Victory at Sea

Recent movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line have vividly depicted the face of land battle in the Second World War, but the story of the American war is incomplete without the sweep and strategic stakes of the war at sea, in which 104,985 American sailors and Marines were wounded, 56,683 were killed, and more than 500 U.S. naval vessels were sunk. Lest we forget
The Philippines

Navy plane

VICTORY took only a bit longer in the American colony of the Philippines. At his Manila headquarters Douglas MacArthur, commanding general of U.S. forces in the Far East, learned early in the morning of December 8 that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Incredibly, and unforgivably, he made no use of the next nine hours to mount a counterattack against Japanese positions on Formosa (Taiwan), as his air commander urged, or even to launch or disperse his own aircraft. They were caught bunched on the ground—"On the ground! On the ground!" President Franklin Roosevelt exclaimed incredulously—when Japanese bombers and fighters appeared overhead shortly after noon. Within minutes MacArthur's force of some three dozen B-17 bombers, on which he had obstreperously premised his claim to be able to defend the Philippines indefinitely, was severely damaged.

When the Japanese began landing troops on the principal Philippine island of Luzon, on December 22, MacArthur speedily jettisoned his always dubious scheme to repel the invaders on the beaches and on the central Luzon plain, and began gathering men and supplies for a retreat into the Bataan Peninsula and the island fortress of Corregidor, where he set up his command post. MacArthur, sometimes accused of being a legend in his own mind, soon earned himself the derogatory nickname "Dugout Doug," bestowed on him by his suffering troops on Bataan while he sat in the relative comfort of Corregidor, only once making the brief torpedo-boat run across to the peninsula to hearten his men.

They sorely needed heartening. The swift retreat into the peninsula of more than 70,000 American and Filipino troops and another 26,000 civilian refugees left them all wretchedly undersupplied. Lacking fresh food, medicines, clean drinking water, and sanitary facilities, thousands fell victim to scurvy, beriberi, malaria, and dysentery.

Knowing that the Philippine garrison was doomed, Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to depart for Australia. On the night of March 12 the general and his family and personal staff were evacuated from Corregidor in four PT boats, leaving General Jonathan M. Wainwright in command. With characteristic self-regard and uncharacteristic lack of orotundity, MacArthur announced, "I shall return." As a face-saving measure—and as a prophylaxis against backlash from the general's many political friends—the President simultaneously conferred upon MacArthur the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The medal was small comfort for the masses of sick soldiers and civilians left behind in the Philippines. Though MacArthur fulminated by radio from his new base in Australia that his troops should break out of Bataan and take to the mountains as guerrillas, Wainwright knew the notion was fatuous. The Bataan contingent surrendered on April 9, and on May 6 an emaciated Wainwright, hopelessly holed up in Corregidor's putrescent Malinta Tunnel, tortured by the resonant moaning of thousands of ill and wounded men crammed into the dank thousand-foot-long shaft, finally capitulated. In his diary Dwight D. Eisenhower took note of these events: "Corregidor surrendered last night. Poor Wainwright! He did the fighting ... [MacArthur] got such glory as the public could find.... MacArthur's tirades, to which TJ [MacArthur's aide, T. J. Davis] and I so often listened in Manila, would now sound as silly to the public as they then did to us. But he's a hero! Yah."

macaurth picture
     Douglas MacArthur
(Photo courtesy of
     The Naval Historical Center)

More than a year later, after three American survivors escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp on Mindanao, made their way to Australia, and told the story, the world learned of the cruel episode that then ensued. There were some extenuating circumstances, but these were scarcely sufficient to exonerate the Japanese from the indictment that they behaved with wanton barbarity. The Japanese had planned on bagging some 40,000 prisoners of war in the Philippines sometime in the summer of 1942. Instead they found themselves with nearly 70,000 captives on their hands in April and May, 10,000 of them Americans, all of them suffering from months of siege and illness, as were the Japanese themselves. These logistical and medical problems only exacerbated a more fundamental clash of cultures.

Japanese military leaders had adopted the ancient samurai ethos of Bushido to develop a military code that engendered what two scholars have described as "a range of mental attitudes that bordered on psychopathy," including the notion of "surrender as the ultimate dishonor, a belief whose corollary was total contempt for the captive." That contempt the Japanese troops now vented savagely on the American and Filipino captives they herded along the route of the "Bataan Death March," a grisly sixty-five-mile forced trek to crude prisoner-of-war camps near the base of the Bataan Peninsula. Japanese guards denied water to parched prisoners, clubbed and bayoneted stragglers, and subjected all the captives to countless humiliations and agonies. Some 600 Americans and as many as 10,000 Filipinos died along the route of the march. Thousands more perished in the filthy camps. This death march presaged the pitiless inhumanity that came to possess both sides in the ensuing three and a half years of war in the Pacific.

"The closest squeak and the greatest victory."
       —George C. Marshall on the Battle of Midway

FUCHIDA'S fliers at Pearl Harbor had seen to it that not a single battleship remained in action in the U.S. Pacific Fleet. But battleships were the capital weapons of the previous war. In the war that was now so bloodily begun, aircraft carriers would be trumps, and no U.S. Pacific Fleet carriers had been at Pearl Harbor on December 7. The Yorktown had been detached in April for duty in the Atlantic. The Saratoga was stateside for repairs. The Enterprise and the Lexington were at sea near Wake and Midway Islands respectively. Fuchida's raiders had also failed to damage Pearl Harbor's repair shops. More important still, they had left intact the enormous fuel-oil tank farm. Loss of that fuel supply, every drop of it laboriously hauled from the American mainland, would probably have forced the U.S. Navy to retreat to its bases on the West Coast, at a stroke sweeping the western Pacific of American ships more cleanly than any other imaginable action. But Nagumo rejected suggestions that he undertake a second strike, against the repair and fuel facilities, or linger in the area to search for the missing carriers. He seemed paralyzed by the very ease of his victory. He had lost but twenty-nine aircraft, and his fleet remained unsighted. In the historian Gordon Prange's apt words, he must have felt "as if he had rushed forward to break down a door just as someone opened it." For Nagumo, what he had achieved on the morning of December 7 was victory enough. Yet his failure to return for the final, definitive kill risked eventual defeat.

For his part, Adolf Hitler made less than optimal use of the Pearl Harbor attack. Though the strict terms of their alliance with Japan did not require it, since Japan had been the attacker, not the attacked, Hitler and Mussolini on December 11 somewhat impetuously declared war on the United States, which then recognized a state of war with Germany and Italy.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus