The Battle of Manila, WWII

Filipino refugees make their way through the ruined city on February 12, 1945. (National Archives)

Filipino refugees make their way through the ruined city on February 12, 1945. (National Archives)

American General Douglas MacArthur, driven from the Philippines at the start of World War II, famously vowed to return.

This is the untold story of his homecoming.

The 29-day battle to retake Manila in February 1945 proved a fight unlike any other in the Pacific War, a bloody urban brawl that forced American soldiers to battle block by block, house by house and even room by room. The end result was the catastrophic destruction of the city and a rampage by Japanese troops that terrorized the civilian population. Landmarks were demolished, houses torched, countless women raped and their husbands and children murdered. An estimated 100,000 civilians were slain in a massacre as heinous as the Rape of Nanking. 

Not only did the battle give American war planners a glimpse of what an invasion of the Japanese homeland might involve; but those brief weeks in 1945 forever transformed the city once known as the Pearl of the Orient – and decimated generations of Filipino families, the ripples of which still echo lives even today, nearly 75 years later.

To truly appreciate the tragedy of the Battle of Manila, it’s important rewind to the turn of the twentieth century. The United States captured the Philippines along with Cuba during the Spanish-American war. But unlike Cuba, for which we granted independence, America decided to hold on to the Philippines. The rationale was best described by Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas MacArthur who helped capture Manila during the war and later served as military governor. “The archipelago,” he told Congress in 1902, “is the finest group of islands in the world. Its strategic position is unexcelled by that of any other position on the globe.”

Policy makers realized that Manila, which would serve as the nation’s front door to the business markets of China, India and Malaya, needed a face-lift to help attract industry and reflect America’s growing global status. To spearhead that transformation, the U.S. recruited famed architect and municipal planner Daniel Burnham, who over the course of his career helped cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and Cleveland. He oversaw the renovation of the National Mall in Washington and designed Union Station. Burnham saw great potential in Manila with its vast natural resources, old Spanish churches and the ancient walled city of Intramuros, the 160-acre historic heart of Manila, built soon after the city’s founding in 1571.

“Possessing the bay of Naples, the winding river of Paris, and the canals of Venice,” Burnham wrote in his plan, “Manila has before it an opportunity unique in the history of modern times, the opportunity to create a unified city equal to the greatest of the Western World with the unparalleled and priceless addition of a tropical setting.”

In the four decades leading up to World War II, Manila developed into a small slice of America, home not only to thousands of U.S. service members, but also employees of companies like General Electric, Del Monte and B.F. Goodrich. Often called the Pearl of the Orient, the city boasted a great quality of life with department stores and social clubs, golf courses and swimming pools. “Manila is by far the most beautiful of all cities in the Orient,” declared the New York Times in 1932. “From the top of the University Club it seems half hidden in a canopy of trees, green everywhere, a city within a park.”

On the eve of World War II, one of Manila’s most prominent residents was none other than Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who lived with his wife and four-year-old son in the penthouse atop the luxurious Manila Hotel. Like his father, Douglas MacArthur’s life was intertwined with the Philippines, where he had served often throughout his career. “In this city,” he once said, “my mother had died, my wife had been courted, my son had been born.” For MacArthur, the son of a career officer who had spent his life pinballing around the world, Manila was the closest thing he had to a hometown. More than just the MacArthurs enjoyed it. “To live in Manila in 1941,” remembered CBS news correspondent Bill Dunn, “was to experience the good life.”

A resident of Manila, wounded during the fighting for the Philippine capital, is placed in a basket by neighbors for transportation to a first aid station. (National Archives)

A resident of Manila, wounded during the fighting for the Philippine capital, is placed in a basket by neighbors for transportation to a first aid station. (National Archives)

But the good life ended on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and invaded the Philippines, launching the United States into war. Hoping to avoid a bloody battle in the capital, MacArthur declared Manila an Open City and evacuated his forces to Bataan and the fortified island of Corregidor. For MacArthur, this was far more than just a strategic retreat. He was abandoning his home, forced to reduce his entire life into the contents of two suitcases.

Japanese troops fanned out through the capital in January 1942, rounding up the thousands of American civilians and interning them at the University of Santo Tomas, a 50-acre school just north of the Pasig River. MacArthur endured 77 days in the tunnels of Corregidor, before escaping under the cover of darkness on March 11, 1942, in a torpedo boat with his family and staff. For the general, it was an agonizing event, forced to leave behind thousands of Filipino and American soldiers, troops who had trusted him and would soon face the Death March followed by years in Japan’s notorious prisoner of war camps. Upon reaching Australia, MacArthur made a public vow: “I shall return.” That promise would drive him as the days turned to weeks and then years.

A Filipino woman, wounded in the face and eye by shrapnel, waits with her child in front of the family’s burned home in Paco for help across the Pasig River. (National Archives)

A Filipino woman, wounded in the face and eye by shrapnel, waits with her child in front of the family’s burned home in Paco for help across the Pasig River. (National Archives)

Manila suffered greatly during the three years of the enemy's occupation. Japanese forces looted food supplies and department stores, stole farm equipment and left fields to rot. Store shelves sat empty and basic supplies like medicine vanished. Manila’s economy collapsed, and the social fabric began to unravel. An army of beggars flooded the streets while others resorted to thievery, including plundering graves in search of jewelry, dentures, eyeglasses and even clothing, anything that could be bartered or sold to buy a fistful of rice. Families unable to care for children went so far as to abandon them to orphanages or even sell them. Starvation meanwhile ran rampant, claiming as many as 500 souls a day. Marcial Lichauco, a Manila attorney whose diary captured the horror many endured, described it best in a December 1944 entry. “Today we are living under conditions in which only the fittest among us can hope to survive.”

American families, locked up behind the gates of the University of Santo Tomas and other Manila-area internment camps, suffered equally. The earlier ingenuity that internees had shown in transforming this campus into a small city, faded as the daily caloric intake plummeted and starvation took hold. A medical survey conducted in January 1945 revealed that the average male internee lost 51 pounds; the average female 32. To survive desperate internees ate dogs, cats, pigeons, and even rats, which fetched as much as eight pesos each on the camp’s black market. “I was worried about a lump in my stomach,” internee Louise Goldthorpe wrote in an entry. “Then I found it was my backbone.” By January 1945, the nearly 3,700 internees at Santo Tomas starved to death at the rate of 3-4 a day. “We survived on hope,” recalled one internee, “hope that the American forces would arrive.”

MacArthur’s forces returned on January 9, 1945, hitting the beaches of Lingayen Gulf

in preparation for the 100-mile drive south to liberate Manila. Standing in MacArthur’s way was Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, whose job was to turn the Philippines into a tarpit, to bog America down in its march north toward Japan. Yamashita had proven himself early in the war, seizing Singapore from the British, earning the nickname the Tiger of Malaya. But his rivalry with War Minister Hideki Tojo had led the latter to park Yamashita for much of the war in Manchuria. Tojo’s ouster following the fall of the Marianas in the summer of 1944 had led to Yamashita’s resurrection. Just as MacArthur had come to redeem his promise, Yamashita was equally certain of his fate. He had come to die. But he didn’t plan to do so in Manila. Instead he divided up his army and planned to fight a protracted battle in the woods and jungles of Luzon. 

In contrast, Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi, who commanded the Manila Naval Defense Force, had no intention of abandoning the capital, even if Yamashita demanded it. Iwabuchi had been a failed sea captain early in the war. He had his ship shot out from under him off Guadalcanal — and had survived, which in Japanese culture was a big disgrace. He saw in Manila a chance to redeem himself by creating an urban bloodletting similar to Stalingrad. To accomplish this, he divided his 17,000 soldiers and marines into several geographic commands that covered northern, central and southern Manila.

Iwabuchi’s ultimate plan called for a defense centered on Intramuros, the ancient citadel guarded by towering walls. Around the Walled City, Iwabuchi planned a perimeter of large concrete buildings—small fortresses—designed to withstand typhoons and earthquakes.

To make it even harder for advancing Americans, the Japanese barricaded the insides of buildings with desks, chairs, and bookcases. To further slow any enemy advance through the corridors, troops built staggered walls filled with dirt, leaving just enough clearance over which to toss hand grenades.

To take the city, American forces carved up Manila. The 37th Infantry and First Cavalry would enter the city from the north. The 37th Infantry would cross the Pasig near Malacanang Palace and then turn west and drive toward Intramuros and the waterfront. The First Cavalry would envelop Manila from the east, crossing the river farther south before turning toward the bay, a thrust that would parallel the infantry.  The 11th Airborne would come up from the south and close the city’s back door.

Troops with the First Cavalry Division advance past a dead Japanese soldier sprawled out in the street in the district of Paco on February 12, 1945. (National Archives)

Troops with the First Cavalry Division advance past a dead Japanese soldier sprawled out in the street in the district of Paco on February 12, 1945. (National Archives)

MacArthur was convinced the Japanese would evacuate the city, just as he had done at the start of the war. The general was so confident of this anticipated  move that his staff began planning a liberation parade, down to picking the individual jeep assignments of senior officers as well as mapping out the route. Complicating the challenge for American war planners was the mix of intelligence. In early December guerrilla messages reflected Yamashita’s intention to leave. By January the messages changed, pointing to the fortification of the city. Residents trapped in the middle grew alarmed. “Defeat is a bitter pill that the Japanese will not swallow,” one resident wrote in her diary. “Defeat is the one thing that can make them turn into beasts.”

At 6:35 p.m. on Feb. 3, the American cavalry rolled into Manila, prepared to liberate the city. In the northern suburbs, troops were greeted as celebrities. Nowhere was that more true than at Santo Tomas, where cavalrymen arrived around 8:30 p.m. that night. Internee Tressa Roka captured the excitement in her diary. “Before the men in the tanks knew what was going on, they were pulled out of them and lifted on the shoulders of our scrawny fellow internees. It was impossible to hold back the worshipping and joyous internees. ”

That night starving internees feasted on Army rations while American troops spoiled the children with candy. Frank Robertson, a reporter with International News Service, described just such a scene in his first dispatch from Santo Tomas. “One of the unforgettable things,” he wrote, “was the slow smile of wonderment on the pale tense face of a little girl of four tasting chocolate for the first time, her entranced eyes filled with tears of gratitude.”

But the excitement over America’s arrival proved short-lived. Iwabuchi gave the order that same day to begin the planned destruction of the city. Incendiary squads swept through the districts north of Pasig River and set fires and dynamited buildings. In addition, the Japanese blew all the bridges over the river, which divided the city. After destroying the city’s northern districts, the Japanese fell back across the river into central Manila, forcing American troops to cross the Pasig and begin what would prove to be an incredibly bloody urban fight.

American troops storm the south bank of the Pasig River during the American assault on the Walled City on February 23, 1945. (National Archives)

American troops storm the south bank of the Pasig River during the American assault on the Walled City on February 23, 1945. (National Archives)

Block by block, American soldiers pressed deeper into the city, frequently slowed by the fortifications at intersections, which required troops to blast their way through adjacent buildings in order to attack the rear of a pillbox. Infantry Major Chuck Henne summarized it best: “Gains were measured more by street intersections cleared rather than city blocks secured.”

Just as perilous were the fortified buildings, where Japanese marines used the higher floors to target the advancing Americans, dropping Molotov cocktails. “The preferred solution was to use cannons to blast the upper floors to rubble and then move in,” one infantry officer said. “An equally favored alternative was to burn the building. When these alternatives wouldn’t work riflemen moved in to take the building floor by floor.”

One of the worst such battles occurred in Rizal Hall at the University of the Philippines, where American cavalrymen inched from room to room, backs pressed against the walls, hurling grenades ahead to drive out the enemy. Finally, after two days, neither side would quit, so both prepared to hunker down overnight. That evening around 1:30 a.m., American troops heard the Japanese singing. “This commotion went on for about forty-five minutes,” the cavalrymen recorded in their report, “culminating in a final burst of song and loud shouting, immediately followed by many reports of exploding grenades and dynamite charges.” The troops continued to listen. More grenades exploded. Then silence. More detonations went off at half-hour intervals until around four a.m., at which time a lasting silence settled over the wrecked building. The next morning, troops moved in to find 77 Japanese had committed suicide.

MacArthur refused to allow planes to bomb the city for fear of killing civilians, but he relented and permitted artillery after American troops suffered heavy losses crossing the Pasig. “From then on, putting it crudely, we really went to town,” recalled General Robert Beightler, commander of the 37th Infantry. Over the course of the battle, American forces would fire more than 42,000 artillery and mortar rounds. Sixth Army Commander Gen. Walter Krueger described it best: “Some districts of the city were completely destroyed.”

Between Japanese demolitions and American artillery, Manila was being destroyed from the inside and out. Men, women and children retreated below ground, where conditions inside cramped air raid shelters deteriorated as the hours turned to days. Bunkers built to house a single family at times held multiple. With so many bodies pressed together, the air inside stagnated and the heat soared. Austrian Hans Steiner, in a letter to his mother, recounted his experience. “We lived like dogs,” he wrote. “All around us there were fires and explosions; it was the best imagination of hell one could get.” In his diary, Santo Tomas internee Robert Wygle described the parade of wounded who came to the university in search of help. “They are so far beyond recognition that, in many cases, one can’t tell whether they are men or women, boys or girls, dead or alive.”

By Feb. 9, Iwabuchi realized the fight was lost. The Americans were across the river and pressing into central Manila. His fortifications along the city’s southern border likewise threatened to collapse. The Americans had more firepower and far more troops. At that point, the fight took an evil turn, devolving from a battle over one of Asia’s great cities into one of the worst human catastrophes of World War II. An examination of the timeline of the dozens of atrocities that occurred in Manila point to Feb. 9 as the fulcrum on which the violence against civilians shifted from individual attacks against suspected guerrillas to organized mass extermination. American war crimes investigators would later tally 27 major atrocities just inside Manila with hundreds more committed throughout the Philippines. The Japanese tossed babies in the air, skewering them on bayonets. Troops decapitated hundreds of others with swords and burned thousands to death alive. The merciful ones received a bullet.

In one such example, Japanese marines stormed the Red Cross Headquarters, shooting and bayonetting more than 50 civilians, including two infants — one just ten days old. The Japanese likewise burned to death more than 500 other men, women and children inside the German Club. Troops forced hundreds of other civilians into the dining hall at St. Paul’s College, rigged the chandeliers with explosives, and then dynamited it, killing 360.

In one of the more gruesome crimes, Japanese converted a home on Singalong Street into a house of horrors. Troops cut a hole in an upstairs floor and then marched blindfolded civilians inside, forcing them to kneel over it. A Japanese marine then cut each persons head off with a sword before kicking the body into the hole. War Crimes investigators, counting skulls, later determined 200 men died this way.

The atrocities went beyond murder. The Japanese rounded up thousands of women, locking many of them inside several buildings, including the luxurious Bay View Hotel. There in the rooms where tourists once enjoyed Manila’s legendary sunsets, Japanese troops assaulted hundreds of women. “I was raped between 12 and 15 times during that night. I cannot remember exactly how many times,” one victim later testified. “I was so tired and horror stricken that it became a living nightmare.”

The Japanese did not discriminate. They killed men and women, the old and the young, the strong and the infirm. Alongside thousands of Filipinos, the Japanese slaughtered Russians, Spaniards, Germans and Indians, as well as two Supreme Court justices, the family of a senator, and scores of priests. “The list of known dead that has come to my attention sounds like a Who’s Who of the Philippines,” Marcial Lichauco wrote in his diary. “Judges, lawyers, bank directors, doctors, engineers and many other well-known figures in public life now lie rotting in the ruins and ashes.”

Those residents who were able began the long march out of the city, a dangerous journey through an apocalyptic wasteland.  It was a scene described by Life magazine photographer Carl Mydans. “All morning we had seen the long files of people walking mutely rearward past advancing infantry,” he wrote. “Some of them limped with improvised wound dressings. Many of them walked, heaven knows how, with open wounds.”

By the morning of Feb. 23, American forces had isolated the last of Iwabuchi’s forces inside Intramuros and a handful of surrounding government buildings. The fight to retake the Walled City began with a massive artillery barrage at 7:30 a.m., one so destructive that it blackened the sky, turning day to night. In one hour, American forces fired a staggering 10,000 artillery and mortar rounds. Every second of the bombardment saw an average of three shells fired, creating a continuous rolling thunder that rendered telephones worthless, forcing observers to fall back on visual communications. For those civilians trapped inside the Walled City it was terrifying. “We could not even see each other because of the smoke,” one later said. “We thought that we were all going to die.”

A platoon of American troops move into the Walled City on February 23, 1945. (National Archives)

A platoon of American troops move into the Walled City on February 23, 1945. (National Archives)

At 8:30 a.m., the assault troops moved into the Walled City. “The ensuing silence,” recalled one journalist after the guns stopped, “seemed even louder than the bombardment.” Once inside, troops discovered the survivors were almost exclusively women and children. War Crimes investigators later determined that the Japanese had killed an estimated 4,000 men inside the Walled City in the days leading up to the assault. The Japanese had locked many of them inside cells at Fort Santiago and burned them. Hundreds of others were found piled on top of one another, sealed inside the underground dungeons.

But the battle was not over.

America still had to eliminate the last of Iwabuchi’s forces, holed up inside the handful of government buildings that ringed the Walled City. America blasted the Legislature with artillery then sent in assault troops. The building eventually fell at noon on February 28.

Troops then pounded the Agriculture and Finance buildings. Iwabuchi decided to make his final stand in the Agriculture building. “If we run out of bullets we will use grenades,” he told his men. “If we run out of grenades, we will cut down the enemy with swords; if we break our swords, we will kill them by sinking our teeth in their throats.”

But Iwabuchi’s vigor withered under the onslaught of America’s merciless guns, which pulverized the columns and ripped gaping wounds in the concrete walls around him, exposing the building’s sinuous veins of rebar. Iwabuchi had presided over one of the most barbaric massacres of World War II. His troops had wantonly slaughtered tens of thousands of men, women, and children in some of the most cruel and horrible ways. Survival was not an option—and he knew it. Iwabuchi summoned his last remaining forces, and apologized for leading them to doom. “If anyone has the courage to escape, please do so,” he instructed them. “If not please take your lives here.” The admiral retreated to his quarters on the main floor in the northwest side of the building, where armed with a knife, he slit open his belly.

A handful of Japanese did, in fact, surrender, but most, however, chose to die.

An American tank rumbles through the historic gate of Fort Santiago inside the Walled City on February 26, 1945. (National Archives)

An American tank rumbles through the historic gate of Fort Santiago inside the Walled City on February 26, 1945. (National Archives)

On March 3, 1945 — 29 days after American troops rolled into the city — the Battle of Manila finally ended. The fight to retake the Philippine capital had resulted in the deaths of 16,665 Japanese, the near total destruction of Admiral Iwabuchi’s forces. In contrast, MacArthur’s men suffered 1,010 killed and another 5,565 wounded.

Civilians bore brunt of the horror with an estimated 100,000 killed, many of those slaughtered by the Japanese. The dead were often so disfigured that relatives had to identify them through clothes, cigarette cases and key chains.

Those who found remains were the lucky ones. Others would have no resolution, a sentiment best captured in a letter by Santo Tomas internee John Osborn. “With a heavy heart full of pity, I have, during these recent days and weeks, observed the searchers — the seekers after lost loved ones. Daily have they gone out the España Gate hoping to find some trace of relative or friend — to change the dreadful uncertainty to certainty, though it be the certainty of death. First they visit the site of the old home, now probably but a heap of ashes and broken walls. Then to the homes of relatives and friends for news of the lost. Finally they just walk the streets looking at the dead, who are today numerous.”

The dark smoke from artillery fire wafts across the ruins of southern Manila on the morning of February 23, 1945, as American troops prepare to assault the Walled City. Pictured on the right are the battered General Post Office and the remains of the Santa Cruz Bridge. (National Archives)

The dark smoke from artillery fire wafts across the ruins of southern Manila on the morning of February 23, 1945, as American troops prepare to assault the Walled City. Pictured on the right are the battered General Post Office and the remains of the Santa Cruz Bridge. (National Archives)

Over the city of Manila hung the awful stench of the dead. Worse than the smell, remembered Major Chunk Henne, was the taste of death, which settled on the tongue. “No amount of spitting,” he recalled, “could clear it away.”

The battle for Manila had destroyed 613 city blocks, an area containing 11,000 buildings, ranging from banks and schools to churches and houses. More than 200,000 residents were left homeless. A postwar American survey estimated that the damage to Manila — by today’s figures — would run more than $10 billion. Beyond the structural losses, were the cultural ones, from historic churches and museum paintings and statues to priceless literary works. And, of course, the economy was in shambles, a condition best described by A.V.H. Hartendorp: “The manager of one of the Manila oil companies, in speaking of the rebuilding of his plant, stated that he would have to begin again at the beginning— with a land survey.”

Amid this sea of destruction, MacArthur returned to the Manila Hotel to find his home in ruins. Gone was his vast personal library, his father’s Civil War mementos, his son Arthur’s baby book, a loss that crushed Jean MacArthur. “You wanted to know about my apartment at the hotel,” she wrote in a letter to a friend. “Of that, as well as everything else almost that I know in Manila is gone.”

Filipino refugees, many barefoot, pick through the wreckage of north Manila, having just crossed the Pasig River following the fight for the Walled City. The nun carries a motherless infant born just three days earlier. (National Archives)

Filipino refugees, many barefoot, pick through the wreckage of north Manila, having just crossed the Pasig River following the fight for the Walled City. The nun carries a motherless infant born just three days earlier. (National Archives)

General Yamashita remained elusive until the end of the war when he walked out of the mountains and surrendered. He was put on trial in the fall of 1945 in the first war crimes trial in Asia, accused of failing to control his troops. Yamashita blamed everything on Iwabuchi, even though evidence showed he was in touch with the admiral throughout most of the battle. Furthermore, Yamashita was no stranger to such horror. His own troops had killed thousands of Chinese after the fall of Singapore while his chief of staff in the Philippines had played a critical role in the Rape of Nanking.

Over the course of 32 days, the Battle of Manila was replayed before a panel of five judges and a total of 16,000 spectators, who jammed into the courtroom, sitting shoulder to shoulder each day to watch the war crimes trial. A parade of 286 witnesses—doctors, lawyers, teachers and nurses—testified about what had happened to them or their loved ones. Yamashita was convicted on Dec. 7, 1945. His dogged defense lawyers appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but ultimately lost.

On February 23, 1946, in a sugarcane field 40 miles south of Manila, Yamashita was hanged—stripped of all decorations and even his officer’s uniform, just as MacArthur had ordered.

Yamashita’s execution did little to provide solace for the victims, many of whom would battle years of physical torment. Others wrestled with emotional wounds. Scores more struggled to understand the barbarity inflicted upon them.  “It was just total hatred and savagery,” explained survivor Johnny Rocha. “You cannot explain it.”

Life goes on as Filipinos walk in front of the ruins of the Philippine Legislature in May 1945. (National Archives)

Life goes on as Filipinos walk in front of the ruins of the Philippine Legislature in May 1945. (National Archives)

Nearly a half century after the battle, survivors formed an organization—the Memorare Manila 1945 Foundation—dedicated to preserving the story of the civilian sacrifices during the city’s liberation. To memorialize those killed, the organization erected a statue in Intramuros of a weeping mother cradling a dead infant, surrounded by other dead or dying figures. The inscription provides a powerful epitaph: “This memorial is dedicated to all those innocent victims of war, many of whom went nameless and unknown to a common grave, or never even knew a grave at all, their bodies having been consumed by fire or crushed to dust beneath the rubble of ruins,” the inscription reads. “Let this monument be the gravestone for each and every one.”

This article is based on the author’s presentation at the Bataan Legacy Historical Society’s conference in San Francisco, September 9, 2017.


Janes Scott

Janes Scott

A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and Pulitzer Prize finalist, James M. Scott is the author of Rampage, Target Tokyo, The War Below and The Attack on the Liberty.

Rampage, his latest book, is now available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Rampage-MacArthur-Yamashita-Battle-Manila/dp/0393246949/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1542039851&sr=8-1&keywords=rampage+macarthur%2C+yamashita+and+the+battle+of+manila