BOOK REVIEW – Fighting for MacArthur: The Navy and Marine Corps’ Desperate Defense of the Philippines

gordon-macarthur-philippinesBy John Gordon, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, (2011).

Reviewed by Captain Roger F. Jones, U.S. Navy (Retired)

This is a book well worth reading from several standpoints. First, the role of the Navy and Marine Corps in the defense of the Philippines in World War II, as compared to the Army, is not generally well known, and the author does an outstanding job describing how essential the Sea Services were in the courageous albeit doomed defense of Bataan and Corregidor, particularly in view of their limited armament, supplies and personnel.   Second, it documents how General MacArthur and his staff failed to integrate Admiral Hart and his forces into the defense of Manila Bay and Bataan, with significantly adverse consequences. While it is incontrovertible that the much larger and better armed Japanese armed forces would be able to conquer the Philippines at the onset of the war, the speed with which they accomplished this goal was in large part due to the Army’s lack of readiness and the inappropriate defense plans of MacArthur and his staff. Nevertheless, despite heavy losses, the heroic efforts of the Philippine and American military delayed the Japanese war machine long enough for the US to build up and deploy its military in the Pacific arena and go on the offensive. The most famous and decisive of these early actions was the battle of Midway, which took place just one month after the surrender of Corregidor.

Imperial Japan wasted no time attacking the Philippines following the surprise 7 December air strike on Pearl Harbor. Just four hours afterwards, Japanese aircraft launched from the carrier Ryujo, strafed and bombed USS Preston, a seaplane tender moored in southern Mindanao, destroying two PBYs moored close by. This was followed on 8 December by Japanese naval bombers and Zero fighters attacking Clark and Iba airfields, effectively destroying a very large part of the Army Air Force’s B-17 bombers and P-40 fighters on the ground, caught there due to a woeful state of unreadiness, conflicting orders, and confusion within MacArthur’s chain of command. The Japanese thus gained control of the skies at the beginning of the Philippines campaign, severely crippling U.S. efforts to defend against the invasion. Despite this blow, MacArthur stuck to his plans to defend the Luzon beaches against Japanese landings rather than fall back to defend Bataan and Corregidor. This flawed decision lead to another severe problem: food rations being lost or captured when Philippine and US Army troops fell back in disarray during attacks by the Japanese armed forces on land and in the air with far superior numbers and weaponry. Within two weeks, the largest Japanese invasion force of the war landed in Lingayan Gulf, only 100 miles north of Manila, and quickly established a major beachhead; two days later, the Japanese established a second beachhead on Lamon Bay, less than 75 miles east of Manila, completely compromising the MacArthur plan of defending the beaches. U.S. Navy forces were able to disrupt further Japanese landings along the southeastern coast of Bataan, but the enemy brought in additional troops, artillery, and tanks to begin a drive south that proved overwhelming. In early April, the retreat south became a rout, followed by the surrender of the US/Philippine forces on Bataan and the infamous “Bataan Death March.” By this time, all that remained of US resistance were the Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers on Corregidor. These courageous men put up a fierce resistance defending against the Japanese up to the surrender on May 6th.

This book is packed with references, including information the author obtained in a number of cases directly from interviews with individual survivors of this campaign. There are 18 photographs, 9 maps, and 3 tables, plus appendices listing the staff, naval vessels, and personnel assigned to the U.S. Asiatic Fleet at the beginning of the war, plus a description of the Japanese artillery units available for the bombardment of Corregidor. The maps will help the reader follow how the campaign developed and the photos enhance the atmosphere of early World War II. In addition, there are numerous footnotes which link the text to its sources, and furnish additional information. The bibliography is quite large and the index extensive. Gordon writes with great clarity and develops the story in an eminently readable style. This is a book that readers will find difficult to put down until they have finished it, despite knowing full well what the outcome will be. As an exceptionally well-crafted work of military history, this reviewer recommends it highly

Captain Jones is a frequent contributor to Naval History Book Reviews and was named a 2011 Naval Historical Foundation Volunteer of the Year.

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