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Lessons Learned on Bataan

April 12, 2017 | By Christopher J. Ghiz, Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division
The Battle of Bataan was the defense of the Philippines by General Douglas MacArthur's Philippine Army controlled by headquarters, United States Army Forces Far East (USAFFE) against the invading Imperial Japanese 14th Army commanded by General Masaharu Homma. The battle began on 6 January 1942 when the USAFFE, with ten understrength Philippine army divisions and one U.S. division, fought a corps-level delaying action against the Japanese 14th Army for a period of three months. This was under the assumption that they would be relieved by the resupply and troop transport fleet from the U.S. However, that assumption proved to be false and no relief came. The U.S. and Philippine troops had a severe shortage of serviceable weapons, ammunition and field equipment that was also outdated. Most units also experienced personnel and combat training shortcomings. This was compounded by low rations and medical supplies which caused starvation and disease. All of these conditions culminated to a combat ineffective army after three months of fighting. This caused General King to surrender his remaining troops on 9 April 1942. He decision was based on that his troops no longer had the means to resist. Most historians conclude that USAFFE and Philippine troops were set up for failure from the very beginning by its top leadership. The only advantage they did have against the Japanese was use of the battlefield terrain.

The Bataan peninsula is an extension of the Zambales Mountain range on the Philippine island of Luzon. Strategically speaking, the Bataan peninsula is advantageous for defensive warfare. It is mountainous and covered with jungles, streams and ravines. The Western coast of Bataan is mostly steep cliffs along the entire shoreline, making any amphibious landing very difficult. The Eastern coast is protected by the fortress island of Corregidor at the mouth of Manila Bay. The Japanese 14th Army only had two avenues of approach to choose from which was from Lingayen Gulf on the Northwest Luzon shore and Lamon Bay on the Southeast Luzon shore. This allowed General MacArthur to concentrate the USAFFE forces and direct its firepower in those directions. Another advantage was that before the war, USAFFE troops conducted multiple field training exercises on the Bataan peninsula which meant U.S. and Philippine officers and non-commissioned officers possessed superior knowledge of the terrain.[1] One disadvantage was the lack of multi-echelon training between different command levels. Most of the training was conducted at the battalion level and below which negatively impacted the USAFFE's command and control over their troops at the corps, divisional and regimental headquarters levels from the onset of the battle until the surrender. Besides their training shortcomings, the USAFFE ground troops lacked the required air and naval support needed to suppress and defeat the Japanese air and naval forces from the onset of the battle.

Prior to the battle, the vast majority of the U.S. Far East Air Force, which was made up of U.S. Army Air Corps' planes, were destroyed on the ground in the Philippines by Japanese air raids launched from Formosa (Taiwan) on 8 December 1941. This left the USAFFE forces without any adequate air support for the duration of the battle, except with a handful of P-40 fighter aircraft and other obsolete aircraft types. This gave the Japanese air and naval superiority over the entire Philippine Archipelago.

In accordance with War Plan Orange 3 (WPO 3), the U.S. would send a relief force along with all classes of supply by sea in the event of a Japanese invasion. The U.S. Asiatic Fleet, which was based in the Philippines, would fight a delaying action until the Pacific Fleet would arrive from Hawaii for relief. However, the destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, along with the subsequent Japanese takeover of Wake Island and Guam, cut off the main sea line of communication between the U.S. and the Philippines. All shipping carrying war material from the U.S. was diverted to Australia for fear the Japanese would advance towards the South Pacific. To prevent destruction of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet its commander, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, ordered the fleet's withdrawal to Australia leaving the USAFFE forces without any naval support save a few PT boats and submarines, which wasn't enough to stop the Japanese invasion fleet. This allowed the Japanese fleet to have almost complete freedom of movement and initiative to deploy and disembark their ground troops to landing points of their choosing.

The loss of this strategic logistical platform, that was part of WPO 3, sealed the fate of the USAFFE forces on Bataan. This was compounded by General MacArthur's decision to store operational supplies at advanced depots across Northern and Southern Luzon prior to the Japanese invasion.[2] When the USAFFE forces could not repel the invasion and withdrew to the Bataan peninsula, much of the supplies were left behind or destroyed due the lack of large capacity trucks needed to evacuate the supplies.[3] The Motor Transport Service prioritized most of the trucks as troop and equipment transports.[4]

Furthermore, the USAFFE forces were using World War I vintage weapons and field equipment. As for the weapons, there were no spare parts available and many of the weapons were found to be incomplete upon unpacking at the warehouse, where they have been long stored. Fully 70% of the mortar ammunition proved to be duds. The field artillery was lacking many vital fire control instruments.

The historical relevance of this battle is that it was the U.S. Army's largest single defeat in its 165 year history.? It was also the last major obstacle for the Japanese to have strategic access to the Dutch East Indies, which was Japan's main source of crude oil, rubber, and rice. However, the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters underestimated the U.S. and Philippine forces, believing they could conquer the Philippines in a month. Their overconfidence came from defeating British and Dutch forces in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Dutch East Indies within a period of two months.[6] Instead, it took the Japanese 14th Army six months to defeat USAFFE and Philippine forces and suffered heavy casualties in the process.[7] Even though it was a Japanese victory, General Homma was still relieved as commander of the 14th Army and sent back to Japan for the remainder of the war to serve in the reserve army.[8] For the United States, the biggest historical significance of this battle was for an Allied world surfeited on gloom and defeat, and despair, the epic of Bataan and Corregidor was a symbol of hope and a beacon of success for the future.[9]

There were many lessons learned on Bataan. The first lesson learned was improper air defense. The anti-aircraft artillery was the poorly employed, with priority to protect the seaports. That left a minimal number of anti-aircraft batteries to protect the airfields. The loss of 75% of U.S. aircraft on 8 December 1941 was proof of that lesson along with deficient early warning radar systems and radio communications to coordinate any kind of air defense. Also, the poor use of operations security on the airfields allowed Japanese spies to gain superior intelligence on the disposition, composition and strength of all U.S. planes on the airfields.

After this disaster, the anti-aircraft batteries were deployed to southern Bataan to protect the remaining operational aircraft and service areas. This was also a mistake according to author John W. Witman when he writes, "Although doctrine clearly stated that antiaircraft artillery; should be used to protect the front lines, the American commanders chose to violate the guidance. With limited assets, they decided to concentrate the two regiments of antiaircraft artillery in southern Bataan to protect airfields and service support areas. This was a bad decision. The airfields and supply areas could dig in and camouflage critical items, whereas infantry front lines and defending artillery were easily pinpointed. Even token antiaircraft artillery near the front line would have relieved the infantry and, more important, the artillery from constant harassment."[10] The second lesson learned was poor use of command and control over subordinate troops. An example was the poor use of economy of force at the decisive points of battles or skirmishes or what John Witman described as "the seeming inability to mass." This was not a failure of doctrine, for doctrine was clear on the need to mass. But American commanders repeatedly launched attacks and counterattacks with but a fraction of the forces available. [11] This was also a classic lesson in the poor command and control of the American and Philippine leadership in which the majority lacked the proper battle staff training necessary to coordinate troop movements between their subordinate units. That training was needed to facilitate massing of troops at the critical time and space to prevent the Japanese troops from exploiting weaknesses along the USAFFE main line of resistance (MLR) on Bataan. One again, John Witman also describes this lack of doctrinal training saying, The American Army had not practiced corps level operations in the field since actual combat in 1918. Corps maneuvers on Bataan were therefore ragged. The corps covering force action at Layac, the one-division counterattack at the Abucay Hacienda, and the corps withdrawal in late January evidenced glaring weakness in planning and execution. Additionally, tank-infantry cooperation before the war had been limited. Once on Bataan, neither tankers nor infantrymen knew how to work with one another. The American and Scout units did well those things they had practiced (offense and defense at battalion and below), but they did much less well with new tactics (tank) and with tactics not practiced (corps withdrawal).[12]

Besides the Army, the Navy also had a vital role in the Battle of Bataan. The southern tip of the Bataan peninsula was the Navy Section Base at Mariveles. That was the headquarters for the 16th Naval District commanded by Rear Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, who had the mission of protecting "the naval stations on the island of Luzon, primarily Olongapo and the Navy Section Base at Mariveles."[13]

In January 1942, the only naval facilities remaining in the Philippines were at Mariveles. Here all the unattached naval personnel were congregated.[14] They were placed under the command of Commander Francis J. Bridget, known as "Fidgety Frank," who was a PBY aviator with no troop leading experience. Commander Bridget formed them into a naval battalion totaling 602 sailors and also marines from the 4th Marine Regiment which had redeployed to the Philippines from its longtime duty station in Shanghai, China in late November 1941. The naval battalion was tasked to provide local security for the Mariveles naval station which was located at the Southern tip of the Bataan peninsula. The immediate area to the Southwest of Mariveles was a series of bays on the Southwest coast of Bataan adjacent to a high ridge which overlooks the Mariveles harbor and naval station. A landing on any of the bays to the South could quickly secure the high ground behind the naval station thus cutting the only supply road on Bataan and rendering the naval facilities untenable.[15] 

That key terrain was also only five miles from General MacArthur's Headquarters. The battle began when the Japanese troops landed at Longoskawayan and Quinauan Points on the southwest coast of Bataan. Those landings were executed simultaneously when the USAFFE forces withdrew from its main line of resistance, the Abucay Line to its reserve defense line further south down the peninsula. The naval battalion was the only opposing force available for defense of the USAFFE rear echelon areas. Commander Bridget had to take a battalion of inexperienced sailors and had only two weeks to have them trained in basic infantry skills done by a handful of marines. Most of these sailors never received basic weapons marksmanship training in their naval careers and were expected to fight elite Japanese army troops. However, the naval battalion managed to contain the Japanese attack with the utmost courage and ferocity, but was unable to successfully counterattack and drive the Japanese back to the sea. The USAFFE 57th Infantry Regiment (Philippine Scouts) was able to relieve the naval battalion at the decisive point of the battle and push the Japanese landing force back to the South China Sea.

For more information on Bataan and Corregidor, visit the Naval History and Heritage Command.

[1] John W. Whitman, Bataan: Our Last Ditch, The Bataan Campaign, 1942 (New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1990), p. 13.
[2] Volume XII, "Report of Operations of USAFFE & USFIP in the Philippine Islands," Annex XIII, "Report of Operations, Quartermaster Corps, United States Army in the Philippine Campaign, 27 July 1941-6 May 1942," by Brig. Gen. Charles C. Drake, Box 1487, Entry 1113, Philippine Archive Collection, Record Group 407, National Archives, College Park, MD. P. 21-23. (accessed March 12, 2017).
[3] Louis Morton, The Fall of the Philippines, The United States Army in World War II.? The War in the Pacific (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1953), p. 169.
[4] Ibid, 179-180. [5] Volume IV, "Report of Operations of USAFFE & USFIP in the Philippine Islands, Annex V", "Report of Operations of South Luzon Force, Bataan Defense Force & the II Philippine Corps in the Defense of South Luzon and Bataan from 8 December 1941 to 9 April 1942." by Maj. Gen. George M. Parker Jr., Box 1485, Entry 1113, Philippine Archive Collection, Record Group 407, National Archives, College Park, MD, p. 6. (accessed March 12, 2017).
[6] Morton, The Fall of the Philippines, 582.
[7] Ibid, 583.
[8] Ibid, 582.
[9] Ibid, 584.
[10] John W. Whitman, "US Army Doctrinal Effectiveness on Bataan, 1942: The First Battle" (Master of Military Art and Science, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 1984), 122.
[11] Ibid, 121.
[12] Ibid, 120.
[13] J. Michael Miller, "From Shanghai to Corregidor: Marines in the Defense of the Philippines" (Marines in World War II Commemorative Series, Marine Corps Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., 1997), 3.
[14] William F. Prickett, "Naval Battalion at Mariveles" The Marine Corps Gazette, June 1950, 40.
[15] Ibid, 40.