed the American planes at Clark Field as sitting ducks with ground crews fueling and arming them for the upcoming attack.[10] Instead the same Japanese bombers took off later that afternoon and annihilated MacArthur’s air force on the ground. MacArthur later denied that Brereton pushed for an attack after receiving news of Pearl Harbor. However, the official record shows that he did in plain black ink on white paper. MacArthur refused Brereton because he had orders “not to initiate hostilities against the Japanese.”[11]
  4. Not properly preparing the Bataan Peninsula for defense. Once MacArthur realized that his plan had failed and he belatedly enacted Plan Orange, which called for withdrawing into Bataan and fighting a defensive battle, he failed to ensure that his troops would be properly supplied. MacArthur ensured that there was enough ammunition moved onto the peninsula however food and medical supplies were woefully insufficient.[12] Many men needlessly suffered from malnutrition and wounds due to lack of proper supply. This was a contributing factor in General Wainwright’s decision to surrender.
U.S. Army Air Force B-17 bomber in the Philippines, October 1942. Air Force Historical Research Agency

Travesty of Honor

An act of Congress on 9 July 1918 spelled out the current requirements for receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. The medal can only be awarded to those who “…in action involving actual conflict with an enemy, distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”[13] By this definition alone General MacArthur did not deserve to receive our nation’s highest honor for his action in the Philippines. He never risked his life like his starving men in the foxholes at the front did. Not only did he preside over one of the most ignominious American military defeats, which were due partially to his own mistakes and inaction, he repeatedly blamed his subordinates for his failings. He was quick to take credit for the work of others, such as General Jonathan Wainwright’s brilliant retreat into Bataan and stubborn defense (for which he received the Medal of Honor after the war).

American and Filipino POWs under Japanese guard march into captivity, Bataan Peninsula, 1942. 80,000 American and Filipino servicemen surrendered and 15,000-20,000 died in what later became known as the Bataan Death March.

In a conflict of interest MacArthur also secretly accepted cash payments ($500,000) from the Manuel Quezon’s Philippine government prior to the war while serving as commander of U.S Army Far East.[14] MacArthur was a megalomaniac prima donna who was concerned, in large part, for his own image. The last thing MacArthur told USAAF General Brereton before his subordinate departed the Philippines was “I hope you tell the people outside what we have done and protect my reputation as a fighter.”[15] MacArthur had an effective PR apparatus that screened all press reports and constantly kept him in the limelight, 109 of the 142 communiques released by his headquarters between December 1941 and March 1942 mentioned MacArthur alone and no one else specifically by name.[16] Throughout the war, correspondents who stepped out of line were expelled from his area of command.

The decision to award MacArthur the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Philippines was purely political. FDR and General Marshall thought that the public needed a hero to prop up sagging morale.[17] To think that the General, despite his redeeming qualities, was elected to stand among men like the seventeen Marines and Navy Corpsmen who threw themselves on grenades to save their comrades on Iwo Jima is a travesty.

Congressional Medal of Honor Citation – General Douglas MacArthur

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.[18]

Congressional Medal of Honor Society

End Notes

[1] Mark A. Stoler, Allies and Adversaries: the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Grand Alliance, and US Strategy in World War II (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 3.

[2] Ibid. 5.

[3] Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (Free Press. Kindle Edition, 1985), Kindle Location 1070.

[4] Ibid. 18.

[5] Ibid. Kindle Locations 1320-1324.

[6] Ibid. Kindle Locations 1367-1374.

[7] John Costello, The Pacific War, 1941-1945 (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2009), 171.

[8] Ibid. 144.

[9] Ibid. 146.

[10] Ibid. 142.

[11] Ibid. 142, 654.

[12] Ibid. 184.

[13] Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 2017,

[14] Spector, Kindle Locations 2123-2134.

[15] Costello, 174.

[16] Spector, Kindle Locations 2171-2176.

[17] Ibid. Kindle Location 2177.

[18] Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 2017,

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