Inside the Capitol

Friday, December 31, 2004

The Battle of Bataan Begins

SANTA FE Gen. MacArthur had nearly 80,000 troops on Bataan, but only 27,000 were trained soldiers – 15,000 Americans and 12,000 Filipinos. The rest were untrained, ill-equipped locals.
Trained or not, those 80,000 had to be fed and so did the 26,000 civilians packed onto the peninsula. Food was trucked in from the other bases but much had to be left because of the urgency of staying one step ahead of the Japanese. Supplies quickly ran low.
On Jan. 5, everyone went on half rations. They also were short of ammunition, medicine, clothing, shelter, mosquito netting, vehicles and the gasoline to drive them. But morale was high. They were through retreating. They were ready to fight.
MacArthur sent a request for submarines to run the Japanese blockade. A few ancient vessels made it through. It was enough to spark hope among the embattled troops and enough to prove that a properly mounted operation could have broken the blockade.
But the decision in Washington still was to get Hitler first. And still, no one told MacArthur. Some military historians say I’m being too rough on Washington officials. They contend our forces simply didn’t have the strength to defend the Philippines and that soldiers in the field didn’t have the big picture. But we are telling their story here and this is the way they saw it.
On Jan. 9, the Battle of Bataan began. Initial Japanese thrusts failed. Once again, Gen. Homma had underestimated his enemy. But Japanese reinforcements and air bombardments began to take their toll. Across Bataan, our line of defense began to crack.
On Jan. 22, MacArthur ordered a pullback. The following day, Gen. Homma, desperate to end the Philippine campaign, began a series of amphibious landings to attack our forces from the rear.
But it didn’t work. Over the next three weeks, a series of furious battles pushed the Japanese back into the sea with tremendous losses. Gen. Homma was humiliated. The Japanese war plan had been phenomenally successful, except in the Philippines.
Of all Tojo’s commanders, only he had been halted. The disgraced Homma requested reinforcements and ordered a withdrawal to rest, regroup and await fresh men and arms.
Meanwhile, MacArthur too, was waiting for fresh men and arms. On Jan. 13, Philippine President Quezon had charged America with abandonment. Washington replied that thousands of troops and hundreds of planes were on their way.
On Feb. 8, with no relief for the Philippines in sight, President Roosevelt broadcast to the nation that thousands of planes were destined for Europe. The infuriated Quezon replied that he would request immediate Philippine freedom, and then surrender, disband the army and neutralize the Commonwealth.
Roosevelt’s response was a promise of immediate relief. He enjoined Quezon to remain on Corregidor and forbade MacArthur to surrender. MacArthur replied that he had no intention of surrendering. But Gen. George Marshall in Washington already was quietly suggesting to MacArthur that he evacuate, along with all officials.
Throughout the rest of February and March, conditions rapidly worsened. Food ran out and the troops had to live off the land. Since they were in a jungle, it wasn’t too bad for awhile. The desert-bred New Mexicans figured it was a natural for them. But before long, they had killed most of the animals and stripped most of the edible trees bare.
But they held on. They began calling themselves “the battling bastards of Bataan. Soon it became a chant:
We’re the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam;
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.
And nobody gives a damn.
Nobody gives a damn.
It caught on among the troops. But it got no further because it was embarrassing to Washington. Three years later, after we repulsed Hitler’s final big thrust at the Battle of the Bulge, the battling bastards of Bastogne were immortalized. And no credit was given to the men of Bataan.


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