Defense Media Network

Book Review – Fighting for MacArthur

Fighting for MacArthur: The Navy and Marine Corps' Desperate Defense of the Philippines, by John Gordon; Naval Institute Press; 372 pages.

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According to Aristotle’s Poetics (c.335 BC), tragedy is a dignified narrative involving a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune. The goal of tragedy is catharsis (emotional healing) for the audience in response to the suffering of the characters in the drama. By this standard, John Gordon’s Fighting for MacArthur is tragic history at its best.

The American defense of the Philippines, from the initial Japanese attack in December 1941 to the surrender of Corregidor in May 1942, was doomed from the start. The reasons for this are many and complex, but much of the explanation is bound up with the personality and flaws of Gen. Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964).

The son of a Civil War hero, MacArthur graduated first in the West Point class of 1903. Serving on the Western Front in World War I, he rose to command the famous 42nd “Rainbow” Division.  After serving as superintendent of West Point from 1919-1922, he was posted to Manila, where he quelled a mutiny of the Philippine Scouts and became the youngest major general in the Army in 1925. Appointed Chief of Staff in 1930, he became Field Marshal of the Philippine Army in 1935, while retaining his U.S. Army rank of general until he officially retired in 1937. In July 1941, with war clouds gathering in the Pacific, he was recalled to active duty.

Fighting for MacArthur: The Navy and Marine Corps' Desperate Defense of the Philippines

Fighting for MacArthur: The Navy and Marine Corps’ Desperate Defense of the Philippines, by John Gordon; Naval Institute Press; 372 pages.

At a party before the war, a lady asked Dwight Eisenhower if he knew MacArthur. “Not only have I met him, ma’am,” Ike replied, “I studied dramatics under him for five years in Washington and four in the Philippines.”

In that era before “Jointness”, the Army and Navy lived in separate worlds and regarded each other with suspicion.  Adm. Thomas C. Hart, the competent and realistic officer who commanded the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in 1941, was friendly with MacArthur, but this friendship could not survive the general’s need for scapegoats under the stress of defeat.

In addition, the Asiatic Fleet in 1941 was a miscellaneous collection of small and mostly obsolete warships, including river gunboats pulled out of China at the last minute. Of 40 surface vessels in this force, 19 were sunk by the time Bataan surrendered.  According to pre-war plans, the naval defense of the Philippines would rely on on the Asiatic Fleet’s 29 submarines, but they proved ineffective in action due to poor tactics and defective torpedoes. Naval forces also included the flying boats of Patrol Wing 10, and the Fourth Marine Regiment, recently evacuated from China. Reinforced with sailors who had lost their ships and aviators who had lost their planes, the 4th Marines fought effectively in the defense of Bataan, and formed the backbone of the final desperate defense of Corregidor.

Cavite Navy Yard, the most important base west of Hawaii, was wrecked early by Japanese bombing on Dec. 10, and Navy headquarters evacuated to the island fortress of Corregidor when Manila was abandoned to the Japanese.

Manila harbor was strongly fortified, but under the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty:

No new fortifications or naval bases shall be established in the territories and possessions specified; that no measures shall be taken to increase the existing naval facilities for the repair and maintenance of naval forces, and that no increase shall be made in the coast  defense of the territories and possessions above specified.  (Article XIX)

USS Canopus

The submarine tender USS Canopus. Her heroic story is just one fascinating tale that is part of Fighting for MacArthur. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

Although Japan denounced the treaty in 1934, the Depression made funds for modernizing forts in the distant Philippines a low priority for the U.S. Congress. Designed to fight battleships, the heavy guns were well stocked with armor-piercing shells, but nearly useless against Japanese ground forces grinding down the defenders of Bataan.

One of the heroic vessels of this story is the submarine tender USS Canopus (AS 9); her technicians and repair shops helped to sustain the fight even after she was immobilized by Japanese airstrikes.

This book is excellent in many ways – it is heartbreakingly tragic, but carefully balanced and deeply researched. It combines personal stories of heroism, suffering and even flashes of humor, along with big-picture operational and strategic understanding of the campaign. It can be a slow read, simply because readers will be tempted to divert from the pages to look up some fascinating piece of equipment, event or location that Gordon describes.

There are nine clearly drawn maps and a small selection of photographs integrated with the text. Notes, bibliography, an index and several detailed appendices complete the package.

Fighting for MacArthur is not a book about MacArthur – it is about the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps of an era that is rapidly receding into a remote past as the last World War II veterans pass on.