Tomorrow, April 9, 2017, marks an important occasion in the history of World War II in the Pacific—the seventy-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Bataan peninsula in northwestern Luzon to Japanese military forces. More specifically, it marks the date when Filipino and American soldiers of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East defending the peninsula for three miserable months finally surrendered to the Japanese invaders.
Those valiant troops had waited in vain for reinforcements promised by United States President Franklin Roosevelt, but which never came. As a consolation, however, the gallant last stand at Bataan delayed the Japanese timetable for conquest by several months, a delay that gave Australia enough time to prepare against a Japanese offensive. That last stand may have triggered the extreme cruelty the conquerors subjected their prisoners of war to during the infamous Bataan Death March which came thereafter.
By then, only Corregidor island remained devoid of invaders, but that fortress likewise yielded less than a month later. Manila had already been captured at the start of the new year in 1942.
Just over a year earlier, Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel Luis Quezon worried about a Japanese invasion of the islands. Historical accounts reveal that Quezon and his political allies had misused most of the funds earmarked by the United States Congress to prepare the Philippines for eventual independence, which necessarily included the bolstering of its national defense.
By October 1941, Quezon knew that the Commonwealth had an insufficient army to defend the archipelago from the anticipated Japanese invasion. Quezon was likewise aware that American plans for the defense of the Philippine Islands when war breaks out were hopelessly inadequate—so inadequate that Quezon even entertained the idea of declaring the Commonwealth a neutral, if only to spare his Commonwealth from the consequences of the improvidence of its leaders and American sponsors.
Actually, Quezon’s notion of declaring the neutrality of the Philippines was a pipe dream. Japan could not be expected to honor such a declaration considering that the Philippine Commonwealth was obviously identified and aligned with the United States. The Commonwealth’s offical seal bore the American eagle (as it does today), its Constitution was approved by the US president, and all Filipino soldiers took their marching orders from the one and only American Field Marshall, Douglas MacArthur.
Nazi Germany ignored Belgium’s protestations of neutrality because Brussels had always comported itself as an ally of France. Why then should Japan accept the neutrality of the Philippine Commonwealth when it has been a colony of American for the past 40 years?
When Nazi Germany declared war on the United States just days after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, America found itself fighting on two theatres of what had become a world war—against the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific.
Human nature and logic dictated that since Japan drew first blood against the United States at Pearl Harbor, and considering that Nazi Germany never launched any surprise attack against America before the second world war began, the US should have prioritized its war against Japan, with Nazi Germany as second priority. In other words, America had good reason to hate Japan more than it should dislike Nazi Germany.
That was not to be so, because Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, agreed to defeating Nazi Germany, before demolishing Japan. This “Europe first” policy deeply angered Quezon, who likened America’s preferential treatment for England to a soldier going off to a distant land to defend a distant cousin, while his own daughter is being raped in his own backyard.
Quezon should have expected America’s lack of concern and importance for the Philippines. Defeating Japan before beating Nazi Germany would have only gained the liberty of Filipinos and their fellow Asians. On the other hand, a swift victory in Europe carried with it the tempting prospect of American influence in postwar Western Europe. From a practical perspective, too, the eastern seaboard of the United States was too close to Europe, and Nazi u-boats had converted most of the North Atlantic Ocean into a German lake.
That’s not all. After allied forces obtained a beachhead in Normandy, France in June 1944, America’s attention was focused anew on the Pacific. Surprisingly, the top brass of the US military had planned to bypass the Philippine Islands and launch the allied offensive against Japan from Formosa (present-day Taiwan). Fortunately, that plan was shot down by General MacArthur, who convinced Roosevelt about the folly of landing American soldiers in Formosa, while hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops in the Philippine Islands prepare for a rear end attack emanating from Luzon.
To get Roosevelt on his side, MacArthur threatened to make the planned bypass of the Philippine Islands an election issue in the November 1944 elections in the US.
“Have you forgotten, Mr. President, the promise you made back in December 1941 that you will liberate those islands from the Japanese?” MacArthur quizzed Roosevelt.
That rebuke was enough for Roosevelt to agree with the American Caesar’s plan to recapture the Philippine Islands from the Japanese before any offensive against Japan territory is to be undertaken.
Parenthetically, if MacArthur failed to get his proposal approved by Roosevelt and the bypass of the Philippine Islands pushed through as planned, the Philippine Islands would have remained under the Japanese boot for an additional nine months or so. Since the Japanese were getting restless by 1944, their nine-month extended stay in the Philippine Islands would have meant more Filipino casualties. In fact, many of the current generation of young Filipinos may not be around today, if a great-grand ancestor of theirs had been killed during that nine-month period, without having sired children. In that sense, many of us possibly owe General MacArthur our lives.
That, in turn, probably explains the love-hate relationship the Philippines has for America.