December 8, 1941 MacArthurs Pearl Harbor

By John Dudek 25 Feb 2014 0

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Some ten hours after the last Japanese bomber turned away from the bomb-blasted, burning ruins, and damaged, or sunken ships of Pearl Harbor, General MacArthur's Far East Air Force on the Philippine island of Luzon was largely caught on the ground and nearly destroyed by a series of Japanese air attacks. This tragedy occurred in spite of him being alerted well in advance by military communications. After the passing of some 70 years William H Bartsch's excellent account of the events leading up to that raid attack cuts through the many webs and layer's of historical obfuscation, denial and outright lies, regarding this completely unnecessary, shameful and damnable page of history. He rightfully places the blame where it so rightfully belongs. In doing so Bartsch relies upon the recorded personal accounts of many Japanese, Filipino and American eye witness participants who were on the scene, as well as a number of written historical records.

Bartsch also maintains that had the US Far East Air Force not been helplessly caught on the ground, the overall military campaign outcome in the Philippines would probably have been the same. However, the fighting there would have lasted much longer, while costing the Japanese tens of thousands of additional troops, and much more time and material than during the actual historical campaign. The history of Philippine-American relations is a complex tale, starting with the Philippines being seized by the US from the Spanish during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Following that war the Americans quickly went from being seen as the "Saviors of the Philippine People", to becoming just another thuggish colonial power seeking to strip, rob or remove whatever natural resources or mineral wealth that could be found in the islands. This quickly resulted in an insurrection that took decades for the US Army to finally put down with the promises of eventual independence to the Filipino people. With the end of the insurrection America found herself being a colonial power for the very first time in its history, and was forced to look after its new colony's defense and protection. As a result, by the end of the First World War the US had constructed a large number of extensive coastal artillery fortifications on the fortified islands of Manila Bay, making it one of the heaviest defended island fortresses in the Far East. Unfortunately, during the next 20 years, Luzon's overall defense was allowed to atrophy and languish by a parsimonious, penny pinching and isolationist minded US Congress. Those few US military aircraft were based in the islands were sometimes decades into obsolescence, and more of a danger to their own crews than any potential enemy.

With the drums of war echoing across Europe and Asia throughout the 1930's, and with the Japanese invasion of China, little attention was initially paid to their warlike actions by the isolationist US Congress. It wasn't until virtually the eleventh hour that serious considerations were made towards the modernization of US military forces in the Philippines. It took the Japanese seizure of neutral French Indo-China in July, 1941 to provoke the US Congress and Military into taking decisive action. What began as a trickle of military supplies and manpower into the Philippines soon became a flood as the US Military tried to buy time in order right the many military wrongs of the previous 20 years. Much of the military equipment sent to the Philippines was of WWI vintage, but it was all that was available until the newly re-vitalized and ever expanding US Defense industries began supplying modern equipment to its rapidly growing military. Still, some US Army Air Corps Generals like Henry "Hap" Arnold visualized a "Philippine Switzerland" protected by hundreds of the newest and best US  bomber and fighter aircraft available, and he soon began making plans towards sending factory new Boeing B-17 bombers to the PI as soon as flight routes and air fields could be set up along the way, and in the Philippine Islands.

On Friday September 12, 1941 the first of the 35 B-17's sent to the Philippines under Major Emmettt  "Rosie" O'Donnell began arriving at Clark Field, Luzon PI after having flown there in a long series of island flight hops from the US. The only other bombers then based in the islands were some 15 already obsolescent B-18, twin engine bombers recently arrived via ship, along with a number of even more obsolete Keystone bi-plane bombers nearly 20 years out of date. The best and newest "pursuit plane" fighters then based there to protect the newly arrived bombers consisted largely of elderly P-26 "Shooting Star" aircraft, the very first all-metal monoplanes in the US Air Corps' inventory and also 10 years out of date.  General Arnold quickly remedied this by sending some 94 modern P-40-B and later E models of fighter planes along with 22 export version Seversky P-35 fighter planes by transport ship to the Philippines, along with pilots fresh out of flight school. This was envisioned to be the first shipments of hundreds of additional aircraft destined to be shipped or flown into the PI during the coming weeks and months. The newly arrived consignment of US fighter planes were by no means a match to the highly maneuverable Japanese Zeros they would eventually face in battle; nonetheless, they were the best planes then in existence in the US military inventory.

On December 8, 1941, many of these US fighter planes, and 12 of the 35 B-17 bombers then based on Luzon at Clark Field and Iba Field, were largely caught on the ground and destroyed when Japanese bombers and fighter planes struck at midday while US pilots, aircrews and air corps ground personnel were at lunch. In one savage, decisive stroke, the Japanese easily destroyed half of General MacArthur's Far East Air Force. This was largely attributable to a peacetime US military being suddenly thrust into a war with little to no preparation time to divest itself of clinging peacetime "red tape" procedures. At the center of this controversy was the US Supreme Commander in the Philippines himself, General Douglas MacArthur. In spite of several hours prior warning regarding the Pearl Harbor attack, and after a number of unsuccessful attempts by his own commanding Air Corps General Lewis Brereton to gain clearance to launch an immediate aerial bombing attack upon the strategic Japanese island of Formosa; Mac Arthur was clearly shocked and overwhelmed by the sudden tragic turn of events, and the equally sudden, tragic change in the strategic balance in the Pacific. It appears that Mac Arthur froze and lost his nerve at this key moment and was unable to think clearly, bringing about this horrendous military debacle.

To sum up, Bartsch writes:

"Unlike the case of the Pearl Harbor attack, no official investigation was ever conducted to determine the cause and allocate responsibility for the Clark and Iba Field's disaster, despite the enormity of loss no less than in Hawaii.  At any rate, MacArthur had become a hero to the American people for his resistance to the Japanese onslaught in the Philippines (largely attributable to his self glorifying communiqués of course) Such an action would have been seen by the American public as a mean-spirited attack to "tarnish the reputation of the heroic American general."?

In the end, MacArthur was exonerated of any wrong doing and nearly became the Republican nominee for president in 1952.

The book is 568 pages in length and published by Texas A&M University Press. It can be found on Amazon or at Barnes and Noble in either hard cover for $40.00 or paperback cover for $32.00. I found the book to be the best, clearest, and most concise historical work on the subject since Louis Morton's book "The Fall of the Philippines" some 50 years ago.  This work is one of a trilogy of books Bartsch has written detailing the US air war in the Far East during the first months of the Pacific War. I have read his other book "Doomed at the Start" and I greatly look forward to reading his third book ?Every Day a Nightmare: American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java 1941-42" in the near future. Bartsch is a fine historian and an excellent writer. He has that rare quality of being able to carry the reader along with him as he details the events of his narrative in a manner designed to hold the reader's interest from start to finish.

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