Broken and burnt, its nearly 14,000 inhabitants starving and weary of 6-months of near constant aerial and coastal bombardment, the final holdout of American and Filipino resistance to the Japanese invasion of Philippines succumb. The island of Corregidor, affectionately known to American troops as “The Rock”, and triumphed as the “Gibraltar of the East,” had finally fallen on May 6th, 1942.
What ended in an American defeat had been a Japanese embarrassment for months. Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, commander of the 14th Imperial Army, had been tasked to deliver the Philippines (and the critical port of Manila Harbor) in a brisk two months. Instead, Homma found himself dragged into a slow war of attrition against nearly 80,000 American and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula and unable to use Manila Harbor as the gun batteries of Corregidor’s Fort Mills swept the surrounding bay. For months, Japanese propaganda repeatedly claimed that Bataan and Corregidor were about to fall followed by weeks of silence. Despite Japanese forces pushing aside Allied forces on all fronts, Bataan and Corregidor remained a strategic thorn in side of Japan’s military planners. Without Manila Harbor, supplying troops invading the raw material rich areas like Malaysia and Indonesia would become even more difficult and could bring the Japanese advance to a halt.
Resistance may have inspired Americans back home and frustrated Tokyo, but the defense of Bataan and Corregidor had been badly botched. Despite his accomplished military resume (including being Army Chief of Staff, Field Marshal of the Philippine Army & Commander of US Forces in the Far East), Gen. Douglas MacArthur refused to follow the army’s War Plan Orange 3 strategy of retreating into Bataan and holding up with enough supplies until reinforcements arrived.
Instead, MacArthur wanted to meet the enemy on the beaches – a near strategic impossibility on an archipelago. Coupled with a failure to defend the airbase on Clark Field on December 8th, resulting in the loss of American air support, supplies for the defense of the Philippines were scattered across the islands when the first Japanese troops came ashore. Despite a numerical parity with the Japanese (nearly 80,000 versus 75,000 Imperial troops), the lack of even basic supplies on Bataan put American forces at a significant disadvantage. By April 9th, the Japanese had breached the Orion-Bagac Line, among the last lines of defense in the US strategy of Bataan, and Major General Edward P. King agreed to surrender the 75,000 US and Filipino troops who remained. MacArthur and his superiors had seen the writing on the wall even earlier, transferring MacArthur to Corregidor in March and then Australia. MacArthur declared “I shall return.” 10,000 Filipinos and 650 American POWs didn’t as they were shot, stabbed and starved in the Bataan Death March.
Bataan had fallen but Corregidor had not. The tiny 3.5 miles long by 1.5 miles wide island posed a political dilemma both in Tokyo and Washington. The battle for control of Philippines was most assuredly over, but 14,000 soldiers and civilians continued to block Manila Bay – seemingly unreachable by both Japanese bombers and American reinforcements. Protected by the vast underground bunker and tunnel system on Malinta Hill, armed with an independent water pump and vast (if shrinking) supplies, and stocked with numerous anti-aircraft guns and naval batteries, Corregidor was earning the “Gibraltar” description.
The Japanese had already discovered that Corregidor would be a tough nut to crack. Early in the invasion, on December 29th, 91 Japanese bombers, the whole of the local Japanese bomber air force, hit the island with nearly 50 tons of explosives. The bombs did little; the American AA guns did more – shooting down 7 planes. The attacks continued until Jan 6th, with Japanese planes dropping their payloads at higher and higher altitudes to escape AA fire. Unwilling to suffer further losses, the air fleet was moved to Thailand and General Homma refocused his attention on Bataan.
Corregidor wasn’t regularly targeted again until February as Japanese artillery was able to set up positions close enough to hit the island. By then, life on the island had settled into a dreary routine. When the men were not building fortifications or going about their daily chores, they had little to do. Rations had been cut in half at start of January and an island that was built to house only 6,000 was overwhelmed with civilians and political refugees, including Philippine President Quezon who gave his second inaugural address amid an air raid while sheltered in the Malinta tunnel system.
The fall of Bataan brought the full weight of the Japanese Army back on Corregidor. By now, troops were down to 30 ounces of food a day with drinking water rarely getting distributed. And with the arrival of the 22nd Air Brigade, the Japanese air attack had returned with vigor. An estimated 365 tons of bombs were dropped on Corregidor and in one day alone, May 4th, 1942, 16,000 shells hit as well. Worse for those trapped on the island was the realization, post Bataan, that their only options were death or brutal imprisonment. There would be no rescue operation, no American Fleet arriving to save the day. The longer they held out, the greater they aided the overall war effort, but at the likely expense of Japanese retribution.
The last act on Corregidor began on May 5th as 790 Japanese soldiers invaded. Pushed by strong currents between Bataan and the island, landing proved difficult, especially under American fire. Quickly bogging down, the initial invasion fared better than the 785 reinforcements who landed in the wrong location opposite the 4th Marines. Most of this invasion force was killed, with the survivors escaping along the island’s edge to join the main invasion force. Together, they pushed forward and captured one of the main battery stations. A desperate US counterattack with 500 Marines failed as another 800 Japanese troops arrived, along with several tanks. With Japanese troops just yards away from the Malinta tunnel complex, housing civilians and 1,000 injured troops, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright radioed Washington with a simple message: “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.” By 1:30pm on May 6th, the last of American and Filipino forces had surrendered.
Survivors were marched in downtown Manila as trophies of war. The “lucky” made it to Japan as slave laborers. Gen. Wainwright eventually returned home a hero despite his concern that his status as the highest-ranking American POW would have made him a military and social pariah. Wainwright would receive the Medal of Honor for his defense of Bataan and Corregidor. The only voice of dissident? Gen. MacArthur – despite having won a Medal of Honor for the same defense.
Wainwright and MacArthur’s opponent also had his reputation defined by Bataan and Corregidor. General Masaharu Homma was relieved of command after his failure to quickly defeat the Americans and retired from military service. Homma resurfaced after the war as accountable for the Bataan Death March and was found guilty. On April 3rd, 1946, almost four years to the date of the surrender of Bataan, Homma was executed by a firing squad of Americans and Filipinos.