After Pearl Harbor, another debacle
For the Philippines, the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands on Dec. 7, 1941, signalled the start of World War II in the Pacific. It was close to eight o’clock on a bright, Sunday morning when waves of Japanese fighter and bomber aircraft hit the home of the US Pacific fleet, damaging or destroying 20 navy vessels including eight battleships and over 300 aircraft. Fortunately, the aircraft carriers were all out at sea at the time of the attack.
As a young boy growing up in Baguio City, I and my mother had just finished attending Mass at the Baguio Cathedral. It was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Suddenly, a low-flying airplane with a red ball on its fuselage dipped its wings, possibly for a closer look at the people streaming out of the church. For me, it was a most unusual sight and when my mother tugged at my arm to move quickly back inside, I sensed that something unexpected and possibly dangerous and evil was about to take place. And for the next three-and-a-half years, what I feared became a reality as we experienced life under enemy occupation. But that is another story.
Last week, not much was said about Pearl Harbor. It was the 76th anniversary of the attack but attention was focused on
other events taking place around the globe.
For the dwindling number of Filipinos who lived through those dark days of Japanese rule and who perhaps understood what Pearl Harbor was all about, there is another event that took place just a few hours after Pearl Harbor that should be remembered because of its huge impact on the conflict that followed in Bataan and Corregidor.
In 1941, the Far East Air Force (FEAF), the air component of the US Armed Forces in the Philippines, was formed under the command of Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton. In December 1941, FEAF had 34 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and 52 P-40 fighter aircraft. Another batch of B-17 bombers were on their way to the Philippines. Seventeen of the 34 bombers in the country had earlier been moved to Del Monte Base in Mindanao, leaving 17 bombers all based at Clark Field along with 36 P-40 fighters. Iba Field in Zambales was home to the remaining 16 P-40 aircraft.
At 3 a.m. of Dec. 8, 1941, the Asiatic Fleet commander, Adm. Thomas Hart, was notified of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hart was not on good terms with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and did not bother to notify him. Maj. Gen. Richard Sutherland, chief of staff of MacArthur, learned about the raid from a commercial radio broadcast and immediately informed the general. A few minutes later, MacArthur got word from Washington of the Pearl Harbor attack.
According to General Brereton, upon learning of the attack he immediately went to see MacArthur but was told that the general was too busy and could not see him. He proposed through Sutherland, to launch his B-17 bombers against Japanese bases in Formosa. He was told to stand by for orders and was never able to discuss his plans with MacArthur.
Some accounts say that hours later, MacArthur called Brereton, saying that offensive air action would now be left to his discretion. Apparently, he hesitated for nearly eight hours in reaching that decision. By then, it was too late. Eight hours after the news about Pearl Harbor was received, FEAF planes had no orders to attack the enemy.
Shortly after noon on Dec. 8 , a formation of 54 Mitsubishi bombers and 50 Zero fighters, swooped down on Iba Field destroying the base and its 16 P-40 fighters. The formation then proceeded toward the primary objective: Clark Field. Stanley Karnow’s “In Our Image,” described the scene that followed: “The sky was crystal clear… 25,000 feet below lay America’s largest army of planes in the archipelago, its biggest armada anywhere overseas. Lined up, their wings tip to tip, sat 36 P-40 fighters and 17 B-17 bombers, the famous Flying Fortresses.”
First came the bombers, hitting the oil dumps, base facilities, and gutting the runway to prevent aircraft from taking off. Then came the Zero fighters, machine-gunning the base for more than an hour. They destroyed all except three bombers and every P-40 aircraft, apart from four that had somehow scrambled. Also lost were some 30 older military aircraft of various types but not suited for combat.
After the attack on Iba and Clark, the FEAF had been eliminated as an effective combat force on the very first day of the war. What remained were the 17 B-17s in Mindanao that were ordered to move to Australia. “MacArthur had lost his air power and the blow was to be calamitous both for the Philippines in the weeks ahead and for America’s long-term position in the Pacific.”
Would the FEAF have been able to change the course of the war? Perhaps not since it suffered from inadequate maintenance facilities, a shortage of spare parts, lack of radar, and inexperienced pilots as against a veteran and numerically superior Japanese air force. But as pointed out by Japanese naval officers after the war, they expected the FEAF planes to be moved to southern areas in Mindanao, making the campaign more difficult. Instead they were able to catch them on the ground, thus removing immediately one of the most formidable obstacles to the Japanese conquest of the Philippines.
Who was to blame ?
In the case of Pearl Harbor, Adm. Husband Kimmel, commander in chief, US Pacific Fleet, and Lt. Gen. Walter Short, the commanding general, US Army Pacific, were both found guilty of poor judgment and dereliction of duty. Both were demoted in rank and retired in 1942.
In the case of the Clark-Iba fiasco, not one official inquiry was conducted and therefore, no one was court-martialed. Only General Brereton was reprimanded. His boss, Gen. Henry Arnold, US Army Air Corps chief, demanded to know how a veteran airman could have been caught by surprise after receiving almost nine hours’ notice of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Many historians have found it difficult to explain fully the Clark-Iba disaster, or to determine who was at fault. But D. Clayton James, a highly respected history professor, had this to say in his book “The Years of MacArthur, 1941-1945:” “When all the evidence is sifted, however contradictory and incomplete it may be, MacArthur still emerges as the officer who was in overall command that fateful day and that he must therefore bear a large measure of the blame.”
My narrative on the Clark-Iba debacle is based on passages from three books: “American Caesar” by William Manchester, “The Years of MacArthur, 1941-1945” by D. Clayton James, and “In Our Image” by Stanley Karnow.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.