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Failure and Destruction

Recommended Reading

American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964


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Failure and Destruction, Clark Field, the Philippines, December 8, 1941
Failure and Destruction, Clark Field, the Philippines, December 8, 1941
by Michael Gough

Ten days after bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant General Walter Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii, were relieved of their commands and reduced in rank. Their sin: the Japanese had caught them by surprise and killed soldiers and sailors, sunk ships, and destroyed airplanes.

News of Pearl Harbor reached U.S. forces in the Philippine Islands less than half an hour after the attack (about 2:30 A.M., December 8, in the Philippines, corresponding to 8:00 A.M., December 7, in Hawaii).[1] Nine hours later, unopposed Japanese attacks caught U.S. bombers and pursuits sitting on the ground.

"If surprise at Pearl Harbor is hard to understand, surprise at Manila is completely incomprehensible,"[2] wrote Samuel E. Morison, author of History of US Naval Operations in World War II. Despite destruction of American airpower, no officer in the Philippines was relieved from duty. One officer, the major who commanded the 24th Pursuit Group (PG) at Clark Field, was punished. He never again held a command position. Other, higher-ranking officers – colonels and generals – went on to higher commands.

This article is a description of the disaster in the Philippines and the parts played by some individuals in it. In its last sections, I discuss possible reasons for the disparity in punishment meted out to the officers surprised at Pearl Harbor and officers who, knowing that war had started, failed to prevent or blunt the disaster that hit their commands.

The Philippine Islands, Part of the American Empire

In one of the decisive battles of the Spanish-American War, Admiral Thomas Dewey steamed into Manila Bay on Sunday, May 1, 1898, and led his ships in a methodical shelling of the anchored Spanish Fleet and Spanish sailors at Mass. When the Battle of Manila Bay (or Battle of Cavite; see map, table 1) was over, Dewey landed a contingent of Marines to complete the destruction of shore batteries, completing a smashing U.S. victory. The signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 12, 1898, ended the Spanish-American War, and gave the United States possession of the Philippine Islands, 7,000 miles away from the California coast. (The U.S. also took possession of Cuba and other assorted real estate).

Peace in the Islands remained far away. For four years, 1899-1902, Filipinos, happy to be rid of the Spanish but unhappy to be placed under the American yoke, fought the new conquerors of their islands. When the Philippine Insurrection ended, scattered resistance to the Americans persisted up to, at least, 1913.

In 1903, the young Lt. Douglas MacArthur was ordered to the Philippines. While there, his small engineering detachment was attacked by two guerillas who managed only to shoot a hole in his campaign hat. He killed both men with his pistol. [3],[4] The Philippines charmed MacArthur, who wrote, they "fastened me with a grip that never relaxed."[5]


After its conquest of the Islands, the United States fortified the Philippines as a bulwark against Japanese expansion into the Pacific, and military authorities authored a number of war plans to guide the defense of the islands. The October 1940 RAINBOW 5 war plan called for the U.S. Army and the Philippine Army to yield the bulk of the islands to an invading foe (the Japanese), fall back on and defend Manila and the critical anchorages around Manila, and hold out until relief could arrive from the United States.

While Field Marshall of the Philippine Army (1935-July 1941) and having no official position in the U.S. Army, General MacArthur, joined with Major General George Grunert, commander of the Philippines Department of the USA, and other officers to argue for a change in RAINBOW 5. They said that all the islands could be held if U.S. troops were reinforced and equipped with better weapons and the Philippine Army was trained and equipped according to MacArthur's plans.

General Lewis Brereton arrived in Manila to take command of the Far East Air Force (FEAF; see table 2) on November 4, 1941 and brought written confirmation of changes in RAINBOW 5. Under the changed plans, General MacArthur, whom President Franklin D. Roosevelt had recalled to the USA in July 1941 and placed in command of the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), was authorized to defend all the Philippines.

The altered RAINBOW 5 expanded the role of the United States Army Air Force (AAF). No longer would it be restricted to protecting targets in the Philippines:

In the event of hostilities, the defending air forces were to carry out "air raids against Japanese forces and installations within tactical operating radius of available bases."[6]

To ready the AAF for its expanded war, the War Department planned to ship essentially all B-17s to the Islands as they came off the assembly line. Production of the then-new bombers was only getting underway, and only 35 B-17s had arrived in the Philippines by December 1941. On December 7, 19 of the bombers were at Clark Field on Luzon, within range of bombers from Japanese-held Formosa, and the remainder had been flown 500 miles south to Del Monte Field (see table 3), far out of range of Formosa-based aircraft.

Convinced that the Japanese would be unable to attack before April 1942, MacArthur was confident that the Philippines defenses would be proof against the assault.[7] On December 5, 1941, in a meeting with British Admiral Tom Phillips, the commander of the Royal Navy detachment at Singapore, MacArthur spoke confidently, "The inability of an enemy to launch his air attack on these islands is our greatest security.... [N]othing would please me better than if they would give me three months and then attack here ... that would deliver the enemy into our hands."[8] As it turned out, the Japanese didn't please MacArthur. They attacked three days later.

According to Richard L. Watson, author of the chapter about Pearl Harbor and Clark Field in the Army Air Force History, Army Air Forces in World War II: Vol. 1: Plans and Early Operations, January 1939 to August 1942, "about 90 pursuits" were in the islands.[9] Bartsch (2003)[10] presents a more detailed inventory (see table 3). The USAAF had 71 P-40Bs and Es, the only "modern" pursuits, in the islands. The other pursuits, the P-35As, lacked adequate armament, armor, and self-sealing gas tanks. The B-18s that appear as equipment of the bomb groups were inadequate bombers and were used as transports.

News of War Comes to the Philippines, December 8, 1941

Army and Navy officers in the Philippine Islands learned about Pearl Harbor within minutes of the attack. William Manchester, in his generally positive recounting of General Douglas MacArthur's life, American Caesar, [11] and Stanley Wientraub,[12] more critical of the general,[13] agree that the first official news of the attack was a phone call to Admiral Thomas Hart, the commander of the U.S. Navy's Asiatic Fleet.

"At 0230 of the 8th (0800, 7 December, Pearl Harbor time),"[14] about five minutes after the Pearl Harbor attack began, a Navy radioman in Manila heard the famous "This is no drill" message. He passed it to the officer of the day who telephoned Admiral Hart in his room at the Manila Hotel. The ringing telephone woke Hart at "just a few minutes before"[15] or "a few minutes after" 3:00 AM.[16]

Commercial radio broadcasts were the army's first source of information about Pearl Harbor.[17] Bartsch credits Pvt. Harry Seiff, the 20th Pursuit Squadron's (PS's) cook, as being the first soldier at Clark to hear about Pearl Harbor.[18] News spread rapidly, and Brigadier General Richard Sutherland, General MacArthur's chief of staff, telephoned MacArthur in his penthouse of the Manila Hotel at about 3:30 AM.[19]

Less than an hour and a half after Pearl Harbor, General George C. Marshall, USA Chief of Staff, sent a radiogram to MacArthur. Handed to MacArthur at 5:30 A.M., Manila time, the message stated, "hostilities between Japan and the United States ... have commenced.... Carry out tasks assigned in Rainbow Five...."[20]

Characteristic of the reporting of that confused morning, the extent of Army-Navy interactions is unclear. Manchester states, "Hart neglected to share this vital information [Pearl Harbor] with MacArthur or any other Army officer."[21] Weintraub writes that Hart's chief of staff, Admiral William R. Purnell, "rushed the news to General Sutherland...."[22] Bartsch (2003) agrees with Weintraub's account. "Twenty-five minutes later (at 3:55 AM), he (MacArthur) received confirmation of the attack through Admiral Hart."[23] Given Manchester's bias toward MacArthur, he might be expected to favor interpretations that suggest the people around him failed the general; in this case, the Navy failed to inform him. Weintraub and Bartsch, more critical of the general, go in the other direction, citing evidence that MacArthur had been well informed.

The author of the chapter about Clark Field in the Air Force History states, "[B]ase commanders received prompt notification and all units were placed on combat alert."[24] Perhaps, but the notification was not always prompt. The 34th PS based at Del Carmen Field (see table 1), did not receive news of Pearl Harbor until about 8:00.[25] And, as would be expected, many individual soldiers learned by word of mouth. Ed Whitcome, then a B-17 navigator, writes,

I was on the way to breakfast at the mess hall [at Clark Field] a block away. It seemed that it would be just another day of preparing to go to war until somebody said, "There is a rumor that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor."[26]

The Army history probably has it right, when it says,

By breakfast, the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor had reached all ranks. The men had for so long accepted the fact that war with Japan might come that the event itself was an anticlimax. There was no cheering and no demonstration, but "a grim, thoughtful silence." [Reference omitted.][27]

Decisions Not Made and Messages Not Forwarded

When informed about Pearl Harbor, General Brereton drove to see General MacArthur to request permission to carry out the planned-for bombing of Japanese bases on Formosa. Arriving at USAFFE Headquarters at 5:00, Brereton did not see MacArthur. Manchester says that Sutherland told Brereton that MacArthur was in conference with Admiral Hart and could not be disturbed;[28] Bartsch states that Sutherland told Brereton that MacArthur was in conference;[29] Weintraub writes that Sutherland had Brereton "cool his heels" before telling him that MacArthur was unavailable.[30] As Brereton left USAFFE Headquarters, Sutherland told him to go ahead with his plans and that he would secure MacArthur's permission for the attack.

Time was critical. Clearly, an attack should be launched before the Japanese struck. Neither that attack nor any other was forthcoming.

Brereton returned to USAFFE headquarters at about 7:15. Again, Sutherland prevented his seeing MacArthur and told Brereton that MacArthur had not responded to his request for permission to attack Formosa. When Brereton pressed Sutherland, Sutherland went into MacArthur's office, quickly returned, and said MacArthur had denied the request. "The General says no. Don't make the first overt act."[31]

The words "first overt act" play a major role in understanding, interpreting, or explaining away the events of December 8, 1941. For this discussion, the words originate in a "war warning" that General Marshall sent to Army commanders on November 27, 1941: "... hostile actions possible at any moment.... If hostilities cannot, repeat, cannot be avoided the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act...."[32]

Sutherland and MacArthur cite compliance with that message as a reason for denying Brereton permission to launch the bombing attacks. Certainly bombing Formosa would have been an overt act. Brereton's argument that Pearl Harbor had been an overt act did not persuade Sutherland. Neither did Sutherland's knowledge, not shared with Brereton, that Japan had already bombed Davao, a port on the Philippine island of Mindanao. After the bombings of Pearl Harbor and Davao, hardly anyone – except Sutherland and MacArthur – would characterize a subsequent American strike as the "first overt act."

Another reason has been suggested MacArthur's reluctance to issue orders. In Bartsch's words:

Some have speculated that MacArthur may have hesitated to attack Formosa in deference to Pres. Manuel Quezon's alleged hope that the Japanese would not attack the Philippines if MacArthur did not attack them first. On the other hand, Quezon reportedly told Maj. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in ... 1942: "... MacArthur was convinced for some strange reason that the Philippines would remain neutral and would not be attacked by the Japanese."[33]

MacArthur had been a serving officer in the U.S. Army since July 1941, when he resigned his reign as Field Marshal of the Philippine Army.[34] As a U.S. Army officer, he was subject to Marshall's command to initiate RAINBOW 5, which included air attacks on Japanese targets. His cavalier disregard of that order hardly squares with his self-portrayal as the embodiment of West Point's credo "Duty, honor, country."[35]

At about 8:00, Brigadier General Gerow in Marshall's office telephoned MacArthur to ask if he had received the cables that Marshall had sent earlier in the morning. MacArthur said yes and offered no explanation for his having not responded sooner.[36] Gerow said, "I wouldn't be surprised if you got an attack there in the near future."[37] To which MacArthur responded, "tell General Marshall that 'our tails are up in the air.'"[38]

Tails had been "up in the air. On the night of December 7-8, as on several nights during the preceding week, the Iba radar (the only operational radar in the Philippines) had detected airplanes flying from the north. At a little after midnight, 1st Lt Hank Thorne, commanding officer of the 3rd PS , led a flight of six P-40Es into the air, and, guided by radar, attempted an interception. Iba radar lost radio contact with Thorne's flight and the radar operators watched as path of the American pursuits intersected that of the Japanese. The P-40 pilots saw no airplanes[39] and returned to Iba to make the first night landing at that field in the lights of cars and trucks shown on the runway.

A few hours later, at 4:00 A.M. or so, and after news of Pearl Harbor had arrived, the pilots of the 17th and 21st PSs at Nichols Field on the outskirts of Manila, were sitting in the cockpits or beneath the wings of their P-40Es. At Iba, the pilots of the 3rd PS in their P-40Es, and the pilots of the 20th PS in their P-40Bs were in a similar state of readiness at Clark. The 34th PS at San Carlos Field, equipped with woeful P-35As, had not been alerted in the pre-dawn darkness.

Sleepy and on-edge, pilots wondered about the war. When would it reach them? Would their machine guns fire? (many had never been fired in flight). How would their heavy, slow-climbing pursuits perform? (on interception training flights, U.S. bombers had simply flown away from them at altitudes over 20,000 feet).

A little before 8:00 A.M., Iba radar informed the Air Warning Service (AWS) at Nielson Field that at least 30 Japanese aircraft were flying south over Luzon apparently headed for Clark Field. The warning service teletyped that information to 24th PG headquarters at Clark.

Major Orrin Grover, commanding officer of the 24th PG, scrambled two squadrons – the 17th at Nichols Field and the 20th at Clark – and sent them to patrol at 15,000 feet over Tarlac, 21 miles north of Clark. In his after-action report, Grover wrote that he ordered the 34th to patrol over Clark in its P-35As[40] in case any Japanese planes broke through the 17th and 20th. There is no other indication that the order was given to the 34th. In any case, no such order reached the 34th, which was on the ground at San Carlos when the Japanese attacked four hours later.

The takeoffs of the 20th PS and the 19th BG from Clark were something of a miracle. Downwind, crosswind, and into the wind, accelerating P-40Bs dashed around and between lumbering B-17Cs and Ds in hair-raising near-collisions. All the pursuits and bombers got safely into the air.

Orders for the 19th BG were as much up in the air as were the bombers. Brereton returned to his office from his 7:00 rebuff by Sutherland to tell his staff that they could send three B-17s on a photoreconnaissance mission over Formosa. Brereton's staff questioned the need for the reconnaissance flights. According to Captain Allison Ing, on the FEAF staff, target folders were complete enough to plan bombing attacks.[41]

At 8:00, Brereton called Sutherland. Fifty minutes later, Sutherland returned the call to say, "Hold off bombing Formosa for the present."

Sutherland also told Brereton not to call again. Maybe an hour later, after receiving reports of Japanese bombing of cities north of Clark, Brereton ignored Sutherland's instruction, and called again. At 10:00, Sutherland reiterated that no offensive mission was authorized.[42] All that changed, 15 minutes later. MacArthur, himself, called Brereton and authorized strikes on Formosa.

Brereton's staff went ahead with plans to dispatch 3 B-17s on the photoreconnaissance flight as soon as the necessary cameras arrived at Clark from Nichols and to launch a bombing attack to arrive over Formosa at last light in the afternoon. Charts for the bombing attack and overlays that located Japanese airfields were prepared for the briefing of pilots and navigators. The preparation and distribution of those charts is rather convincing evidence that the photoreconnaissance flights were not necessary for the bomb mission. (Bartsch,[43] in discussing Brereton's actions on December 8, points out that the three B-17s would have made a bigger contribution as members of the planned bomb mission than in a not-entirely necessary reconnaissance.)

Two and a half hours after the frenzied 8:30 takeoff from Clark, essentially every aircraft in the islands was on the ground, being serviced or ready for takeoff. The pilots of the 17th and 20th PSs had flown back to Clark, along with the B-17s of the 19th BG. The 3rd at Iba, the 21st at Nichols, and the 34th PS at San Carlos, had remained on the ground.

The outward appearance of a normal peacetime day in the FEAF disappeared at 11:27 A.M. Iba radar picked up a flight of aircraft over the Gulf of Lingayen on the west coast of Luzon, north of Iba Point and reported the sighting to the AWS at Nichols. By 11:37, AWS teletyped the radar report to 24th PG Headquarters at Clark Field.

And from here, the course of warnings and messages and orders grows blurry. Records of teletyped and radioed messages and orders are obscured in or have been lost from, understandably, poor records[44] and what are surely self-serving after-action reports.[45]

What is certain is that no American pursuit intercepted a single Japanese bomber.[46] It's also certain the 19th BG 's B-17s and the 20th PS's P-40Bs were on the ground, when Japanese bombs began to fall at 12:35.[47] As Whitcomb, then a B-17 navigator, writes, "The first notice we had at the 19th Bombardment Group Headquarters was when someone screamed, 'Here they come!'"[48]

Defeat in the Philippines

Fifty minutes after the first bombs fell on Clark, the Japanese flew back to Formosa, leaving Americans confronting death and wounds, destruction and damage, fire and smoke, and demoralization. When the Japanese flew away, half the B-17s and one-third of the P-40s were destroyed, and two of the four P-40-equipped pursuit squadrons were eliminated as combat units. As surely as if all its planes had been destroyed, the fifth pursuit squadron, the 34th, equipped with P-35As, had also been eliminated from the war. Its pilots knew their planes were deathtraps in aerial combat with Japanese fighters.

Two days later, on December 10, the Japanese bombed and strafed Nichols and Del Carmen Fields, leaving those bases in shambles and destroying about half the remaining P-40s and all but five P-35As. Three days after war's start, the Japanese had eliminated U.S. airpower from the Philippines at the trifling cost of a few aircraft and their crews.

On the afternoon of December 8, MacArthur had announced that B-17s would strike Formosa the next day. That attack was not launched. Indeed, the B-17s, intended to play the major role in defending the Philippines by striking and eliminating Japanese bases, never played that role.

The destruction of American aircraft on the ground inflicted a "fatal blow" on the FEAF[49] and American prospects in the Philippines. At Pearl Harbor, the carnage had ended as the last Japanese attacker flew away. Rescue and repair began, the wounded were aided, and except for those who died from their wounds, there were no more casualties. Certainly, the loss of several battleships dealt a blow to U.S. prestige and morale, but the absence of those ships was to make little difference in the war. The consequences of the Japanese attacks in the Philippines were more far reaching.

Without air support, U.S. and Philippine troops mounted a resolute defense against the Japanese. Only on April 9, 1942, more than a month after the Japanese had expected to complete their conquest, did the combined U.S. and Philippine forces, having suffered 20,000 deaths, surrender on Luzon. More deaths and suffering awaited them. Only half the 20,000 Americans that went into Japanese captivity survived the war; some were murdered outright, some were tortured, many died of overwork, maltreatment, and absence of medical care. [50],[51] A larger proportion of captured Filipinos died.

The surrender of the Philippine Islands marked the largest surrender of U.S. troops and the largest loss of U.S. territory in history. It extended the reach of the Japanese Empire 1,000 miles into the Pacific, and the Naval Base at Cavite, near Manila, the excellent harbors on Manila Bay, and the American airfields were valuable additions to Japanese naval and military strength.

Neither the successful launch of the planned bombing attacks against Japanese bases on the first day of war or the loss of fewer U.S. airplanes in the initial Japanese attacks would have saved the Philippines from conquest. U.S. forces in the Philippines were simply inadequate to block the Japanese.

Nevertheless, a successful U.S. attack might have caught some Japanese planes on the ground and might have disrupted or reduced the ferocity of Japanese attacks. Preserving more U.S. aircraft would have left the U.S. with a striking force – the B-17s – and some aerial defense – P-40s. Instead, U.S. air power in the Philippines was rendered toothless before it could strike a blow.

What Went Wrong?

I find it useful to divide the debacle of the FEAF into three parts: (1) The failure to attack Japanese bases, (2) the failure to intercept Japanese aircraft, and (3) the mistakes that left the 19th BG's B-17s and the 20th PS's P-40s sitting ducks on the ground at Clark. In my opinion, responsibility for the failure to attack Formosa rests on General MacArthur. American intelligence shortfalls and arrogance played major roles in the failure to intercept. The carnage at Clark had several contributors, but the actions of Major Orrin Grover, commander of the 24th PG, were pivotal.

General Douglas MacArthur and Failures to Command

The destruction of the B-17s and the capacity to attack Japanese bases was the greatest loss of December 8, 1941, in the Philippines. Had the bombers been readied for daybreak attacks as General Brereton requested, the B-17s would have arrived over Formosa while the Japanese airplanes were socked-in under a heavy fog or as the Japanese airplanes were taking off. In either case, the B-17s could have significantly disrupted the Japanese attacks that so devastated the FEAF.

General MacArthur is the culprit for the failure to launch the B-17s in the early morning,[52] but he and his staff tried to make the failure appear unavoidable or to pass it off onto subordinates, especially onto General Brereton. In his Diaries,[53] published in 1946, Brereton described his efforts to secure permission to attack Formosa. In response, MacArthur issued a statement to the New York Times, in which, among other things, he claimed that he did not know that General Brereton had requested permission for the early morning attack. Moreover, MacArthur said that he had known that any such attack was doomed to failure, and that his responsibility had been to defend the Philippines, not to initiate attacks.[54]

It is indeed possible that MacArthur did not know of Brereton's 5:00 and 7:00 A.M. attempts to see him. Sutherland may not have informed him.[55] On the other hand, he became aware of Brereton's requests at sometime during the morning because he called Brereton at 10:15 A.M. to authorize attacks later in the day.

Overall, MacArthur was most noticeable by his absence in the early morning of the 8th. He issued no orders to the Army until late morning, but busied himself with writing out orders in the name of President Quezon that affected civilians in the Philippine Islands.[56]

There is general agreement that MacArthur's nerve failed. William Manchester says MacArthur was "Numbed,"[57] and reports that those around MacArthur described him as "gray, ill, and exhausted"[58] that morning. In discussing MacArthur's response to the Japanese attack on the Philippines, the first episode of the September 2007 broadcast of The War on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) states that the general froze.[59]

The author of the Air Force history writes,

Considering other events, and MacArthur's non-appearance throughout the morning of that critical day, this student believes that a plausible explanation is the ["the" in text, probably meant to be "that"] MacArthur suffered at least a mild nervous breakdown upon receiving the news of Pearl Harbor--and realizing his inevitable defeat in the Philippines--and that Sutherland's primary task that morning was to get the "boss" to pull himself together and assume effective command. After the efforts that MacArthur had initiated to repudiate the long-standing strategy of 'delay-and-defend until the fleet could arrive to reinforce', in favor of an aggressive forward defense relying largely on the striking power of the B-17s he demanded, it boggles the mind to discover another believable explanation for his failure to even meet face-to-face with his air force chief that morning. Further evidence of his tenuous response to events is the continued commitment to a forward defense of the beaches, until precipitously abandoning those plans in favor of the retreat to Bataan immediately after the Japanese landing at Lingayen Gulf--too late to move the mountains of material needed to feed and support his army.[60]

Weintraub is more scathing. Writing about that morning, he says,

Nothing of the danger to the Philippines seemed to disturb MacArthur on the first day of the war; afterwards he and his senior staff carried on a public relations campaign to shift the blame elsewhere... Through Sutherland he had prevented American B-17s from interdicting attack sites on Formosa....
.... Had he [Sutherland] been making decisions by reading MacArthur's mind rather than consulting him? Nothing of the sort fits MacArthur's own inglorious know-nothing account. One must return to the image of a stunned, pajama-clad figure, more proconsul than general, sitting on his bed in the predawn darkness and reaching for his Bible rather that rushing to action. A paralysis of will, in part concealed by loyal lieutenants.[61]

As Manchester writes, MacArthur was not the first military commander to fail to command when under pressure, and he lists Napoleon, Washington, and Stonewall Jackson, who had their moments to freeze.[62] What may be surprising, however, is that MacArthur was never taken to task for his failure. He went on to heavier and heavier responsibilities and spent the last half of the 40s as a real proconsul in Japan under the title of "Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers." As Bartsch quotes other historians, MacArthur's appointment to that position made it politically impossible to question his actions and conduct during the war.

Prejudice, Arrogance, Intelligence Shortcomings, and the Failure to Intercept

In the spring of 1941, a recruiter for Chennault's Flying Tigers told Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, later to be a Marine Corps ace,

The Japs will be flying antiquated junk over China.... I suppose you know that the Japanese are renowned for their inability to fly. And they all wear corrective lens.[63]

Such truisms abounded. In the Philippines, the pilots of the 24th PG had heard

that Japanese pilots could not dogfight because they were all nearsighted and their glasses would fall off. Even if their vision was all right, their nervous systems could not take the violent acrobatics of combat flying. And what would the Japanese be flying? Five-year-old stuff with fixed landing gears and underpowered engines.[64]

Although the War Department's latest edition of Identification of Japanese Aircraft had one page about the new "Fighter 100, also called Zero type," there was no photograph or line drawing of the new plane. As Willie Feallock of the 17th PS said, the manual had "...only some ridiculous performance figures and claims for extreme maneuverability" that led him to think that the American military attaché who had provided the information must have been drinking.[65]

Those opinions and attitudes might be written off as the products of ignorance, but in fact, disdain for Japan and the Japanese was deeply rooted in prejudice. The most convincing evidence for prejudice is Western officials' and opinion makers' refusing to believe or, at least, acknowledge that Japanese had piloted the airplanes that struck Clark Field.

Americans who saw Japanese Zeros fly low to the ground at Clark expressed no doubts about the pilots' being Japanese. Not so, said General MacArthur. In reporting about the accuracy of the Clark Field bombing to General Arnold, he said the Japanese aircraft were, "at least partially manned by white pilots." As late as August 1942, a colonel on MacArthur's intelligence staff stated, "The job was so well done that there is reason to suspect the pilots of those planes were German."[66] Such prejudice wasn't restricted to Americans. In Singapore, a British newspaperman wrote that Germans were being shot down in large numbers. Shot down and captured![67] There were few shot-down Japanese aircraft at Singapore, and, of course, no captured Germans.

The Zero, which startled and frightened Americans, had been flying in combat in China for almost 18 months; "[Zeros] first appeared over Chunking in August 1940. Approaching at an altitude of 27,000 feet, they shot down all the defending Chinese fighters..."[68] Reports of their capabilities reached U.S. intelligence officers, but the combination of American arrogance and prejudice must have contributed to a discrediting of the accuracy of reports.

American commanders might be excused for inadequate knowledge of the capabilities of Japanese aircraft and pilots, but no such courtesy can be extended to their ignoring the limitations of their own pursuits. Colonel Harold H. George, chief of staff of the V Interceptor Command at Nielson,[69] delayed the "Kickapoo" order to scramble the 24th PG until the Japanese aircraft were about 15 minutes from Clark. Bartsch writes that George waited that long to issue the order because he "evidently overestimated the Clark-bound bombers' arrival time."[70] Although 1941 radar could not provide accurate information about the number of approaching aircraft or their altitude, it did provide information to make accurate estimates of their speed, but George or his staff evidently made incorrect estimates or, for whatever reason, ignored them.

Equally surprisingly, the AWS warned of approaching Japanese aircraft, but there is no indication that radar was used to guide pursuits to interception points on December 8. At 12:30 P.M. (see table 4), eight P-40Es of the 3rd and four of the 21st PS arrived over Clark before the Japanese. Seeing no Japanese aircraft and, evidently, receiving no orders from 24th PG, the 3rd PS pilots headed back for Iba, the four 21st PS pilots following along.

Five minutes later, the Japanese arrived. No pursuits flew over Clark.

Had the dozen P-40Es remained at Clark, searching the northern skies for Japanese aircraft, it is unlikely that they could have reached the bombers flying at 20,000 to 22,000 feet before they dropped their bombs. I base that conclusion on the fact that P-40s were ordered to patrol at 15,000 feet and there is no reason to assume that the pursuits over Clark were higher. The P-40E climbed slowly, requiring ten minutes or so to reach 15,000 feet, and, according to the pilot's manual for the P-40E, it climbed no faster than 1,000 feet per minute between 15,000 and 20,000 feet, and at half that rate from 20,000 to 25,000 feet.[71] The P-40B was a lighter airplane than the P-40E, and Lt. Joe Moore, commander of the 20th PS, provided a direct measure of the P-40B's climb rate. On December 8, he climbed at full throttle and reached 21,000 feet in 35 minutes.[72] Assuming he reached 15,000 feet in ten minutes, he spent 25 more minutes climbing the 6,000 feet to 21,000 feet (a climb rate of about 200 feet per minute).

Colonel George had not been a Pollyanna about the coming war. On December 5 and 6, he had visited each pursuit squadron and told them, "There will be war with Japan in a few days. It may come in a matter of hours." He urged each pilot to complete his will and give it to his squadron's clerk. And he summed up the situation, "You're not necessarily a suicide squadron, but you are Goddamn near it."[73]

With better intelligence and analysis, Col George might have ordered his pursuits into the air sooner and to higher altitudes. Even so, the 24th PG could not have turned back the Japanese attack. The combination of too few pursuits and the shortcomings of the P-40s at altitudes over 15,000 feet would have made that impossible. Nevertheless, had more pursuits been in the air north of Clark and at higher altitudes, they might have reduced the damage done to the FEAF.

Sitting Ducks

Bartsch[74] describes what he understands was the communications setup between the AWS and operational units at Clark. The AWS had teletype, radio, and telephone connections to the "Clark Field Communications Center," which was located in the 24th PG's operations hangar. It did not, however, have such links with the 19th BG. There is some evidence that messages of importance to the 19th BG that were received by the pursuit group were to be telephoned to the bomb group officers. (Surely there was some provision for the transmission of such messages.)

A memo[75] prepared by Maj Orrin Grover, the pursuit group's commanding officer, is the only official record of events in the 24th PG headquarters on December 8, 1941. In the memo, written 10 months after the event, Grover blames a "communications breakdown" as the reason that the 19th BG was caught on the ground, and Bartsch says that historians relying on Grover's memo, have perpetuated that explanation.[76] When interviewed by Richard L. Watson, author of the Air Force history of Clark Field, in 1947, Lt Col Alexander Campbell, head of the AWS, insists that the messages from AWS to 24th PG were sent, received, and acknowledged.[77] In a footnote, Watson writes,

Most of the sources attribute the failure [to get the B-17s off the ground] to a breakdown of communications. Thus the history of the 24th Pursuit Group states that "approximately 11:45 an unidentified report was received of a bombardment formation over Lingayen Gulf, headed south," but it adds "that communications breakdown prevented proper identification." This view is not borne out by the testimony of Colonel Campbell.[78]

Bartsch goes far beyond saying there are conflicting explanations. He blames Maj Grover.

Between 11:30 and 11:45 A.M., Grover issued orders to three of his five pursuit squadrons. The 3rd was to patrol over Iba Point to block Japanese aircraft flying south over the China Sea. The 21st was ordered to patrol over Clark, where it would be in position to block a flight of Japanese aircraft flying south over central Luzon. Grover apparently thought that the Japanese were headed for Manila, and in his 1942 memo says that he ordered the 34th PS to cover Manila (there's no indication that order was issued; in any case, it was not received by the 34th).

At around 11:45 A.M., Grover changed orders for the 3rd and 21st PSs, ordering both to fly to Manila. After urgings from Lt Joe Wagner, commanding officer of the 17th PS, he ordered that squadron to take off and patrol over Manila Bay (see table 4). These orders denuded Iba and Clark of airborne pursuits. Grover left the 20th PS on the ground at Clark.

Only at 12:15 P.M., in response to "Kickapoo!" did he order the airborne pursuits to Clark. A dozen P-40s arrived over Clark in advance of the Japanese, but seeing no enemy planes and receiving no orders, the P-40 pilots headed for Iba. As discussed above, those dozen pursuits, even if they had begun climbing from their patrol altitude immediately upon arriving over Clark, would probably not have reached the Japanese bombers, and they would have been out-numbered by the Zeros what escorted the bombers. They would not have turned aside the attack and might not have affected it at all. Nevertheless, had those P-40s remained over Clark, they might have attempted to intercept the Japanese attackers. In the event, they didn't, and neither did any other American pursuit.

Why the 20th PS was left on the ground remains a mystery. Grover didn't mention the 20th in his memo, so there is no indication of his thinking at the time. The possibility, far-fetched as it is, that Maj Grover simply forgot it, cannot be dismissed.

Bartsch concludes that the plethora of messages coming into the Clark Field Communications Center, and, I would add, the complexity of responding to the Japanese threats overwhelmed Maj Grover. He cites Grover as the person responsible for misdirecting the pursuit squadrons to Manila and leaving the airfields undefended until the 12:15 P.M. "Kickapoo!" order from AWS and for leaving the 20th PS on the ground.

I would add that the failure to alert the dozen P-40s over Clark at 12:30 P.M. about the approaching Japanese aircraft reflects poorly on Grover and, probably, George.

Bartsch also singles out Grover for having failed to notify the 19th BG that Japanese planes were flying toward Clark. To bolster that conclusion, he reveals that Grover was not the source of information that caused the B-17s to take off in advance of the approaching Japanese planes earlier in the morning. Evidently, the Clark Field commander, who had a teletype link with the AWS, informed the bomb group of that threat.[79]

Like General MacArthur who failed to command earlier in the day, Major Grover was unable to issue appropriate orders and to pass along warnings to the 19th BG.

Why Didn't Heads Roll?

After the losses of Wake Island and Guam, the only Americans fighting the Japanese on the ground were the troops in the Philippines. General MacArthur, sometimes misled by information from Washington, encouraged the defenders to hang on because reinforcements were on their way. The reinforcements were never dispatched.

U.S. citizens, desperate for heroes and good news, understandably, avidly followed communiqués from MacArthur's headquarters. Perhaps not so understandably, MacArthur's communiqués focused on the general; 109 of 142 communiqués issued about the Philippines identified only one person by name – General MacArthur.[80]

Whatever his own pros and cons, MacArthur's men were fighting. If there was any thought of removing him from command because of Clark Field, it must have quickly dissipated in light of the public adoration for the general.

MacArthur's subordinates were not protected by public acclaim, but it's easy to imagine why none of them was publicly censured. Anyone threatened with punishment could have pointed his finger up and down the chain of command.

General MacArthur and most of his subordinates had "good wars," advancing in rank and responsibilities. General MacArthur was made a General of the Army and commanded all U.S. forces in the Southwest Pacific before becoming the most important figure in post-war Japan. He commanded U.S. and United Nations forces in Korea until President Truman relieved him of command in April 1951. He died in New York in 1964.

General Brereton commanded the 10th Air Force in India, then the 9th in North Africa and Europe before taking command of the First Allied Airborne Army until the end of the war. He served in the Air Force until retirement in 1948. Colonel Harold H. George was promoted to Brig Gen and retreated with the remnants of the FEAF to Australia after the fall of the Philippines. He died in an aircraft crash in 1942.

Major Orrin Grover never again commanded a tactical unit. He served in various staff positions – assignments less desirable than tactical unit commander appointments – and attained the rank of Brig Gen before retiring in 1957. Punishment or not, in light of his difficulties on December 8, 1941, those assignments appear to have been better suited to his temperament and abilities than combat commands.

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Copyright © 2007 Michael Gough 

Written by Michael Gough. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Michael Gough at:

About the author:
Michael Gough, trained in molecular biology, taught in medical schools and carried out basic research in genetics of microorganisms. After moving to Washington, he was a program manager at the Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress, did research and wrote at a number of think tanks, and worked as an expert witness before retiring in 1999. His uncle, Sgt Clifford Noel, USAAF, was wounded in the initial Japanese attack at Clark Field, December 8, 1941.

Published online: 11/03/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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