MacArthur seemed stunned by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Though he knew the Philippines would surely be next, for nine hours he did nothing, a failure that still puzzles supporters and critics.
“All that Monday,” wrote Philippine high commissioner Francis Sayre, “we worked feverishly.” The fever was certainly there; how much was being accomplished is another question. When day broke, the defenders of the Philippines were in disarray. US warships swung at anchor; troops lacked instructions;
• When MacArthur went to the Philippines in 1935, Pinky accompanied him, but she was in poor health, and soon after their arrival she died. Eisenhower noted that her passing “affected the General’s spirit for many months.”
Clark Field lacked a single air-raid shelter. General Lewis Brereton had ordered his B-17s prepared for action, but there wasn’t a single bomb in their bomb bays.
Great leaders, statesmen and generals alike, rarely admit mistakes, and MacArthur had fewer misgivings about his judgement than most. This led him to write deviously in his memoirs that “at 11.45 a report came in of an overpowering enemy formation closing in on Clark Field. Our fighters went up to meet them, but our bombers were slow in taking off and our losses were heavy.”
The truth is more ignominious. The Japanese, as they told their post-war interrogators, could hardly believe their good fortune. There lay their prey, bunched together, wing-tips almost touching. Three 13-17s waiting to take off were the first to go; they exploded within seconds of one another. By 1.37pm, when the last Japanese plane soared away, Clark was unrecognizable, all hangars were demolished, the aircraft reduced to charred skeletons.
The capital and the General lived in a world of fantasy for two crucial weeks, rejoicing in the absence of enemy troops and feeding on vague rumours of Japanese defeats. Then, on the third morning before Christmas, the blow fell. At zam on December 22, Masaharu Homma’s veterans of the China war started moving from their transports, and by the first grey light of dawn they were ashore at three points. On only one beach did they encounter resistance. Elsewhere the untrained Filipinos dropped their rifles and fled.
Though he would go to his grave insisting that he had been hopelessly outnumbered, on paper MacArthur had almost twice as many soldiers as Homma. The difficulty was that so many of them were melting into the hills.
MacArthur decided to withdraw to fortified positions on the Bataan peninsula and the adjacent island of Corregidor, the “Rock.” Military patois for a retreat is a “retrograde manoeuvre”—a difficult feat under the best of circumstances. Napoleon’s legions in Russia, and Gamelin’s Frenchmen being routed by Hitler’s columns in 1940 —both illustrate the demoralization