An Important New Book on the 1945 Battle for Manila

A new book Rampage:  MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila was recently published (October 30, 2018, W. W. Norton) by James M. Scott.  It tells about the retaking of the Philippines in 1945 by the American troops and the horrific atrocities committed by the Japanese troops.  The author was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his book Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor (2015, W. W. Norton). [1]

This article provides excerpts from the book review posted on November 4, 2018 in the Los Angeles Times by Bob Drogin, who was the Los Angeles Times’ bureau chief in Manila from 1989 to 1993.  All quotes below are from Drogin’s book review.

Retelling this part of history is long overdue.  “It is hard to imagine that a major monthlong battle from WWII – one that devastated a large city, caused more than 100,000 civilian deaths and led to both a historic war crimes trial and a Supreme Court decision – should have escaped scrutiny until now.”  This new book by James M. Scott has removed that gap.

The book begins in March 1942 by describing how “General Douglas MacArthur, the egotistical military commander of the U.S. colony in the Philippines, was caught woefully unprepared when the war began. Japanese bombers destroyed his planes on the ground and American and Philippine forces were soon overwhelmed.  MacArthur famously vowed to return as he was evacuated to Australia.

Three years later, the tide of the war changed, and the U.S. and her allies were winning the war.  “Most commanders saw ‘no need to risk American lives on a costly invasion of the Philippines’ when the fall of Japan appeared imminent.” 

“But MacArthur insisted, and by early 1945 his troops were closing on Manila. … Convinced the Japanese would abandon Manila, just as he had, MacArthur ordered up a massive victory parade to welcome himself home.”

“On Feb. 6, 1945, MacArthur preemptively announced the city’s liberation, claiming credit in grandiose terms.  Congratulations poured in from Washington, London, and elsewhere.  But the 29-day battle had only just begun.” 

What followed was a month-long battle, which resulted in the death of over 100,000 Filipino civilians, the complete destruction of the beautiful city of Manila, the worst urban fighting in the Pacific theatre, and the deaths of over 1,000 and the wounded of over 5,500 American soldiers.

The Japanese commander, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, was ordered “to bog MacArthur’s forces down in the Philippines and give Japan time to prepare for the expected U.S. invasion (of Japan mainland).  He ordered subordinates to destroy Manila’s bridges and port and then to follow him to the mountains.  Once Yamashita withdrew, however, Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi instead ordered his marines to fight to the last man.  They methodically dynamited Manila’s business, government and religious landmarks, obliterating the city’s cultural heritage, and torched thousands of wooden homes, sparking deadly firestorm  Worse, they cruelly tortured and killed thousands of men, women and children.”

Scott’s book was based on his research using “war crimes records, after-action military reports and other primary sources for the agonizing testimony of Philippine survivors and witnesses of more than two dozen major Japanese atrocities.” 

“The frenzy of Japanese massacres defies imagination.  Countless women were raped and tortured, their babies tossed in the air and bayoneted.  Patients and doctors were stabbed at hospitals, nuns and priests hanged at churches, children tossed into pits with grenades.  Marauding Japanese troops burned people alive in convents, schools and prisons.  They simply buried others alive.”

“Military orders later found by investigators stated that ‘all people on the battlefield… will be put to death.’ The battlefield was the entire city.”

“Against them was a U.S. force unprepared for urban warfare.  They fired 155-millimeter howitzers at point-blank range to dislodge the enemy and used tanks, flamethrowers and bazookas to kill the rest.  They fought block by block, house by house, room by room, leveling hundreds of city blocks.” 

“It was hard to tell who had done more damage – the Japanese defenders or the American liberators.”

After the war in the fall of 1945, General Yamashita was tried in an American military tribunal in Manila for war crimes committed by troops under his command during the Japanese defense of the occupied Philippines. In a controversial decision, Yamashita was found guilty of his troops’ atrocities, although there was no evidence that he approved or even knew of them, and furthermore, many of the atrocities were committed by troops not actually under his command. 

This decision – holding the commander responsible for his or her subordinates’ war crimes as long as the commander did not attempt to discover and stop them from occurring – came to be known as the Yamashita standard.   Yamashita’s American legal defense team appealed the decision to the Philippines Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, but both courts declined to review the verdict.  The legitimacy of the hasty trial was questioned at the time, including by the American Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy, who protested various procedural issues, the inclusion of hearsay evidence, and the general lack of professional conduct by the prosecuting officers. Evidence that Yamashita did not have ultimate command responsibility over all military units in the Philippines was not admitted in court.

Yamashita was sentenced to death and executed by hanging in 1946.  The Yamashita standard was added to the Geneva Conventions and was applied to dozens of trials in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.  It has also been adopted by the International Criminal Court established in 2002.

There is now finally a scholarly book on this important part of neglected history.


[1] I want to thank the person who several months ago sent me this book review article. However, I do not remember who sent me the article.

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