Belmont Club

The Power of Myth

The Wild Hunt

One indication that something very terrible had happened in Singapore in February, 1942 comes from a snippet in Jonathan Parshall’s narrative of the battle of Midway, the Shattered Sword. Referring to the men in Nagumo’s doomed force, Parshall wrote:

These same men remembered running rampant through their beaten foes just a few months before. Allied warships in the waters around Java; merchant ships and pleasure craft packed with civilians trying to flee the impending falls of Singapore and Surabaja-they had cut them all down like wolves among the sheep. Now the tables were turned, and it was the worst feeling in the world. They could expect no mercy.  (p. 354). Kindle Edition.

It was a reference to the terrible massacre of those hat attempted to leave the doomed fortress-city as Yamashita’s men closed in, nowhere better documented on the web than in the Singapore 1942 site. The worst single episode was Black Friday, February 13, 1942 when the last desperate crowds attempted to flee a city that would surrender in a few days.

“The exact size of the so-called ‘Empire Star Convoy’ is unknown and numbers range from six to over thirty, but included the Empire Star, Gorgon, Yoma, Delamore, HMS Scott Harley. The light cruiser HMS Durban, HMS Stronghold and HMS Kedah would escort the convoy. It is estimated that only two or three of the dozens of ships to leave Singapore during 11 – 13 Feb 1942 actually made it to safety.”

They “cut them all down like wolves among the sheep.”

“The Day the British Empire Died of Shame”

What made Singapore so apocalyptic was the sheer panic that gripped the far eastern capital of the empire in its last days. It saw scenes of humiliation which broke the prestige of the “White Man” pretty much for good. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran a special report which makes hard reading even today.

The British and Australians were not only beaten by Yamashita, they were beaten like a drum and looked it. The Empire Star, one of the few ships that survived the last convoy from Singapore, was so full of deserters who had forced themselves aboard that they were arrested and paraded through the streets when the ship reached the nearest allied territory, which was Java, itself soon to be overrun by the Japanese tide.

One commentator wrote that if only Percival’s men had fought for Singapore street by street the British empire would survived. Hong Kong and Burma too were lost without a similar loss of prestige. The British empire did not die of a defeat; it died of shame.

The problem was leadership. Percival was unable to perform the one essential task of keeping his men morally unbroken and in the field. The tales of British and Australian troops throwing away their guns and drunkenly awaiting capture become credible when it is realized that of the 40,000 Indian troops captured in Malaya 12,000 switched sides and joined the pro-Japanese Indian National Army.

Different historians have cited other reasons for the INA’s recruits volunteering to serve with the Japanese enemy. These included both the high ideal of patriotism, the inevitable desire not to be interned in the POW camp, as well as ambition. Some cite the destruction and devaluation of the Raj’s prestige and authority in the Malayan debacle and the humiliating surrender at Singapore that first shook the Sepoys’ loyalty to the Raj and more importantly to the notion of supremacy of the Sahib. In addition, a number of authors have cited the disparity in the service conditions (including scopes of progression in the army) and treatment of White and Indian troops within the army as another reason for ill-feelings within the Indian troops.

Men in combat are held together by largely invisible bonds. Indians who had served for years under the British became their jailors literally overnight, convinced by what they had seen Nippon do to sahibs. That was how great Yamashita’s triumph over Percival was.

The irony was that the British and Australian forces were themselves individually brave, as shown by their subsequent fortitude in captivity. It was almost as if the military formations redeemed in captivity what they lost in the field.

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Arthur Percival was by all accounts a decent man of some intelligence. But he was new to Malaya,  and his appointment an indication of how bad the British judgments were. He never had a workable strategy for fighting the Japanese and early on he allowed himself to be mentally beaten by offering the same type of road-bound defense and losing each time.

He set up a ‘perfect’ position on the Slim River and Yamashita in a single uninterrupted 16 kilometer advance blew through 3 brigades each as surprised as the last.  By the time Yamashita was poised to cross the causeway into Singapore,  Percival — and his men — had lost confidence in themselves.

Britain was defeated elsewhere: in Hong Kong and Burma. But none of these contributed to the destruction of prestige as much as the Malaya/Singapore campaign. For it was not the fact of defeat that counted as much as the loss of manhood that Singapore represented. The Japanese, played that to hilt. To emphasize their superiority arranged for the white POW latrines to be in full view of the Singaporean population. “Here are your masters now.”


The Anti-Singapore

Jonathan Wainwright’s defense of the Philippines was in many ways the anti-Singapore.  Whereas Singapore and Malaya forever became an unmentionable topic, Bataan became a name to conjure with. Hollywood made movies about it, often wildly inaccurate. MacArthur mentioned it constantly until it took on the dimensions of a latter day Alamo.  Yet it was a military defeat. How it escaped the shame of Singapore and became an icon is interesting to examine.

There are some obvious reasons for the difference. The first was that the Philippines was not part of an American Empire. There was no American Empire.  In 1941 the Philippines was only a few years short of the full independence stipulated under the Tydings-McDuffie act. The act, sponsored by Democrat Millard Tydings and Alabama Representative John McDuffie “was supported by a coalition of … Philippine nationalists and protectionist groups who wanted Filipino immigration restricted for racial and economic reasons, including preservervation of Depression era jobs for natives. Philippine nationalists compromised on these restrictions in exchange for independence.”

Those were the days when the Democrats were frankly anti-immigrant and the only black congressman in Washington was Republican. In a few years short years Franklin Roosevelt would intern all Japanese-Americans. Tydings-McDuffie in fact “reclassified all Filipinos, including those who were living in the United States, as aliens for the purposes of immigration to America. A quota of 50 immigrants per year was established.”

Whereas some Indians joined the INA to fight for independence, that independence was already fait acompli in the Philippines. In fact there were two armies facing the Japanese invasion force in 1941 under American command.  Upon the passage of Tydings-McDuffie, President Manuel Quezon immediately began to create a Philippine Army under “Field Marshal” Douglas MacArthur, who had retired from United States service and was hired by soon-to be independent Republic as a military adviser.

MacArthur began to organize a Philippine Army built around an army of reservists, a task which he continued until recalled to US service. It was task begun too late to produce a viable military force. But neverthless by 1941 a separate Army was in existence.

The forces opposing the Japanese invasion in December, 1941 were:

United States Army Forces Far East
Philippine Army
United States Navy
United States Marine Corps

The USN and USMC were relatively few in number, men who had lost their ships and airmen who had lost their planes and a small contingent of Marines. The United States Army Forces Far East  consisted of two units: the Philippine Constabulary and the Philippine Division.  The Philippine Army, which was the most numerous, consisted of 10 half-baked divisions made up of Quezon’s reservists.

The United States Army Forces Far East did not consist of US-born Americans but of Filipinos in long service to the Philippine Deparment: the Philippine Constabulary and the Philippine Division.

The Philippine Scouts were part of the regular army and in 1941 had one caucasian regiment, the 31st Infantry. Of the four brigades in the division 3 were Philippine Scouts — (PS). The Scouts had been in service with the United States Army since the Moro Wars. The entire division was commanded by US Army officers and Filipino West Point graduates. Thus the US Army in the Philippines was fundamentally different in its relation to the Philippines than III Indian Corps, the 8th Australian Division or the British 18th Division was to Malaya and Singapore.

Even in commanders the US was more fortunate than the British. Wainwright had fought in the Moro wars and was thoroughly familiar with the country, as was MacArthur, who had surveyed the Islands earlier in his career and chased bandits through them. Unlike Percival, who was a staff officer recently arrived in Malaya, MacArthur and Wainwright were both competent and knowledgeable of the terrain.

But the principal advantage of the Luzon defense over the Singapore strategy was its conceptual superiority. To put it frankly War Plan Orange was better than the ill-fated Singapore Strategy. War Plan Orange remained the basis of American strategy throughout the Pacific War to victory. The Singapore Strategy was exposed as nonsense from Day One.

Unlike Percival, who attempted a broad, Malaya-wide defense against the Japanese, Wainwright fought a rearguard action against Homma until he could neatly side-slip into Bataan, as per War Plan Orange. Protected by the sea on both flanks, and covered by the 12 inch ship-killing mortars of Corregidor, Wainwright could not be outflanked on Bataan. Nor could Wainwright’s men desert, even had they been so inclined to a tempting big city in the rear.

MacArthur simply declined to fight for Manila, declaring it an “Open City” and put his back to the jungle and the sea. The Japanese had no choice but to grind away against the single American (Philippine Scouts) division and Quezon’s half-trained army. Unlike Percival, who worried about civilian casualties in a prolonged fight for Singapore, Wainright had only the trees and rocks of Bataan to worry about.

The result of this objectively superior strategy was was that the cream of the Japanese Army was forced into a siege battle against “native” troops led by Americans and Filipino West Pointers, albeit augmented regular American support units. At the surrender of Bataan there were 60,000 Filipinos and 15,000 Americans.

Wainwright had stopped the Japanese for months with a motely crew. It maddened the Japanese to no end. Wainwright got far more out of his troops than Percival ever managed in Malaya. They never broke, even at the end. When Bataan fell at last the Japanese could not even gloat in creditable terms.

So instead the IJA led the surenderees on a 70-mile Death March, without food or water. This had the opposite effect of the surrender at Singapore. Rather than causing the civilians to swoon in admiration of the Japanese, as apparently did the Indian troops in Singapore, the cruel spectacle turned the population against them.

The Making of a Legend

Lieutenant Norman Reyes, the US Army broadcaster who read out the announcement that Bataan had fallen, used a canny text written by Salvador Lopez, a man who would become the future dean of the University of the Philippines. Reyes’ text was frankly religious in tone and designed to play to the sympathies of a Roman Catholic population, then observing Holy Week, with which the surrender coincided.

Bataan has fallen…. Men fighting under the banner of unshakable faith are made of something more that flesh, but they are not made of impervious steel. …

All of us know the story of Easter Sunday. It was the triumph of light over darkness, life over death. … We, too, shall rise. After we have paid the full price of our redemption, we shall return to show the scars of sacrifices that all may touch and believe. When the trumpets sound the hour we shall roll aside the stone before the tomb and the tyrant guards shall scatter in confusion. No wall of stone shall then be strong enough to contain us, no human force shall suffice to hold us in subjection, we shall rise in the name of freedom and the East shall be alight with the glory of our liberation.

The USAFFE imbued the defense of Bataan with a mystical, some would say the irrational element. But just as the British Empire foundered on the insubstantial quantity of prestige, so did that elusive quantity, American credibility hang upon the mysterious and intangible. The USAFFE public affairs people knew it and so did MacArthur.

He made Bataan a fetish, describing it not in terms of shame but as as something rapturous. He understood that if were to come back it would have to be on the wings of myth as much as powder and steel. Thus began the transformation of Bataan. Hollywood made movies based on it, starring John Wayne and Robert Taylor.  When I was a child, I had a friend who told me that his grandfather commanded something once, with obvious pride. I did not even know what he was talking about but I asked, “where?” He said, “on Bataan.”

When MacArthur stepped ashore at Leyte his first act was to broadcast a call that was surpassingly strange in content, full of inside references, almost a private message, medieval in its cadence. But to those who knew, it was as if he was simply continuing where Norman Reyes’ broadcast had left off.

People of the Philippines, I have returned.

Rally to me. Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on. As the lines of battle roll forward to bring you within the zone of operations, rise and strike.

Strike at every favorable opportunity.

For your homes and hearths, strike!

For future generations of your sons and daughters, strike!

In the name of your sacred dead, strike!

Let no heart be faint. Let every arm be steeled.

The guidance of divine God points the way. Follow in His Name to the Holy Grail of righteous victory!

History often turns on moments of remembered drama, moments that become bywords. The Few in Britain. The 57th Regiment in Albuera (“Die hard, 57th. Die hard.”) Percival may have been a decent commander, but he and his command had the misfortune of the stars being against them.  They became a byword, it’s true, but in the wrong way.

If the perceived humiliation at Singapore marked the end of the British empire, the epic of Bataan and the via dolorosa of the Death March laid the foundation for the return of the West to Southeast Asia. For when the West returned to Asia it came on the shoulders on the United States and not the Europeans.

And to do that well they needed not only the power of the Atomic Bomb but the power of myth. In order for the institutions of democracy to credibly re-enter the lists after Japanese militarism and nascent Communism had shown it so vulnerable, it needed a legend to stand upon. If Singapore destroyed the colonial mystique forever, Bataan showed it could be replaced by a creed founded neither on color nor even language but on a shared commitment to freedom.

Two journeys began in 1942: one was the Empire Star convoy and the other, the Death March to Capas.  For many in each Death lay at the end of the road, but only one won through to disappear into the mists of legend.

The American Cemetery Manila

The American Cemetery Manila

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