In 1944 the American forces landed back in the Philippines at the battle of Leyte on the south east of the archipelago. Another landing was made to the north of Luzon, in Lingayan Gulf, and it was from here the drive south toward Manila, the capital ,was made. There were POW’s being held there and it was essential that they could be released before they were massacred. When the Americans arrived in the northern suburbs, there started a one month battle – one of the most terrible in the war. The atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Nazis destroyed Warsaw, but using conventional weapons the Japanese and Americans together caused Manila to be the most ruined city in Asia, comparable to firebombed Tokyo .
The Japanese commander of forces in the Philippines was army General Yamashita, the “Tiger of Malaya”, and he had ordered that Manila be abandoned and that Japanese resistance move north to the mountains around Baguio and beyond.
However, the naval commander Rear Admiral Iwabuchi Sanji decided to defend the city to the last man with his mixed force of sailors, marines and army units. Iwabuchi had a death wish already – he wished to atone for the loss of his battleship in 1942 off Guadalcanal. He was promoted to Vice Admiral one day before he either shot his brains out or used a hand grenade to commit suicide in the Finance Building, his last headquarters in the ruined city. His body was never found.
Defensive positions were set up in the old walled city of Intramuros, Governmental buildings and at road intersections. Barbed wire, tunnels, trenches were used to compliment the minefields. All bridges and infrastructure of possible use to the oncoming Americans were blown up.
The battle begins
On the 3rd of February 1945 the forward American and Filipino units arrived, and the one month battle began. American parachute forces had already taken important positions south of the city, including the abandoned prison of Bilibid, freeing over 1000 prisoners, but the main force was coming from the north. On the 4th Nichols Field, now Ninoy Aquino Airport was attacked and eventually taken against heavy resistance.
Free the prisoners!
One of the main objectives of the northern push was the University of Santo Thomas which had been used as a civilian internment camp. Before the promised Japanese slaughter could take place, 5783 prisoners were liberated, after the Japanese guards negotiated to be allowed to join their units in exchange for the prisoners safety. This was agreed, but the Japanese were shot and killed on their route out – some Japanese prisoners were taken.
The Manila Massacre
Much of the civilian population had not been able to leave, the Japanese thought them American collaborators and started a slaughter of those most suspect once he fighting began. Amongst other locations, the Bayview Park Hotel became a vast brothel – “used” women being thrown out of windows onto a growing pile of bodies. All of this was part of what is known as the Manila Massacre ( General Yamashita was executed as a war criminal at Bilibid Prison for this, even though he had no responsibility for it).
Bitter street to street fighting began – the Americans unused to urban conflict – and they found the Japanese prepared positions strong. They had to destroy them with heavy artillery and tanks, the Japanese survivors taking up new positions in the rubble. Civilians were caught in American and Japanese crossfire.
The tools of destruction
General MacArthur had forbidden bombing in a hope to preserve the city, but tank, bazookas, howitzers and flamethrowers, together with their Japanese counterparts, did the work anyway.
From the 23rd to the 28th February the bitter fighting in the old walled city of Intramuros took place, the stout walls, tunnels and old buildings, including churches and Manila Cathedral, all suffering heavily. The Japanese released 3000 women and children hostages, but executed the 1000 men left behind.
When Fort Santiago was liberated, horrible sites of torture and execution were found. Underground dungeons were flooded, and crowded with the drowned dead.
The end of Beautiful Manila
Fighting then moved to the government buildings, previously part of “Beautiful Manila”, and the imposing structures such as the Finance Building gradually reduced to rubble. The Americans were unwilling to risk lives and let the heavy artillery do the work.
MacArthur loses his home
MacArthur ordered the storming of the Manila Hotel, where he had his apartment pre- war. As the marines were scaling the stairs, the Japanese set fire to it., destoying eveything including his valuable library. On or around the 25th February Iwabuchi is thought to have committed suicide. Fighting continued into early March.
The Americans lost 1,010 U.S. soldiers dead and 5,565 wounded. Nearly 17,000 Japanese were killed in Intramuros alone, and the civilian dead was well over 100,000.
Much to see
The buildings which pre war comprised the “Pearl of the Orient” were gone. Some of the major old administration buildings have been rebuilt, and also parts of Intramuros and Fort Santiago – so there is still much to see on a visit.