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People & Events
The Battle for Manila (February-March, 1945)


Before the Second World War, Manila was considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Overlooking a tranquil bay, the so-called "Pearl of the Orient" was home to a unique culture drawn from four continents. No stranger to conflict, the city had been seized by the Spanish in the 16th century, attacked by the Chinese in the 17th, occupied by the British in the 18th, and taken by the Americans at the end of the 19th. But even this tumultuous history could not have prepared the Filipinos for what happened in 1945, when Manila was utterly destroyed in a single month.

Manila was only one of the great cities of Southeast Asia overrun by the Japanese war machine between July, 1941 and April, 1942. But unlike Saigon, Hong Kong, Singapore, Djakarta and Rangoon -- which late in the war the Japanese surrendered to British forces without a fight -- Manila was the only city in which Japanese and Allied forces collided. The results were unspeakable: an estimated 100,000 of its citizens died. In the entire war, only the battles of Berlin and Stalingrad resulted in more casualties. Few were more horrified at this than Douglas MacArthur, for whom Manila had become both a physical and spiritual home. Yet many have questioned whether MacArthur's obsessive quest to liberate the Philippines -- and Manila above all -- also helped to destroy it.

MacArthur probably never gave serious thought to bypassing either Manila or the island of Luzon itself, as some of his subordinates thought he should do. Even General Krueger, one of MacArthur's commanders on Luzon, had advocated bypassing the Japanese garrison in Manila, letting it "wither on the vine" while they focused on the main body of Japanese troops far outside the city. But as MacArthur's own intelligence chief, General Charles Willoughby, observed after the war, "From the day of his confident parting message to the Filipinos, 'I shall return,' no deviation from MacArthur's single-minded plan is discernible. Every battle action in New Guinea, every air raid on Rabaul or PT-boat attack on Japanese barges in the Bismark Sea, was a mere preliminary for the reconquest of the Philippines." And if to MacArthur the Philippines was the key to the whole Pacific campaign, Luzon was the key to the Philippines, and Manila the key to Luzon. "Go to Manila," he ordered his 1st Cavalry commander. "Go around the Nips, bounce off the Nips, but go to Manila." Its attraction was so great that it may well have clouded his military judgment.

In his defense, MacArthur was also motivated by an understandable concern for the fate of thousands of Filipino and American prisoners of war being held on Luzon, as well as the Filipino population as a whole. Having first-hand experience with Japanese fanatacism and atrocities over the past several years, MacArthur quite rightly expected the worst, and his insistence on immediate rescue missions to the camps at Bilibid and Santo Tomás bear out his fear that the prisoners were about to be slaughtered.

In their analysis, a trio of British historians have likened the Battle for Manila to "a Greek tragedy, with the main actors drawn inexorably toward a bloody climax by forces largely outside their control." Indeed, neither MacArthur nor General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Japanese commander in the Philippines, wanted to fight there. But each made decisions which made the battle inevitable: MacArthur by racing madly toward Manila without leaving the Japanese a way out, Yamashita by failing to force the commander of his Naval Defense Force to evacuate the city when he had the chance. Although greatly outnumbered, the Japanese improvised effective defenses which forced the Americans to reluctantly use major artillery to dislodge them. In fact, the American bombardment may have killed more people than the Japanese did, and certainly caused more physical damage. But whatever the factors which conspired to cause it, the destruction of Manila stands as one of the great tragedies of the Second World War.
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