by Jack Gray
The Philippines played a critical role in American strategy during World War II. Before the war, the United States had large numbers of troops stationed on the islands. After U.S. forces were defeated from the islands, regaining the Philippines became an important goal, especially for General MacArthur, who had been forced to evacuate from his headquarters there in 1942 when the Japanese attacked. Accordingly, MacArthur adopted a strategy of island-hopping, which would allow him to steadily drive Japanese forces out of the islands they had conquered, bringing him closer and closer to Japan itself. Unfortunately, the Philippines’ proximity to Japan meant that they were among the last of the occupied islands to be retaken; fighting on the island of Mindanao continued up until the Japanese surrender in August of 1945.
The conflict in the Philippines thus had three main phases. The first was the Japanese invasion, which occurred between December of 1941 and June of 1942. In several battles the Japanese were able to defeat American and Filipino forces and quickly occupy the Philippines. From June 1942 until October 1944, the only fighting that occurred in the Philippines was between Japanese occupying forces and guerrilla resistance fighters. During this second phase there were no large or decisive battles, but rather many ambushes and raids against Japanese outposts. In October 1944, MacArthur and U.S. forces landed on Leyte, one of the southernmost islands in the Philippines. From then on until the end of the war in August 1945, there would be more large-scale fighting as American and Filipino forces recaptured important cities such as Manila and drove the Japanese out of the Philippines.
The first battles in the Philippines were raids against American airfields. The Japanese bombed Clark field, Del Carmen field, Nichols field, and Nielson field in the first few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, destroying much of the United States’ air power in the Philippines. They simultaneously launched preliminary amphibious attacks on or near the island of Luzon with small units, intending to give themselves a foothold to support larger attacks on the main body of U.S. forces in the Philippines. Most of these landings faced no significant opposition, as they did not directly threaten important bases or cities. On December 21, 1942, the Japanese launched their main attack on the Philippines with an amphibious assault at Lingayen Gulf and a second at Lamon Bay. They quickly overpowered combined American and Filipino resistance.
This was a disaster for MacArthur, who had based his entire plan for the defense of the Philippines on being able to maintain a strong defense against amphibious landings by the Japanese. Moreover, the Japanese troops landed at Lamon Bay and Lingayen Gulf were easily able to attack Manila, where American headquarters were located. MacArthur decided to evacuate the city of Manila, relocating his headquarters and the seat of the Philippines’ government to Corregidor, an island fortress in Manila Bay. Unable to carry out his original plan of defending the coasts, MacArthur carried out War Plan Orange-3, which called for delaying the Japanese advance at predetermined points in along the Bataan peninsula until reinforcements could arrive from America. This plan had been written with the assumption that the fleet at Pearl Harbor would be able to come to the defense of the Philippines, but with the destruction of those forces, there would be no reinforcements coming.
Nonetheless, MacArthur had no other options, with Manila left indefensible and his aircraft destroyed in the first days of the war by Japanese raids. The Bataan peninsula was heavily forested and ideal for defensive warfare, and there U.S. and Filipino forces were able to hold out for several months. However, the Japanese were able to slowly overcome American resistance until at last only Corregidor remained. Realizing the futility of remaining in the Philippines, General MacArthur had evacuated to Australia with his family, leaving General Jonathan Wainwright in command of American and Filipino forces, all of whom remained at Corregidor.
The Siege of Corregidor was the final battle of the first phase of the war in the Philippines. The soldiers defending the fortress held out for several months against heavy bombing and artillery fire until finally General Wainwright surrendered on April 9th, 1942. This marked the end of organized resistance in the Philippines, and was the end of the first phase of the war.
For the next two years there would be no large-scale battles, but fierce resistance by Filipino guerillas continued for the duration of the war. The long resistance by American soldiers, and subsequent guerilla warfare by Filipinos was unique in World War II. By the time of the American surrender, the Japanese had already conquered countless other islands in the Pacific, reaching as far as the Solomon Islands. Only the Philippines were able to put up any significant resistance.
The next major battle in the Philippines occurred in October of 1944 when U.S. Forces landed on Leyte. The Battle of Leyte Gulf lasted for several days and resulted in the destruction of the Imperial Japanese Navy. MacArthur then moved to attack Mindoro, where he established airfields with which to threaten Manila and Luzon, his final objective.
The final days of the Philippines’ Campaign were similar to the Japanese invasion. Japanese troops fortified Corregidor Island and fought until February of 1945, when U.S. Forces took control of the island. MacArthur then attacked Manila, which required a month of intense fighting to capture. In the battle over 100,000 Filipino civilians were killed, some murdered by Japanese soldiers and others killed by American bombs. The battle of Manila, which ended in March of 1945, marked the end of Japanese occupation of the Philippines. While individual Japanese units continued to fight until the final surrender in August, there was no official or organized resistance.
Bluhm, Raymond K. "Battle of Corregidor." Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Corregidor.
Morton, Louis. The Fall of the Philippines. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1953. https://history.army.mil/books/wwii/5-2/5-2_Contents.htm#part1.