The Air Defense of the Philippines 1941-42 Part II

The Japanese Navy, with Pacific Ocean distances in mind, had designed aircraft with much longer range. Avoiding the inter-service demarcation disputes and funding limitations that hobbled the armed forces of Britain and the United States, the Imperial Navy had developed its own long-range bomber force. Nearly 140 of these aircraft were available on Formosa, and they could fly all way to the central Philippines. Even more remarkable was a single-engined navy fighter, the Zero, which could escort the bombers all the way to their targets, and carry out ground-attack strikes once they got there; ninety of these planes were available. Both fighter and bomber crews had gained much operational experience in China. The most important cause of the destruction of American air power in the Philippines on 8 December, and the days that followed, was the superior training, equipment and experience of these elite Japanese Navy air units.

In addition, on 8 December, the Japanese were lucky that fog on Formosa delayed the take-off of their strike force, because otherwise the American fighters would still have been in the air over their bases. When the delayed strike did arrive, some poor tactical decisions were made by middle-ranking American officers.8 An airborne American fighter squadron was vectored south to cover the city of Manila – which the Japanese did not attack – rather than to provide defensive cover at Clark Field. Although the Iba radar spotted the approaching Japanese formation, there was a delay in passing the warning to Clark Field, and when it actually arrived there it was inexplicably lost.

Although the big Navy bomber formation would have been flying over the Philippine countryside for at least twenty minutes before reaching its target, the attackers achieved complete surprise. The air raid alarm went off at Clark as the bombs rained down. Another squadron of fighters was kept on the ground at Clark by Army controllers, despite the approaching Japanese force; it was destroyed before it could get airborne. The squadron protecting Iba was called in too late to cover Clark, but just in time to expose its home base to attack.

For the US Army Air Force, the disaster in the Philippines was as bad as Pearl Harbor, and the FEAF command did not have the excuse of tactical surprise, in terms of either timing or distance from Japanese-held territory. The American commanders in Manila knew that some form of Japanese air attack from Formosa was a possibility, and they had nine or ten hours’ warning before the Clark Field raid. There were also deeper reasons for the fiasco. The tactical blunders of the morning of 8 December could have such a devastating effect only because of the shortcomings of the vaunted heavy-bomber strategy. A force of bombers had been sent to the Philippines without anything like adequate airfield construction, let alone airfield defences (and even more B-17s were on the way). Clark Field was still under construction, and the aircraft had to be parked together on the limited space of the hardened runways and aprons.

It remains something of a mystery as to why MacArthur took no pre-emptive action with his bombers on the morning of 8 December. A priority should certainly have been consulting with Brereton, his senior air commander. The most likely explanation is that MacArthur did not yet think the air threat to central Luzon was a serious one. Likewise he probably also believed that he had time to assess the overall situation before launching offensive raids on Japanese territory – and by 10.14 a.m. he did indeed give permission for an air strike.

However, even if, before dawn on 8 December, General Brereton had been allowed to launch an immediate attack against Formosa, his bombers could not have prevented the Japanese air attacks, nor achieved any other significant results. There were only fifteen or so operational B-17s at Clark Field; they would have had to fly without fighter escort, and intelligence about the airfields on Formosa was poor. It was, however, a reflection on the quality of Brereton’s Far East Air Force that it was never able to mount any raids on the Japanese bases on Formosa, either on 8 December or later.

Douglas MacArthur may have been arrogant, blinkered and ignorant of aviation, but he was not to blame for what happened. It was Brereton who was in charge of the functioning of the air defence system and the dispersal of the bomber force. And it was the men in Washington – Secretary of War Stimson, General Marshall, General Henry Arnold (commander of the USAAF), and to some extent the President himself – who attempted a half-baked strategy which provided the Philippines with aircraft but inadequate bases.

The first landings by the IJA in the Philippines took place during the first week of the war, although they were merely preparatory operations in expectation of the long-anticipated main invasion that would come at the end of the month. Batan Island (not to be confused with the Bataan Peninsula), halfway between Taiwan and the Philippines, was captured on December 8, and in northern Luzon, landings were made at Aparri and Vigan. Two days later, a detachment under Major General Naoki Kimura, staging out of Palau, landed at Legaspi, at the southeast tip of Luzon. While the main drive on Manila would come from the north, this beachhead would provide possible access for a second thrust on the capital.

However, even if, before dawn on 8 December, General Brereton had been allowed to launch an immediate attack against Formosa, his bombers could not have prevented the Japanese air attacks, nor achieved any other significant results. There were only fifteen or so operational B-17s at Clark Field; they would have had to fly without fighter escort, and intelligence about the airfields on Formosa was poor. It was, however, a reflection on the quality of Brereton’s Far East Air Force that it was never able to mount any raids on the Japanese bases on Formosa, either on 8 December or later.

Douglas MacArthur may have been arrogant, blinkered and ignorant of aviation, but he was not to blame for what happened. It was Brereton who was in charge of the functioning of the air defence system and the dispersal of the bomber force. And it was the men in Washington – Secretary of War Stimson, General Marshall, General Henry Arnold (commander of the USAAF), and to some extent the President himself – who attempted a half-baked strategy which provided the Philippines with aircraft but inadequate bases.

Wednesday 10th December saw the arrival of Japanese ground forces in the Philippines, albeit only a small advance guard. The immediate aim was to secure the air fields in the north of Luzon Island, to prevent their use by the Americans and to provide forward bases from which Japanese Army aircraft could support the planned full-scale landing scheduled to take place in two weeks’ time. These first landings were 200–250 miles north of Manila. Despite Japanese fears, the slow transport convoys, like the larger ones off Malaya, were not attacked by American planes during their voyage south; they were not even spotted. The bulk of a Japanese Army regiment came ashore on the north coast of Luzon, at the port of Aparri and at nearby Gonzaga, during the morning, despite heavy seas and bad weather. Luzon was a large island but only thinly defended. A company of Filipino troops, commanded by an American reserve lieutenant, melted away to the south. At Vigan, about a hundred miles away on the northwest coast, another small Japanese force also braved the rough seas to come ashore. Here there was no opposition by American or Filipino ground forces.

The flurry of attacks on America’s Pacific outposts continued on Friday, 12 December, although Wake Atoll, after the high drama of the previous day, was relatively quiet. Some 3,000 miles further west across the Pacific the Japanese Army mounted another preliminary landing in the Philippines. The first troops had come ashore in the north of Luzon on Wednesday; today’s attack was 400 miles away, in the south, at the port of Legaspi. With this, the route between Luzon and the southern Philippines was blocked. There was no improvement in the co-operation between the two American commanders. Admiral Hart recorded in his diary that evening that he had seen General MacArthur only twice in the preceding five days: ‘Anyhow, it matters little now whether we cooperate or not for there seems not so much for us to cooperate with.’

American flyers took more action against the second Japanese convoy after it arrived at Vigan, including a strike by six B-17s and strafing attacks by fighters, but this was to be the last co-ordinated effort of MacArthur and Brereton’s air force. The troops of the Kanno Detachment were safely ashore in the Vigan area by Thursday, 11 December. The dozen American B-17s left in service were kept well to the south over the following week. On 19–20 December the last of the big planes was flown to Australia. With this the heavy-bomber air strategy came to an ignominious end.

Neither did the US Navy interfere with the Japanese invasion in these first days or later. There were no major American surface warships in the northern Philippines, although the Japanese, taking no chances, had stationed two heavy cruisers out in the South China Sea. Admiral Hart’s large force of submarines had no successes. Boats sent, on 8 December and later, to patrol off Formosa arrived after the Japanese invasion transports had left.

During 10 December – the weather on Formosa having improved since the previous day – the Japanese Navy’s long-range bombers and fighters returned to execute another mass attack on central Luzon, this time targeting the fighter base at Nichols Field in southern Manila and the nearby naval dockyard at Cavite. The defending fighters were overwhelmed by the escort force of nearly a hundred Zeros. The day’s strikes effectively finished off General Brereton’s Far East Air Force, and thereafter there was no organised American air opposition; the few surviving fighters would be used mainly for reconnaissance.

Wednesday afternoon’s attack on the dockyard was devastatingly effective. Cavite, a hook of a peninsula protruding into Manila Bay, was easy to locate and attack from the air. Two groups of Japanese high-level bombers carpeted the yard, and as many as 500 Filipinos were killed. After learning belatedly about the disastrous raids on US Army Air Force bases on 8 December, Admiral Hart had withdrawn two of his three submarine depot ships to the safer waters of the southern Philippines, but he could do little about the fixed installations at Cavite. The big submarine Sealion, under repair in the yard, was so badly damaged in the Japanese attack that she had to be scuttled. The bombing and fire in Cavite also saw the destruction of 233 torpedoes meant for the submarines. Hart watched the destruction from five miles away, standing on the roof of the Marsman Building on the Manila waterfront. That evening he would write of his bitterness about the US Army’s failure, and his grudging admiration for the Japanese: ‘We saw and heard of no opposition by the Army’s fighters. It was an efficient attack all right; there is one good lot of airmen in this war.‘

Meanwhile, on December 20, Major General Shizuo Sakaguchi’s Detachment, the centerpiece of which was the 146th Infantry Regiment, would land at Davao, on the southernmost Philippine island of Mindanao. This landing, and one that took place four days later on remote Jolo Island, were not part of the Philippines operation, but were aimed at securing staging bases for activities in the Dutch East Indies.

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