The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago last week was famously the “day which will live in infamy.” Veterans of that horrible day were properly honored as intrepid members of the “Greatest Generation.”
But, the December 7 disaster was also the first of a one-two punch that shocked our nation and crippled our forces in the Pacific. The second punch, which receives far less attention, came only nine hours later on December 8, 1941, when the Japanese launched 500 aircraft from the island of Formosa in an attack that decimated American military forces in the Philippines, including the entire United States Far East Air Force (FEAF).
During the 45-minute attack, the FEAF lost nearly half the planes at the base, and the remaining aircraft in the Philippines were captured by Japanese forces. This failure did not undergo any formal investigation, as troops were still shocked by the occurrences in Pearl Harbor. Major General Emmitt O’Donnell said it was not anyone’s fault, but the U.S. forces failed to assess the efficiency and speed of the Japanese Air Force.
The reality is that General Douglas MacArthur, commander in charge of the U.S. forces in the Philippines, should have placed American military forces in the Philippines on a proper war footing immediately following news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
His failure to do so compromised the defense of the Philippines and resulted in the effective elimination of American air power in the western Pacific, forced the complete withdrawal of the United States Asiatic Fleet from Philippine waters, and paved the way for the successful Japanese invasion that followed.
Navy and Army commanders at Pearl Harbor were relieved of their commands, even though they were taken completely by surprise by the Japanese attack. MacArthur’s disgraceful neglect of duty was much worse and would appear to have justified, at the very least, being relieved of command and even being tried by court martial for severe dereliction of duty and incompetence.
MacArthur’s subsequent escape to Australia with only his closest staff officers and family enabled him also to escape scrutiny of his dereliction of duty in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. Senior officers who might have testified to MacArthur’s neglect of duty and incompetence as a commander remained in the Philippines and either died or suffered lengthy imprisonment in Japanese prison camps.
After the truth became known at the end of World War II, MacArthur had established himself as a heroic figure and was never brought to account for this disgraceful failure of leadership in the Battle of the Philippines.
So, as Americans rallied to honor those who rightly deserve our thanks for their service at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, here’s a salute to those who were valiantly serving our country in the military when they were attacked in the Philippines on December 8, 1941, when a revered general failed to protect them.