Undefeated: America’s Heroic Fight for Bataan and Corregidor
By Bill Sloan
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, list price $28.00; Kindle edition, $14.99)
Japan wanted to attack the Philippines on the same day as Pearl Harbor. But bad weather kept its planes grounded on Formosa until December 8. Yet even with a day’s warning that war had begun, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the United States Army Forces, Far East, “committed two grave blunders,” according to this excellent combat narrative.
“First, he forfeited the opportunity for his B-17s [and bomber crews] to strike a decisive blow against the Japanese and save themselves from destruction on the ground in the process,” author Bill Sloan, a military historian, contends.
“And second, he ordered General [Jonathan M.] Wainwright’s raw, inept Philippine Army divisions to attack and destroy the Japanese landing force on the beaches of Luzon. He might as well have ordered them to fly to the moon.”
The American-led Filipino troops outnumbered the Japanese, but they had few weapons and very little military training.
There were others to blame, as well, for the devastating loss of the Philippines, Sloan adds. Throughout the 1930s, Congress had refused funding “to update a military still operating with World War I leftovers.” And, a few months prior to Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had agreed with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill “to a wartime grand strategy of ‘Europe First,’ giving top priority to halting the Nazi blitzkrieg on the other side of the Atlantic and relegating the Japanese Pacific threat to secondary status.”
Countless tales of heroics, sacrifice, cowardice, barbarism and desperation unfolded once Japanese troops landed in the Philippines, which was an American commonwealth from 1935 to 1946.
Sloan’s well-written and well-researched book highlights how the outgunned U.S. and Filipino troops tried to battle the invaders. And he deftly mingles their stories with accounts of military leaders struggling to hold out and then stage an orderly retreat to Bataan and Corregidor, two American fortresses that guarded Manila Bay.
As resistance collapsed, many soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen joined any military unit they could find. Some attempted individual escapes to Australia, and others melted into the hills and jungles to become guerilla fighters. Still, most American and Filipino troops became prisoners of war after May 7, 1942, when Gen. Wainwright was forced to surrender to avoid large-scale slaughter.
Sloan’s book pushes headlong into the brutal horrors that followed, including the long Bataan Death March that killed thousands and the sufferings of the Americans and Filipinos that were packed aboard transport ships bound for slave labor camps in Japan. Thousands died aboard those ships, either from appalling mistreatment or from air and sea attacks by American forces that were unaware of the human cargo.
The few who survived the Death March, the sea journey and slave labor’s brutalities faced yet one more challenge: Their captors had orders to execute them if America invaded Japan. What finally saved the POWs, with dramatic suddenness, Sloan makes clear, were the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
He relates stories of incredible tenacity, courage and honor amid conditions that seeming utterly impossible to endure. He also offers shocking accounts of how some desperate American servicemen resorted to murder and cannibalism in their efforts to stay alive.
A prize-winning former investigative reporter, Sloan has drawn upon an extensive gathering of author interviews, oral history accounts, published historical materials, and first-person memoirs, both published and unpublished, to create Undefeated. His other combat narratives include Brotherhood of Heroes, The Ultimate Battle, and Given Up for Dead.
Balancing his criticisms of Gen. MacArthur’s leadership, particularly in the Philippines, Sloan emphasizes that the general later proved dramatically successful as post-war Japan’s “substitute emperor.” Indeed, “his success in transforming a tyrannical, rapacious, America-hating outlaw regime into a model democracy is unparalleled in political history.”
But Sloan never loses sight of those who gave the most to defend and eventually liberate the Philippines. “We were surrendered,” he quotes some of the soldiers as emphasizing, “but we were never defeated!”
– Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.