April 9, 1942 – The Fall of Bataan

Excerpts from Col. Irvin Alexander’s memoir, “Surviving Bataan and Beyond”, edited by Dominic J. Caraccilo.

 

Fall of Bataan 3
A Japanese tank column advancing in Bataan, 1942. Wikimedia Commons

As soon as he hung up, General King sent for General Parker and his chief of staff, telling them that General Jones reported he did not have a single organization that was capable of making a march followed by an attack. Then he announced, “I have decided to surrender Bataan, for I have nothing left with which I can block the Japanese advance.”

He telephoned Corregidor, asking for General Wainwright, but the general not being at his desk, General King apparently speaking to the chief of staff said, “All right I’ll talk to you. Tell General Wainwright for me that I have decided to surrender Bataan. The Japanese attack has broken through the center of the line, they are pouring on all trails toward both the east and west coasts and I have nothing to stop them. This decision is solely my own, no member of my staff or of my command has helped me to arrive at this decision. In my opinion, if I do not surrender to the Japanese, Bataan will be known as the greatest slaughter in history.”

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Discussing surrender terms with the Japanese representative, Col. Nakayama. Facing, left to right, are Col. Everett Williams, Maj. Gen. Edward King Jr., Maj. Wade Cothran and Maj. Achille Tisdelle. (U.S. Air Force photo)

General King listened for a moment then sharply asked, “With what!” When he had hung up,General King announced, in explanation of his “With what!”, that General Wainwright had wanted a counterattack launched from the west coast, and added that the chief of staff had gone to inform General Wainwright of the telephone conversation.

About fifteen minutes later General Jones called General King to inform him that he had received a call from General Wainwright’s chief of staff. As I recall, based on what I heard General King say, General Jones had been urged to launch an attack from the west coast, and he had been advised that, possibly, he might be detached from General King’s command.

The general was quite perturbed as he hung up and looked around. Seeing me, he directed that I stay here, for if General Jones was removed from his command our regiment would remain with him instead of reverting to I Corps.

Calling General Wainwright’s headquarters again, he demanded to know what the decision was with reference to I Corps, in view of the fact that General Jones had reported to General Wainwright exactly as he had to General King that he could not launch an attack. General King continued, “I want a definite answer as to whether or not General Jones will be left in my command regardless of what action I may take.”

There was a considerable pause, during which I assumed that a discussion was going on at the other end of the line. Two or three minutes later General King said, “Thank you very much” and hung up. Turning to his staff, he reported that General Wainwright could not agree to a surrender of Bataan as General MacArthur had ordered him to hold on, but that if General King did surrender on his own authority there would be no interference with any element of his command. Someone remarked, “That’s good,” but the general went on to say that if he survived to return home he fully expected to be court-martialed, and he was certain that history would not deal kindly with the commander who would be remembered for having surrendered the largest force the United States had ever lost.

To a staff officer he directed, “Find out the hour the ordnance officer will be ready to blow up our ammunition stores and let me know.” With a sigh, he told me that I could take the regiment back to its former location after the arsenal had been blown up. I immediately called the division commander, bringing him up to date on what had gone on. He advised me that he would take care of the regiment, so all I had to do was to report to his headquarters when I got back.

General King sent for Colonel Williams and a young major, briefed them on the current situation, and informed them that he had selected them to drive north on the main highway until they contacted the Nips to advise them of the decision to surrender. He told them that he wanted their car to fly a large white flag and proceed cautiously to avoid being fired on. A staff officer reported that the arsenal would be ready to be blown up to 3:00 A.M. General King thanked him and directed Colonial Williams to proceed at 4:00 A.M.

Charles and I followed a trail to a dugout so that we would know where to go before the arsenal was destroyed, because we had been warned that the camp area was in the danger zone. A violent earthquake, coming at that time, took our minds off the war. The trees around us swayed and groaned, and the earth tremors rising through our feet gave us a queer feeling of insecurity. One tremor followed another for an interval of about two minutes.

I went back to headquarters where I sat down to wait the danger-hour. At 2:55 A.M. I started slowly ambling toward the dugout. I was about halfway there when it seemed to me the whole earth blew up. The explosion was so breathtaking, the shaking of the earth so violent, that I could not go on. Throwing myself flat with my head between the roots of, and close against, a big tree, I waited for I did not know what as rain of steel pattered through the leaves.

Several hot pieces fell on my legs, forcing me to scramble until I shook them off. One explosion followed another, each of them shaking the trees much more violently than the earthquake had, as I wondered if a large piece of steel might not be following the small pieces and hunt me out. But all things come to an end in time, and eventually, I was at headquarters to see Colonel Williams and the major taking their leave of General King.

 On the morning of April 9, 1942 I had a chance to shake hands with the general before I picked up the regimental commander and moved back to our camp. Upon leaving his headquarters, I had nothing but admiration for General King. During the year I had served as a staff officer under his command at Fort Stotsenburg I had known he was a fine officer, and there was never the slightest doubt that he was a gentlemen through and through. But not until those last eight hours had I suspected the strength and depth of his character. In spite of the certainty that his name would be forever linked with the disgrace of the surrender of the greatest force that the United States had ever lost, and the belief that he would be court-martialed at the end of the war, he had had the courage to do what he thought was right. In this action, he had not relied on the support of any member of his command and he had been actively opposed by higher authority. It is my honest opinion that there was no greater hero on Bataan than he.

If you recall the press and radio reports from the Philippines, and from other sources which were available to you in the early stages of the war in the Philippines, you will realize that you were led to believe that an invincible  combined force of American and Filipinos, numbering one hundred thousand me, was defeating the Nips in every engagement and that our final victory was never in doubt. Actually, the victory of the Nips was never in doubt, because the bulk of our forces was inadequately prepared for combat.

At the time of the surrender of Bataan, there were in the Luzon Force approximately ten thousand Americans and les than sixty thousand Filipinos. The American combat units consisted of the infantry regiment, one anti-aircraft regiment, and a tank group, totaling about four thousand men, the remainder being dismounted air corps and service troops. The scout combat troops, not counting the artillery, totaled about four thousand men, and the infantry troops, both American and scout, barely exceeded five thousand. All of those men were half-starved, and at least forty percent of them were ineffective because of sickness. The Nips brought fresh, well trained troops from Japan for the attack on our defenses, and the power of their attack had been overwhelming on our starving, untrained and depleted Philippine Army Divisions.

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Japanese soldiers stand guard over American war prisoners just before the start of the “March of Death” for the soldiers of Bataan and Corregidor in 1942. This photograph was stolen from the Japanese by the Philippines during Japan’s three-year occupation in World War II. (AP Photo/U.S. Marine Corps)

General King had nothing left to stop the Nip attack when he decided to surrender. He well knew that the Nips were on the verge of overrunning Bataan and, judging from this knowledge of Japanese history, he believed the Nips would kill every man on Bataan, unless he forestalled the assault by surrendering. A number of years have passed, adding immeasurably to my knowledge on Nip character, and somewhat to my general knowledge, but I have learned nothing which would cause me to doubt that General King’s estimate of the situation and his resulting decision were the best he could have made.

It is interesting to note that in 1865, Confederate General Robert E Lee and 26,765 troops surrender at Appomattox Court House to US Lieutenant General Ulysses S Grant (US Civil War) on the same day, April 9.

 

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