In the early, dark days of World War II, the United States military in the Pacific theater was reeling. After the disastrous sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the Japanese forces began a series of invasions across the Pacific and extended their empire nearly to the edges of Hawaii.
American and Filipino forces were under siege in the Philippines. The Japanese invaded soon after the Pearl Harbor attack. By early March 1942, they had bottled up the U.S. and Filipinos on the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor.
President Roosevelt, fearful of one of America’s most successful and well-known generals being taken captive by the Japanese if Corregidor fell was too bitter a conclusion to contemplate. He ordered MacArthur to escape to Australia to take charge of Allied forces there. He left the Philippines on March 11.
However, contrary to public belief, MacArthur’s statement, “I Shall Return” was not given on the shores of the Philippines, but at an Australian train station, 10 days later.
MacArthur came from a military family, his father Arthur, was a Lieutenant General and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in the Civil War. The younger MacArthur graduated the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1903 at the top of his class.
During his early military career, he served as an aide to his father and to President Theodore Roosevelt. During World War I, he commanded the 84th Brigade of the famous 42nd (Rainbow) Division. He also was the Commandant of Cadets at West Point as well as the Army’s Chief of Staff.
MacArthur retired from active duty in 1937 and was given a commission as a Field Marshall in the Philippine Army, raising the level of training for the Filipino conscripts so that when the U.S. granted them independence, (slated for 1946), they’d be capable of defending their home islands.
He was recalled from retirement in July 1941 to become commander of United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) at 61 and united the Philippine and United States forces under one command.
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After the Japanese invaded, MacArthur, per pre-planning, declared Manila an open city and moved his forces to the Bataan Peninsula and to the island of Corregidor. His wife Jean and son Arthur IV remained with him on Corregidor.
Most of the surviving navy moved south, MacArthur had at his disposal on a submarine tender and sub rescue ship, three small gunboats, three minesweepers, five tugs and the PT boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three under the command of LTJG John D. Bulkeley. With the swift Japanese victories rolling into one another, the men of Bataan and MacArthur resonated with the American public, looking for heroes in those dark days of defeat after defeat for the Allies.
On February 23, Secretary of War Harry Stimson and Chief of Staff George Marshall sent MacArthur a message ordering him to leave the Philippines for Australia.
The President directs that you make arrangements to leave and proceed to Mindanao. You are directed to make this change as quickly as possible … From Mindanao you will proceed to Australia where you will assume command of all United States troops … Instructions will be given from here at your request for the movement of submarine or plane or both to enable you to carry out the foregoing instructions. You are authorized to take your chief of staff General Sutherland.
The original plan was for MacArthur to depart Corregidor by submarine, but he ended up changing his mind and going by surface ships in PT boats. The small PT boats were in need of an overhaul as they’d been in constant combat operations since the war began, Bulkeley did the best he could with spare parts at a premium since the loss of the Subic Bay naval base. Each PT boat would carry twenty 55-gallon drums of additional fuel on the deck. This would reduce the top speed of the boats to about 30 knots (56 kilometers per hour; 35 miles per hour).
And to make room for MacArthur’s family and staff that he was bringing with him, the so-called “Bataan Gang”, Bulkeley had to leave 32 of his sailors behind. They were turned into infantry troops on Bataan.
There would be four PT boats assigned to get MacArthur, his staff and his family out of Corregidor. PT-41 commanded by Bulkeley, would have MacArthur, Jean MacArthur, Arthur MacArthur IV, Ah Cheu, Major General Richard K. Sutherland, Captain Herbert J. Ray, Lieutenant Colonel Sidney L. Huff, Major Charles H. Morhouse on board.
PT-32 commanded by LT JG Vince Schumacher had Brigadier General Spencer B. Akin, Brigadier General Hugh J. Casey, Brigadier General William F. Marquat, Brigadier General Harold H. George, Lieutenant Colonel Joe R. Sherr, Major Curtis L. Lambert on his boat.
PT-34 commanded by LT Robert B. Kelly, carried Rear Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, Brigadier General Richard J. Marshall, Colonel Charles P. Stivers, Captain Joseph McMicking on board.
PT-35 commanded by Ensign Anthony Akers had Colonel Charles A. Willoughby, Lieutenant Colonel LeGrande A. Diller, Lieutenant Colonel Francis H. Wilson, Master Sergeant Paul P. Rogers on his boat. Rogers was the only enlisted man taken from MacArthur’s command because he was the command’s stenographer. Many of the enlisted men gave Rogers letters to mail for them.
MacArthur left Corregidor on March 11 at 19:45 and rendezvoused with the other three boats which left from Bataan 15 minutes later. During the night, the seas got rough and the four PT boats were separated.
They reached their first point, a cove on Tagauayan Island, the next morning. That night they made their way to Mindanao where MacArthur was hoping to catch air transport. Since PT-32 didn’t have the fuel to reach Mindanao, her passengers were then split on PT-41 and PT-34.
Due to the high seas, the PT boats didn’t make it to Mindanao until broad daylight where they would have been sitting ducks for Japanese aircraft that were known to overfly the area constantly.
The PT boats pulled up the wharf at Mindanao and MacArthur made clear his appreciation at the men who dared the mission to rescue him and his staff. He said to Bulkeley “I’m giving every officer and man here the Silver Star for gallantry. You’ve taken me out of the jaws of death, and I won’t forget it.”
Three hours later PT-35 arrived with her crew and passengers.
After a day on Mindanao while staying at the guest house, MacArthur sent off a message to Gen. Marshall in Washington as Admiral Herbert F. Leary had turned down their request for B-17s to fly them to Australia. Leary heard from Washington and the on March 17, they left in two B-17s at 01:30. Eight hours later they approached Darwin, Australia, but the Japanese were conducting an air raid so the planes were diverted to Batchelor Airfield arriving at 09:30.
There MacArthur boarded a DC-3 which finally took him to Alice Springs. He then boarded a special train. It was at Terowie Train Station where he uttered the famous phrase “I came through and I shall return“.
The reaction from the American and Filipino troops on Bataan was mixed. Some felt like MacArthur had betrayed them. He left LTG Jonathan Wainwright in command and even many officers in the remaining staff felt they’d been abandoned.
Bulkeley remained on Mindanao until he was flown out on April 13, as MacArthur put a high priority on getting the PT boat crews out. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt in the White House on August 4, 1942. He retired as a Vice Admiral after 55 years of service. His story was made into a book and a film in 1945, “They Were Expendable” starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed.
MacArthur’s “Bataan Gang” served as the staff of the GHQ of the Southwest Pacific Area. He and his staff would indeed return to the Philippines and would land on Corregidor three years later on four PT boats.
Photos: US Archives