Down but Not Out

Against all odds, as Japan marched to one overwhelming triumph after another, the U.S. scored a memorable victory

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The ringing of the telephone awakened Douglas MacArthur just after 3:30 a.m. in his air-conditioned six-room penthouse atop the Manila Hotel. Japanese bombers had just ravaged Pearl Harbor, the caller said. "Pearl Harbor!" echoed MacArthur. "It should be our strongest point!"

The 61-year-old "Field Marshal" asked his wife Jean to bring him his Bible, and he read in it, as he did every morning, for about 10 minutes. It brought him little comfort. At this moment of crisis, facing a threat that imperiled his life, his command and his whole world, America's greatest living military hero, the bemedaled veteran of bayonet charges through no-man's-land in France, seemed paralyzed. When he did go to his nearby headquarters, he issued no orders to his forces. Officers seeking instructions found themselves barred from his presence.

When nearly 200 Japanese bombers finally arrived over Manila, fully 10 hours after the raid on Pearl Harbor, the pilots were amazed to find most of MacArthur's fleet of warplanes, the largest in the South Pacific, lined up like targets on the runways. They proceeded to destroy everything they saw.

"Instead of encountering a swarm of enemy fighters," recalled Saburo Sakai, pilot of a Zero fighter, "we looked down and saw some 60 enemy bombers and fighters neatly parked. They squatted there like sitting ducks. Our accuracy was phenomenal. The entire air base seemed to be rising into the air with the explosions. Great fires erupted, and smoke boiled upward."

Afterward Lieut. Colonel Eugene Eubank telephoned MacArthur's headquarters and said, "I want to report that you no longer have to worry about your Bomber Command. We don't have one. The Japanese have just destroyed Clark Field."

If Pearl Harbor was a disaster for the U.S., the Japanese attack on the Philippines that same day (Dec. 8 on the far side of the international date line) was in many ways worse. American casualties were much lower -- some 80 killed in the Philippines, vs. 2,433 in Hawaii -- but the strategic losses were higher. The raids on Clark and Iba fields outside Manila wrecked 18 out of MacArthur's fledgling force of 35 B-17 bombers, 56 of his 72 P-40 fighters and 25 other planes. In returning later to pound the airfields again, the Japanese also smashed the Cavite naval base. And while Pearl Harbor was a hit- and-run raid, the Japanese would seize and hold the Philippines for the next three years.

Pearl Harbor represented just one small part of the Japanese master plan for the conquest of Southeast Asia. Tokyo launched attacks in that same December week not only against U.S. outposts in the Philippines, Wake Island and Guam but also against the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the British colonies of Malaya, Burma and Hong Kong. The methodical Japanese had printed the currencies for their occupation of all these lands as early as the spring of 1941. And they conquered this vast sweep of territory so easily that the immediate worry was whether they would strike next at ill-defended Australia, ill-defended India or ill-defended Hawaii. Japan now ruled nearly one-seventh of the world, and one of its generals warned against a new kind of overconfidence: "victory disease."

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