Today in 1942, while changing trains in the town of Terowie in South Australia, US Army General Douglas MacArthur addressed journalists with his now-famous quote, "I came out of Bataan and I shall return". The promise would take more than two years to fulfill and cost thousands of lives, but it was a promise desperately needed by a nation that was struggling in a dark hour of fear and doubt.
The Japanese invasion of the Philippines began a scant nine hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Over the next two days, Japanese infantry came ashore at six different locations where they met only moderate resistance. Planes of the US Army, most of which were destroyed on the ground during pre-invasion air attacks, attacked Japanese transports and destroyers, but they were too limited in number to stop the offensive. Less than two weeks later, on December 21, 1941, the main invasion force, the 14th Japanese Imperial Army, came ashore. At that time, the defenders of the Philippines consisted of the 10 divisions of the Philippine Army totaling 100,000 men and the US Philippines Division, which consisted of one American regiment and two Philippine Scout regiments. Miscellaneous forces, such as a contingent of US Marines, brought the total to less than 130,000.
The US and Philippine forces on Luzon, the island containing the nation's capital city of Manila, were immediately placed on the defensive. On December 23, General MacArthur told his commanders that he was re-activating an old pre-war plan, Orange-3, which called for the armies to retreat to Bataan and Corregidor, where defensive positions would be set up. From there, it was believed that the combined Philippine-US forces could hold out indefinitely against the Japanese Imperial Army. The allied forces located on the other islands of the Philippines would have to fight on as best they could.
Bataan is a peninsula that defines the western side of Manila Bay. Corregidor is an island situated in the mouth of Manila Bay and is shaped somewhat like a tadpole. It was here that MacArthur set up his headquarters. During the fighting on Bataan, the general made exactly one trip to the front lines. This earned him the moniker "Dugout Doug", referring to the fortified tunnels built inside Corregidor. The title would follow him for the rest of the war.
As the weeks turned into months, the defenders of Bataan and Corregidor continued to fight under ever-worsening conditions. When the retreating allied forces first arrived at Bataan, they were put on half rations due to the fact that so many stockpiles of food had been abandoned during their retreat. Some historians and military strategists hold MacArthur responsible for this oversight, since he decided to stick to an old war plan but did not see to it that his holdout position was adequately stocked for a long siege. What little food was available started to grow thin and the defenders began to suffer for it. Vitamin deficiencies robbed the soldiers of night vision, leaving them vulnerable to Japanese probing attacks after sunset. Soon, thousands of men were disabled, either from combat or from the countless diseases brought on by poor sanitation and hygiene.
Although hope was in short supply, the one bright spot in the defenders' day was the knowledge that the United States would not abandon them. Any day now, they reasoned, planes, aircraft carriers and battleships would come steaming over the horizon to rescue them and push the Japanese into the sea. After all, no American force of this size had ever surrendered.
General MacArthur knew the truth. By the beginning of February, he had been told that US President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had agreed to a "Germany first" policy which relegated the Pacific to secondary status. In short, there would be no rescue mission. The US Pacific Fleet had been weakened at Pearl Harbor and what remained was too valuable to risk on a suicidal mission through Japanese-controlled waters. The Philippines and her defenders were being abandoned.
On February 22nd, 1942, President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave the Philippines and continue the fight from Australia. This decision is clouded in controversy for many reasons. First, the President was ordering a standing general to abandon his men while they were in the field. Second, MacArthur's critics believed that there were more capable men willing to lead the fight to retake the Southwest Pacific. Finally, some historians now see MacArthur's rescue as something of a public relations stunt. Roosevelt knew that MacArthur was well-known by the American public and that his capture or death would be a serious blow to the nation's morale. He had to come out of Corregidor alive and free. To Roosevelt and MacArthur's credit, however, the general proved himself to be an outstanding strategic planner and adept administrator.
On March 11, General MacArthur, his wife, his son, his son's nanny and 14 staff officers left Corregidor. They were taken to sea by the three boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, commanded by Lieutenant John Bulkeley. Bulkeley had been taking the fight to the Japanese since the first day of the invasion despite a lack of parts, food, fuel and just about everything else. Their boats crawled through the night and the next day, reaching the island of Mindanao on March 13th. Three days later, the group boarded a B-17 and flew to Australia.
On Bataan and Corregidor, the fighting continued. On April 10th, the last of the forces on Bataan surrendered to the Japanese. This left only Corregidor, now home to 11,000 soldiers, sailors and Marines. On May 1st, the Japanese began their attack with an artillery barrage. During the night of May 5th, 1942, two battalions of Japanese infantry landed at the northeast end of the island. The next day, General Jonathan Wainwright surrendered all remaining Philippine and American forces. What came next was the Bataan Death March and nearly three and a half years of brutal treatment in Japanese POW camps.