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Mysteries of the Manila massacres

A major landmark in history, the Battle for Manila should be present in the minds of both modern Filipinos and Japanese
/ 03:00 AM February 27, 2017

Editor’s note: Excerpts from the author’s remarks during the 2017 Memorare Manila 1945.

There has been nothing remotely approaching the Battle for Manila in terms of ruin, rape and death.


It was the greatest crime in Philippine history. Much of the damage was caused by sometimes excessive and indiscriminate shelling.

But Memorare’s survey estimate is that 70 percent of the deaths were caused by Japanese action, and my own estimate, based on a sample in Antonio Perez de Olaguer’s “El Terror Amarillo en Filipinas,” puts Japanese killing at 85 percent of the total.


But the physical totals are almost irrelevant. The important thing is the moral responsibility: Who made Manila a battleground and a killing ground?

The answer is clear: the Japanese decision to give battle in Manila and to target civilian lives and property in the operation.

This could have been avoided if Manila had been declared an open city as MacArthur had done in December 1941.

But in Philip Buencamino’s memoirs, he recounts how Filipino officials pleaded with overall Japanese commander Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita to declare Manila an open city and were already preparing the text of the proclamation to that effect, but Yamashita rejected their pleas. This could only mean that he was preparing Manila for battle.

Much is made of the Japanese Marines under Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi (the Butcher of Manila) who were blamed for most of the killing and destruction, but these 12,000 marines were joined by nearly 4,000 of Yamashita’s own army troops.

He claimed they were there to guard and remove military equipment and supplies, but, in fact, appear to have spent their time planting demolition charges in buildings in the business district, and in initiating the massacres on the north bank of the Pasig.

At his war crimes trial, he made some bare-faced lies. He claimed he could no longer contact the Manila garrison because communications were cut. This was incredible in the age of radio transmission.


One of his biographies relates   he was in radio contact from his Cordillera pocket in July with overall Southeast Asia ground commander Marshal Terauchi in Saigon. How could he not reach Manila from nearby Baguio?

The claim that the Japanese were moving out military supplies and equipment is belied by the six-months stock of supplies found in the Finance Building and by the artillery and machine guns that studded the walls of Intramuros and Luneta. One cannon can still be seen on Intramuros walls.

Persistent errors

Two persistent errors keep coming up in some writings. One is that there was aerial bombing during the battle. There was none, as it had been forbidden by MacArthur. As a survivor of the battle, I can testify to this.

The other one is that most of the killing was done by Koreans. But there were no Korean combat units in Manila; the Koreans present were dock workers who readily surrendered when American troops came.

Two mysteries linger. One is: What was the military objective of targeted civilian killing? The textbook answer is:   They   were delaying the eventual American invasion of Japan and killing as many Americans as possible.

In the end, they killed about 1,000 Americans and wounded 5,500, and delayed the campaign by about a month, losing 16,600 of their own troops but dragging 100,000 noncombatant civilians along them.

This was a purely tactical objective and the results were meager. And why was it necessary to kill so many civilians deliberately, not even collateral casualties, to attain the supposed military objectives ?

The strategic value of Manila was its bay and harbor, and the strategic objective should have been to deny—this to the Americans, as these had done to the Japanese for five months in 1942. It was necessary to block the entrance to Manila Bay by defending Bataan and Corregidor, as MacArthur had done in 1942.

But the Japanese barely defended Bataan, and Corregidor could not stand alone for long. The Manila garrison of 16,000 plus the Kembu force of 30,000 in the Zambales mountains, which were frittered away ineffectually, could have mounted a credible defense of Bataan.

The other mystery is: Who gave the order for the civilian massacres, and why? One tentative supposition is that it was done to punish the Filipinos for their fierce anti-Japanese resistance. They were the only ones in Southeast Asia to do so, according to General Muto, Yamashita’s chief of staff.

But then, why were neutrals (Swiss, Spanish) and Axis allies (Germans) also slaughtered?

Such orders would have come from Tokyo through Iwabuchi’s superior, Admiral Okochi, who accompanied Yamashita from Manila to Baguio in December 1944. So the latter knew and must have approved them.

Since two weeks elapsed between Japan’s surrender and the American occupation, copies of any such order may have been destroyed in that period.

Earlier General Muto had ordered his fellow captives never to admit that any Japanese officer had ordered the killing of civilians, although copies of field orders to that effect were found on the battlefield. Afterward, Japan had to pay indemnity to neutral civilians affected.

History textbooks

A major landmark in our history, the Battle for Manila should be present in the minds of modern Filipinos.

In California, the Bataan Legacy Historical Society has succeeded in specifically including in the 11th grade curriculum World War II in the Philippines, something that should also be done here. But we must make sure textbooks are written by reputable scholars and not by textbook hacks.

Equally important, Japan’s actions in Wold War II Philippines should be in the minds of modern Japanese, who have not been told about these atrocities and are shocked to tears when they learn about them.

It is they who are promoting the converging friendship between our two peoples, and we warmly welcome the representatives of Bridge of Peace. We are trade partners, recipients of substantial official development assistance and private investment, and growing allies in the face of new threats. —CONTRIBUTED

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TAGS: 2017 memorare manila 1945, admiral sanji iwabuchi, Battle for Manila, philip buencamino, World War II
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