MANILA, Philippines – “Manila was a doomed city before it breathed its last.”

This was how Manuel Buenafe described this old city when the Americans began a final month-long military offensive to re-take Manila from Japanese invaders on February 3, 1945—or 70 years ago.

“It was a tragic way of dying. So many lives could have been saved had they but moved out to the outskirts of the city. And it was so near it stopped the heart to realize that it was so,” the newsman Buenafe wrote in   “Wartime Philippines,” one of the early books that came out after the war.

He then narrated how most of the city folk preferred to stay, buoyed by the knowledge that the Americans had finally returned to regain control of the old capital city.

While we commemorate another historic moment in our undying quest for freedom, he lamented that the so-called “Battle for Manila” also marked the final days when outraged Japanese rulers ran berserk, turning the city into a “charnel house.”

Eliseo Quirino also recalled how the Japanese Army had vowed that there would be no Filipino alive to see the return of the Americans.

The wholesale massacre of the people and the burning of the city to the ground all too eloquently demonstrated how accurate was their deed,” Quirino wrote in “A Day to Remember.”

He described the city as “an appalling sight. Accounted dead were no less than sixty thousand persons, while all the city’s vital sections, including its priceless historic relics and buildings were a total wreck.”

The ‘center of gravity’

At the strategic level, the battle to regain Manila was an understandable goal for the Americans, who were smarting from the humiliation so 1941-1942.

In their documentation “The Battle for Manila,” British historians Richard Connaughton, John Pimlott and Duncan Anderson noted how the city’s liberation had symbolized  the United States’  determination to smash the power of Japan in the Western Pacific, while freeing Filipinos from enforced occupation.

Apart from Manila, the Japanese had overrun and occupied the other great cities of East and Southeast Asia –  Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), Hong Kong, Singapore, Batavia (Jakarta), Rangoon and Manila.

But Manila, they said, was seen by the Americans, including Mac Arthur, as the key to the Philippines – the only recognized US colony then – representing what is known in modern military parlance as the “center of the gravity,” the loss of which would unhinge the Japanese defense of the islands as a whole.

If Manila fell, there would have been no further reason for the Japanese to continue the fight.  Or so went the wisdom at the time.

MacArthur’s ‘personal obsession’

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Historians also believe that Manila was actually the object of Gen. MacArthur’s “personal obsession,” who saw the city as the best symbol of his promised “return.”

Some historians see the US general as someone with a “self-appointed” task to hand back power to the Filipino Commonwealth Government, and triumphantly hold a victory parade in the city he had called his second home.

The general was first assigned to head the American Military Mission to the Philippines in October 1935.

Incidentally, Mac Arthur’s aide at the time was Dwight Eisenhower, then a major, who later also figured as a military icon in World War II, before capping his career as a post-war US president.

When the war broke out in 1941, MacArthur had just been been promoted from field marshal of the Army in the Philippines to being the commander of the United States Army Forces Far East, or USAFFE.

The Philippines and Japan before WWII

On the eve of World War II, Manila  – then known as the “Pearl of the Orient” – was not only a geographic US enclave of  importance. It was also  “the seat of learning, of authority and wealth of the Filipino people.”

Some historical accounts, meanwhile, also noted that two weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Filipinos could hardly imagine they would  one day be fighting the Japanese.

Quirino, for instance, noted there were many reasons that stopped Filipinos from entertaining the chilling notion that they would be considered an enemy of a country that had always shown keen interest in the Filipinos’ struggle to be free and independent since the Spanish times. “They had never been in enmity with them and both had been friendly with each other from them,” he said.

The Philippine Constitution of 1935 also outlawed war as an instrument of national policy. “The declaration, unusual as it was, did not fail to attract the attention of the world. It received the tacit approval of the United States which in turn served to inform Japan indirectly not to worry about the Philippines as she was meant to live in peace with her neighbors and the rest of the world,” Quirino said.

In the meantime, Japan had already emerged as a world power despite the end of a great colonizing era. It was perceived, however, to, have been mainly devoting its moves to fighting China and Russia  to maintain its position – and influence.

The Japanese occupation of the Philippines, the late President Sergio Osmena pointed out, was not just a military invasion.

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“It was also an ideological and cultural invasion. It was an attempt to foist on our people the invader’s totalitarian ideas, his spirit of conquest and exploitation, his theories of the superiority of the Yamato, his way of life,” said Osmena, the exiled Commonwealth president  who accompanied the US military forces in the final offensive to liberate the country from Japanese rule.

The war drums

The earliest dispatch to reach the Philippines was that of  Frank Tremaine of  the United Press, datelined Honolulu on December 7, 1941. He reported that “war broke out in the Pacific today.” Japanese bombers had attacked Pearl Harbor.

In Manila, at least 300 Japanese residents were immediately rounded up. Many of them were found to have been working as intelligence officers, although they had posed either as lowly workers or small businessmen.

After that, the first wave of Japanese planes flew over Northern Luzon, dropping bombs over Camp John Hay, and then in Davao City in the south.

“The zero hour is here,” The first  Commonwealth President, Manuel Quezon, remarked from Baguio when the  invasion started.

Quezon admonished Filipinos, “every man and woman must be at this or her post… Be calm and have faith. Let us place our confidence in God who has never forsaken our people.”

At first, there was no doubt from the people that the war was going to  end soon. They presumed the Americans will punish the invaders – but there was hardly a military push from their powerful ally that had just been drawn into a world war.

The ‘open city’

When Manila  was declared an “open city” on December 26, 1941, the late journalist Armando Malay, then working for the Manila Tribune, said it was “correctly read as meaning that Manila would fall like a ripe plum to the Japanese.” The Tribune was allowed to continue publication after being renamed Manila Simbuunsiya during the war.


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Malay, in his book “Occupied Philippines,” explained that authorities then thought that such a declaration would spare the city from air attack, but that hope was dashed to pieces when the next day, December 27, unchallenged Japanese planes bombed Intramuros, killing and maiming hundreds.

Gen. MacArthur and his men had abandoned the city, then the headquarters of the United States Army. They had moved to Bataan after receiving reports that a second wave of Japanese forces was due to land in Lingayen, Pangasinan.

Jorge Vargas, earlier designated mayor of Manila by President Quezon, was forced to meet with the Japanese consul, apparently to prevent further bloodshed, now that the Americans had fled the war-torn capital.

According to Malay, who documented Vargas’ role in occupied Manila, the mayor was given orders by Quezon and MacArthur “to protect the people, do everything they  (the Japanese) will ask you to do.”  But he was also advised: “Don’t take allegiance to the Emperor.”

On January 1, 1942, Vargas issued a message to the “open city.” It read: “Keep calm. Don’t commit acts of hostility. Under international practices, it is the duty of the inhabitants of an occupied territory to carry on their ordinary peaceful pursuits, to behave in an absolutely peaceful manner, to take no part whatsoever in the hostilities carried on, to refrain from injurious acts towards troops of the occupant or with respect to their operations and to render strict obedience to officials of the occupant.”

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Eliseo Quirino, meanwhile,  reported: “Many Japanese civilians were on hand to receive them to act a guides, spies, informers and saboteurs. Thus, the friends of yesterday had turned enemies and spies. The Filipinos soon realized they ere not even free to move in their own homes.  No greater stupefaction could have happened to them.”

Liberation time

To the Japanese, McArthur’s landing at Lingayen on January 9, 1945 was considered a “logical” conclusion of US offensives from the Central and South West Pacific.

Surprisingly, the US Sixth Army’s 200,000 troops faced little resistance. Some reports even said that since the beginning of the month, only 50,000 Japanese officers and men were left on the main island of Luzon.

By October 20, 1944, MacArthur, accompanied by President  Osmena, had already reached Leyte Gulf with a huge invasion force that destroyed Japanese defense installations and supply dumps.

Three days later, MacArthur and Osmena visited Tacloban and officially announced the re-establishment of the  Commonwealth  Government. Osmena had taken over  the  government after the exiled Quezon died in Saranac, New York.

MacArthur and his ’Bataan gang’

Shortly after the Leyte landing, there were also intelligence reports claiming that the Japanese were evacuating Manila.

But historians noted that as late as September 1944, the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff had not really decided on  the US’ ultimate objective. One school of thought held that the Philippines should be bypassed, and the alternative-landing site should be Formosa (now Taiwan).

Ever since he left Corregidor, MacArthur had fought for a return to the Philippines. He knew the “terrible conditions in which the servicemen he had left behind, and the Allied civilians, were existing. “

In persuading the US leadership not to bypass the Philippines, MacArthur  was reportedly supported  by his “Bataan Gang,” the men who had left Corregidor with him on the torpedo boats back in March 1942.

The ‘doomed’ city

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At the ground level, the German born Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, who took command of the 6th Army, was working on the information that the Japanese were still entrenched with 250,000 troops.

In moving to Manila, the Americans had to deal with reinforced enemy battalions along heir path in Plaridel, Bulacan. Eventually, the First Cavalry Division crossed the line of the city at 6:35 p.m. of February 3.

Before the American troops’ arrival, the Japanese aided by the Makapili had begun their rampage as early as February 1, torching their own stores and ammunition as a prelude to an intensification of a wider, planned city-wide arson.

The head of the Japanese regiment ordered his men: “You must carry out effective suicide action as members of  special attack units to turn the tide of battle  by intercepting the attacking enemy at Manila.”

First target – Malacanang – seized

The US cavalry soon carried out its first mission. Malacanang – the presidential palace – was guarded only by a Filipino Presidential Guard battalion. The “Americans were reportedly received  with exchanges of salutes and a great deal of back-thumping all around by the Filipino guards.”

The Americans, however, failed to reach the Legislative Building situated on the south side of the Pasig River. It was supposed to be their second main target.

When the cavalry reached the intersection of Azcarraga and Quezon Avenues, they were met with fierce resistance from Japanese defenders who had barricaded themselves in nearby Far Eastern University. The Americans had to retreat from the ambush site.

MacArthur had wanted the Palace and the Legislative Building occupied so he can announce that they had captured the seat of government. He had carefully planned his triumphant entry into the city, culminating precisely at the Legislative Building.

It proved to be a difficult task, even if they had finally penetrated the heart of the city.

Third goal: rescuing Americans at UST

Now, they had to accomplish their third goal: setting free the  American detainees at the University of Santo Tomas, the country’s premier Catholic University which had  become an internment camp for the  prisoners of war (POWs) by the Japanese.

The main US contingent assigned to assault the university internment camp was met at the outskirts by two Filipino guerillas who previously served as scouts to the United States Army.

The Americans were skeptical at first. They had to subject the senior of the two, Captain Manuel Colayco, under intensive interrogation, until their doubts were allayed.

It turned out that Colayco had detailed knowledge of the Japanese defenses in northern Manila. He was able to bypass the mined area, bringing the lead column to the front gate of Santo Tomas. It was here that Colayco was mortally wounded.

The ‘red sunset’

Starvation accounted for 90 percent of the causes of death inside the UST prison, as the internees patiently waited for their freedom.

At dusk, with the POWs in full view of the setting sun, the US forces sent the positive sign that there was hope in their long wait. Their P-38s flew deliberately low over the UST prison.

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Then a small object fell on the ground. It was a case for pilot’s goggles, bearing inside a message in code, taken from two popular contemporary American songs: “Roll out the barrel”, and “There’ll  be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

At 6:30 pm, the Japanese uncharacteristically put out the camp lights. An account of that night’s operations noted that restive prisoners “jammed into the main lobby, unsettled and agitated like a herd of cattle before the storm, listening for what at first was a low, consistent sound  interspersed with random explosions, until they could be certain.”

By 9 pm, a burst of machinegun fire was heard at the gate, followed by a huge explosion. A tank of the 44th Tank Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division finally entered the front compound.

The US Civil Censorship Detachment, which checked out all the internees’ mails after the liberation, later disclosed one of the recollections:

“A United States Army nurse lifted her nose high on the air. ‘That smells like GI gasoline!’ she screamed. Immediately the cry resounded from all sides: ‘The Americans are coming!’ A shot was heard outside the door followed by the thud of a falling body  – the Japanese guard. A heavy boot crashed the door open and a belligerent voice yelled, Are there any God damned Japs in there? It was difficult for the prisoners to believe what they saw, in spite of this brawny, determined-looking young United States soldier, carbine pointed menacingly in front of him.  Weak and feeble but with tears of happiness in her eyes she touched  his arm and said, ‘Soldier are you for real? She was met with the laconic reply, ’Yes I reckon I am.’ And thus was ended three years of illness, starvation and torture.”

When the Americans entered the Northern part of Manila, they were greeted with an overwhelming display of gratitude and hospitality.

The final countdown

On February 24, the Americans pushed for the final offensive. Their target: the Walled city, or the historic Intramuros.  It was reported that 2,000 Japanese soldiers were annihilated during the fighting.

At dawn of February 26, the leader of the Japanese Army in Manila, Rear Admiral Iwabachi, and the other officers with him committed suicide.

On March 1, the Finance Building was the sole building in Manila that remained in Japanese hands. On completion of the fire mission, 22 Japanese emerged under a white flag, but 74 others decided to fight to their death.

By 6 pm, the Americans had overrun the rubble that had  been part of the building, but for an outpost of resistance on the top floor. It was finally cleared on March 3, and the entire  compound was back in the hands of  the Americans.

Freedom regained

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That day, General Krueger received a telegram message, reporting that all organized  resistance had ceased. The battle for Manila had ended, but it also resulted in the destruction of the city. The destruction – from a combination of month-long shelling by Americans and arson by the Japanese, not to mention relentless artillery exchanges – had turned Manila into what historians later called the “Warsaw of Asia,” in terms of destruction and deaths (100,000 civilians killed).

As early as February 27, ceremonies marking the turnover of government to the Filipinos were already held in Malacanang, which was virtually untouched despite the city being reduced to rubble .

In “The Fateful Years: Japan’s Adventure in the Philippines,” historian TeodoroAgoncillo cited an account of the gathering by an unnamed staff member of the Manila Free Philippines:

“The ceremony began with the ruffle of drums in the palace courtyard, following which Mrs. Osmena, dressed in a beautiful green mestizo dress (,) entered the reception hall on the arm of Major General Basilio Valdez, Philippine Army Chief of Staff. Following Mrs. Osmena, the President and MacArthur entered into a second burst of applause.”

During the gathering, tears reportedly welled from Gen. MacArthur’s eyes at one point in his speech, which he delivered in a “restrained voice packed with emotion.”  `

In concluding his speech, the general said: `On behalf of my government, I now solemnly declare, Mr. President, the full powers and responsibilities under the Constitution restored to the Commonwealth whose seat is here reestablished as provided by law. Your country is again at liberty to pursue its destiny to an honored position in the family of free nations.”

Such a promise fulfilled by a “big brother” was the bright side of victory, which to this day we continue to honor as  a legacy of  the Americans’ respect for  our country’s democratic ideals. But its flipside was grim.

The bitter price of victory

In a “fully documented” biography on President Osmena written by Vicente Albano Pacis, he was quoted as having reported to then US President Franklin Roosevelt that “great as is the jubilation of the Filipino people …over the arrival of their American liberators, it grieves me deeply to report to you the wholesale destruction of our capital city. Manila, once proud and beautiful, had been freed, but physically it is only a mass of rubble and ruin.”

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“The enemy, in violation of the rules of war, not only had applied the torch to every house he could reach, but also murdered, raped, looted and tortured thousands upon thousands of helpless innocent civilians.”

Osmena then asked President Roosevelt  to give all the necessary means to Gen. MacArthur  to “complete the liberation of  the Philippines within the shortest time possible.”

So, as Filipinos commemorate the end of a dark chapter in the country’s history 70 years ago, they are also reminded of the dead.

In the battle for Manila alone, the death toll was 1,010 Americans; 16,665  Japanese; and 100,000 of the city’s inhabitants.  From December 8, 1941 until the end of the war on September 2, 1945, the total casualties for the Filipinos had reached over a million: 1,111,938 to be exact.

This was the bitter price of victory in the US quest to reoccupy its seat of power  and finally regain the Americans’ only colony in what they considered the Far East.

(Originally posted at interaksyon.com)

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Joel C. Paredes

Joel briefly served government as director-general of the Philippine Information Agency (PIA), although he has been a practicing journalist and writer for nearly 37 years. He led a team organized by the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB)  and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) that worked on the book entitled “Protecting our Natural Wealth, Enhancing our Natural Pride.”