By the eighth day of April in 1942, exactly 75 years ago, the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) had essentially ceased to exist as a fighting force. Comprised initially of some 12,000 American and almost 70,000 Filipino soldiers, under the overall command of General Douglas MacArthur, it had come under attack at its various bases in the Philippines within hours of the Japanese raid at Pearl Harbor, four months earlier. Despite terribly flawed decisions, and non-decisions, made by its high command in the early days of the Japanese invasion, its heroic fighting during the first months of 1942 has, nevertheless, become legendary in the annals of American military historical lore.
But, on this day 75 years ago, it lacked the physical and material ability to continue the fight. Trapped at the southernmost tip of the now infamous Bataan Peninsula, this blended “Filamerican” army was literally starving to death. The gaunt and withered bodies of its soldiers had been decimated by months of relentless fighting and greatly reduced rations. Scurvy, dysentery, beriberi, and hookworms were epidemic. 1,000 men a day were entering the two already overcrowded field hospitals. Over 75% of the soldiers had malaria, and supplies of the precious anti-malarial drug quinine were rapidly giving out. By this time almost no one had adequate clothing, with a fourth of the men being barefoot. Ammunition was getting perilously low, and equipment, most of which was already antiquated, was increasingly falling into disrepair.
At this point, in the early days of the war, America lacked the ability to either reinforce or resupply its besieged troops located halfway around the world. The men on Bataan gradually, but reluctantly, began to understand the sobering reality of their abandonment. In the meantime, President Roosevelt had personally ordered General MacArthur and key members of his staff to escape to Australia, sparing them to spearhead America’s developing plans to fight the Japanese in the southwest Pacific in the months and years ahead. It was possible, although extremely dangerous, to move a handful of men from the Philippines to safety in Australia, but totally impossible to move almost 80,000.
From the security of his newly established headquarters, MacArthur forcefully relayed orders from Washington to the Philippines that American troops there were not to surrender under any circumstances. The man now commanding the 76,000 remaining American and Filipino soldiers on Bataan was a Georgian, by the name of Edward P. King Jr. Born in Atlanta on the fourth of July and educated at the University of Georgia, Ned King had practiced law for a short time, before receiving an Army commission. Highly decorated as an artillery officer in World War I, the almost 58 year old Major General was held in high esteem by the United States Army. He was a devoted Christian with a real and serious faith, greatly respected by fellow officers and enlisted men alike.
On April 8, 1942 the decision facing King was excruciating. Only two days before, his subordinates had estimated that no more than 15% of their soldiers on Bataan were still able to fight effectively. The standard used was simply whether a man could walk 100 yards without resting and then fire a rifle. King had two basic options. One was to fight on, as ordered, to the last man. The useless carnage of such a course of action was unthinkable to King. Most of his men were either too sick or too weak to offer any resistance. His staff felt that they would likely be overrun within 24 hours, no matter what they did. The Japanese had already proven themselves, in places such as Nanking, China and Singapore, to be capable of unimaginable butchery. The prospect of fighting on promised only a massacre, slaughter of a magnitude beyond comprehension.
King’s other option, also agonizing in the extreme, required that he disobey orders and offer up the largest surrender of U.S. troops in our history. This choice, however, would at least give his men the opportunity to survive the war as prisoners. King felt certain that it would also result in the end of his military career and a court martial following the war, if he survived.
But how did the situation in the Philippines get to this point? As a result of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines had become an American colony back in 1898. Since that time, and especially in the years leading up to World War II, a sizable American military presence was maintained there. When the Japanese attacked and ultimately invaded the Philippines in December of 1941, this military presence consisted of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet and the United States Army Forces in the Far East, which included significant numbers of warplanes.
Working under the assumption that the Philippines were ultimately indefensible by local forces, American military strategists for years had maintained a very specific plan, known as War Plan Orange, to be followed in the event of a Japanese invasion. It was really fairly simple. Once the Japanese attacked, American and Filipino forces were to quickly withdraw, along with large stores of prepositioned food, general supplies, and military provisions, to a highly defensible position in the northern part of the Bataan Peninsula. From there resistance could be maintained for months and Manila Bay sealed off from use by the Japanese Navy. War Plan Orange held forth the objective that Bataan could be held until reinforced and resupplied by the U.S. Navy.
It was a generally sound plan, but everything did not go as planned. For starters, America’s military unpreparedness in 1941, coupled with the devastating impact of the Pearl Harbor attack, left our nation unable to come to the aid of Bataan’s defenders in time. Secondly, Filipino military forces, despite the boastful claims of MacArthur, were not at all well-trained when the Japanese invasion actually came. The result was ineffective resistance in the early going, coupled with a high desertion rate. To their credit, the remaining Filipino units, through experience gained in actual combat, became a formidable fighting force by the early months of 1942.
Then there was the issue of two catastrophic failures in judgment by MacArthur, both made when the Japanese invasion of the Philippines began. Despite nine hours of warning and frantic appeals by his own air commander, General MacArthur allowed his entire air force to be caught on the ground and destroyed by the Japanese on December 8, 1941, an unpardonable sin for any military commander. Next, he decided to abandon the long established War Plan Orange and fight the Japanese on the landing beaches. It was a disastrous course of action. After finally deciding to revert back to War Plan Orange in late December 1941, it was too late to move most of the vast stores of food to Bataan. The troops there were required to endure starvation rations from the start, eventually forced to eat horses, dogs, monkeys, and lizards. It was jokingly claimed that a live monkey was hard to find on Bataan by early April 1942.
All of these factors had shaped the foreboding situation on Bataan facing General King and his staff on the evening of April 8, 1942. American and Filipino forces had fought as courageously over the past three months as fighting men could be asked to fight. Now, sadly, the end was very near. Would it come in a slaughter or in a surrender?
Ever the courageous gentleman who always thought of his men, General King made his decision in such a way as to protect his staff and immediate superiors from repercussions. The decision was his alone. This grandson and nephew of Confederate officers would defy orders and surrender to the Japanese on the morning of April 9, ironically the day also marking the 77th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox.
It had been an agonizing decision, one which any military commander would shudder at the prospect of making. But, King had chosen the moral high ground, a path which he hoped would give his troops the best chance for survival now that their very ability to fight on had ceased to exist. Unknown to King at the time and half a world away, President Roosevelt had rescinded his “no surrender” order on the very morning of the actual surrender.
Arrogant Japanese captors brushed aside the General’s demand of humane treatment for his men with these words, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” No more deceitful words have ever been spoken. King had no way to know it, but his men would be subjected to unimaginable deprivation, cruelty, torture, and outright murder over the next week. As their barbarous guards herded them over sixty miles to hastily prepared POW facilities, thousands died along the way. The whole affair is now known solemnly as the Bataan Death March. For the record, another force of just over 10,000 American and Filipino soldiers held out for a month longer on the nearby island fortress known as Corregidor, before finally surrendering on May 6.
Life in a Japanese POW camp was a horrific existence, the death rate appalling. At war’s end, three and a half years later, just over a third of the Americans who had surrendered on Bataan in April of 1942 returned home. The remainder had perished, either on the Death March or during captivity. The heroism of Bataan’s defenders became a rallying theme for the rest of the war, with stirring slogans such as “Back to Bataan” and “Remember Bataan.” The day of Bataan’s surrender, Voice of Freedom Radio, transmitting from Malinta Tunnel on the island of Corregidor, broadcast this message, “Bataan has fallen, but the spirit that made it stand—a beacon to all the liberty-loving peoples of the world—cannot fail.”
Ned King survived the war, fought for recognition and awards of valor for his men but not for himself, and retired from the Army in late 1946. The great man, who had fought so skillfully and tenaciously to the bitter end, and then had courageously surrendered to avoid an unnecessary slaughter, received no awards or recognition. Ever arrogant and egocentric, MacArthur encountered King a few years after the war and acted as if he didn’t even know him. The Georgia native lived out his retirement years largely doing volunteer work and giving speeches. His speaking themes were generally consistent, never again let America reach the state of military unpreparedness that she had experienced just prior to World War II and don’t forget those who fought, suffered, and died for you. He died in 1958 and was buried in the rural beauty of Flat Rock, North Carolina. On his tombstone is engraved, “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted,” taken from the book of Luke in the Bible.
The typical American today knows essentially nothing of Major General Edward King and precious little about the courageous defenders of Bataan, men who bought time, through their heroism, for our country to regain its ability to defend itself. Don’t forget them. Tell your children and grandchildren about them and what they did….75 years ago.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” Ronald Reagan