Fortress Bataan

“Bataan and Corregidor capitulated in three months, the greatest military defeat of the United States in World War II.

Yesterday was the commemoration of the Fall of Bataan, repackaged as “Araw ng Kagitingan” or Day of Valor, as a response to criticism that we Filipinos have a proclivity for celebrating defeats and not victories. The Battle of Bataan, some historians ratiocinate, was important in the Pacific War in that it delayed the complete Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia, upsetting the Japanese Empire’s war timeline and giving Australia time to prepare for its defense.

But did it, really? When the Japanese invasion fleet steamed for the Philippines, most Southeast Asian countries were already under their thumb. Only the Philippines remained as the last bastion of Allied forces in the region.

Unfortunately for us — then an American colony (or more accurately, an unincorporated territory) — our country’s defense was being engineered by that megalomaniac Douglas McArthur. There was already a good plan in place, called War Plan Orange 3, thought up by highly professional military planners in the United States.

Under that strategy — which took into account the fact that the Philippine Islands was an archipelago and difficult to defend on all coasts — and with supplies limited, troops and materiel were to be concentrated in a few strategic points in Luzon, notably the ports of Manila and the Bataan Peninsula.

In case of a Japanese invasion, the defense would focus on denying the Japanese use of Manila Bay and, failing in that, the United States Armed Forces in the Far East would withdraw to Bataan, making a tight line. It was estimated that Bataan and Corregidor would hold for six or more months, giving the United States Pacific Fleet time to recover and return to the country.

But nooooo! McArthur thought himself better than the US military officialdom and recommended his own stratagem for the defense of the Philippines. Dubbed War Plan Rainbow 5, this called for a full-court press: A defense of the entire country from coast to coast, wherever the Japanese would land. Never mind if the USAFFE did not have enough men, materiel and logistical support to implement this. McArthur’s hubris would not permit him to make Bataan a stronghold; he would meet the Japanese as soon as they landed. Pulling political strings in Washington, he got his way and had his proposal approved. Accordingly, troops, ammunition and equipment were dispersed all over the country.

And so the Japanese came. The US submarine fleet tried to repel them by firing torpedoes at their naval convoy. All that the American torpedoes did was amuse the Japanese, because most of them failed to explode. Massive confusion and procrastination by McArthur then resulted in most of the Far East Air Force being destroyed on the ground. After the Japanese gained air superiority, their landing forces went like a warm knife through butter when they met the thinly spread and poorly equipped USAFFE forces, much of which consisted of raw conscripts.

Seeing how quickly the Japanese were able to overwhelm the defenders at several points in the Philippines, McArthur suddenly saw the wisdom of War Plan Orange 3. He suddenly ordered a reversion of it. Too late, as it turned out. Thousands of American and Filipino troops had already died or been taken prisoner, and the supplies that were supposed to sustain the Bataan redoubt for six months or more were scattered all over the country.

As a result, Fortress Bataan had too few men and supplies to make it a true bastion that would have tied up the Japanese troops. The rest is history, as they say. Bataan and Corregidor capitulated in three months, the greatest military defeat of the United States in World War II. It was a mere speed bump in the Japanese race to build the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, hardly worth the cost of 30,000 men killed and 100,000 captured. And the fault all lay in the pride and arrogance of McArthur.

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