World War II in the United States Colony of the Philippines: Beyond the Bataan Death March and Douglas MacArthur

By Martha M. Helak
2017, Vol. 9 No. 03 | pg. 1/2 |

World War II ranks among the deadliest military conflicts in history. From 1939-1945, the estimated number of casualties worldwide exceeded 60 million.1 The United States suffered military fatalities in excess of four hundred thousand, and the Philippines, an archipelago in Southeast Asia and an American colony from 1898 to1946, endured horrifying atrocities such as the Bataan Death March.2 One hundred thousand Filipino civilians (the majority being women, children, and the elderly), were ultimately slaughtered by Japanese Marines during the sack of Manila.3 By March of 1945, this cosmopolitan capital city, once known as the "Pearl of the Orient Seas," lay in ruins.

There has been a great deal of research on WWII in a variety of fields. However, there remains a void in perspectives pertaining to the experiences of the Filipino natives and foreign minorities who resided in the Philippine colony during the Japanese occupation (1942-1945). This paper addresses this breach by advancing the argument that the suffering endured by Filipinos during the latter part of the Japanese occupation paralleled that of American troops in the region. Moreover, this study contends that the Philippine Commonwealth experienced greater hardships during the war because of its status as a U.S. protectorate, and that the conflict on Philippine soil was never intended to be a "War of Annihilation," a thesis advanced by Zeiler and others; warfare escalated into extermination only when Japanese defeat was imminent.4

The suffering endured by Filipinos during the Japanese occupation paralleled that of American troops in the region. Moreover, the Philippine Commonwealth experienced greater hardships during the war because of its status as a U.S. protectorate.

In the decades following the 1940s, the most extensive studies concerning the war in the Philippines have involved the Bataan Death March and biographies on General Douglas MacArthur; narratives surrounding the American liberation being the most widely available.5 However, there is so much more to this story. Scholarship involving WWII's impacts upon the Philippine Commonwealth is sparse, since studies have largely centered around the American or European experience. By emphasizing the lost voices of local Filipinos, this paper will provide a unique perspective on the nature of the conflict in Southeast Asia. This from-the-ground-up study will highlight the bravery and immense sacrifices of colonized Filipinos during the pivotal loss and subsequent recapture of the Philippine Islands from the hands of the Japanese. This scholarship offers the opportunity to transcend the fabled Douglas MacArthur legend and tales of the Bataan Death March, and illuminates lesser known, less glamorous aspects of WWII in Southeast Asia. In the process, the widely-circulated and popularly accepted theory that a war of annihilation was the definitive Japanese objective will be called into question.

Historians have presented profoundly differing views of WWII. Past accounts by leaders and elites "who made headlines" and whose "deeds survived as historical truth" have dominated the research on WWII.6 Biographies on General Douglas MacArthur by Carol Morris Petillo and Michael Schaller are prime examples of notable works in the "great man" vein.7 However, there has been a perceptible shift in recent years to uncovering the perspectives of everyday individuals. This progression brings to the forefront the experiences of previously marginalized groups, such as the Filipinos and foreign nationals who resided in the Philippines during the Japanese invasion; they were the masses who bore witness to the Japanese occupation firsthand, who fought and died in defense of American liberty on foreign soil. This welcome trend in historical scholarship offers an increasingly comprehensive and holistic picture of the WWII experience from the ground up. For example, the shift towards the common man perspective is apparent in the work of Juergen Goldhagen, which delves into the experiences of four ordinary foreigners "caught in Manila by the war."8

Narratives like Goldhagen's represent an antithesis to the Good War hypothesis that endorsed the notion that WWII was "noble and heroic," an idea that has dominated historical scholarship since the 1940s, and persists in political rhetoric to this day.9 This "powerful idea based on myth, arrogance, and sanitizing the record," is unfortunate, for it trivializes the lasting scars suffered by war-torn victims, and blunts the invaluable lessons that may be gleaned from such historical events.10 In idealizing WWII, the Allies were customarily portrayed as champions for democracy in the conflict between good and evil.11 This portrayal is so pervasive that it still permeates present political discourse.12

The depiction of WWII as the Good War reached its peak at the end of the twentieth century, when a new theory emerged: the War of Annihilation. This evolution from Good War to Annihilation is exemplified in Annihilation by Thomas Zeiler, which advanced the premise that WWII was an outright race to destroy the enemy's capacity to wage war; where lines between civilians and soldiering were blurred. Zeiler claimed that the objective of the war was to "eliminate the enemy threat physically, ideologically, and totally."13 While this was not entirely accurate when examined in light of the Japanese occupation in the Philippines, it nonetheless presents a sobering picture.

Image of Manila Massacre

February 9, 1945. Colorado Street, Ermita, Manila. Photo: John Tewell

Prized by the U.S. for its strategic location in the Pacific Ocean, and forming what MacArthur called "a key or base point of the U.S. defense line," the Philippines presents a natural barrier between Japan and the abundant resources of East and Southeast Asia.14 An archipelago comprising over seven thousand islands, the Philippines is situated east of Vietnam, approximately seven hundred miles from Formosa, Taiwan. With a tropical-marine climate and a land area of 115,124 square miles, the Islands were awarded to the U.S. in 1898, at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.15

A year after acquiring the Philippines in 1898, America instituted a system of self-governance in the Islands to grant the Filipinos political experience and eventual independence.16 This experiment limped along, because U.S. intervention never truly ceased. Filipinos were allowed participation in the administration of the Philippines, but U.S. citizens retained all the substantial policy-making positions.17

In 1935, the Philippines gained Commonwealth status under President Manuel Quezon, though it remained in every respect a U.S. colony, with Douglas MacArthur serving as Military Advisor to President Quezon and field marshal of the Philippine Army prior to the outbreak of WWII (1935-1941). Under American colonial rule, the objective was the "political education on democratic government" of the Filipinos, along with economic preparation for complete independence; however, this was primarily a farce, and dialogue of independence was biased with an eye towards preserving American self-interests and Philippine dependency upon the U.S.18 For example, constitutional provisions, such as the Public Land Act, limited the exploitation of Philippine lands and other natural resources to Philippine and American citizens.19 The inclusion of Filipino interests in the Public Land Act was meant to pacify the elite classes and garner their support for continued American occupation. From the point of view of Japan's Imperial Government, the Public Land Act translated to a slight against Japanese nationals, because it essentially disenfranchised over twenty thousand Japanese who were residing in the Philippines by 1935.20 Such policies were aimed at bolstering U.S. economic interests in the Philippines.

By 1941, Japan was blistering from several perceived U.S. insults. Its oil inventories were in dire straits due to American-led global oil embargoes.21 For the Japanese Government, which had been suffering severely from fuel shortages, the Philippine sugar fields represented the potential for an alternative alcohol fuel source and butane for aviation fuel.22 The need for substitute fuel sources had hit a critical stage if Japan were to sustain the war effort. At stake in the Philippines were vast natural resources in the form of rice, coconut, sugar cane, hemp (locally known as abaca), timber, petroleum, cobalt, silver, gold, salt, and copper--export industries which were thriving thanks in large part to the generous introductions of American capital.23

Japan also viewed the Philippines as a golden opportunity for retribution against the U.S. for the pervasive disenfranchisement policies it promoted in the Philippines, and the prohibitions it championed against Japan globally. As an added bonus, Japan recognized that its occupation of the Philippines would deal America a grave economic blow, since the U.S. imported the bulk of its rubber, sugar, and various agricultural products from the Philippines.24

It cannot be ignored that the Philippines was a logistical trading hub, since the Islands were advantageously located in close proximity to the South China Sea, Philippine Sea, Sulu Sea, Celebes Sea, and the Luzon Strait.25 This was a fact of which both Japan and the U.S. were keenly aware. From the Japanese perspective, its invasion of the Philippines served multiple purposes: it was a blatant affront meant to humble the U.S. and impress upon the Americans the sheer might and cunning of the Japanese military; and, by 1941, the Philippines was a trophy ripe for the picking. For nearly half a century, the Commonwealth had thrived under the protection of the powerful United States of America. What is more, by the outbreak of WWII, the Philippines had benefited economically from its colonial ties to the U.S. for many decades. This had guaranteed a measure of stability and lawfulness, with corruption kept at a minimum, which in turn fostered a climate of legitimacy that attracted private enterprises to the archipelago. Because of the inflow of U.S. financial subsidies into its military infrastructure, the Philippines possessed a fairly modern string of tactically placed naval bases, airstrips, oil tank fields, and roadways that wound through the Island from Cavite to Cebu, from Zambales to Manila--fortifications that the Japanese coveted.26

For Japan, the Philippines was too tempting a prize to resist. On December 8, 1941, Japan launched its "onslaught against the Philippines" within twenty-four hours of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The United States Government representatives in the Philippines reacted swiftly, interring Japanese nationals residing in the Commonwealth.27 Japanese consulates, Japanese schools and office buildings were converted into temporary detention camps.28 But America's grip upon the Philippines was tenuous at best. The combined forces of MacArthur and the Philippine Army were woefully outmanned, and could not repel the full-scale Japanese assault. As a result, the internment of Japanese nationals proved to be short-lived, for scarcely two weeks later, the Japanese Army seized control of Mindanao in the southeastern Philippines, and all internees were released.29

In an effort to rescue Manila from further destruction, on December 26, 1941, Douglas MacArthur declared Manila an "open city," before retreating and abandoning all defensive efforts.30 It was a calculated move intended to preserve Manila's historical landmarks and spare its civilians.31 This strategy was effective, and damage to infrastructure was minimal, since the incoming Japanese forces, for the most part, had respected wartime protocols.32 Soon after the Japanese took possession of Manila in January 1942, life continued on as before and a sense of normalcy gradually returned to the city.33

Following MacArthur's retreat, while American and Filipino POWs were staggering across Mariveles on the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula in what came to be known as the infamous Bataan Death March, thousands of American civilians were imprisoned in internment camps in Manila.34 The U.S. internees in the Philippines represented the largest group of American civilians to experience "enemy occupation" during WWII.35

During the early years of the occupation, the University of Santo Tomas internment camp was not much of a prison; internees were granted "passes" to visit family on the outside. Some passes were a month long, requiring only periodic check-ins. This changed as the war progressed and Japanese camp administrators grew increasingly fearful of subversives.36

While German, Italian, and Swiss nationals were treated as allies by the Japanese and were exempted from internment, Americans were not.37 Ironically, the internees may have been the fortunate ones, for although they suffered hunger, overcrowding, and maltreatment as the war wound to a close, life outside the confines of the camps eventually proved to be much worse.38 German Jews also fared much better in the Philippines than in Europe, because the Japanese did not condone the genocidal, anti-Semitic tendencies of their Nazi counterparts. Twelve hundred Jews migrated to the Philippines to escape the Nazis from 1937-1941, and in many ways, Jewish citizens received far better treatment at the hands of the Japanese than the Filipinos.39

There was no policy of annihilation during the Japanese occupation; foreigners were granted the freedom to come and go.40 Internees even managed to aid the resistance, "running money and supplies" to guerrilla forces.41 Contrary to the War of Annihilation theory which espouses that, "civilians are military targets and not immune from warfare," in the Philippines, there was a definitive distinction between Japanese treatment of civilians and POWs.42 POWs were viewed as fair game, and were subjected to torture at the hands of interrogators. The Japanese exploited POW labor in sugar and cotton plantations in Pampanga and Batangas.43 Civilians who were caught aiding and abetting POWs or guerrillas, forfeited their civilian immunity and were susceptible to the same abuses.44

For the Filipinos, the Commonwealth had merely swapped out one occupier for another. In spite of the Co-Prosperity Sphere propaganda, Japanese occupation of the Philippines simply masked Japanese Imperialism on the European model.45 Under the Imperial Army, schools and universities reopened, albeit with a revised curriculum that included Japanese language.46 Even movies and vaudeville shows were permitted.47 The Japanese allowed a limited number of American films to be shown in theaters, provided the subject matter steered clear of wartime topics.48 The Jai Alai games, a favorite national pastime, continued uninterrupted.49 Agriculture and animal husbandry were also encouraged.50 There were just as many stories of kind gestures and mutual cooperation among Filipinos and Japanese, as there were stories of atrocities at the end.51

The role of the Roman Catholic Church in the life of the average Filipino cannot be overstated. The Church served as a defender of civil liberties, social justice, and political and human rights; it was often the social center of community life as well, and provided physical, emotional, and psychological refuge in turbulent times. To this day, the Philippines remains the only country in Southeast Asia with an overwhelmingly Christian population.52 During the Japanese occupation, Filipino citizens were granted the freedom to worship, and church services on Sundays resumed. Thus for the average Filipino citizen residing in the capital city of Manila, life during the first two and a half years of the occupation was somewhat similar to how it had been before the war.

The Japanese tried very hard to win over the Filipinos.53 However, they did not tolerate dissention. If a household was caught with a short wave radio, which were forbidden, it was not uncommon for violators to be hauled off to Fort Santiago, an old Spanish fortress at the entrance of the Pasig River, never to be seen again.54 Discipline was rigorously enforced by the High Command. The Japanese officers disliked lawyers; they did not tolerate arguments, and demanded strict obedience from military and civilian subordinates.55 Generally, as long as the populace cooperated with officials, the Japanese treated Filipinos fairly and were respectful of local customs and traditions.

From an economic perspective, the Imperial Government recognized that its conquest of the Philippines placed into Japan's possession an agricultural country that could be brought to self-sufficiency, with minimal economic dependency. In its occupation of the Philippines, Japan gained numerous agricultural resources, including Manila hemp (abaca), which was used for rope and twine and was highly prized by the Japanese.56 An added windfall to Japan was that it had managed to deprive the U.S. and much of Europe of major sources of rubber, sugar, hemp, and coconut oil.57 Moreover, the Philippines was also expected to solve Japan's shortages in cotton and aviation fuel, by utilizing "chemical-yielding plants" like sugar cane and castor oil as alternative fuel sources.58 The goal was that the conversion of sugar to fuel alcohol as a substitute for gasoline, would appease Japan's fuel crises, while launching the Philippines into total fiscal self-sufficiency.

A popular theory is that WWII was a War of Annihilation, the Annihilation premise being that "civilians are military targets and not immune from warfare."59 This concept stretches the battlefield to encompass towns and private citizens, exterminating enemy populations and destroying resources (such as infrastructure), by brute force.60 This was not the case with the Japanese occupation in WWII in the Philippines. On the contrary, the situation began to deteriorate two years after the Battle of Midway, as the defeat at Midway slowly shifted the tides in the Pacific against Japan. With each mounting loss, the inhumane treatment of citizens in Japan's occupied territories escalated.61

It was only towards the latter part of the Japanese occupation (very late in 1944), as American forces were steadily advancing across the South Pacific, that the hypothesis that Japan had unleashed annihilation tactics upon the Philippines, may hold any merit. By the time the sacking of Manila transpired on the eve of the American-led liberation of the Philippines in February 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army occupiers had been replaced by the Japanese Marines.

There were two Japanese contingents occupying the Philippines during this crucial time: the Imperial Army led by General Tomoyuki Yamashita, and the Japanese Navy (Marines) commanded by Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi. The initial occupation of the Philippines in 1941 was carried out by the forces of the Japanese Imperial Army (Yamashita's men), who were tasked with setting up a government in Manila, and assimilating the local population. It was a commission that for the most part, the Imperial Army conducted with self-restraint and discipline. Yet by the latter part of 1944, the majority of Imperial Army officers, whose soldiers had previously displayed a respectful tolerance of the local populace, who had shown a surprising fondness for children, and who had honored Filipino traditions, had gradually been replaced by the Japanese Marines. The Marines were comprised of Korean and Formosan forces and battle-hardened veterans of the vicious China Campaign. These men were charged with defending Manila against the invading Americans in 1945, as the Japanese Army retreated.62

It was unfortunate that the Japanese contingent tasked with holding Manila were a different breed; they were seasoned veterans, desensitized by the brutality of previous campaigns. These Marines spared the Filipinos no mercy. As Japanese defeat loomed, the lines between civilian and military targets evaporated, and annihilation began. Where the Japanese had once been "instructed by their High Command to behave and set an example," irrationality reigned and "they behaved like animals."63 In a 1946 interview, Major General Charles A. Willoughby (U.S. Army, who served as Douglas MacArthur's Chief of Intelligence), confirmed that the sacking of Manila "was an unnecessary act of fury and brutality" that was carried out "mostly by men from the Japanese Marines, the remaining personnel of sunken ships, the commercial crewmen, and others. The army had retreated towards the hills."64

In what came to be known as the Battle of Manila, the Marines spared no compassion as impending defeat translated to sanctioned brutality.65As American bombs began to rain down upon the Islands, the Japanese Marines turned savage. There were numerous accounts of babies being tossed in the air and speared on bayonets.66 Sons were shot in front of their pleading mothers.67 Those who elected to remain outside the confines of religious institutions or were not interred at the camps, were rounded up by the Japanese in abandoned apartment buildings and houses and burned alive. Women, children, and the elderly were not spared. Anyone who attempted escape by climbing out of windows or scaling walls, were picked off by rifle fire like pigeons in a hunt.

While Filipinos were permitted to continue to worship unimpeded, the Church ultimately proved to be the death knell for many. Blind devotion to the Catholic faith was universal among Filipinos. True to character, numerous Filipinos and mestizos (Philippine-born Spaniards), reacted to the carnage by fleeing into convents, churches, and parochial universities, seeking sanctuary and protection from the indiscriminate raping and murdering. This proved to be an unmitigated catastrophe. On February 7, 1945, the revered De La Salle College saw sixteen Christian Brothers murdered, along with forty-two Filipino and mestizo men, women, and children who had sought refuge inside its hallowed halls.68 Among them, the beloved Father Leo, an Irishman and Dean of the university and who had spent thirty years in the Philippines.69 Mothers and daughters were corralled into classrooms, raped, and then shot.70 At San Augustin Church, the Japanese isolated the Augustinian friars of the convent; six thousand civilians sheltered there. The men were separated from the women and children, and 1,600 were force-marched to Fort Santiago where many met their deaths.71

It was devastating to the Filipino spirit to witness the worst atrocities committed by the Japanese during the latter part of the occupation, perpetrated in religious establishments. The desecration of their religious institutions tested Filipino fortitude beyond anything that transpired during the war. It rocked the Filipinos' steady faith deeply, because the violation of Catholic sanctuaries was previously unimaginable. Nothing could have prepared the native Filipinos for such a travesty. The violence was all the more traumatic given that throughout the Japanese occupation--up until the latter part of 1944--the Filipinos in Manila had met with respectful behavior from their Japanese occupiers. For this reason, civilians were caught completely off guard, and had not expected the Japanese to lash out so brutally.72 But "the more the Japanese were getting a beating, the worse they became."73

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