U.S. forces in the Malinta Tunnel surrender on Corregidor.
By George Morris
Once Japan invaded the Philippines shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, American military leaders quickly realized the islands were a lost cause. But, if U.S. and Philippine forces couldn’t defeat the enemy, it could accomplish something else — delay them.
Delay had its last major stand at Corregidor.
A hunk of rock 2.5 miles long and a half-mile wide. It would have been a worthless piece of real estate had it not been situated at the mouth of Manila Bay. About 12,000 soldiers and Marines were ordered to hold it at all costs.
All costs meant being under constant attack. After the Bataan Peninsula fell on April 9, 1942, it became relentless bombardment: bombing by day, shelling around the clock. Tommy Thompson, who later settled in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and James Carrington, who lived in the New Orleans suburb of Harahan, were Marines there, getting pounded by an enemy they could not reach.
“We had to stay in holes in the daytime and could get out at night,” Thompson said. “When they started firing, I wouldn’t dare stick my head out of the hole.
“You couldn’t get a nap. You couldn’t sleep. You couldn’t get out. You couldn’t do nothing. And we knew we were being, I called it, sacrificed by the United States government.”
Woefully unprepared for Pearl Harbor and Japan’s subsequent sweep through the southwest Pacific Ocean, the only victory that could come at Bataan and Corregidor was to disrupt the Japanese timetable. That became a sore point with many on Corregidor.
“Gen. (Douglas) MacArthur, he had lied to us,” said Carrington. “He had promised a hundred transports were coming with the Pacific Fleet. They never did tell you the fleet was at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. They said that they had bombed Pearl Harbor, but they didn’t tell us what damage had been done. So, they asked us to try to hold out, hold out. Well, MacArthur had left us in March for Australia.”
Thompson, a corporal, commanded three other men in a machine gun pit. Once, he’d left for a work detail, and when he returned the pit was empty; it had taken a direct hit. Another time, a Japanese shell hit a pit below him.
“I went down to see about them,” he said. “All I found was a pair of shoes.”
Occasionally, Thompson said, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright dropped by. Wainwright received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Corregidor, in part for his willingness to be on the front line with his men.
“He was the enlisted mens good friend,” Thompson said. “He was sitting in the gun pit one day and they were bombing us, and I caught him by the britches leg and said, ‘General, you’d better get down here in this hole.’ And he said, ‘They’re looking for little squirts like you.’ ”
The situation, however, was no laughing matter. The continuous shelling was taking a toll, and a Japanese landing was inevitable. With vastly superior numbers, the defenders had no choice once the Japanese established a beachhead.
“You couldn’t shoot them fast enough,” Thompson said. “That’s when (we) had to give it up.”
“All that Hollywood stuff — you think the cavalry would be coming in the last minute, but nothing ever happened,” Carrington said.
On May 6, Wainwright gave the order to surrender, and, for all intents and purposes, the Philippines belonged to Japan. (All Allied resistance on the islands ended in the following month.) But instead of 50 days, it had taken five months for the conquest to be complete, a delay that gave the allied military time to regroup. The Japanese would never reach Australia.
Those on Corregidor could take no comfort in this. They wouldn’t find out for three or more years — those who lived that long.