Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila
James Scott’s eloquent and comprehensive history of the Rape of Manila will be formally released for sale on October 30th.
MacArthur’s Bloody Promise
Imperial Japan’s Brutal Destruction of Manila in 1945
Book Review By Jonathan W. Jordan
Wall Street Journal, October 25, 201
Battles in World War II’s Pacific Theater tended to be more savage than those in Western Europe. The struggle for Manila was the cruelest of them all.
Before Pearl Harbor, the Philippines capital was an old Spanish city with an American-style makeover. Acquired by the United States as a spoil of war in 1898, Manila featured clean neoclassical buildings, designed by U.S. architects, flanked by frescoed missions and old colonial forts. The city’s broad streets boasted top-brand department stores and golf, polo and social clubs. Fords and Buicks jockeyed for space with horse-drawn kalesas on Dewey Boulevard and Taft Avenue. Suffused with cash and culture, the Asian face of the American empire lived up to its billing as the “Pearl of the Orient.”
Then came the invasion. A month after Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops swarmed down Manila’s boulevards, bayonets fixed. Gen. Douglas MacArthur quickly abandoned the city, then the archipelago, vowing to return. For three grim years, Manila’s citizens endured starvation, disease, humiliation, rape and repression as they waited for MacArthur to fulfill his promise.
At last, on Jan. 9, 1945, MacArthur, commanding a fleet of 818 ships and 280,000 men, landed at Lingayen Gulf to begin the conquest of Luzon, the largest of the Philippine islands. Awaiting his men were 260,000 Japanese defenders under Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, some 10,000 American and Filipino prisoners, and a million inhabitants of Manila who had survived the Japanese occupation.
The fate of the Manileños, and the soldiers who turned their city into a deathtrap, is the subject of James M. Scott’s illuminating “Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila.”
Unlike typical Pacific War histories, Mr. Scott’s account drives the tragedy through two outsize personalities, Yamashita and MacArthur. Though quick to pounce on MacArthur’s flawed tactics and deafness to a still-raging battle, Mr. Scott spends little time dwelling on Mac’s towering ego or his squabbles with Roosevelt and the Navy, all of which have been fodder for longer works by William Manchester, Arthur Herman, and Walter Borneman. [Your Editor’s Note: Few scholars would recommend MacArthur biographies by Manchester, Herman, Boerneman, or Perret. Manchester writes beautifully but his anger colors his work and there are some real errors of fact. The last three are poorly written conservative screeds that ignore facts to prove their great white man theories. Herman also has very close ties to Japan’s alt-Right. Recommended are D. Clayton James, The Years of MacArthur (3 vols); William Leary, MacArthur and the American Century and his We Shall Return and Michael Schaller, Douglas MacArthur.
Far more interesting is MacArthur’s opponent. From the recollections of aides, postwar briefings and letters to his wife, the Japanese commander emerges as a luckless stoic dispatched on a suicide mission to delay, not triumph. As Mr. Scott writes, Yamashita’s orders to Manila’s defenders reflected his own struggle to balance death and duty: “ ‘It is easy to die with honor but it is much more difficult to hold up the enemy advance when you are short of ammunition and food,’ Yamashita told his men. ‘Those of you in the front line will be doing your duty if you hold them up for a day—or even half a day.’ ”
Those days totaled 29, and during that month the city was shredded in a crossfire of shot and shrapnel. In large part, the carnage was the diabolical work of the book’s villain: Rear Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi, who commanded 17,000 marines and soldiers in charge of destroying Manila’s harbor and bridges before evacuating. Yamashita ordered Iwabuchi to wreck the harbor and retreat to the Luzon uplands, but Iwabuchi intended to stay and fight, turning the Pearl of the Orient into a funeral pyre for himself, his men and as many Americans as his ammunition allowed. If Filipino innocents were caught in the fire, it was their fate to die, too.
Mr. Scott finely balances large battles, such as the U.S. 11th Airborne Division’s attack against the Genko Line—a defensive band south of Manila—with small-unit firefights, where grenades flew from behind walls and machine-gun chatter broke the darkness. “No one dared sleep in such close quarters with the enemy, who had placed machine guns inside boilers and hoisted them up in the rafters,” he writes of a two-day battle for a power plant. “The Americans resorted to using grenades and even bazookas inside the building.”
The battle’s sound and fury is but a small part of Manila’s heartbreaking story. Because the Japanese soldiers knew they would die in Manila, moral constraints fell from them like broken fetters. Heavily armed, often drunk and holding the power of life and death over thousands of unarmed civilians, troops that were holed up in the city’s center had one month to indulge in any form of sadism they wished.
The doomed men spent their last days painting Manila in blood. At St. Paul’s College, they herded families into a dining hall lined with explosives; they detonated the bombs, then dispatched survivors with bayonets and grenades. The jail at Fort Santiago, which the Japanese had used as a torture center, became an incinerator for hundreds of political prisoners and common criminals. “Troops marched into the cellblocks armed with drums of gasoline, tipping them over and letting the fuel flood the floors. Another marine tossed a torch,” Mr. Scott writes. “The Japanese machine-gunned those few who managed to escape.”
At a nearby Catholic chapel, Japanese troops massacred missionaries and refugees, gutting and raping their victims. “Japanese marines had killed or mortally wounded forty-one men, women, and children, turning this once holy place into a hellhole,” Mr. Scott puts it. “Blood not only stained the green-and-white tiled floors of the chapel but splattered the walls.”
Page after page, tales of systematic and impromptu massacre parallel the battle’s liberation narrative. A common element of both stories is the triumph of death, in varied and degrading forms.
Mr. Scott leans heavily on first-person accounts to tell his story. Unlike most other battles, Manila was treated as a crime scene by the U.S. Army after the shooting stopped. The Inspector General’s branch scoured churches, colleges and hospitals for testimony from teachers, priests, mothers, children and soldiers as they built cases for war-crimes trials. Thousands of pages of testimony, according to Mr. Scott, “offer a chilling and personal view of the horror that unfolded during those few weeks.”
The book’s descriptions of this horror are jarring, as if the Battle of the Bulge abruptly lurched into “Schindler’s List.” Yet not all the vignettes are tragic. Mr. Scott describes the joy of Filipinos who pressed scarce eggs and papayas into the hands of their liberators; a UPI correspondent reunited with a wife he hadn’t seen since her capture in 1941; and children singing “God Bless America” on Rizal Avenue to a group of cavalrymen.
MacArthur had vowed to hold Yamashita personally responsible for the actions of his men, and the story’s denouement is a four-chapter narrative of Yamashita’s capture and war-crimes trial, a legal battle that led to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Scott sympathetically follows the general’s journey from surrender to the gallows, recounting a serene poem he wrote shortly before his execution and setting the table for why his conviction remains controversial to this day.
Mr. Scott does one of the finest jobs in recent memory of cutting out the middleman and letting the participants—hundreds of them—tell their harrowing bits of a kaleidoscopic wartime tragedy. The result is an eloquent testament to a doomed city and its people. “Rampage” is a moving, passionate monument to one of humanity’s darkest moments.
—Mr. Jordan is the author of “American Warlords: How Roosevelt’s High Command Led America to Victory in World War II.”
Seventy-five years ago today, 17 October 1943, the Thai-Burma Death Railway opened. The ceremony was timed to coincide with the first day of the Autumn Festival at the Emperor-focused Yasukuni Shrine. The train engine, C5631, that ran that first day is now displayed at the entrance of the Yasukuni Shrine’s entrance.
Japanese Prime Minister Abe celebrated today’s Yasukuni fall festival by sending his usual ritual offering. A number of members of his Cabinet also visited the Shrine. No mention was made of the Railway anniversary.
On this day in 1943, a group of high-ranking Imperial Japanese Army officers and engineers gathered in the tropical heat in Thailand, some eleven miles south of the Three Pagodas Pass, to ceremoniously mark the completion of the Burma-Thailand Railway construction project. Since June, 1942, the Japanese had forced some 200,000 Asian and 61,000 Allied POW laborers to construct two sections of railway tracks—one originating in Nong Pladuk, Thailand; the other originating in Thanbyuzayat, Burma.
Some 80,000 Asians and approximately 13,000 Allied POWS had died of starvation, beatings, and various tropical diseases from lack of medical care while building hundreds of trestles, placing thousands of railroad ties, and laying over 258-miles of tracks. But now, as the two sections of railway tracks were about to be joined together at Konkuita, the Japanese had decided that “the final act of labor” in the railway construction project—the installation of the last spike into a wooden sleeper—would be a special celebratory moment, carried out and shared by the senior Japanese officers and engineers, themselves.
By this time, 668 (of the 902 total) American POWs who had been captured on Java—survivors of USS Houston (CA-30) and soldiers of the 131st Field Artillery/2nd Battalion (known as the “Texas Lost Battalion”)—had joined the Allied POW labor force working on the railway. Most of the 220 USS Houston (CA-30) survivors and the 448 Lost Battalion soldiers had worked on the Burma side of the line. On this particular day, none of these Americans was at Konkuita to witness the senior Japanese officials as they pounded in a “final spike” into a railroad tie, and congratulated each other on the railway’s completion.
Officially, the railway project was finished. But, for the Allied POWS who’d survived its construction, their ordeal was hardly over. Nearly two more brutal years were to pass before Japan would surrender and Allied prisoners of war would be liberated. And during those two years, the railway—built to carry some 3,000 tons of Japanese supplies per day, which included Comfort Women—would become the constant target of allied bombing attacks, and thus, would require constant repair. The rail line would never stay completely “finished,” per se. In the end the so-called “completed” Burma-Thailand Railway would never achieve the Imperial Japanese Army’s objectives; most of the tracks would be dismantled after the war; and the Japanese-controlled rail line, which once linked Nong Pladuck and Thanbyuzayat and cost approximately 100,000 lives—including the lives of 77 USS Houston (CA-30) survivors and 89 soldiers of the 131st Field Artillery/2nd Battalion—would become known forever as “the death railway.”
It should be noted that Nippon Sharyo the company that manufactured Engine C5631, still exists and is active in the U.S. The company was able to maintain production during the war due to POW slave labor. The founder of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, Sam Moody, was a POW who was tortured at the plant’s yard. The company is now owned by JR Central. This company, created by a close friend and adviser of Prime Minister Abe, Yoshiyuki Kasai, heads the main consortium bidding on high-speed rail projects.
The two most famous books about POWs on the Thai-Burma Railway are:
Railway Man A POWs Searing Account of War, Brutality and Forgiveness by Eric Lomax, Eric, 2008,
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Won the 2014 Man Booker Prize.
If you want to know more about the Lost Battalion and the USS Houston (CA-30) see:
Hell under the Rising Sun: Texan POWs and the Building of the Burma-Thailand Death Railway by Kelly Crager, 2008.
Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors by James D. Hornfischer, 2007
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