The Philippine Scouts on Bataan: Their Finest Hour
by J. Michael Houlahan
The heroic role played by the Philippine Scouts [PS] in the defense of Bataan is one of the best kept secrets of the war. In fact, the most decorated U.S. Army units in the early days of World War II were composed of Filipinos.
While the commissioned officers of the Scouts included a number of native-born Americans, the noncommissioned officers and enlisted men were Pinoys. Well trained and highly motivated, they played a dominant role in blunting the initial attacks of over 43,000 fanatical Japanese, buoyed by an unbroken string of victories in China and South East Asia. This heroic stand began while opposing the Lingayen Gulf landings in mid-December 1941 and lasted beyond the surrender of the main body of Fil-Am forces on Bataan in early April 1942. Smaller groups of Scouts continued to resist the Japanese from Corregidor and the southern islands. Hundreds joined guerrilla groups following Lieutenant General Jonathan M. Wainwright's surrender of his Philippine command one month after the fall of Bataan.
During the defense of Bataan, three Scouts earned Medals of Honor, America's highest award for combat valor. Sergeant Jose Calugas, Sr. became the first Filipino ever to earn a Medal of Honor. First Lieutenant Alexander Ramsey Nininger, an officer of the 57th Infantry [PS] became the first member of his West Point class to die in combat and the first Medal of Honor recipient during World War II. First Lieutenant Willibald C. Bianchi of the 45th Infantry [PS] was the final Scout to earn a Medal of Honor. Of the three, only Sergeant Calugas would survive the war. Numerous Distinguished Service Crosses, Silver Stars and Purple Hearts also were earned by Scouts.
Scout heroics included the last cavalry charge of the United States Army. A 26th Cavalry [PS] platoon commanded by Second Lieutenant Edwin Ramsey unexpectedly encountered the advance guard of a large Japanese infantry force at Morong on the Bataan Peninsula. Deciding his best hope was an immediate attack, Ramsey launched a wild cavalry charge, scattering the dumfounded Japanese. A few weeks later the 26th Cavalry would be forced to eat their horses to stave off starvation. Ramsey escaped Bataan and gained fame leading a large guerrilla force against the Japanese.
Organized in 1901 and recruited from the indigenous population, the Philippine Scouts initially were used to suppress Muslim Moro rebels in the southern islands and garrison the Philippines when most U.S. troops were diverted to Europe during World War I. In gratitude for this, the U.S. Congress authorized induction of the 6,000 Scouts into the regular U. S. Army.
A common misperception is that the Philippine Scouts are descended from the Macabebe Scouts, who gained notoriety by serving first the Spanish, then the Americans during the suppression of the Philippine independence movement. The Macabebe's also are resented for playing a key role in the capture by subterfuge of General Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the Filipino independence forces. The Philippine Scouts and the Macabebe Scouts were formed almost simultaneously, but separately.
In 1935, when the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines was established, the Scouts played a major role in training recruits and furnished many of the most able Filipino officers in the newly-authorized Philippine Army.
Unfortunately the Philippine Army was far from completely trained and deployed when the Japanese attacked in December 1941. Furthermore, much needed supplies and reinforcements were still months from delivery. One of the very few bright spots in this gloomy scenario was the well-trained Philippine Scouts, who had almost doubled in manpower in the year prior to the war, now numbering nearly 12,000 officers and men.
The U.S. Army contingent, which was the only truly professional military force available to General MacArthur, totaled just over 2,500 commissioned officers, only 31 of whom were Scouts, and 28,591 enlisted men, almost 12,000 of them Scouts. The 10,000-man Philippine Division, with nearly 8,000 Philippine Scouts contributing most of its combat muscle, was the only trained fighting unit of its size in General MacArthur's command. The Division consisted of the 57th Infantry Regiment [PS], the 45th Infantry Regiment [PS], and the 31st Infantry Regiment, made up of American troops. Supplementing the Philippine Division, were the 26th Cavalry [PS] the 43rd Infantry [PS], two Scout field artillery regiments, two American light tank battalions and an American Coastal Artillery/Anti-aircraft unit.
An additional 2,000 Scouts were involved in Harbor Defense and Service Detachments. None were included in the Army Air Corps, which was decimated at the beginning of the conflict, inexplicably caught on the ground by a Japanese air raid several hours following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The 120,000 man Philippine Army consisted mainly of reservists whose mobilization took place over a three-month period up to the outbreak of hostilities. Mostly under-trained and poorly-equipped, its fighting ability was suspect. Many of the conscripts went into combat never previously having fired their weapon. Furthermore, many spoke no Tagalog, the language of most of their Filipino officers. The results were sadly predictable when these raw recruits were thrown into battle against better-trained and equipped Japanese.
MacArthur's prospects were further compromised by detailed intelligence on Fil-Am defenses supplied by numerous spies hidden among the 30,000 Japanese residing in the Philippines.
War Plan Orange
During the early days of the Japanese onslaught, most of the elite troops of the Philippine Division were held in reserve while the Philippine Army units were being mauled on the invasion beaches. On Christmas day it became clear to General MacArthur that allied beach defenses were unable to hold, and he fell back on War Plan Orange.
War Plan Orange required Fil-Am forces to retreat to Bataan and Corregidor, then withstand a lengthy siege. A six-month stockpile of food, ammunition and other necessities would tide over garrisons of 40,000 and 10,000 until the American Pacific Fleet could mount a rescue. [After the near total destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, realists in Washington knew that the garrison might have to hold out as long as two or three years.]
War Plan Orange planned for a garrison of 50,000. As the siege began, more than 90,000 Fil-Am troops and 26,000 civilians were trapped on Bataan and Corregidor.
From the beginning, General MacArthur viewed War Plan Orange as defeatist. Because of this he successfully pressured the War Department to approve Rainbow 5, an alternative plan based on defending the beaches. Developed in partnership with the British, this plan theoretically would have allowed MacArthur to defend all of the Philippines and to blockade the South China Sea. Such an action would thwart Japanese plans to expand their empire to include the Malay Peninsula [now Singapore and Malaysia] and the Netherlands Indies [now Indonesia.] According to some historians, this sealed the fate of the Philippines, which Japan had planned to bypass in their conquest aimed at seizing South East Asian oil fields and rubber plantations. Unfortunately, there was neither the time nor the will for the massive buildup needed to implement Rainbow 5.
War Plan Orange had been compromised by MacArthur's forward placement of supplies in support of his misguided beach defense strategy. Most of these stockpiles were either destroyed by the retreating Fil-Am troops or captured by the Japanese, so the ammunition, food and medicine needed to withstand a lengthy siege of Bataan and Corregidor were not available. Almost immediately the Fil-Am defenders were placed on half rations, which eventually were reduced even further. As a result, the surrendered troops were malnourished and ill, which contributed to the high mortality rate on the Bataan Death March and in the prison camps.
When General MacArthur reverted to War Plan Orange, it fell to the 26th Cavalry (PS) to shore up Philippine Army units attempting to delay the Japanese long enough to allow the bulk of MacArthur's command to withdraw from Manila, now declared an "open city." This maneuver was made more difficult for two reasons. First, most of the Fil-Am troops were forced to travel by land, thereby requiring them to move north from Manila towards the invading Japanese closing in from the Lingayen Gulf landings, then swing west skirting the impenetrable Candaba Swamp to prepared defensive positions on Bataan Peninsula. Secondly, this maneuver had been part of the West Point curriculum for more than 30 years, including periods when Japanese officers had studied at the Military Academy, so the Japanese high command knew exactly what to expect.
Despite these obstacles, in a series of courageous, hard-fought rear guard actions spearheaded by the 26th Cavalry, the Japanese were slowed sufficiently to allow the main body of MacArthur's troops to withdraw to Bataan. The week's delay in the Japanese advance was adequate for the troops, but not nearly enough to relocate supplies from the exposed caches. Casualties during the 26th Cavalry's heroic series of rearguard actions reduced the unit by a quarter to under 650 Scouts.
Shortly after the reversion to War Plan Orange, in late December 1941, major Scout elements of the Philippine Division were moved to the Abucay line, the first row of defensive positions on the Bataan Peninsula. By January 9, all Fil-Am units were successfully repositioned on Bataan. The withdrawal had been costly, with the Fil-Am forces fighting the delaying action reduced to 30,000 men from an initial strength of 43,000. However, most of this reduction in force was due to desertions by inexperienced Filipino reservists. The Japanese lost around 4,500 men, more than half due to illness.
After some initial probing by both sides, the battle for Bataan began in earnest when the Japanese launched a major assault on January 11. Fortunately, the Japanese high command assumed that MacArthur's troops were in a state of near collapse and that their 50-day timetable for seizing the Philippines was on schedule. As a result, they ordered General Homma, commander of the Japanese invasion force, to release his 48th Division and the 5th Air Group for use in the upcoming Java campaign. These two seasoned units were Homma's best fighting assets. Largely made up of Formosans, the 48th had been a particularly nasty foe with a reputation for abusing prisoners and civilians. "Mopping up" on Bataan was now assigned to the Japanese 16th Division, which did not have a good combat record, and the newly arrived 65th Brigade. The 6,500 soldiers of the 65th Brigade were mostly conscripts intended for garrison duty, not a first rate fighting force.
Due mainly to the heroics of Scouts units, Fil-Am forces were able to hold the Abucay line just over two weeks, then retreated to their main defensive position, the Orion-Bagac Line, about half way down the peninsula. Here they fought the Japanese to a standstill, repulsing several attempted amphibious end runs and some temporary Japanese penetrations of the main defensive line. In late February the Japanese pulled back. They had absorbed 7,000 combat casualties and had between 10,000 and 12,000 troops incapacitated by disease. During his post-war trial for war crimes, General Homma testified that, by the end of February, his army had ceased to be an effective fighting force and that a Fil-Am counteroffensive would have overrun his command and retaken Manila.
However, depleted by combat casualties, starvation and disease, MacArthur's forces did not attempt a breakout. The pause in heavy combat was a prelude to the end for the Fil-Am defensive effort. Re-supplied with fresh troops, Homma launched a Good Friday offensive on April 3, which broke through the final Fil-Am defenses forcing an unconditional surrender of all the units on Bataan on April 9. Corregidor was to suffer the same fate on May 5.
The aftermath of the surrender was horrific. Of the 75,000 Fil-Am soldiers captured on Bataan, only 63,000 arrived alive at Camp O'Donnell following the Bataan Death March. Some of the 12,000 who were unaccounted for, escaped. However, many thousands died on the way, succumbing to thirst, starvation, disease and Japanese brutality. In camp O'Donnell itself, approximately 26,000 Filipinos and 1,565 Americans died. Included among the Filipino victims were 2,600 Scouts. Between combat, the Bataan Death March and prison camp, approximately half the 12,000 Scouts did not survive the war.
The fifty-day conquest of the Philippines predicted by the Japanese high command had taken six months. The valiant stand of the Philippine Scouts had bought enough time to save Australia and New Zealand from invasion. These two countries would then become the staging point from which General Douglas MacArthur would launch his island-hopping campaign leading to his wading ashore on a Leyte invasion beach in mid-October 1944, thereby making good on his famous "I shall return" promise.
The Japanese unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945 ended World War II. The United States quickly moved to fulfill its pre-war promise, granting independence to the Philippines on July 4, 1946. These two events marked the beginning of the end for the Philippine Scouts. Many of the veteran Scouts became naturalized Americans and transferred to non-Scout units. By early 1950 only a few hundred unabsorbed pre-war Scouts remained. A proud tradition of loyalty and combat heroism in the service of the United States had ended, made obsolete by the demise of the colonial relationship and the achievement of full independence for the Philippines.
Last modified: 11-May-2007