The Warsaw of Asia: How Manila Was Flattened in WWII

Manuel L. Quezon III, [email protected]
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2007-02-07 03:00

Dwight D. Eisenhower said of Manila, that it was the second most destroyed Allied capital after Warsaw, destroyed by the Germans as thoroughly as the Japanese did to Manila. The Allies hadn’t intended it; but the Japanese made sure it would be leveled to the ground.

On Oct. 20, 1944, the Americans had landed at Leyte, and the long, hard, slog back to Manila began. By Sept. 21, 1944, the Americans had begun air raids on Japanese ships in Manila Bay and other military objectives.

By the time Americans had landed at Lingayen; Filipino guerrillas were activated to aid in the liberation of their country, just as French partisans had assisted in theirs; a grand victory parade on the model of the liberation of Paris in 1944 was drawn up.

Today we’re quite familiar with some of the highlights of that effort, most famously in “The Great Raid,” the liberation of Allied prisoners of war in Cabanatuan.

American troops raced to Manila, on Feb. 3, 1945, they liberated the internment camp for civilians at the University of Santo Tomas. By Feb. 4, they had liberated 1,000 prisoners of war in Bilibid.

The Japanese had originally established the Manila Defense Area, composed of ten sections, defended by 23,000 Japanese troops. But by Jan. 10, 1945, troops began to be withdrawn to the Sierra Madre, and then to Baguio, where Gen. Yamashita had moved his command; so that by Jan. 25, 1945, only two Japanese detachments from this main force were left to defend Manila.

The problem was there were fanatics outside of the Manila Defense Force. This was the Manila Naval Defense Force, under the command of Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi. He would defend a perimeter that stretched from Manila Bay to Novaliches, Marikina, and Laguna de Bay. He had 17,000 troops, 12,500 of which were Imperial Japanese Navy personnel, and 4,500 Army troops.

Iwabuchi divided his force into three: A Northern Force, a Central Force, and a Southern Force. The Northern force would be the most fanatical of all. It was commanded by Col. Katzuo Noguchi, and its territory north of the Pasig River, the Manila suburbs in the north and northeast, the eastern sector of Manila, and included Intramuros.

Iwabuchi himself busied himself with the southern side of the Pasig, and concentrated troops in Ermita, the government center from the Post Office to the Agriculture and Finance buildings.

The Japanese under Iwabuchi would make a last stand. They ignored orders to retreat to Baguio. They mined streets, established gun emplacements in government buildings, set up hardened positions along bridges. From Feb. 4 to 11, the Japanese fought street to street, burning neighborhoods as they pulled back. Manila would not be encircled by American troops until Feb. 12, when forces blocked at Nichols field finally broke through.

It was on Feb. 12 that the massacres in Manila began. As another account has it, “the night raged with fires... All over Manila, fires had erupted. An orange, reddish film covered the sky. In some portions of the sky, the gray smoke was thick. Manila was a raging inferno. Sadness overtook the people as they witnessed the maddening scene.”

By Feb. 23, the Americans had surrounded Intramuros, where the Japanese had dug in. It took them five days to pound the walled city into submission. Resistance continued until the last pockets of Japanese troops, holed up in the Finance Building, were “flushed out” by heavy artillery on March 3. The last stragglers were eliminated in Intramuros on March 4.

The Battle for Manila saw whole districts — Intramuros, Malate, Pasay — systematically put to the torch by the Japanese, its residents capriciously and cruelly killed; famous landmarks such as the Masonic Temple and De la Salle College on Taft Avenue became the scenes of mass murder; places such as the Bayview Hotel, the scene of the rape and torture of women by the Japanese; places such as the Philippine General Hospital were turned into fortresses by the Japanese. The Americans shelled anything that could shelter the Japanese.

In “The Battle for Manila”, John Plimlott, Duncan Anderson, and Richard Connaughton, quotes an artillery officer named General Beightler who had this to say about the destruction of Manila:

“We used these shells and plastered the Walled City until it was a mess. It fell to us with ease we never expected. We made a churned-up pile of dust and scrap out of the imposing, classic government buildings. Our bombers have done some pretty fine alteration work on the appearance of Berlin and Tokyo. Just the same, I wish they could see what we did with our little artillery on the Jap strongholds of Manila.”

Fire, grenades, artillery and the crossfire, took its toll on the residents of a metropolis that had a population of 1 million. Of that population, at least 100,000 died. Ten percent.

How did the survivors feel, when the shelling stopped?

Another survivor, Ana Mari Calero, wrote in her memoirs, “The American artillery shelling and mortar fire caused loss of lives and properties in Manila. Survivors, however, were all happy to see the Americans. The constant shelling and street-by street fighting was a high price to pay for freedom.”

But not all survivors felt the same way. In her famous account of her ordeal, “The Benevolence,” Carmen Guerrero Nakpil wrote, “...Once again, as in Bataan, we had put our faith in the myth of the benevolent protector who did not materialize until fire, shelling from both sides had reduced Manila to the last circle of hell and its people to wide-eyed, shivering madmen. Those who had survived Japanese hate did not survive American love. Both were equally deadly, the latter more so because sought and longed for.”

Carmen Guerrero Nakpil had seen her father and husband taken away by the Japanese and killed; she had run through the streets and sheltered for days in trenches and basements, pregnant, and clutching her baby; she recalled spitting on an American soldier who’d shouted at her, “Hey you, wanna get killed?” when she stumbled into the American lines. Yet, she recalled, the wonder was he didn’t bayonet her, as a Japanese soldier would have done. As she ironically ended her essay, “the myth of benevolence comes alive when one least wants it.”

Defeat, occupation, resistance, and widespread destruction took their toll on their country. Alfonso Aluit, writing for the Philippines Free Press, penned this summary of the bitter lessons of the war: “Thus emerged the phenomenon of the saboteur, the vandal, the looter, and the profiteer who took advantage of scarcity to exact his toll, the squatter who sneered at all titles to property, and worst of all the traitor personified by the makapili who would betray any person and any cause, for lucre. These also became permanent in the Philippines, in business, politics, and every sector of the community.”

Sixty-two years after the horrors, the legacy of the war remains.

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