Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Christmas 1941

SANTA FE – On Dec. 22, 1941, after two weeks of Japanese naval and air bombardment, the full-scale land invasion of the Philippines began.
Two large forces landed on the northern and southern coasts of Luzon and began a giant pincers move to converge on Manila, where the Japanese expected Gen. MacArthur to concentrate his forces. But MacArthur had other ideas.
The general’s strategy was to fight delaying actions while his main troops retreated to the Bataan Peninsula across Manila Bay. From there and Corregidor, an island sitting at the entrance of Manila Bay, he would “cork the bottle of Manila Bay” until reinforcements arrived.
By Christmas Eve, the Army Air Force headquarters was evacuating to Australia and the Naval headquarters was headed to Borneo. Traffic began to surge toward Bataan like a tidal wave.
The 515th, composed of New Mexico guardsmen, was ordered to protect the vital bridges over which all northbound traffic had to pass into Bataan. The 200th, also composed of New Mexico guardsmen, protected the bridges for all southbound traffic headed onto Bataan.
The orders were to have everyone onto Bataan by 6 a.m. New Year’s Day. For a week, the two undermanned, thinly-stretched anti-aircraft regiments held off the Japanese aircraft.
A few well-placed bombs could have ended everything, but our troops successfully held all bridges and major crossroads. The 515th chalked up thirteen confirmed hits, the 200th, twenty-three. For this and subsequent actions, the New Mexico regiments would one day receive the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citations.
Besides the American and Philippine troops and equipment, there were refugees. The civilian populace fled along with the armies. The traffic jams stretched for miles, completely exposed to attack from planes overhead.
But the Japanese planes had orders to strafe and bomb Manila. Japanese Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma, still intent on taking Manila, had not yet figured out MacArthur’s strategy.
At 6:15, on New Year’s morning, the order came to blow up the bridges. The New Mexicans had accomplished their mission. MacArthur’s army was safe and intact for the moment, with deep rivers between it and the advancing enemy.
The general was optimistic, confident that his detailed knowledge of the peninsula would offset Japanese superiority in weapons and numbers. And Washington was still reassuring him that reinforcements were on the way.
On Jan. 2, Gen. Homma entered Manila and began to realize his miscalculation. But he still figured the troops on Bataan were merely the weak remnants of a disorderly flight and a chaotic rout.
In reality, it was a masterful withdrawal. American and Filipino forces had gained the strongest defensive position on the island, blasting 184 bridges behind them. The peninsula was a natural fortress. It was a well-chosen bulwark and MacArthur knew the terrain intimately.
The withdrawal had fooled the Japanese completely. They thought the Americans were cowards at the time, but later came to realize it was a great strategic move.
The New Mexico troops shared MacArthur’s optimism. The holiday season is never a good time for troops engaged in battle. But MacArthur had a plan, and it was a good one. Prospects were good for holding out until the promised reinforcements arrived.
They drove stakes, stretched barbed wire and planted mines. They dug gun emplacements and foxholes. And where they lacked shovels and picks, they dug with bayonets and scooped with helmets. They were ready for the enemy. Bring him on.
The Battle of Bataan was about to begin.
Once every two weeks, we will continue the story of the brave New Mexicans in the South Pacific, during World War II, culminating with victory in August 2005, the 60th anniversary of that event.
This part of the story is taken mostly from the award-winning book, “Beyond Courage,” by Dorothy Cave of Roswell. It’s a great read.


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