Chapter XIX: The Japanese Withdrawal

At the end of January, the time by which, according to the prewar plans of Imperial General Headquarters, the conquest of Luzon was to have been completed, Homma had to face the bitter realization that he was still far from his objective. The Battle of the Points and the pocket fights were still in progress, but it was already clear that the offensive begun on 26 January had failed miserably. General Nara's efforts to advance against II Corps on the east had been unsuccessful and expensive for the 65th Brigade and the attached 9th Infantry of the 16th Division. One battalion of the 20th Infantry had already been lost in the abortive landings along the west coast; another was trapped at Anyasan and Silaiim Points. The remainder of the regiment was cut off behind Wainwright's line and encircled in the pockets. Finally, the attacks against I Corps by elements of the 122d, 33d, and 9th Infantry--the last of which had rejoined the 16th Division during the first week of February--were producing no results. Reluctant as he was to call off the offensive, Homma realized that to continue with it might well lead to disaster. The time for a decision had come.

The crucial question was debated heatedly by the 14th Army staff at San Fernando on 8 February. During the discussions two points of view emerged. The first, presented by Col. Motoo Nakayama, senior operations officer of Homma's staff, held that the offensive should be pushed aggressively. The main effort, he argued, should be made along the east coast rather than the west and should be closely controlled by 14th Army, Lt. Gen. Masami Maeda, Homma's chief of staff, spoke for those who believed that offensive operations on Bataan should be discontinued, and that the blockade should be tightened while the remainder of the Philippines were occupied. By the time this was accomplished, the Americans and Filipinos would have been starved into submission. Thus the victory would be gained at little cost.

Homma listened carefully to both views and then made his decision. Forced by necessity to accept Maeda's argument for the cessation of operations on Bataan, he agreed to break off the action and withdraw his troops to a more secure position. But he did not agree to wait for famine and hunger to bring him victory. Instead he decided to call on Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo for reinforcements with which to launch a final offensive to capture Bataan. Meanwhile, he would rest his men, reorganize the Army, and tighten the blockade. That night he issued orders for a general withdrawal.[1]

Homma's order of the 8th was the one which halted Nara's operations against Sector C in II Corps and prompted Morioka to order the troops at Anyasan and Silaiim


Points and those in the pockets to escape as best they could. General Nara was directed to withdraw his brigade to the area above the Tiawir and Talisay Rivers; Morioka, to the high ground north of the Bagac and Gogo Rivers. There they would establish defensive positions, reorganize, and prepare for the next offensive.[2]

Nara experienced little difficulty in carrying out his orders, but Morioka's troops were too closely engaged to withdraw easily. Moreover, the entire 20th Infantry was behind the American line, either at the points or in the pockets. On about 13 February, therefore, Homma ordered the 65th Brigade and the Army reserve unit to launch a diversionary attack against II Corps to relieve pressure on the 16th Division. At the same time Army artillery and supporting aircraft would open an attack of their own to cover Morioka's withdrawal. As soon as Morioka had extricated his troops, General Nara would break off the diversionary attack and fall back again, this time to a line near Balanga, a short distance south of the old Abucay line.

The attack opened on 15 February after a careful preparation by the artillery and bombardment from the air. To create the impression of heavy troop movements, vehicles of all types were sent along the road between Abucay and Dinalupihan to the north. While the artillery and aircraft continued their activity, the ground troops moved out. Skeleton units less than a battalion in size advanced toward the American lines, reconnoitered, deployed as though for attack, opened fire, but made no effort to advance farther. The Americans, who reported this activity as heavy patrol action, were not deceived and made no disposition to meet a general offensive against II Corps. Homma, however, believed that troops had been moved from I to II Corps and that the diversion was successful. On 2 February, after Morioka had completed his withdrawal, Nara was ordered to pull back also and occupy the line near Balanga.[3]

Thus, less than one month after the start of the offensive, 14th Army had been halted and forced back to a defensive line to await reinforcements. "The enemy has definitely recoiled," wrote General MacArthur. "He had refused his flank in front of my right six to ten kilometers and in other sectors by varying distances. His attitude is so passive as to discount any immediate threat of attack."[4]

While these operations were in progress on Bataan Homma put into effect his plan to tighten the blockade. Col. Tatsunosuke Suzuki, whose 33d Infantry (less 1st and 2d Battalions) occupied all of Luzon south of Manila, was given the 16th Reconnaissance Regiment (less on company) and ordered to guard the southern coast of Manila Bay to prevent friendly Filipinos from sending food to Corregidor and Bataan. At the same time the four 105-mm. guns and two 150-mm. cannons stationed earlier in the same area were ordered to intensify their bombardment of the fortified islands at the entrance to the bay.[5]


Item Quantity
---Tank 31
---Motor truck 844
---Passenger car 1,132
---Other 340
---Rifle 27,412
---Pistol 1,161
---Machine gun, light 42
---Machine gun, heavy 176
---Rifle, automatic 68
---Artillery, heavy 5
---Artillery, field 37
---Artillery, pack 32
---Mortar, trench 35
---Mortar 8
---Grenade, hand 2,071
---Bayonet 9,371
Fuel (in litres):  
---Motor car fuel 1,402,954
---Mobile gas 837,994
---Aviation gas 107,964
---Tank oil, light 396,800
---Heavy oil 7,900,000
---Petroleum 4,776,000
Ammunition (in rounds):  
---Rifle 6,627,599
---Pistol 132,318
---Machine gun, heavy 72,496
---Artillery, field 426,669
---Artillery, pack 714
---Mortar, trench 1,067
---Mortar 1,055
Source: Tactical Situation 14th Army, ATIS Doc 56113, App. II, in translation of Japanese Doc II, No. 15, GHQ FEC, Mil Intel Sec.

To seal off the approaches to Manila Bay from the inland seas Homma decided also to occupy the island of Mindoro, off the southwest coast of Luzon, just below Batangas Province. On the 15th he directed Colonel Suzuki to prepare for an amphibious operation and on the 22d issued final orders for the landing. Four days later, Suzuki, with a force called the Suzuki Detachment and consisting of the 3d Battalion, 33d Infantry, plus a battery of the 22d Field Artillery, left Olongapo under naval escort. On the morning of the 27th, the detachment landed on the northeast tip of the island and occupied a town and near-by airfield without any opposition. No effort was made to occupy the south end of the island where there was an airstrip and a small garrison of fifty men.[6]

This local success against an undefended island and the seizure of much booty could not disguise the fact that Homma's fortune had by the end of February reached its nadir. (Table 7) From 6 January to 1 March 14th Army casualties had totaled almost 7,000 men. Twenty-seven hundred men had been killed and over 4,000 wounded. Between 10,000 and 12,000 more were down with malaria, beriberi, dysentery, and tropical diseases. Literally, 14th Army had ceased to exist as an effective force, and its two combat elements, the 16th Division and 65th Brigade, had been reduced to impotence. Of the three infantry regiments in Morioka's division, one, the 20th, had been


virtually destroyed. The single battalion of the 33d Infantry that participated in the offensive had lost 125 men in the Upper Pocket. The 9th Infantry had seen action on both sides of the peninsula and had suffered about 700 casualties. By 24 February the effective infantry strength of the 16th Division on Bataan did not exceed 712 men.[7]

The 65th Brigade had not fared much better than the 16th Division. Entering Bataan early in January with about 5,000 infantrymen, its three two-battalion regiments, the 122d, 141st, and 142d, had been in continuous combat until the last week of February. The brigade had borne the brunt of the fighting in the first battle of Bataan and had lost a large number of men before 26 January. Between 25 January and 15 February, the 122d Infantry had been attached to Morioka's force and had sustained over 300 casualties. During the same period the 141st Infantry lost 80 killed and 253 wounded. Casualties in the 142d were somewhat lighter. By the middle of February the brigade and its attachments had lost altogether over 4,000 men: 1,142 killed and 3,110 wounded. Many of those who survived were exhausted and sick and could hardly be considered effective troops.[8]

The 14th Army was indeed, as Homma remarked at his trial in Manila four years later, "in very bad shape." Altogether Homma had in his army at that time, he estimated, only three infantry battalions capable of effective action. Had MacArthur chosen that moment to launch a large-scale counterattack, Homma told the Military Tribunal which sentenced his to death, the American and Filipino troops could have walked to Manila "without encountering much resistance on our part."[9]

The Japanese failure in the offensive against the Orion-Bagac line raised American morale and led to an upsurge of optimism. So jubilant were the troops that they accepted unquestioningly, as did MacArthur's headquarters, the report that General Homma had committed suicide because of his failure to take Bataan. To heighten the dramatic effect, or for some obscure reason attributable to Oriental psychology, Homma was thought to have selected General MacArthur's apartment in the Manila Hotel for the act. The fictitious funeral rites were reported to have been held there also.[10]

Officers were unanimous in their judgment that morale was never higher and the troops never imbued with a more aggressive spirit. "The morale of our front line troops," wrote Lt. Col. Nicoll F. Galbraith to his chief, Col. Lewis C. Beebe, G-4 on MacArthur's staff, "appears very high and they want to take the offensive. At the moment there appears to be nothing on our right except dead Japs and tons of abandoned equipment, which is being collected. . . . Prisoners give the impression that Jap morale is away down."[11] Wainwright, too,


thought that the morale of his men reached its highest point after the Battle of the Points and the pocket fights.[12] A naval intelligence officer, whose opinion of the Philippine army was not high, wrote to his superior in Washington on 11 February:

Army morale on Bataan is higher in the past ten days than at any time since the beginning of the war. . . . The opinion here is that the army has improved by many discharges and thousands of desertions, by the realization that it has to fight its own battle with little if any substantial aid. . . . Lastly, fighting qualities have improved by experience.[13]

USAFFE HEADQUARTERS ON BATAAN, FEBRUARY 1942. Left to right: Brig. Gen. Spencer B. Akin, Maj. Paul R. Wing (photographic officer), Lt. Col. Nicoll F. Galbraith, and Brig. Gen. Richard J. Marshall.

The victories of February had made hardened veterans of the front-line troops on Bataan and they were eager to pursue the enemy. Men on patrol moved forward aggressively and Colonel Galbraith wrote that he expected at any moment to hear that "they were in San Fernando next."[14] One patrol from General Bluemel's sector in II Corps actually pushed as far forward as the former Abucay line whereupon the general proposed to Parker that a reconnaissance in force be made to that line preparatory to a restoration of the first main line of resistance. He was not alone in urging a general counteroffensive; many officers favored


a return to the Abucay position and some wished to go even further, to Layac Junction at the base of the peninsula.[15]

Bluemel's proposal met with a flat rejection at corps headquarters, and undoubtedly would have received even less consideration from MacArthur's staff. What the proponents of a general counteroffensive failed to consider was the fact that a local victory could not change the strategic situation in the Philippines. So long as the Japanese controlled the sea and air MacArthur's forces would be unable to gain a decisive victory. Even if they fought their way back to Abucay, Layac, or Manila, they would ultimately have to retire to Bataan again, for the Japanese could reinforce at will.

The effort required for a general offensive might well have jeopardized the primary mission of the Philippine garrison--to hold Manila Bay as long as possible. To accomplish this task it was necessary to conserve carefully all human and material resources. Troops on the defensive in a static situation required less food, less gasoline, less ammunition, and less of all other supplies than those who chose to attack. Moreover, the advance, it if proved successful, would bring additional problems: it would lengthen the front line, increase the area to be defended and the line of communication, leave exposed beaches to the rear, and greatly complicate an already difficult supply situation. It was for these reasons that all proposals for an offensive, while feasible tactically and desirable for reasons on morale, were strategically unsound. The proper task for the front-line troops was to strengthen their defenses in the hope that when the next Japanese attack came it could be turned back as had the last.[16]

Thus, by the end of February, the Americans and Japanese were dug in behind their defensive positions on Bataan. Separating the two lines was a no man's land, the exclusive hunting preserve for the opposing patrols. Over the entire peninsula settled a lull as both sides prepared for the final assault.


Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (18) * Next Chapter (20)


[1] Interrog of Maeda, 10 May 47, and Statement of Maeda, 2 Mar 50, ATIS Doc 56234, both in Interrogations of Former Japanese Officers, Mil Hist Div, GHQ FEC, I and II; interv, Col Walter E. Buchly with Homma, Manila, Mar 46, notes in OCMH; USA vs. Homma, p. 3062, testimony of Homma.

[2] 14th Army Opns Order, Series A, No. 273, 14 Feb 42, Supp. 29, and Plans for Feint Mvmts by Nara Inf Gp, 14 Feb 42, App. 31, both in 65th Brig Opns Rpt, Mt. Samat; 14th Army Opns, I, 115, 117.

[3] USAFFE-USFIP Rpt of Opns, p. 54; Bluemel, 31st Div (PA) Rpt of Opns, p. 17; 65th Brig Opns Rpt, Mt. Samat, pp. 28-29; 14th Army Opns, I, 116.

[4] Rad, MacArthur to TAG, No. 371, 26 Feb 42, AG 381 (11-27-41 Sec 2C) Far East.

[5] 14th Army Opns, I, 96, 104, 113-15; 14th Army Opns Order, Series A, No. 270, 13 Feb 42, Supp. 28, 65th Brig Opns Rpt, Mt. Samat. For a day-by-day account of this bombardment see Harbor Defenses Rpt of Opns, pp. 34 ff; Bunker, Diary, daily entries after 6 Feb 42.

[6] Ind, Bataan, The Judgment Seat, pp. 148, 273, 329, 343-44; rad, Beebe (Fort Mills) to MacArthur (Melbourne), 18 Mar 42, USFIP G-3 Journal. On 8 March a Japanese destroyer appeared offshore and the Mindoro garrison of fifty men set fire to 50,000 gallons of aviation gasoline before taking to the hills. A week later the Japanese landed there.

[7] 14th Army Opns, I, 116; USA vs. Homma, Defense Exhibit Y.

[8] 65th Brig Opns Rpt, Mt. Natib, p. 111; 65th Brig Opns Rpt, Mt. Samat, p. 114.

[9] USA vs. Homma, pp. 3062-63, testimony of Homma; pp. 2450, 2457, testimony of Lt Gen Takaji Wachi, formerly Chief of Staff, 14th Army. Col. Yoshio Nakajima estimated that as of 1 March there were 3,000 effectives in 14th Army, USA vs. Homma, p. 2576.

[10] Ibid., p. 3063, testimony of Homma; rad, MacArthur to TAG, No. 438 7 Mar 42, AG 381 (11-27-41 Sec 3) Far East; Bunker, Diary, entry of 10 Mar 42. General Yamashita, conqueror of Singapore, was reported as the new Japanese commander in the Philippines, a command he did not assume until October 1944.

[11] Ltr, Galbraith to Beebe, 5 Feb 42, AG 319.1 (8 Jan 42) Phil Rcds.

[12] NLF and I Corps Rpt of Opns, p. 27.

[13] Rad, Intel Officer, 16th Naval Dist, to Chief of Naval Intel, 11 Feb 42, AG 319.1 (8 Jan 42) Phil Rcds.

[14] Ltr, Galbraith to Beebe, 5 Feb 42, AG 319.1 (8 Jan 42) Phl Rcds.

[15] Ltr, Bluemel to Groce, 18 Feb 49, OCMH; Mallonée, Bataan Diary, II, 54.

[16] Mallonée, Bataan Diary, II, 54-58.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation