When FDR ordered General Douglas MacArthur out of the Philippines in 1942, the dismal fate of the American and Filipino defenders at Bataan and Corregidor was sealed. Japanese forces had blockaded the island, achieved air superiority, and set their forces up to easily overpower the American defenses. The story of Bataan and Corregidor was a heroic tragedy. Heroic in that American and Filipino forces fought back bravely for months, and tragic in that any relief, retreat, or victory was impossible. The Japanese were on the offensive all over the Pacific, achieving a string of humiliating defeats to the American military.
With the exit of MacArthur, General Jonathon “Skinny” Wainwright was given command of the defense of the islands. The forces under him were slowly starving, unhealthy, and increasingly ineffective. Wainwright did his best to rally the men, visiting the front lines to encourage his forces. He even gained the highest respect of the Marines at Corregidor for his courage under fire and how he personally returned fire on the front.
Bataan was the first to surrender, setting up the atrocity of the Bataan Death March, where only 54,000 out of 70,000 arrived at POW camps. It was the largest surrender in American history, and even those who survived the death march awaited further atrocities at Camp O’Donnel. General MacArthur said of the Bataan defenders:
The Bataan force went out as it wished, fighting to the end its flickering forlorn hope. No army has ever done so much with so little and nothing became it more than its last hour of trial and agony. To the weeping Mothers of its dead, I can only say that the sacrifice and halo of Jesus of Nazareth has descended upon their sons, and God will take them unto Himself.
General Wainwright added, “Bataan has fallen, but the spirit that made it stand – a beacon to all the liberty – loving peoples of the world – cannot fall!” Wainwright carried a heavy burden for the surrender, and further despair settled in among the defenders at Corregidor for the fate that awaited them.
The American people followed the reports of the battle, clinging to any hope for a victory in the Pacific. It was never to be, despite further bitter and heroic fighting. Wainwright was forced to surrender the entire Philippines in May of 1942 for the purpose of saving civilians and his remaining men. Privately MacArthur was livid with the action, as some believed additional American and Filipino forces in other parts of the islands might have been able to hold out awhile longer or take up guerrilla action. Unfortunately for Wainwright, he was left with no other choice, yet he still declared, “I have taken a dreadful step.”
Wainwright was made a prisoner of war with his men. He was depressed that he was the commander who surrendered the largest contingent of American forces in its history.
He also believed he would receive a court martial and be made the scape goat for the Philippines if he ever returned home. His treatment like nearly every Allied prisoner in the Pacific was brutal. Like the men he led, he wasted away to a skeleton under Japanese care. Denied basic provisions, he was shuffled from camp to camp until the very end. Upon his liberation, he asked the first American he saw what the American Brass and people thought of him. The soldier replied, “You are a hero General Wainwright.” Still skeptical he kept asking additional men and officers the same questions.
The story of Bataan and Corregidor is a story of American defeat and temporary American abandonment of those who fought and bled there. Out of the ashes total victory and redemption would emerge for those fighting to free and liberate the people under Imperial Japanese aggression. The heroic defense of Bataan and Corregidor slowed the Japanese offensive in the Pacific, giving time for the Navy and MacArthur to organize their forces.
Wainwright did return to the United States a hero, and President Truman awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on the front lines of Corregidor. Wainwright was loved by the men he commanded because he suffered with them. He refused to leave their side or the rock he defended saying, “We have been through so much together that my conscience would not let me leave before the final curtain.” The Pacific Theater is sometimes overshadowed by the European Theater in WWII. The greatest thing about Veterans Day is we remember and honor all of those who served from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the lowliest infantry grunt.
Understanding in many ways he was a symbol of defeat, albeit heroically, Wainwright warned the nation against ever being ill prepared in its defense again. Wainwright declared:
I hope that the story of what Americans suffered will always be remembered in its practical significance – as a lesson which almost lost for us this land we love. Remember Bataan! Remember Corregidor!