Philippine Islands

Relief map of the Philippine Islands

The Philippine Islands are the second largest archipelago in the world, consisting of over 7000 islands stretching 1150 miles (1850 km) from north to south and with a total land area of 114,400 square miles (296,295 km2). The two largest islands, Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south, account for over two-thirds of the land area. Other large islands include Samar, Negros, Palawan, Panay, Mindoro, and Leyte. Those islands lying between Leyte and Mindanao are known collectively as the Visayans.

The terrain is  rugged mountains with some alluvial plains, such as the central Luzon plain. The highest elevation is Mount Apo on southern Mindanao at 9691' (2954 meters). There are about twenty active volcanoes. The islands were 70% forested, with near-jungle conditions, but there were also some areas of scrub and grassland. About 19% of the land area is arable, and the volcanic soil is highly productive. Most of the coast is rocky and backed by cliffs, but there are some mangrove swamps and numerous beaches suitable for landing operations. The region is tectonically complex, but a deep oceanic trench to the east is typical of an ill-defined island arc, estimated to have formed some 50 million years ago.

The climate is uniformly warm year-round, with only a 10F (6C) range between the coolest and hottest months. Rainfall averages about 70" (180 cm) per year, though some wetter locations receive as much as 200" (500 cm) of rainfall per year. The southwest monsoon blows from June to September and the northeast from October to April. Mindanao and most of the Visayans experience no dry season, while northern and central Luzon has a dry season from March to May. The islands are subject to frequent typhoons, with up to six striking each year.

The islands had been inhabited since at least 22,000 B.C. Chinese settlers arrived in 1500 B.C. and the islands became a crossroads of many cultures. Islam was introduced in the early 15th century and briefly flourished. Magellan was the first European to discover the islands, in 1521, and he was killed on Mactan Island in the Visayans while intervening in a local rebellion. The islands were declared a colony of Spain in 1565 with its capital initially at Cebu. This was relocated to Manila, with its superb anchorage, in 1571. The Spanish introduced Catholicism and halted the spread of Islam.

The United States destroyed the small Spanish fleet at Manila on 1 May 1989, during the Spanish-American War, and took control of the islands in the subsequent peace treaty. The Americans had previously supported the  Filipino rebels, but ignored the subsequent declaration of Filipino independence, citing the arrival of German, French, British, and Japanese warships at Manila as proof that these powers intended to dismember the islands and only American control could prevent this. The Filipino rebels responded with a guerrilla campaign against the Americans, but this was successfully put down by 1903. However, most Americans were embarrassed to find themselves in possession of a colonial empire. The Americans abolished slavery, established an American-style legal system, and extended Bill of Rights protections to Filipinos. A local assembly was elected in 1907 and the Tydings-McDuffle Act of 1934 established the Philippine Commonwealth. Full independence was promised in 1946, a promise that was kept, although the U.S. retained treaty bases at Clark Field and Olongapo for many more years.

The islands were fairly well developed in 1941. Manila had one of the finest ports in the Far East, with extensive facilities. Other developed ports included Cebu, Iloilo, Zamboanga, Jolo, Legaspi, and Davao. Total road mileage was 13,750 miles (22,128 km) and there were over 700 miles (1100 km) of railroads on Luzon and another 133 miles (214 km) of railroads on Panay and Cebu. It was possible to drive from the northern tip of Luzon through Samar and Leyte to the southern Mindanao with just three ferry crossings. The islands produced rice, the staple of the Filipinos (around 2.2 million tons a year), sugar (around 1.3 million tons a year), copra, timber, and other agricultural products. Nylon rope was developed in part to replace hemp lost with the Japanese occupation. There were significant deposits of copper, manganese, chromium, gold, and iron, though the iron ore deposits were of somewhat poor quality and were not being extensively exploited.

The population in 1941 was 16,771,900, of which as many as a million died during the war, mostly in its last months. Of these, 131,028 were named in affidavits as victims of war crimes. There were about 40 ethnic groups and over 65 dialect groups. About 90% of the population were Catholic or Catholic offshoots. About 15% of the population belonged to the mestizo elite, the remainder of the population being Malay peasants working as tenant farmers or agricultural laborers. The American population was about 9000 and there about 117,000 Chinese and 30,000 Japanese. About half the latter lived near Davao and most of the rest near Manila. The U.S. introduced modern educational and legal institutions but left the system of tenant farming largely unchanged. American medical assistance had brought plague and smallpox under control, but malaria and other tropical diseases remained a challenge.

The total coastline is 12,000 miles (19,000 km), roughly the same as the continental United States, making the islands indefensible without command of the air and the sea around them.

The First Philippines Campaign

Japanese tank column advancing in the Philippines

U.S. Army. Via

As the westernmost American outpost in the Pacific, the Philippines were considered the likely first objective of the Japanese in the event of war with the United States.The American contingency plan for war with Japan, Plan Orange, and its Japanese counterpart, Kantai Kessen (Decisive Battle Doctrine), assumed that in the event of war the American Fleet would fight its way across the Central Pacific to relieve the Philippines, at some point meeting the Japanese Fleet for a decisive fleet engagement.  The Americans knew that Manila could not be held by the small American garrison in the Philippines, which instead was to retreat into the Bataan Peninsula to cover the fortress of Corregidor and deny the use of Manila Bay to the Japanese for as long as possible. Since it would take months or years for the American Fleet to fight its way across the Pacific, it was tacitly assumed that the Philippines garrison would be overcome before it could be relieved.

However, the U.S. commander in the Philippines, Douglas MacArthur, refused to accept the role assigned to him by Plan Orange. Instead, MacArthur promulgated an ambitious scheme of forward defense in case of Japanese attack. The Philippines would be defended by a large force of trained Filipino reservists, stiffened by the small regular Army garrison and shielded by a force of submarines and motor torpedo boats and squadrons of the new B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. In retrospect, MacArthur's plan was completely unrealistic, requiring a budget far in excess of anything the Philippine Commonwealth could afford. But great things were thought possible of the as-yet-untested B-17, and with the war in Europe leaving almost no resources for the Pacific, both Roosevelt and Churchill were willing to grasp at the straw MacArthur offered them.

American defenses in late 1941 were centered around Manila and included the large airbase at Clark Field and smaller bases at Iba, Del Carmen, and Nichols Field. A bomber airfield had just been completed at Del Monte on Mindanao. Harbor defenses were centered on Corregidor and there were naval stations at Cavite and Olongapo. Ground forces consisted of the Philippine Division, which was a regular U.S. Army unit, plus specialist units and eleven divisions of the Philippine Army. The latter were poorly equipped, badly trained, and suffered serious language difficulties, including an illiteracy rate of 20%, but would manage in some cases to put up significant resistance.

MacArthur had a force of some 75 modern fighters and 35 heavy bombers to defend the islands. Half of these were caught on the ground and destroyed eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, under circumstances that have never been adequately explained, and thereafter the Japanese ruled the skies. Deprived of any air cover, the naval forces in the islands retreated south, except for the submarine and motor torpedo boat forces, which proved ineffective because of inexperienced commanders, poor tactical doctrine, and defective torpedoes. Loss of control of the sea and air meant that MacArthur's war plan would have to be abandoned almost at once in favor of the original Plan Orange.

The Japanese opened the ground campaign on the first day of the war with a landing at Batan Island, north of Luzon. Their intention was to establish an air base and bring up short-ranged Nate fighters to cover further landings at Aparri and Vigan. However, the collapse of American air power allowed the Japanese to move their whole timetable forward. A further landing at Legaspi on 12 December completed the blockade of Luzon and paved the way for the main landings at Lingayen Gulf on 22 December and secondary landings at Lamon Bay on 24 December. The forces landed at Lingayen Gulf included the bulk of 48 Division; 20 Regiment, 16 Division; and 4 Tank Regiment, while the landings at Lamon Bay were carried out by the remaining elements of the 16 Division (7000 men.)

The Japanese began landings at Davao on Mindanao on 19 December 1941. The defenders retreated into the interior, where they would continue to resist until the fall of Corregidor.

Faced with a pincers movement, MacArthur began his retreat to Bataan. In order to buy enough time to get the South Luzon Force through Manila before the pincers closed, MacArthur ordered the North Luzon Force to hold five successive lines across the central Luzon plain. The plan worked successfully and over 100,000 men were moved into Bataan before Homma, whose attention had been fixed on Manila, realized what was afoot. The last American and Filipino forces withdrew into the peninsula on 5 January 1942.

By 9 January Homma had redeployed his troops to attack the American positions. Although the American line on the western side of the peninsula held, the eastern line was penetrated, and by 24 January the Americans were forced back to their second defense line. This was assaulted in strength on 3 April, after two months of careful preparation, and the American lines were quickly pierced. General King, the commander of Allied forces on Bataan, was forced to surrender on 9 April 1942. 75,000 sick and starving prisoners of war were marched to camps at San Fernando, 100 miles away, in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Thousands of prisoners died of mistreatment along the way, making this the single greatest atrocity committed against American troops during the war.

The penultimate act of the first Philippines campaign came on 5 May 1942, when Japanese troops began landing on Corregidor. The defenders inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese but could not prevent them from establishing a beachhead. The island was forced to surrender the next day.

Wainright discusses surrender with Homma

U.S. Army. Via

One act remained. MacArthur had chosen to retain direct command of forces in the Philippines, but radio broadcasts from Washington, D.C. suggested to the Japanese that Wainright on Corregidor had become the overall Philippines commander. Homma therefore refused to accept Wainright's surrender unless all forces in the Philippines were surrendered at the same time. Faced with the prospect of the Corregidor garrison being massacred, Wainright agreed to broadcast a plea to the other Philippines commanders to lay down their arms. All eventually chose to do so. Wainright feared he would be court-martialed after the war for this act, and was astonished to learn upon his release that he had been given the Medal of Honor and promoted to lieutenant general.

Casualties in the campaign were about 25,000 killed, 21,000 wounded, and 100,000 captured for the Americans and 9,000 killed, 13,200 wounded, and 500 missing for the Japanese.

Japanese order of battle, 7 December 1941

14 Army
5 Air Division
3 Fleet

American order of battle, 7 December 1941

Asiatic Fleet

The Japanese Occupation

Manila on the eve of occupation

U.S. Army. Via

Between Wainright's surrender in May 1942 and the landings on Leyte in October 1944, the Philippines endured almost 29 months of Japanese occupation. Surviving Allied prisoners of war were mostly confined in camps on Luzon, where they were treated very harshly. About 7000 American civilians were interned, though a considerable number (especially of the elderly and infirm) were never interned and others were not interned until 1943. The Japanese initially made little effort to control the more remote areas of the archipelago, and only about twelve of the 48 provinces were actually garrisoned.

Considerable numbers of Allied troops refused to surrender (up to 90% on some of the smaller Visayan Islands) and went into the hills as guerrillas instead. Other Filipino prisoners of war were released in a general amnesty in October 1943 when the puppet Philippine government was organized, and some of these also became guerrillas. Some were directed by American officers, and many eventually made contact with MacArthur's headquarters. For example, on 3 January 1943, Captain Ralph B. Praeger, who had escaped from Bataan into central Luzon, made radio contact with MacArthur, reported that he had organized a force of 5000 guerrillas, and asked for an arms drop with which to begin a sabotage campaign. MacArthur instructed him to restrict has activities to intelligence gathering to avoid Japanese reprisals against civilians. However, Praeger's men could not be persuaded to refrain from ambushing Japanese soldiers when the opportunity presented itself. Another American guerrilla leader in the Philippines was Wendell Fertig, a mining engineer who held a reserve commission and was called to the colors before war broke out. He organized a force of several thousand guerrillas on Mindanao. An estimated total of 260,000 Filipinos became guerrillas during the occupation.

Filipino guerrillas received instructions and supplies (dropped by air or delivered by submarine) and, in return, sent back a considerable volume of sometimes very valuable intelligence. Much of the direction of the Filipino guerrillas was carried out through "Chick" Parsons, a Navy reserve lieutenant commander who had spent most of his adult life in the Philippines. Parsons was fluent in Spanish and could communicate in two native dialects, was unusually well acquainted with the southern islands, and was sufficiently short and dark to blend in with the native Filipinos. After war broke out, he was registered as the Panamanian consul as a legal fiction to facilitate the reflagging of Danish freighters, and he continued to pass himself off as a Panamanian diplomat after the Japanese occupation. He and his family were repatriated in October 1942 in exchange for Japanese civilians in Latin America, during which he smuggled out extensive intelligence on the Japanese occupation at great personal risk. MacArthur requested his services, and Parsons became head of "Spyron" (Spy Squadron, a word play on Naval jargon for type squadrons), making repeated trips to the Philippines by submarine to coordinate guerrilla activities.

Filipino guerrillas killed an estimated 8-10,000 Japanese troops. During the American reconquest of the Philippines, these guerrillas carried out reconnaissance activities ahead of the advancing regular troops. Other Filipino guerrillas were Communist insurgents who were almost as hostile to the Americans as to the Japanese, and who continued their insurgency after the Japanese surrender.

The Second Philippines Campaign

MacArthur returns to the Philippines

National Archives. Via

By the beginning of July 1944, the Americans had moved to within striking distance of the Philippines, with MacArthur's forces preparing to seize Sansapor near the west end of New Guinea and Nimitz' forces established in the Marianas. However, MacArthur's desire to retake the Philippines was initially opposed by U.S. Fleet commander Ernest King, who preferred a move against Formosa followed by capture of a Chinese port from which to place an airtight blockade around Japan proper. The Japanese Ichi-go offensive in May 1944 forced the U.S. air groups in China to fall back from their forward bases and cut off the entire China coast from the Nationalist regime, making the capture of a Chinese port much less attractive. Furthermore, Formosa was a part of the Japanese Empire from before the war and could be expected to be savagely defended. The decision to allow MacArthur to retake the Philippines was made by Roosevelt himself during a conference in Hawaii in July. Nimitz was directed to plan the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in place of Formosa.

The Japanese defenses in the Philippines were build around 14 Army, which was commanded from 5 October 1944 by Yamashita Tomoyuki, the conqueror of Malaya in 1942. Leyte itself was initially defended only by 16 Division. By late 1944 the Japanese had constructed 70 airfields in the archipelago.

The original Allied plan was to invade Mindanao at Sarangani Bay on 25 October 1944 to secure airfields from which to cover the invasion of Leyte on 15 November. However, Halsey encountered so little air opposition during his strikes in the area in mid-September 1944 that he proposed Mindanao be bypassed and Leyte seized with naval air cover alone. This suggestion was adopted at the OCTAGON conference on 15 September 1944, and the invasion date for Leyte was set for 20 October 1944. This required that Wilkinson's amphibious force, carrying XXIV Corps, be diverted to Leyte rather than assaulting Yap, and there was not even time to reload the cargo or switch landing craft to types more suitable for Leyte.

Meanwhile, on 15 September 1944, MacArthur's forces occupied Morotai against minor opposition. Nimitz simultaneously assaulted the Palaus and occupied Ulithi. There was no significant opposition at Ulithi, but the battle for the Palaus became a protracted and bloody ground struggle.

The campaign against the Philippines proper began with carrier raids against the islands. These climaxed in a great air battle over Formosa on 12-14 October 1944. Japanese air power in the region was practically annihilated, at the cost of about 70 American aircraft and damage to the Canberra and Houston. Halsey made the daring move of setting a trap around the two crippled cruisers (sardonically renamed BaitDiv1) that nearly succeeded. However, the Japanese admiral sent to finish off the Americans, Shima Kiyohide, sensed the trap and withdrew his forces.

Halsey then moved south to work over the Japanese air bases on Luzon. His air strikes were joined by land-based strikes from 16 October and by strikes from the 18 escort carriers under Sprague. Minesweeping operations began on 17 October.

Leyte. Troops of with Krueger's 6 Army came ashore on Leyte beginning on 20 October 1944. Resistance was slight because 16 Division retreated almost at once to prepared positions in the mountainous spine of the island. The battle became protracted as Japanese reinforcements were brought in to Ormoc on the west coast of the island in destroyer runs reminiscent of the Guadalcanal campaign. The island was not secured until 31 December.

The Japanese Navy activated the Sho operation as soon as the landings on Leyte began. The resulting Battle of Leyte Gulf (23-25 October 1944) was the greatest naval battle in history and ended in another decisive American victory. As with the Battle of the Philippine Sea, however, there were recriminations and accusations of missed opportunities. Halsey was sharply, and probably justly, criticized for allowing a powerful Japanese surface force under Kurita to slip through San Bernardino Strait and attack the relatively defenseless escort carrier groups off Samar.

During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese launched their first kamikaze attacks, sinking an escort carrier and damaging several other ships. This form of attack would not come to a halt until the Japanese ran out of aircraft with which to make the attacks.

Mindoro. The next objective was Mindoro. Heavy carrier strikes began on airfields on Luzon starting on 14 December, and troops of 24 Division and a detachment of paratroops went ashore the next day. The landing force established a perimeter and began construction of an airfield before pushing further inland. San Jose with its airstrip was taken on 17 December and the island was secured on 24 January 1945.

Lingayen Gulf. On 2 January 1945, the invasion forces for Luzon began assembling. The Japanese detected the preparations almost at once, and the invasion forces were subjected to heavy kamikaze attacks. The Americans responded with airfield strikes against Formosa on 3 January in an effort to cut the air bridge from Japan. The landings themselves began on 9 January at Lingayen Gulf. Yamashita, the Japanese commander, decided not to contest the landings. Instead, he ordered most of his forces (numbering some 260,000 men) move into mountainous areas of Luzon where they would hold out as long as possible.

Following the Lingayen operation, Kinkaid wished to retain the major units of Pacific Fleet that had been loaned to 7 Fleet to continue supporting operations in the Philippines. This resulted in a sharp exchange of messages between Kinkaid, Nimitz, and MacArthur that ended with a compromise: Kinkaid retained two heavy cruisers and 22 destroyers and the return of four battleships was posponed by three weeks.

Meanwhile, Halsey, having returned from a raid into the South China Sea, struck Formosa again between 20 and 27 January. On 21 January Light carrier Langley  was lightly damaged in a conventional bombing attack and fleet carrier Ticonderoga was badly damaged by two kamikaze hits. Destroyer Maddox failed to detect a kamikaze sneaking in behind a returning flight of American aircraft and suffered moderate damage. Hancock suffered moderate damage from a bomb that came loose from an aircraft taxiing on her flight deck and exploded. However, 3 Fleet's claims for January 1945 were an impressive 430,000 tons of shipping and 614 aircraft destroyed at the cost of 201 aircraft (98 in combat and 103 operationally) and 167 aircrew plus 205 sailors killed during the kamikaze attacks on 11 January.

Dash on Manila. Against weak opposition, the Americans on Luzon rapidly moved south. On 31 January, elements of 11 Airborne Division came ashore southwest of Manila and began racing for the city. MacArthur was deeply concerned about the fate of American prisoners of war and civilian internees, who he rightly feared were in danger of being massacred by their guards. American units reach the outskirts of Manila from the north and south on 4 February. Some 20,000 naval troops fought ferociously for the Intramuros, the ancient center of the city. The battle for the city did not end until 3 March 1945.

Corregidor was assaulted by air and sea on 16 February 1945. The island was secured ten days later. Palawan fell on 10 March 1945 and landings began on Mindanao near Zamboanga the same day. Landings took place on Panay on 18 March. Cebu was invaded on 27 March 1945. MacArthur's decision to land forces on the smaller Philippine islands was controversial; there was some feeling that it would have been better to let Filipino guerrillas harass and tie down the Japanese garrisons while American forces concentrated on clearing Luzon and Mindanao.

The bulk of Yamashita's forces continue to hold out in the mountains east and northeast of Manila until the Japanese surrender.

Southern Philippines. At the February 1945 Yalta conference, the Joint Chiefs of Staff informed the British that it was not their intention to commit further American resources to the liberation of the remaining Philippine Islands. However, MacArthur had been making plans since31 October 1941 to recapture the Visayas (VICTOR), Mindanao and Borneo (OBOE) and the Netherlands East Indies (PETER). Morison (1959), no MacArthur hater, nonetheless dryly observed that "It is still somewhat of a mystery how and whence, in view of these wishes of the J.C.S., General of the Army Douglas MacArthur derived his authority to use United States Forces to liberate one Philippine island after another." However, neither 7 Fleet nor 8 Army were were required for the Iwo Jima or Okinawa campaigns, and it seems that large forces in time of war beg to be used. MacArthur was permitted to carry out his operations until April 1945, when the Joint Chiefs finally vetoed MacArthur's plans to recapture Java.

The campaign in the southern Philippines followed a regular pattern. Because the Japanese had no air cover to speak of, and were under orders not to stake all on defending the beaches, most of the landings were  virtually unopposed. The Americans quickly seized the points of military significance, driving the Japanese into fortified positions deep in the interior where they were contained by guerrilla forces and left to wither on the vine.

The campaign opened with the invasion of Palawan on 28 February 1945. Within two months, the Americans had invaded Zamboanga (10 March), Panay and western Negros (18 March), Cebu (26 March), Bohol (11 April), southeast Negros (26 April), and Mindanao (17 April.) Only the Cebu invasion encountered serious opposition on the beach. By the beginning of May the Americans were ready to land Australian troops in Borneo.

Historian Stanley L. Falk has argued that the second Philippines campaign, and indeed the entire Southwest Pacific campaign, did nothing to hasten the final victory against Japan. However, this opinion is based on hindsight regarding the effectiveness of the Central Pacific campaign, the futility of the American effort in China, strategic bombing, and the development of nuclear weapons. Given the material power of the United States, and lacking such hindsight, it was not unreasonable to pursue a strategy aimed at cutting Japan off from the resources of southeast Asia and preparing a secure land base from which to mount the invasion of Japan.

Total U.S. casualties in the second Philippines campaign were 10,380 killed and 36,550 wounded. Japanese casualties were 255,795 killed and 11,745 taken prisoner, with another 114,010 surrendering at the end of the war.


Connaughton (2001)

Hastings (2007)

Marston (2005)

Morison (1948, 1958, 1959)

Morton (1953)

Rottman (2002)
Schaller (1989)

Sommerville (1989)

Willmott (1982)

Wise (1968)

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