The Tactical Operations Center
Retrograde Operations on Luzon, World War Two
General Douglas MacArthur has been accused of being many things; but his defensive operations on Luzon during the opening days of World War Two were in line with previously approved war plans; despite the fact that at the end, the Americans and Filipino forces surrendered ignominously.

During the intra-war years between 1918 and 1941, the United States drafted various contingency plans to deal with aggression against American property and interests world wide. Under the tenets of the Rainbow 5 plan, War Plan Orange (WPO) dealt with a Japanese-American conflict. Though Orange was strategically outdated by 1941, tactically it was a sound concept.

WPO-3, as it concerned the Philippine Islands, and in particular the major island of Luzon , called for a defensive, delaying action by American and Philippine forces. Forces on Luzon were scheduled to withdraw from the north and south ends of the mountainous island, collapsing on one another, falling back to the Bataan peninsula. The defenders would use the swamps, rivers, jungle, and high ridges of Luzon to their advantage in guarding their exposed flanks and rear areas.

The defender's mission was to delay the invader, not to decisively engage him. The Fil-American Army on Luzon was scheduled to hold at one of five successive defensive lines for a day each. This delaying action would force the Japanese to deploy his forces and organize a deliberate attack. By the time he was ready, the defender would have fallen back to their next line.

Deployed on Luzon was the North Luzon Force and the South Luzon Force. The former was commanded by Major General Wainwright, and consisted of four infantry divisions and one cavalry regiment. The latter, commanded by Brigadier General Parker, consisted of two infantry divisions. A reserve force of two infantry divisions was in place at the Philippine capital of Manila . There were other Fil-American forces in the P.I., all of whom were commanded by LTG Douglas MacArthur, but for the retrograde operations into Bataan , the North and South Luzon Forces were the primary ones.

Under the provisions of Rainbow 5, Europe had the priority of effort in the defeat of what was to become known as the Axis Powers. American and English manpower and logistical resources were directed to Europe . The war in the Pacific was scheduled to be defensive in nature until the situation in Europe was cleared up.

The tactical result of this strategic plan was that the American and British forces in the Pacific were understrength, undertrained, equipped with obsolete weapons, and virtually without any air or naval power. The Navy was concentrated at Pearl Harbor . The Army Air Corps' fighters were hopelessly obsolete against the Zero, and the modern, powerful B-17 was only just being deployed to the Pacific.

On paper, the combined U.S.-Philippine Army was almost numerically equal to that of the invading Japanese 14th Army under LTG Masharu Homma. All told, there were 31,095 Fil-American soldiers in the Islands as of 30 November 1941 . Of this number, 10,233 were ground combat troops. The remainder were in the Air Corps, Service Detachments, or Harbor Defense for Subic and Manila Bay .

Under scrutiny, it is in the ground units that the Army showed its' weaknesses. Of the total 517 officers, 31 were Filipino. The remainder were American. Of the 9,716 enlisted soldiers, 7,909 were Filipino. 1,807 were American.

The focus here is on the individual Filipino soldier. Most received little, or no training at all and were equipped with obsolete weapons. Most spoke their native dialect, of which there were sixty-five in the Islands . Attempting to train soldiers in the art of war can be difficult and frustrating when the instructor is not understood or must teach through an interpreter. The Filipino, when properly trained and equipped, was the equal of the American GI. He also had the home field advantage. He also believed in his commander, Douglas MacArthur.

The lead echelons of the 14th Japanese Army, consisting of the 16th and 48th Divisions and the 65th Brigade, executed a dual pincer attack on Luzon , landing at Aparri and Vigan on the north coast, and at Legaspi on the south coast on 10 and 12 December 1941 , respectively. The main landings occurred from 22-24 December, when the bulk of Homma's 43,110 man army came ashore right where MacArthur said it would, at Lingayen Gulf .

MacArthur, though he abhorred the defensive nature of WPO-3, realized that he would have to adhere to its' principles in order to retain his economy of force and keep the bulk of his army intact, pending resupply from the U.S. Though the resupply and relief did not come in time to save his army, the Fil-Americans were able to seriously disrupt the Japanese timetable for victory.

Originally, the Japanese Imperial Staff had planned on Homma completing his mission of capturing Luzon in fifty days. They had also planned on MacArthur defending Manila . They did not foresee a withdrawal into the Bataan peninsula. During the retrograde, the Fil-Americans held at their successive defensive lines for one day each. They fell back according to schedule even if not heavily engaged, or engaged at all. Some units fell back without firing a shot. For some units, retrograde meant "run like hell". But the more experienced, better trained troops accomplished their mission smoothly.

After the first week of ground operations, the Japanese controlled most of Luzon . Through skillful maneuvering, MacArthur had achieved and maintained his mass and economy of force through controlled and planned operational maneuver techniques. His army had withdrawn intact into the Bataan peninsula where they would hold out against ferocious Japanese assaults for two and a half months.

The whole time, the Fil-Americans were short on ammunition, food, and medical supplies, but not on bravery, tenacity, and heroism.


REFERENCE: Morton, Louis. The Fall of the Philippines . U.S. Army in World War Two. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, 1953