MacArthur, Corregidor, and the Battle for the Philippines

MacArthur’s famous return to the Philippines hinged on retaking “the Rock.”

MacArthur, Corregidor, and the Battle for the Philippines
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ IJVelas

Seventy-five years ago, the Imperial Japanese Army captured Corregidor, the tadpole-shaped island situated at the mouth of Manila Bay in the Philippines, once known as the “Gibraltar of the East.” On a recent trip to the Philippines, a friend and I took a two-hour ferry ride from Manila to the historic island, which has been preserved as a military museum.

In late December 1941, as Imperial Japan’s forces worked their way down the Bataan Peninsula, American and Filipino forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur retreated to Corregidor, also known as “the Rock,” some two miles across the water and prepared to hold out until reinforcements arrived.

MacArthur’s initial headquarters, called “Topside,” was situated in a building on the summit of the highest hill on Corregidor. That building and several large barracks that housed American and Filipino soldiers were mercilessly bombed and strafed by the Japanese invaders, but still stand today alongside the rubble as memorials to the fierce fighting on the island. MacArthur soon had to find another location from which to direct his forces on the island and on Bataan.

“My new headquarters,” MacArthur later wrote, “was located in an arm of the Malinta Tunnel.” He later described the headquarters as “bare, glaringly lighted, and contain[ing] only the essential furniture and equipment for administrative procedure.” The tunnel, which is now a popular tourist attraction, was carved into the rock of a steep hill and contained hospital wards, ammunition magazines, and storage rooms. It also hosted the president of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon, and his family. The tunnel was 1,400 feet long and about 30 feet wide.

On Corregidor, MacArthur was fearless. During Japanese bombing raids, writes biographer Arthur Herman, MacArthur frequently stood outside in the open “impervious to the destruction around him.” He once told Quezon, who scolded him for taking such risks, that “the Japanese haven’t yet made the bomb with my name on it.”

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In Washington, political and military leaders knew that there were no reinforcements on the way to the Philippines, so they ordered MacArthur — against his wishes and repeated protests — to escape from Corregidor and the Philippines and go to Australia where he could organize and lead allied forces in a campaign to retake the archipelago.

There were no reinforcements waiting in Australia either. MacArthur was furious with Washington. He believed, with justification, that Washington had deceived him. He privately criticized President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Europe first” policy. MacArthur, who famously said, “I came through and I shall return,” was determined to keep his promise to retake the Philippines.

Meanwhile, American and Filipino forces were being slowly starved into submission on Bataan and Corregidor. Bataan fell on April 9, 1942. U.S. General Jonathan Wainwright, left in command by MacArthur, had little choice but to surrender the island. On May 6, 1942, at a house (which still stands) located on the side of a small hill near one of the island’s beaches, Wainwright surrendered his forces to Japan’s General Masaharu Homma. It was a humiliating defeat for the American army, and was made even worse by the atrocities that followed in the infamous Bataan Death March.

MacArthur eventually kept his promise, but it took three years for U.S. forces under his command to retake the Philippines. MacArthur first conceived and led a brilliant combined air-sea-land campaign in New Guinea. Then he had to battle with Washington and the Navy to get permission to invade the Philippines. At one point at the close of the New Guinea campaign, he looked to the north toward the Philippines and remarked to an aide: “They’re waiting for me there. It’s been a long time.”

Indeed, American and Filipino prisoners of war and Filipino civilians were desperately waiting for MacArthur.  On October 20, 1944, MacArthur’s forces landed at Leyte Gulf, just south of Tacloban. In one of the iconic scenes of World War II, MacArthur waded ashore with aides and the new Filipino president and memorably urged Filipino citizens and guerrilla forces to rally to him against the Japanese occupier:

People of the Philippines: I have returned.

By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil – soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples. We have come, dedicated and committed to the task of destroying every vestige of enemy control over your daily lives, and of restoring, upon a foundation of indestructible strength, the liberties of your people.

At my side is your president, Sergio Osmena, worthy successor of that great patriot, Manuel Quezon, with members of his cabinet. The seat of your government is now therefore firmly re-established on Philippine soil.

The hour of your redemption is here. Your patriots have demonstrated an unswerving and resolute devotion to the principles of freedom that challenges the best that is written on the pages of human history.

I now call upon your supreme effort that the enemy may know from the temper of an aroused and outraged people within that he has a force there to contend with no less violent than is the force committed from without.

Rally to me. Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on. As the lines of battle roll forward to bring you within the zone of operations, rise and strike!

For future generations of your sons and daughters, strike! In the name of your sacred dead, strike!

Let no heart be faint. Let every arm be steeled. The guidance of Divine God points the way. Follow in His name to the Holy Grail of righteous victory!

The fight to retake the Philippines was fierce and savage. Manila fell to American forces, but only after more than 100,000 Filipino civilians had been killed — most slaughtered by the Japanese. More than a thousand American soldiers and more than 16,000 Japanese soldiers died in the battle. Many more were wounded. It was urban warfare at its worst. Some of the fiercest fighting took place on high ground near where the awe-inspiring American Military Cemetery sits today, with its row after row of white crosses.

Bataan was retaken with fewer casualties than initially feared. The next target of U.S. forces was Corregidor. “The Rock,” writes Herman, “was crucial for MacArthur’s strategy.”

In late January and early February 1945, American air and naval forces pounded Corregidor. On February 16, a daring paratroop assault near the old parade ground on “Topside” was followed by a seaborne landing near the Malinta Tunnel. After 12 days of fighting, Corregidor was in American hands. Nearly all of the 6,000-man Japanese garrison were killed; some of them committed suicide by attempting to blow up the Malinta Tunnel.

MacArthur returned to his “Topside” headquarters and memorably remarked: “I see that the old flag pole still stands. Have your troops hoist the colors to its peak and let no enemy ever haul them down.” He then extolled, with only slight hyperbole, the men who had originally defended Bataan and Corregidor:

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Bataan, with Corregidor the citadel of its integral defense, made possible all that has happened since. History, I am sure, will record it as one of the decisive battles of the world. Its long protracted struggle enabled the Allies to gather strength. Had it not held out, Australia would have fallen, with incalculably disastrous results. Our triumphs today belong equally to that dead army. Its heroism and sacrifices have been fully acclaimed, but the great strategic results of that mighty defense are only now becoming fully apparent. It was destroyed due to its dreadful handicaps, but no army in history more fully accomplished its mission. Let no man henceforth speak of it other than as a magnificent victory.

Today, a visit to Corregidor allows you to go back in time. The bombed-out barracks and batteries are just as they were in 1945. The flagpole mentioned by MacArthur still stands across from a bombed-out building that once served as his offices on Topside. You can walk through portions of the Malinta Tunnel and view some of the side-tunnels destroyed by the Japanese. You can stand on the dock from which MacArthur departed the island. You can see the big guns situated on hilltops that made the island seem impregnable. You can, in other words, walk in the footsteps of heroes.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War.