Inside the Capitol

Monday, June 13, 2005

6-22 Retaking the Philippines

WED, 6-22-05

CAROLINE ISLANDS � In America�s island-hopping master plan for taking back the Pacific and advancing ever closer to the Japanese homeland, it probably wasn�t necessary to stop by the Philippines to retake it.
The Philippines weren�t a crucial location like Guadalcanal, Rabaul, Tinian, or Okinawa. But Gen. Douglas MacArthur was doggedly determined that we would not ignore the Philippines on the way north to Japan, as we did on Japan�s march south.
The Philippines weren�t nearly as important, either, to the guys in Washington. They were most concerned with helping out President Roosevelt�s buddy Winston Churchill get Hitler over in Europe.
But to MacArthur, the Philippines were highly important. They were a territory of the United States. We had a responsibility to defend them. And MacArthur had been put in charge of them before the war began.
MacArthur had a lot of explaining to do to Philippine government officials each time Washington promised help and then didn�t deliver. The Philippines had even threatened to secede because of non-support.
And then there were MacArthur�s famous words as he was ordered to leave the Philippines, vowing to return. The general was determined to make good on that promise. So approval was eventually given to MacArthur�s request. Providing naval support for the invasion would be respected Adm. �Bull� Halsey.
The invasion took place on Oct. 20, 1944 at Leyte, an island just south of Luzon, the main island, on which the capital city of Manila was located. By Jan. 9, 1945, it was time to attack Luzon. The landing was a Lingayen, north of Bataan, one of the spots the Japanese had landed when they took the island in early 1942.
Soon after the landing, the commanders became aware that directly in the path of the advance to Manila was Cabanatuan, the main prison camp for the island. Most of the prisoners had been evacuated on the Japanese hell ships and taken to Japan to work on the docks and in the factories preparing to defend against the Allied invasion of the homeland.
But 513 of the sickest and weakest were still at Cabanatuan. Eva Jane Matson�s book �It Tolled for New Mexico� identifies about 40 New Mexicans who were in that group. From past experience, the commanders knew that if these men were not rescued before the American advance reached the camp, they would all be executed by the retreating enemy.
So a special detachment of 121 hand-selected troops from the U.S. Army�s elite 6th Ranger Battalion were sent on a daring mission behind enemy lines to rescue these men and bring them back to safety.
Hampton Sides book �Ghost Soldiers� tells this forgotten epic story of one of World War II�s most dramatic missions -- a 60-mile roundtrip trek through steamy jungle to rescue these last survivors of the Bataan Death March still left on the island.
Sides� book is well worth reading, not only because he is a New Mexican writing about many New Mexicans, but because his writing is masterful, exploring the mysteries of human behavior under extreme duress.
He also delves into the complex motivations of the U.S. high command that essentially abandoned the men of Bataan in 1942. And for those interested, Sides lists all 513 ghost soldiers.
The battle to retake the Philippines was monumental. The naval encounters to support the land invasion were the largest in history and often are referred to as the greatest ever fought.
Perhaps fittingly, the Battleship New Mexico was a participant and was one of the first U.S. ships to experience a kamikaze attack. It recovered to fight other battles and endure more kamikaze attacks. Its reward was an invitation to be resent at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.
Now it is on north to the Mariana Islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian, which played a major role in our air assault on Japan and which still are of vital importance in our national defense.



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