By LESTER TENNEY
Wall Street Journal Online, December 7, 2016
The catastrophe of Pearl Harbor still overshadows the embarrassing defeat inflicted on American forces in the Philippines. Whereas Japan attacked Hawaii for 90 minutes and never returned, the battles in the defense of the Philippines continued for five months, followed by widespread guerrilla warfare and the nightmarish internment of combatants and civilians. This culminated in a ferocious American campaign starting in October 1944 to retake the Islands.
By midmorning on Dec. 8, Imperial Army bombers attacked two U.S. bases on Luzon, Tuguegarao Field and the Baguio headquarters of the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East. Shortly after noon, Japan’s Imperial Navy bombers and fighters attacked Clark Field and Iba Field. My 192nd Tank Battalion was waiting for them at Clark Field.
We sat in our tanks surrounding the airfield and prepared to defend it from a ground attack, which never came. The antiaircraft guns of the 200th Coast Artillery fired too low to be effective. Their 1932 vintage ammunition and corroded fuses made the guns unreliable. Maybe one of every six shells actually exploded.
We watched as the first flights of Japanese bombers blew apart Clark’s hangars, barracks and warehouses. Our planes were on the field, fueled, ammunition loaded, and lined up wingtip-to-wingtip as the pilots and crew had lunch. These were torn apart not just by the waves of bombers but also by low-flying Mitsubishi Zeros. More than 100 planes were lost, and the human casualties amounted to 55 killed and more than 100 wounded.
When combined with the other losses on that one day of war, the U.S. Far East Air Force was eliminated as an effective fighting force. And with it disappeared the ability to conduct a realistic defense of the Philippines.
I was literally fresh off the boat. My tank battalion had left San Francisco on Oct. 27 aboard the USAT Hugh L. Scott. We arrived in Manila on Nov. 20—Thanksgiving Day. I remember my feast of hot dogs, while the officers had turkey at their club.
The 192nd battalion had boarded the troopship with little to no training. We were 588 men, nearly all activated National Guard, from Maywood, Ill., Fort Knox, Ky., Clinton, Ohio, and Janesville, Wis. For a few weeks in September and October, we practiced tank warfare with broomsticks for guns, markers for heavy tanks and a handful of 1930s vintage tanks.
Never once did we practice on the 108 light tanks that were sent with us to the Philippines. Thus during Japan’s raid on Clark Field, our cannons were silent. Amid the chaos, we desperately searched for the shells. We found them as the last Japanese bomb fell that day: They were under the radio operator’s seat, my seat.
Throughout Asia on Dec. 8, American and Allied soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines all found themselves at the mercy of Imperial Japan. It is forgotten that the Japanese also descended on Guam, Wake Island, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. At the time, few believed that the Japanese would be able to strike so far from home and in so many places.
That day in China, nearly 300 U.S. Marines, sailors, and diplomats became the first American prisoners of war. In the following weeks and months, American soldiers and civilians throughout Japan’s newly occupied territories became POWs. They all endured more than three years of confinement in squalid camps or slave labor at such places as the Thai-Burma death railroad.
For me, my battalion soon met advancing Japanese tanks and infantry as we covered the withdrawal of American and Filipino forces into the Bataan Peninsula. We held on for four months fighting with dwindling food, medicine and materiel. Promised reinforcements from the U.S. never came. Fearing a bloodbath, our commanders surrendered us on April 9, 1942.
Every day I am asked if I have forgiven the Japanese for their brutal treatment of me as a prisoner. I lost more friends to abuse and starvation as POWs than from combat. More prisoners died on “hell ships” than Marines in the Pacific.
I have forgiven, as at 96 I do not want to live with all the hate. But it is just as hard to forgive the short-sightedness of the commanders who put us in harm’s way on Dec. 7 and 8.
Mr. Tenney was a member of the 192nd Tank Battalion, Company B, that defended the Philippines in World War II. He lives in San Diego.