Military forces of Imperial Japan appeared unstoppable during the years leading to World War 2, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. The US military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines all fell, in quick succession.
On January 7, 1942 Japanese forces attacked the Bataan peninsula in the central Luzon region, of the Philippines. The prize was nothing short of the finest natural harbor in the Asian Pacific, Manila Bay, the Bataan Peninsula forming the lee shore and the heavily fortified island of Corregidor, the “Gibraltar of the East”, standing at the mouth. Before the Japanese invasion was to succeed, Bataan and Corregidor must be destroyed.
In early December, the Far East Air Force (FEAF) outside Luzon possessed more aircraft than the Hawaiian Department, defending Pearl Harbor. In the event of hostilities with Japan, “War Plan Orange” (WPO-3) called for superior air power, covering the strategic retreat across Manila Bay to the Bataan peninsula, buying time for US Naval assets to sail for the Philippines.
In reality, the flower of American naval power in the pacific, lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Eight hours after the attack on Oahu, a devastating raid on Clark Field outside of Luzon left 102 aircraft damaged, or destroyed. Army chief of staff general George C. Marshall later remarked to a reporter: “I just don’t know how MacArthur happened to let his planes get caught on the ground.”
General Douglas MacArthur abandoned Corregidor on March 12, departing the “Alamo of the Pacific” with trademark dramatic flair: “I shall return”. Some 90,000 American and Filipino troops were on their own, left without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the onslaught of the Japanese 14th Army.
Starving, battered by wounds and decimated by all manner of tropical disease and parasite, the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” fought on until they could do no more.
War correspondent Frank Hewlett was the last reporter to leave Corregidor, before it all collapsed. It was he who coined the phrase “Angels of Bataan“, to describe the women who stayed behind to be taken into captivity, to care for the sick and wounded. Hewlett wrote this tribute to the doomed defenders of that place:
Battling Bastards of Bataan
We’re the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces
And nobody gives a damn
Nobody gives a damn.
by Frank Hewlett 1942
Allied war planners turned their attention to defeating Adolf Hitler.
In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the river gunboat USS Mindanao earned the distinction of taking prisoner the sole survivor of the midget submarine attacks carried out that day, Kazuo Sakamaki. Now short on fuel, Mindanao was reduced to harassing shore artillery and covering small boats evacuating soldiers, from the beaches. On April 8, 1942, Mindanao Executive Officer David Nash confided to his diary: “This has been a hectic day. It looks like the beginning of the end. The planes get nearer each day and this evening the word was received to get up steam and standby to get underway. Meanwhile Ft. Mills started shooting across our heads toward the Bataan lines. All night long our forces were obviously destroying equipment. It looks like evacuation from the Peninsula”.
Bataan fell the following day, some 75,000 American and Filipino fighters beginning a 65-mile, five-day trek into captivity known as the Bataan Death March. Lieutenant Nash was taken prisoner, surviving a captivity many did not to pass the remainder of the war at Bilibid, Davao, Dapecol and the infamous Cabanatuan prison camps.
With a commanding position over Pacific shipping routes, holding the Philippine archipelago was critical for Japanese war strategy. Capturing the islands was important to the US by the same logic with the added reason, this was a personal point of pride for General Douglas MacArthur. Two years almost to the day from that ignominious departure, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered MacArthur to come up with a plan to take the place back. Luzon would come first with the invasion of Leyte in the north, slated for early 1945.
That summer, US 3rd fleet operations revealed Japanese defenses were weaker than expected. The invasion was moved forward to October. Before it was over, the Battle of Leyte would trigger the greatest naval battle, of World War 2.
With deep-water approaches and sandy beaches, Leyte Island is tailor-made for amphibious assault. Preliminary operations for the invasion began on October 17. MacArthur made his grand entrance on the 20th announcing to the 900,000 residents of the island: “People of the Philippines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil.”
The fighting for Leyte was long and bloody involving 323,000 American troops and Filipino guerrillas. Day and night through mountains, swamps and jungles, by the time it was over some 50,000 Japanese combat troops were destroyed. Organized resistance ended on Christmas day. By the New Year there was little left, but isolated stragglers.
Not many can find humor in such a place as that. Private Melvin Levy was one who could. A member of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division, that November, Levy and his comrades were fighting as infantry. He was part of the 511th‘s demolition platoon, nicknamed the “Death Squad” for its high casualty rate.
The C-47 came in low that day, but this wasn’t your normal bombing run. The plane was armed with “biscuit bombs”, crates of food and provisions intended to resupply the 511th regiment. With a comedian’s sense of timing, Levy was holding court before an enthralled group of soldiers, resting under a palm tree. Laughter filled the air as Private Levy delivered the punchline and asked his best friend Rodman, for a cigarette. Rodman took the one out of his mouth and handed it over before turning, for the pack. The biscuit bomb came in at 200 miles per hour, tearing Levy’s head from his shoulders, where he stood.
As the only other Jewish guy in the unit, Rodman presided over Levy’s funeral, the following day. He spoke a few words and placed a star of David, on Levy’s grave.
Nearly half his comrades were killed, fighting in the Philippines. Rodman himself was wounded twice and finished the war, in occupied Japan. He was no stranger to the brutal twists and the horrors of war. The survivor’s guilt. What the man saw during WW2 changed him, forever. The human wreckage wrought by the atomic bomb, the fire bombing, the results of the aerial mining of Japanese harbors literally code-named, “Operation Starvation”.
Rodman Edward Serling had opened a door, never to be closed. A door unlocked, with the key of imagination. Beyond that door is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into, the Twilight Zone.