American POWs of Japan is a research project of Asia Policy Point, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that studies the US policy relationship with Japan and Northeast Asia. The project aims to educate Americans on the history of the POW experience both during and after World War II and its effect on the US-Japan alliance.
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*.
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.
*Few scholars 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 much less well-written conservative screeds that ignore facts to prove their great white man theories. 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.