MacArthur’s escape from the Philippines

Posted on March 23rd, 2016 by:

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MacArthur’s escape from the Philippines:

At 7:45 PM on March 11, 1942, a small torpedo boat, PT-41 departed from Corregidor. Under the cover of darkness, it rendezvoused with three other PT boats then carefully sailed through a minefield while heading south to the Island of Mindanao. On board PT-41, was General Douglas MacArthur, members of his staff, his wife Jean, son Arthur and Arthur’s Cantonese nanny Ah Cheu. The other boats each carried generals and important officers. If the group was unlucky enough to encounter Japanese warships, PT-41 was ordered to make its escape while the other boats engaged the enemy force.



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General MacArthur and his Chief of Staff General Richard K. Sutherland on Corregidor

The US, along with the Philippine Army had been fighting the Japanese since December 8, 1942 (December 7, US time) when the Japanese launched  simultaneous attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. After suffering a series of defeats, US and Philippine forces retreated to the Bataan peninsula, with MacArthur setting up his headquarters on the nearby island of Corregidor in Manila bay.

In the United States, MacArthur’s defense of the Philippines had become a symbol of America’s will. The image of holding off a terrible foe against uneven odds. However, as MacArthur’s defensive plans unraveled, defeat and capture looked inevitable. MacArthur intended to share the fate of his command and go down fighting, but his aides worried about his wife and son, who only recently had his fourth birthday on Corregidor. To this MacArthur simply replied “He is a soldier’s son.”

Douglas MacArthur was a war hero and a legend. He was cited for gallantry in the 1914 Vera Cruz Expedition and was decorated for bravery in World War One.  In 1925, he became the Army’s youngest Major General. Many in Washington believed MacArthur would better serve America as a fighting soldier instead of a prisoner of war. On February 11th, Washington sent a cable to the Philippines which read :

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”

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General Douglas MacArthur upon his return to the Philippines

MacArthur’s departure was scheduled for March 15th, when the submarine, USS Permit would arrive and take them aboard, but the decision was made to leave on the 11th by PT Boat instead as radio broadcasts from Australia were assumed to be picked up by the Japanese, who had since raised their number of surface patrols. The plan was to take four PT boats 600 miles at night from Corregidor to a stopover point on Tagauayan Island, then to Cagayan del Oro on the island of Mindanao where they would be met by airplanes at Del Monte Field to fly them to Australia. The four PT boats numbered, 32,34, 35 and 41 were war weary and heavily used. Each carried twenty 55 gallon fuel drums on the deck and a duffel bag of tinned food for the journey. With no replacement parts available, engines gaskets which were normally discarded were cleaned and reused.  The old engines, having already doubled their recommended mileage could only perform at half speed.

The weather worsened in the night, causing heavy seas and high waves. The occupants became seasick and the boats became separated. The next morning, PT-41, with Macarthur on board, was almost attacked by PT-32 who had mistaken it for a Japanese Destroyer. The two boats hid in a cove until the afternoon then proceeded to the rendezvous point near Tagauayan Island where they met up with PT-34. With the seas looking rougher the question was asked whether to continue to Mindanao or wait for the USS Permit. Since there was no guarantee the submarine would arrive, MacArthur decided to press on. PT-32 did not have enough fuel to make it to Mindanao, so her passengers were split between PT-41 and 34. Soon after PT-41 and 34 departed, PT-35 arrived, seeing that the other boats had already left, she went on to Cagayan to meet the other boats there.



An hour out of Tagauayan, PT-41 and 34 encountered a Japanese destroyer and made a quick turn into the setting sun. The waters became rougher and waves pelted the boats in the darkness, making visibility in the black night almost impossible. The weather got better around dawn and the two boats arrived at Cagayan on the morning of March 13th. PT-35 arrived later in the day.

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Douglas MacArthur with his wife Jean and son Arthur in Australia

In preparation for MacArthur’s coming to Mindanao, Lieutenant General George Brett, commander of the US Air Forces in Australia had been requested to send planes to fly Macarthur’s party from Mindanao to Australia. MacArthur had made a special request for the “most experienced pilots, and the best available planes in top condition” but the only planes Brett had that could make the journey were war-weary B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 19th Bomb Group. Brett made a request to Admiral Leary, US Naval commander of the Australia-New Zealand Area, to lend him some of the Navy’s new B-17s, but Leary, a man known for being unhelpful with requests which aren’t beneficial to the Navy, turned him down.
With no new planes, General Brett sent four tired B-17s from the 19th Bomb Group from Australia to Mindanao in preparation for MacArthur’s arrival. Two turned back with engine trouble, another accidentally dumped three hundred gallons of fuel and crashed in the ocean just short of the Del Monte airfield, but the last one, piloted by Lt. Harl Pease landed safely on Mindanao despite having no brakes. Pease’s B-17 shocked MacArthur. Besides having no brakes, it had a faulty supercharger and rows of bullet holes patched with metal from ration tins. Twenty four year old Pease looked to be a child to MacArthur, who refused to have his wife and son ride the plane. Pease flew back to Australia with 16 passengers while MacArthur waited for other planes to arrive. MacArthur sent some stern messages to General Brett in Australia about the lack of airplanes. Adding to the frustration, worry came when a Filipino women arrived wanting to ask MacArthur about her son who was fighting on Luzon. She claimed to have walked twenty five miles to meet him. Since the Japanese were only thirty miles away at Davao, the fact that a civilian knew of MacArthur’s presence caused great concern.

In Australia, General Brett got approval from Admiral Leary to use the Navy’s B-17s and three were sent out with Air Force crews. One turned back but two made it safely to Del Monte, landing on the night of the 16th with the runway lit by flares. At 1:30 on the morning of March 17th, MacArthur, his family and his staff, loaded onto the two planes, leaving most of their baggage behind. As the B-17’s approached Darwin, Australia, they received word that the city was under attack by the Japanese. The planes quickly headed to Batchelor Airfield where they touched down at 9:30 in the morning. From there, they boarded DC-3’s of Australia National Airways just as another air raid was heading their way.

Although MacArthur was now safe in Australia, his troops in the Philippines felt abandoned by him, and morale in the US sank when they heard that the General had left the battlefield. For the Axis, MacArthur’s departure from the Philippines was a propaganda coup. Germany’s propaganda minister,  Joseph Goebbels called him a “Fleeing General” and Mussolini branded him a “Coward”. To combat this, the US decided to give MacArthur the Medal of Honor.

Before he left the Philippines, MacArthur pledged to return again and free its people from the Japanese. It would take more than two years of heavy fighting before MacArthur could fulfill his vow.



For More About General Douglas MacArthur Check Out:

Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior


Under a Blood Red Sun: The Remarkable Story of PT Boats in the Philippines and the Rescue of General MacArthur




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