Forgotten History: How a General, Without Really Intending to, Destroyed Manila

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There are certain rules of decorum that one must follow when traveling. Don’t bring up the Armenian genocide with a Turk; refrain from slandering the King while in Thailand; and by all means, never criticize General Douglas MacArthur to a Filipino. I’ll admit that this last one took me awhile. You see, I’ve never been much of a fan of MacArthur.  To be frank, I always considered him to be a pompous, arrogant, asshole. Of course, my views may be slightly tinted by the fact that my grandfather had the great pleasure of serving under him in the Pacific theater during World War II.

General Douglas MacArthur with his trademark corncob pipes aboard a ship bound for Luzon Island in the Philippines in January 1945

Yes, I have offended and confused a good deal many Filipino, who just can’t seem to understand how I can disparage a man who said he would return and actually kept his word. After all, at least the Americans put up a fight on Bataan and Corregidor (while MacArthur smoked is corncob pipe from the safety of Australia), unlike those Brits who surrendered Singapore to a Japanese army that was nearly out of ammunition.

Most people have never heard of the Manila Massacre, where over 100,000 Filipinos lost their lives, and the bulk of the city was destroyed in the span of a month.  Traditionally, the destruction has been attributed to the Japanese, first, from the mere fact that about 10,000 Imperial Marines refused to withdraw from the capital, and second, because of numerous atrocities committed by these troops. Indeed, there is documented evidence of hundreds of rapes and murders attributed to the Japanese, but these numbers don’t explain the absolutely horrific death toll. What does explain it is General MacArthur.

The Ayuntamiento de Manila (city hall) was reconstructed after the war and now houses the Bureau of the Treasury.

The Battle

On October 20, 1944, an amphibious landing took place at Leyte followed by further landings at Mindoro and Luzon. By the end of January 1945, U.S. troops had surrounded Manila. What would follow would be some of the fiercest urban combat seen during World War II; combat that would leave Manila in the same state as Stalingrad, Warsaw, and Dresden.

To his credit, MacArthur originally attempted to limit the damage to the city and its civilians by restricting the use of artillery and aerial bombardments. But by February 9, as the U.S. Army picked its way through Manila’s suburbs, casualties had become so high that the General was left with no other option than to shell or bomb each and every building in front of the advancing soldiers. This culminated in a devastating week-long artillery barrage directed at Intramuros, the historic fortified Spanish center of Manila.

St. Agustin was the only church of seven to survive the assault on Intramuros

The strategic necessity of retaking the Philippines, which fell to the Japanese in the first half of 1942, has been debated.  By June 1944, the U.S. Navy already had undisputed command of the seas, and Japanese shipping had largely ceased as a result of U.S. submarine activity. Furthermore, control of the Philippines did not expand America’s ability to target Japan from the air. In other words, a reasonable case could be made to bypass the Philippines altogether and concentrate the war effort on Japan itself.

MacArthur, though, was a political general with presidential aspirations. He had vowed to retake the Philippines and understood the propaganda value of making that promise a reality before the end of the war. Any chance at an alternative strategy that may have been less costly, both to American military servicemen and Filipino civilians, died at the feet of the General’s hubris.

The Japanese dug-in around the monument to Filipino nationalist José Rizal at what use to be known as Luneta Park.

History Buried Beneath the Rubble

I admit that until arriving in Philippines, I had not fully appreciated the destruction wrought upon Manila. But one only has to walk around Intramuros and its adjoining neighborhoods to get an understanding of just how much the city had suffered. Like epitaphs for the dead, Manila is littered with plaques commemorating the restoration of important buildings, many of which were destroyed by U.S. artillery fire.

A Sherman tank at the main gate of Fort Santiago in the heart of Intramuros
MacArthur had a contentious relationship with vets, to say the least

Nevertheless, I don’t blame the United States for what happened at Manila. Liberating the Philippines had been a key war goal from the beginning regardless of its ultimate necessity. And it only makes sense that the military would do what it could to protect the lives of its servicemen. However, I find it extremely dangerous that so little is said about the Americans’ own hand in the destruction of the city.

While the myth of MacArthur as the savior of the Philippines remains well established, increasingly, Filipinos are questioning the official story of the war. The result has been an ever-growing strand of historical negationism that views the Japanese as liberators while ignoring the numerous atrocities committed by the Empire of the Sun. Case in point, the current President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, claimed in 2016 that U.S. troops killed 200,000 in just two days of bombing during the Battle of Manila. By ignoring the sins of MacArthur, we have inadvertently sown the seeds of irresponsible revisionism and, consequently, dishonored the very men, women, and children who sacrificed their lives at Manila.

Manila skyline today along the Pasig River
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