The Fall of Bataan

When the Japanese renewed their offensive on 3 April 1942 with fresh troops supported by heavy artillery, tanks, and air attack, the American survivors on the Bataan Peninsula were so weakened by disease and starvation that they were unable to offer any effective resistance. From the comfort and safety of his new headquarters in Australia, and with no concern for the severely weakened physical condition of his abandoned troops and their critical shortage of military supplies, MacArthur ordered a general counterattack against the Japanese. The commanding officer on Luzon, Major General Edward King, ignored this ridiculous order. Trusting to the mercy of the Japanese, he surrendered his troops on 9 April 1942. Before the surrender came into effect, he transferred his female army nurses to Corregidor in the hope that they might be evacuated from the Philippines.

The island stronghold of Corregidor at the entrance to Manila Bay has fallen after a lengthy siege and Japanese troops lower the American flag.

The Japanese did not follow European tradition which usually honours troops who surrender after a gallant defence and treats female captives with respect and compassion. Infuriated by the lengthy American resistance on Bataan, and the heavy losses they had suffered themselves, the Japanese vented their rage on their sick and exhausted prisoners of war whom they subjected to the atrocities of the Bataan Death March and the harsh conditions of Japanese "hell camps".

Being well aware of the hopelessness of the American position in the Philippines, President Roosevelt authorised the senior commander, Lieutenant General Wainwright, to continue the battle against the Japanese or seek terms for surrender as he saw fit. At his headquarters on the fortified island of Corregidor, General Wainwright elected to follow MacArthur's order from Australia to continue the hopeless battle to the end. Wainwright was urged by his senior staff officers to follow MacArthur's example and escape from the Philippines by fast patrol boat under cover of night, but he calmly replied:

"I have been with my men from the start, and if captured, I will share their lot."

The Fall of Corregidor

The 11,000 defenders of Corregidor held out against intense Japanese bombardment until 6 May 1942. With some 12,000 shells crashing onto the island every 24 hours, sleep for the exhausted defenders was virtually impossible. Even huddled deep underground in the Malinta Tunnel, women and children bled from the ears from the concussive effect produced by the earth-shaking explosions overhead. Food, water and ammunition had dropped to critical levels when the Japanese finally secured a beachhead on the island on 5 May, and landed tanks. On the next day, General Wainwright ordered the American flag lowered on Corregidor in the hope of avoiding a massacre. In a flagrant repudiation of international convention governing the treatment of prisoners of war, General Homma warned Wainwright during surrender negotiations that he would execute all prisoners of war unless the surrender applied not only to Corregidor but to all American and Philippine troops still resisting the Japanese on other islands of the Philippine archipelago. In the hope of avoiding reprisals against his troops, and the women and children under his care, Wainwright agreed.

When MacArthur heard in Australia that Wainwright had surrendered to the Japanese, he was furious and countermanded Wainwright's order to his troops to surrender. This last insane order by MacArthur was ignored. It would almost certainly have produced a massacre of all American and Philippine prisoners of war, and placed at risk the lives of civilian captives, including the women and children under Wainwright's care. MacArthur responded to the rejection of his order to fight to the death by vindictively refusing to sign a recommendation from the US Army Chief of Staff, General Marshall, that General Wainwright be awarded the Medal of Honour.

The heroic defenders of Corregidor were subjected to the same appalling brutality that had been inflicted by the Japanese on the survivors of Bataan. American and Philippine troops suffered 16,000 casualties in the Battle of the Philippines, and 84,000 endured cruel imprisonment or execution at the hands of the Japanese. Of 20,000 American troops captured by the Japanese in the Philippines, about half died in captivity before the Pacific War ended. Some were murdered, others died from starvation, sickness or brutal treatment. Lieutenant General Wainwright remained in Japanese prison camps until the end of the war in 1945. He emerged from captivity resembling little more than a skeleton. He was awarded a hero's welcome in the United States, promoted to full general and finally awarded the Medal of Honour which had been denied to him by MacArthur's spite.

MacArthur is honoured despite his incompetent defence of the Philippines

If the American people had known in 1942 the truth about MacArthur's incompetent defence of the Philippines, his abandonment of his troops, army nurses, and American civilians to the vengeance of the Japanese, and his callous disregard for their survival when he was safe in Australia, it is almost certain that they would have demanded that he be dismissed from command. As it happened, MacArthur escaped to Australia with his staff officers, and those who could have testified to his incompetence as a commander were left behind on the Philippines where they were either executed by the Japanese, died from mistreatment, or suffered harsh captivity in Japanese prison camps until 1945.

Although Roosevelt had serious misgivings about MacArthur's military competence, a view which was shared by many senior Navy and Army officers, the United States government was forced to acknowledge MacArthur's self-generated status as a national hero by awarding him the Medal of Honour and placing him in supreme command of the South-West Pacific Area with his headquarters in Australia.

The appointment of MacArthur in March 1942 as Supreme Commander, South-West Pacific Area, placed a man of deeply flawed character and poor military judgment in overall command of Australia's defence forces at a time of great peril for Australia. Later in 1942, when heavily outnumbered and poorly supplied Australian troops were engaged in a deadly struggle to block a determined Japanese advance towards Australia along the Kokoda Track, MacArthur would again exhibit his serious failings as a commander.

Fortunately for Australia, this liability was balanced by the appointment of a brilliant naval officer, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, to command the war at sea against the Japanese.