World War Two: Fall of Philippines (Part 2-5A) Air Action Clark Field, 8 December 1941

For those on the west side of the international date line, the “date which will live in infamy” came on 8 December 1941.

Few responsible military or naval men had believed that the Japanese would be able to strike in more than one place. The number and diversity of their attacks took the Allies completely by surprise. During the early morning hours of the 8th, Japanese naval and air forces struck almost simultaneously at Kota Bharu in British Malaya (0140), Singora, just across the border in Thailand (0305 ), Singapore (0610), Guam (0805), Hong Kong (0900), Wake, and the Philippines.

Landing operations began almost immediately. By dawn, Japanese forces were in possession of Shanghai. Even as the first bombs were dropping on Hong Kong, Japanese troops were on their way into the leased territory. By the end of that day they were only a few miles from Kowloon, which they took on the 13th. Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day.

Within an hour after the first bombardment of Kota Bharu, Japanese troops from Indochina began to land on the beaches against bitter opposition. The same day, when the main force of the 25th Army arrived, the beachhead was secured. The landings at Singora were unopposed. There, the troops marched down the east coast of the Kra Isthmus, while one division crossed the Thailand-British Malay border and moved down the west coast. Thus began a two-month campaign which ended with the fall of Singapore on 15 February.

On Guam the air attacks continued for two days. Finally, at dawn on the 10th, the South Seas Detachment and supporting naval units landed on the island. A few hours later, the garrison there surrendered.

This was the first American possession to fall into Japanese hands. At Wake Island, the Marine detachment under Major James P. S. Devereux was better prepared for the enemy and offered heroic resistance. The first attempt to land was beaten off and the Japanese returned to Kwajalein to lick their wounds and collect more troops for the next attempt. They were back at Wake on the 22d and the next morning landed in force. That same day the garrison surrendered.

[Lieutenant Colonel Robert D. Heinl, Jr., The Defense of Wake (USMC Hist Sec, 1947); Opns of South Seas Detachment, 1941-42, Japanese Studies in World War II, No. 36, p. 3. For operations at Hong Kong and in Malaya, see Japanese Landing Operations, December 8, 1941-June 8, 1942, Military Intelligence Service (MIS) Campaign Study 3.]

The fall of Wake and Guam cut the line of communications between Hawaii and the Philippines and left the United States with no Central Pacific base west of Midway, 4,500 miles from Manila. But even before this, on the first day of war, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had destroyed the Battle Force of the Pacific Fleet and nullified all plans to come to the aid of the Philippines.

East of the date line, Vice Admiral C. Nagumo’s Pearl Harbor Striking Force of six carriers reached its launching position 200 miles north of Oahu exactly on schedule, at 0600 on the morning of 7 December (0100 of the 8th, Tokyo time). Two Jakes (Zero type reconnaissance planes), which had taken off at 0530 to reconnoiter, returned with the report that, except for the richest prize, the three carriers, the entire Pacific Fleet was in port. Pilots of the First Air Fleet, amidst shouts of “banzai” from their comrades, took off from the flight decks and climbed above the overcast into a magnificent sunrise. At 0750, while “Pearl Harbor was still asleep in the morning mist,” the Japanese planes came in over the island. Five minutes later, just an hour before Nomura presented his government’s reply to Mr. Hull, they dropped their first bombs.’

[At 0800, Admiral Kimmel broadcast the message: “Air Raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill .. ” Secretary Knox, when he read the message in Washington’ exclaimed, “My God! This can’t be true, this must mean the Philippines.” Pearl Harbor Attack Report, p. 439.]

The next two hours of that Sabbath morning in Hawaii were a nightmare. Bombs and torpedoes dropped everywhere, on the ships in the harbor, on Army installations, on depots, and other targets. Dive bombers machine-gunned planes on the ground and men on the ships. Within a half hour every battleship at Pearl Harbor had been badly damaged.

Hickam and Wheeler Fields were struck in the first attacks. The Army planes, parked in close order, wing tip to wing tip, made perfect targets. By ten o’clock the raid was over and the last Japanese planes had returned to their carriers, leaving behind them death and destruction. Tactical surprise had been as complete as strategical surprise.

The Japanese pilots knew exactly what to go after. Though there were ninety-four naval vessels in the harbor they concentrated on the Battle Force, sinking 3 battleships, capsizing 1, and damaging 4 more. In addition to the battleships, 3 light cruisers, 3 destroyers, and miscellaneous vessels were badly damaged. Ninety-two naval planes were lost and 31 damaged.

The Army lost a total of 96 planes, including those destroyed in depots and those later stripped for parts. Army and Navy installations were badly hit. Fortunately, the Japanese failed to destroy the repair shops at Pearl Harbor or the oil tanks, filled to capacity. The carriers, then at sea, escaped the attack altogether. American casualties for the day were 2,280 men killed and 1,109 wounded. The Japanese lost only 29 aircraft and 5 midget submarines. “The astoundingly disproportionate extent of losses,” concluded the Joint Committee which investigated the attack, “marks the greatest military and naval disaster in our Nation’s history.”

With this smashing blow, the Japanese made obsolete the carefully prepared plans of defense in the event of war in the Pacific. The RAINBOW plan called for the progressive movement of the Pacific Fleet across the Central Pacific by the capture of the Caroline and Marshall Islands and the establishment of an advanced base at Truk.

The fleet would thus open the line of communications, establish superiority in the western Pacific, and come to the relief of the Philippine Islands. Along this protected line of communications would flow the supplies and men that would enable the Philippine garrison to beat back any Japanese effort to seize the Islands. By 1000 on the morning of 7 December, the force required to put RAINBOW into effect, the Battle Force of the Pacific Fleet, lay in ruins in Pearl Harbor. The Philippines were isolated, cut off from the nearest base 5,000 miles away, even before they had felt the first blow of the war. Their only hope now lay with the Far East Air Force and the Asiatic Fleet.

The Attack on Clark Field

The duty officer at Asiatic Fleet headquarters in the Marsman Building in Manila on the night of 7-8 December (Philippine time) was Lieutenant Colonel William T. Clement, USMC. At 0230 of the 8th (0800, 7 December, Pearl Harbor time), the operator at the Navy station intercepted the startling message, “Air Raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill.” Recognizing the technique of the sender, an old friend stationed at Pearl Harbor, the operator brought the message to Colonel Clement. Within a half hour, it was in Admiral Hart’s hands. He broadcast the news to the fleet immediately, and then, with his chief of staff, hurried to his office. [Admiral Hart states that Colonel Clement, unable to “get response from USAFFE Headquarters,” passed the news “to one of the staff duty officers at his home.” Ltr, Hart to Major General Orlando Ward, 19 Dec 51, OCMH.]

Shortly after 0330 General Sutherland received the news of the Pearl Harbor attack, not from the Navy but from commercial broadcasts. He passed the news on to MacArthur over the private wire to the general’s penthouse apartment in the Manila Hotel, then notified all commanders that a state of war existed with Japan. Troops were ordered to battle position immediately.

At Clark Field the news flash about Pearl Harbor was also picked up from commercial broadcasts. The operator immediately notified headquarters at the field and all units were alerted. “I knew,” Brereton later wrote, “we could expect an attack from the Japs any time after daylight.” Before leaving for MacArthur’s headquarters, he ordered Colonel Eubank, the bomber commander at Clark Field, to come down to Manila at once. At about 0500 in the morning Brereton was waiting outside MacArthur’s office for orders.

By breakfast, the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor had reached all ranks. The men had for so long accepted the fact that war with Japan might come that the event itself was an anticlimax. There was no cheering and no demonstration, but “a grim, thoughtful silence.” War with Japan was not, for the American and Philippine troops, a remote war across a wide ocean. It was close and immediate.

Prologue to Attack

On Formosa airfields, 500 miles away, Japanese Army and Navy pilots were standing by, their planes gassed and ready to take off for Luzon, when the first news of Pearl Harbor reached Manila. Around midnight of the 7th dense clouds of heavy fog had closed in on the island, blanketing airfields and preventing the scheduled takeoffs at dawn.

This unforeseen development filled the Japanese commanders with nervous apprehension. The timetable for the attack was extremely close and left little leeway. As the early morning hours rolled by, anxiety increased. By this time, the Japanese believed, the American high command in the Philippines would have received news of Pearl Harbor and either sent the Far East Air Force southward or set up an effective defense against the impending raid. All hope of surprise would be lost. Even more frightening was the possibility that this delay would enable the heavy bombers of the Far East Air Force to attack the planes lined up on Formosa fields. Indeed, at 0800, the Japanese intercepted an American radio message which they interpreted as meaning that such an attack would come off in two hours. At 1010 a Japanese plane mistakenly reported B-17’s approaching Formosa and the frightened Japanese began passing out gas masks.

[Interrog of Captain Takahashi Chihaya, Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), 20 Oct 45, and of Commander Ryosuke Nomura, Opns Officer, 23d Air Flotilla, 11th Air Fleet, 28 Nov 45, in USSBS, Interrogations of Japanese Officials, 2 vols. (Washington 1946) 1,74-76; II, 531; 14th -Army Opns, 1,41. It is difficult to understand the origin of the 0800 message.. While there was discussion of such a raid at USAFFE, there was no need to send radios on the subject. It is possible that orders sending B-17’s at Clark aloft to avoid being caught on the ground were in some way intercepted and misunderstood by the apprehensive Japanese. 14th Army Opns, I, 41, refers to the report as “intelligence reports,” but does not indicate its origin any further. 5th Air Gp Opns, Japanese Studies in World War II, No.3, p. 6.]

Japanese fears of an American attack against Formosa were not without foundation. Such plans had already been made and target data had been prepared. The objective folders were far from complete, however, and lacked calibrated bomb-target maps and bomb release lines for given speeds and altitudes. “But we had something complete enough,” thought Captain Allison Ind, a Far East Air Force intelligence officer, “to make this bombing mission a very far cry from the blind stab it would have had to be otherwise.”

On his first visit to USAFFE headquarters about 0500, General Brereton had been unable to see MacArthur and had talked with Sutherland. At that time he had requested permission to carry out a daylight attack against Formosa. MacArthur’s chief of staff had told him to go ahead with the necessary preparations, but to wait for MacArthur’s authorization before starting the attack. Brereton returned to his headquarters at Nielson Field, where he talked with Colonel Eubank, who had just flown down from Clark Field. Orders were issued to get the B-17’s ready. At about 0715 Brereton apparently went to MacArthur’s headquarters again to request permission to attack Formosa. Again he was told by Sutherland to stand by for orders.

About this time the Far East Air Force commander received a transoceanic telephone call from his air force chief, General Arnold. Brereton explained what he was trying to do, and Arnold told him what had happened at Pearl Harbor, so that, as he later explained, Brereton would not be caught in the same way and have his “entire air force destroyed.”

By this time, reports of enemy flights were being received at air force headquarters and planes of the Interceptor Command were sent up. Around 0800 the heavy bombers at Clark Field were ordered aloft on patrol, without bombs, to avoid being caught on the ground.

At 1000 Brereton renewed his request to take offensive action. “I personally called General Sutherland,” he says, “and informed him … that if Clark Field was attacked successfully we would be unable to operate offensively with the bombers.” Again the request was denied. Ten minutes later, Colonel Eubank started back to Clark Field with instructions to dispatch a photographic reconnaissance mission immediately to southern Formosa. No sooner had those orders been issued than Brereton received a telephone call from General MacArthur. He told MacArthur that since Clark Field had not yet been attacked, he would hold the bombers in readiness until he received reports from the reconnaissance mission already authorized.

They agreed that if no reports were received, the bombers would attack Formosa late that afternoon. MacArthur left to Brereton “the decision for offensive action.” Brereton called in his staff and told them of his conversation with MacArthur. Orders were then dispatched to Clark Field to call in the heavy bombers. Three were to be readied for the photo reconnaissance mission; the others were to be briefed for offensive missions. At 1120 Field Order No.1 of the Far East Air Force was sent by teletype to Clark Field. It confirmed Brereton’s instructions to Eubank, given at 1045, to attack southern Formosa with two heavy bombardment squadrons “at the latest daylight hour today that visibility will permit.” By 1130 the bombers were back on the field, being loaded with 100-and 300-pound bombs; the fighters had also returned to base for refueling. At 1156 Brereton gave Sutherland a full report of the situation over the telephone, and informed him that he planned to attack Formosa fields late that afternoon.

[Summary of Activities, Far East Air Force, entry of 8 Dec 41. General Brereton omits entirely any mention of his conversation with General MacArthur, and states that he received the authorization to attack Formosa at 1100 from General Sutherland. In an interview with the present author in June 1951, Sutherland declared that he does not recall that Brereton spoke with MacArthur that morning. Brereton, Diaries, p. 41.]

General Sutherland’s account of the proposed raid on Formosa differs from the air force story. On one occasion, Sutherland recollected that there had been some plan to bomb Formosa on 8 December but that “Brereton said he had to have the photos first.” On another occasion Sutherland took the opposite and more consistent position that when Brereton asked for permission to attack Formosa, he, Sutherland, had ordered a reconnaissance first.

General MacArthur’s statements do not throw any light on this question. He had received word from Washington early that morning (at 0530) that hostilities with Japan had begun, and that he was to carry out the tasks assigned in RAINBOW. Brereton’s surmise, therefore, that he was not permitted at first to attack Formosa because MacArthur was under orders not to attack unless attacked first and that the Pearl Harbor attack “might not have been construed as an overt act against the Philippines” must be dismissed. MacArthur had authority to act, and RAINBOW specifically assigned as one of his missions “air raids against Japanese forces and installations within tactical operating radius of available bases.” General Brereton’s surmise, however, was not entirely without foundation. It was evidently based on the 27 November warning from the War Department. That warning had stated that “if hostilities cannot be avoided the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act.”

The War Department had been careful, however, not to restrict MacArthur’s freedom of action, and had authorized him in the same message to “undertake such reconnaissance and other measures as you deem necessary” prior to hostile Japanese action. In the event of war he was to execute the tasks assigned in RAINBOW.

In the period between the receipt of this message and the outbreak of hostilities, the B-17’s had flown reconnaissance missions north of Luzon in the direction of Formosa. Their search sectors, according to General Sutherland, reached to “the southern edge of Formosa with one segment of the pie running up the east coast of the island a little way.” But General Brereton declares that he was instructed by MacArthur to limit reconnaissance to “two-thirds of the distance between North Luzon and Southern Formosa.” Later, he says, he secured permission to extend the northern limit of the search sector to the international treaty boundary between the Philippines and Formosa. On the basis of Sutherland’s statement, then, it was possible to conduct a partial reconnaissance of Formosa before the war; according to Brereton there was no prewar reconnaissance on MacArthur’s orders.

On Brereton’s proposal to bomb Formosa, General MacArthur expressed himself most clearly. When Brereton’s diaries were published in 1946, MacArthur released a statement to the press recounting in full his recollection of the events of 8 December 1941. The press release, issued on 27 September 1946, read: General Brereton never recommended an attack on Formosa to me and I know nothing of such a recommendation having been made …. That it must have been of a most nebulous and superficial character, as no official record exists of it at headquarters. That such a proposal, if intended seriously, should have been made to me in person by him; that he never has spoken of the matter to me either before or after the Clark Field attack. That an attack on Formosa with its heavy concentrations by his small bomber force without fighter support, which because of the great distance involved, was impossible, would have had no chance of success.

On 8 December, in summarizing the results of the Japanese attack, MacArthur had told the War Department: “I am launching a heavy bombardment counterattack tomorrow morning on enemy airdromes in southern Formosa.” It is evident, then, that MacArthur himself planned, by the afternoon or evening of the 8th, to execute an attack against Formosa with the remaining B-17’s.

Faced with these conflicting accounts, the historian can be sure only of five facts:

(1) That an attack against Formosa was proposed;

(2) that such an attack was deferred in favor of a photo reconnaissance mission requested either by Brereton or Sutherland;

(3) that about 1100 on 8 December a strike against Formosa, to take place that day, was finally authorized; (4) that the heavy bombers were back on Clark Field after 1130 on the morning of 8 December; and

( 5) that MacArthur planned an attack against Formosa for the morning of 9 December.

The Attack

The Japanese, fearing an air attack against Formosa, had meanwhile made haste to get their planes off the ground. The fog, which had grounded the 11th Air Fleet, had lifted to the east at dawn, permitting twenty-five twin-engine Army bombers to take off for Luzon.

Shortly before 0900 the Japanese Army bombers were reported by the aircraft warning service on Luzon to be heading south over Lingayen Gulf in the direction of Manila. It was probably this report that sent the B-17’s at Clark Field aloft without bombs. The 20th Pursuit Squadron at Clark took off to intercept the strike and the 17th Pursuit Squadron rose from Nichols Field to cover Clark. But the Japanese Army planes, limited to targets north of the 16th latitude, turned east as they approached Lingayen Gulf.

One group struck Tuguegarao at about 0930 while another concentrated on barracks and other installations at Baguio, the summer capital of the Commonwealth, where Quezon was staying at this time. The Japanese bombers returned to base without having sighted any American aircraft. Far East Air Force reports between 1000 and 1030 of a flight of enemy bombers, first in the Cagayan valley, and then “turned around and proceeding north,” apparently referred to these Japanese Army planes.

By the time the false report of approaching B-17’s had been received on Formosa, the fog had lifted sufficiently to permit the naval planes of the 11th Air Fleet to take off. At 1015, a force of 108 twin-engine bombers escorted by eighty-four Zeros set out for Clark and Iba. Only the very best and most experienced pilots had been assigned to this important mission.

As the Japanese planes approached northern Luzon, the airborne American aircraft received the all-clear signal and were instructed to land. By 1130 nearly all the planes were back at their bases. The two squadrons of B-17’s were on Clark Field, loading with gas and bombs for the raid against Formosa. The 20th Pursuit Squadron was also at Clark after its vain attempt to intercept the last Japanese flight. At Nichols, the 17th Pursuit Squadron, which had been covering Clark, was landing to refuel. The 3d and 34th Pursuit Squadrons were standing by at Iba and Del Carmen. Shortly before 1130, reports of an approaching enemy formation began coming in to the plotting board at Nielson.

In addition to radar reports, almost every postmaster along the northwest coast of Luzon reported the high-flying enemy bombers to the air warning center by telephone or telegraph. Colonel George, chief of staff of the Interceptor Command, was in the plotting room when the reports were coming in, and predicted “that the objective of this formidable formation was Clark Field.”

At about 1145, according to Colonel Alexander H. Campbell, the aircraft warning officer, a warning message went out to Clark Field by teletype. If the message did not get through, as is frequently asserted, this fact was not known to the officers in the plotting room at Nielson. It is asserted also that an attempt to warn the field by radio over the Far East Air Force net was made, but with no success. The reason for this failure can only be guessed. Colonel James V. Collier, a 0-3 officer in USAFFE headquarters, later stated, “The radio operator had left his station to go to lunch,” and another source states, “Radio reception was drowned by static which the Japanese probably caused by systematic jamming of the frequencies.” Apparently other available means of communication, such as the long distance telephone lines, telegraph, and the command radio net to Fort Stotsenburg, were not used or thought of. Colonel Campbell did get a telephone message through to Clark Field and talked with an unknown junior officer there. This officer intended, said Campbell, to give the base commander or the operations officer the message at the earliest opportunity.

Meanwhile, Colonel George at Nielson had dispersed his fighters to meet the attack. The 34th Squadron was ordered to cover Clark Field; the 17th, the Bataan peninsula; and the 21st, the Manila area. The 3d Squadron at Iba was dispatched to intercept a reported enemy formation over the South China Sea. At Clark Field, two squadrons of B-17’s and the 20th Pursuit Squadron were still on the ground. Sometime shortly before 1145 the fighters were ordered aloft as soon as refueling was completed to cover their own base.

The 3d Pursuit Squadron took off from Iba to intercept the enemy flight over the South China Sea. A thick haze of dust prevented the 34th at Del Carmen from taking off, and at 1215 the 20th Pursuit Squadron at Clark, whose planes had just completed refueling, made ready to take off. At that moment the first formation of Japanese bombers appeared over Clark Field. All but one of the B-17’s was lined up on the field and the fighters were just getting ready to take off. After the warning of the Pearl Harbor attack, and after the loss of several valuable hours because of bad weather, the Japanese pilots did not expect to find so rich a harvest waiting for them. But they did not question their good fortune. The first flight of Japanese planes consisted of twenty-seven twin-engine bombers. They came over the unprotected field in a V-formation at a height estimated at 22,000 to 25,000 feet, dropping their bombs on the aircraft and buildings below, just as the air raid warning sounded.

[(: Sgt. Alfred H. Eckles, Hopkinsville, Ky., was on duty with Major Sam Lamb’s communication detail Hqrs. F. E. A. F. Dec. 8th and carried message to Teletype operator: re flight of planes heading toward Clark Field, saw it sent and acknowledged as received by them. This at about 11 :45 (?) A. M., about 30-45 min. before arrival of bombers and bombing of Clark Field. I, together with Coyle, George and Sprague watched this particular flight for considerable length of time. I kept urging them to do something about it, but they insisted on waiting until they reached a certain distance from field. Sprague typed wrote out message showed it to George and myself. I asked what “Kickapoo” meant in message. Was told it meant, “Go get ’em.” Sprague then took message into Teletype Room for transmission, about 15 minutes before bombing.) would imply that Colonel George was in communication with the pursuit squadron at Clark Field after 1145, although the Bomber Command could not be reached at this time. .. Hist of Fifth Air Force, p. 16.]

As at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese achieved complete tactical surprise. The first flight was followed immediately by a similar formation which remained over the field for fifteen minutes. The planes in this formation, as in the first, accomplished their mission almost entirely without molestation. American antiaircraft shells exploded from 2,000 to 4,000 feet short of the targets. After the second formation of bombers, came thirty-four Zeros which the Americans believed were carrier based-to deliver the final blow with their low-level strafing attacks on the grounded B-17’s, and on the P-40’s with their full gasoline tanks. This attack lasted for more than an hour.

[.. It is not possible to state the exact time of this attack. Like so many other matters, this question, too, is controversial. The author has selected this time, about 1220, since it is supported by the weight of evidence. Walter D. Edmonds gives the time as 1240 in his account of the attack. They Fought With What They Had, pp. 100, 102n.]

With the first high wail of the siren, the men on the field below streamed from the mess halls. As the bombers passed over, the Americans could see the falling bombs glistening in the sunlight. Then came the explosions, hundreds of them, so violent that they seemed to pierce the eardrums and shake the ground. Throwing aside momentary disbelief and stupefaction, the men rushed to their battle stations. The scene was one of destruction and horror, unbelievable to the men who only a few minutes before had been eating lunch or servicing the planes. Flash fires sprang up and spread rapidly to the trees and long cogon grass around the field “roaring and crackling like an evil beast.” Dense smoke and a heavy cloud of dust rose over the field.

Against such odds, the Americans could offer little opposition. The 200th Coast Artillery (AA) experienced considerable difficulty with its 3-inch gun ammunition, the most recent of which was manufactured in 1932. The percentage of duds was abnormally high and “most of the fuses were badly corroded.” Only one of every six shells fired, says one observer, actually exploded.

Acts of personal heroism were commonplace. Ground and combat crews manned the guns of the grounded planes, and men dashed into flaming buildings to rescue their comrades as well as supplies and equipment. Others braved the strafing gunfire to aid the wounded. One private appropriated an abandoned truck and made seven trips with wounded men to the station hospital.

During the attack, 3 P-40’s of the 20th Pursuit Squadron managed to get into the air, but 5 more were blasted by bombs as they taxied for the take-off. A similar number was caught in the strafing attack. [.. This account of the operations of the 20th Pursuit Squadron is based on an interview with the squadron commander, Colonel Joseph H., Moore, 12 August 1949. It varies slightly from the official air force account which places four planes in the air before the attack.]

The 3 airborne fighters shot down 3 or 4 Japanese fighters. The 34th Pursuit Squadron, still at Del Carmen, could see the great clouds of smoke rising from Clark. The old P-35’s of the squadron finally managed to take off and were soon in action against the superior Zeros over Clark. Though outclassed and outnumbered, the squadron knocked down three enemy fighters without loss to itself.

But few of its planes were without serious damage. The 17th and 21st Pursuit Squadrons, on patrol over Bataan and Manila, made no effort to attack the Japanese aircraft, presumably because the communications center at Clark had been bombed out and news of the raid did not reach the Interceptor Command in time to dispatch aid.

The 11th Air Fleet’s attack against Clark was even more successful than the worried Japanese had expected. The operation had been well planned and executed. The first flights of bombers had concentrated on the hangars, barracks, and warehouses, and left them a burning ruin. Some of the grounded planes had been damaged in these bombings but the greatest casualties were inflicted by the low-level attacks of the Zeros which followed. Casualties in men were fifty-five killed and more than one hundred wounded.

Simultaneously with the raid against Clark, other 11th Air Fleet planes were at tacking the fighter base at Iba. The 12 planes of the 3d Pursuit Squadron, which had been patrolling over the China Sea, low on gas, returned to base. As they were circling to land, Iba was struck by 54 Japanese twin-motored naval bombers escorted by 50 Zeros. Effective action by the P-40’s resulted in the loss of 2 Japanese fighters (probable’s) and kept the Zeros from carrying out the low-level attacks which were so successful at Clark. But the losses at Iba were almost as great as at Clark. Barracks, warehouses, equipment, and the radar station were destroyed. Ground crews suffered heavy casualties and all but 2 of the 3d Squadron’s P-40’s were lost.

The reaction from Washington headquarters of the Air Forces Wail delayed but explosive, despite a radio from MacArthur stating that the losses had been “due to overwhelming superiority of enemy forces.” General Arnold, when he received the news of the losses in the Philippines, “could not help thinking that there must have been some mistake made somewhere in my Air Force command,” and he decided “to tell Brereton so.” Brereton had just returned from an inspection of Clark Field when he received a transoceanic telephone call from an irate General Arnold asking “how in the hell” an experienced airman like himself could have been caught with his planes down. Apparently he felt his explanation had not satisfied General Arnold, for he immediately reported the conversation to MacArthur and asked his help in presenting the situation to the Army Air Forces chief. According to Brereton, MacArthur was furious. “He told me to go back and fight the war and not to worry,” Brereton recorded in his diary. “As I walked out of his office he asked Sutherland to get General Marshall on the phone.” Unfortunately, there is no record of the telephone conversation that followed.

Thus, after one day of war, with its strength cut in half, the Far East Air Force had been eliminated as an effective fighting force. Of the modern combat aircraft, only 17 of the original 35 B-17’s remained. Fifty-three P-40’s and 3 P-35’s had been destroyed, and an additional 25 or 30 miscellaneous aircraft (B-10’s, B-18’s, and observation planes) were gone. In addition, many of the planes listed as operational were heavily damaged. Installations at Clark and Iba were either burned out or badly hit. Total casualties for the day were 80 killed and 150 wounded. The total cost to the Japanese was 7 fighters. [.. Japanese Naval Opns in Phil Invasion, p. 7. An additional fighter of the 4th Carrier Squadron was lost at Davao. Craven and Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II, I, 213. There is some disagreement on the number of P-40’s lost, some sources placing the figure as low as 42. USSBS, Japanese Air Power, p .. 7.] The conclusion of the Joint Congressional Committee which investigated the Pearl Harbor attack, that it was the greatest military disaster in American history, is equally applicable to the Philippines.


The catastrophe of Pearl Harbor overshadowed at the time and still obscures the extent of the ignominious defeat inflicted on American air forces in the Philippines on the same day. The Far East Air Force had been designed as a striking force to hit the enemy before he could reach Philippine shores. The heavy bombers were an offensive weapon, thought capable of striking the enemy’s bases and cutting his lines of communication. Hopes for the active defense of the Islands rested on these aircraft. At the end of the first day of war, such hopes were dead.

The tragedy of Clark Field, where the heavy bombers were caught like so many sitting ducks, becomes even more tragic when one considers the strange sequence of events that preceded it. Even before the war, the danger of basing the B-17’s on Clark Field had been recognized. General MacArthur had written to General Marshall on 29 November, “The location of potential enemy fields and types of aircraft indicate that heavy bombers should be located south of Luzon where they would be reasonably safe from attack.” He intended at the time to base the bombers in the Visayas. Time did not permit the construction of fields there, but before the outbreak of hostilities he did order General Brereton to move the heavy bombers from Clark Field to Mindanao.

During the first week in December, Brereton had sent two squadrons of B-17’s to the recently constructed field at Del Monte in Mindanao. The decision to move only two squadrons, Brereton states, was based on the expected arrival from the United States of the 7th Bombardment Group which was to be stationed at Del Monte. Had all the heavy bombers on Clark been transferred to Mindanao, there would have been no room for the 7th when it arrived.

General Sutherland’s version of the same incident differs considerably from that of the air force commander. It was at his insistence, he recollected, that even the two squadrons were sent south. “General Brereton,” he says, “did not want them to go.” Sutherland says he had ordered all the B-17’s moved to Del Monte. On checking, he had found that only half of the planes had been sent and that General MacArthur’s orders had not been obeyed.

Wherever the responsibility lies for failing to move all the B-17’s south, there still remains the question of why the remaining bombers were caught on the ground. Brereton argues that had he been permitted to attack Formosa when he wished, the planes would not have been on the field. Implicit is the assumption that if the raid had been successful, the Japanese could not have made their own attack. MacArthur denied knowledge of such a proposal in 1946, but in a radio sent on 8 December 1941 he stated that he intended to attack Formosa the next morning. General Sutherland, in one interview, claimed that Brereton was responsible for deferring the attack, and in another interview, that he himself deferred the attack because the Far East Air Force did not have sufficient target data for such an attack. It is clear that this project was discussed by Brereton and Sutherland, that MacArthur mentioned it in a radio that day, and that authorization to execute the attack was delayed until 1100 that morning.

Whether such an attack would have had a serious chance of success is not argued by either Sutherland or Brereton. Knowing now what the Japanese had at Formosa, the possibility of a successful raid by the B-17’s seems extremely remote.

The Far East Air Force admittedly had sketchy information on the strength and disposition of the Japanese forces on Formosa. Had it been known that there were over five hundred Japanese planes waiting on Formosa, ready to take off, it is doubtful that anyone would have considered the project seriously. Moreover, the B-17’s would have had to fly to Formosa, out of fighter range, unescorted. Once there, they would have been greeted by swarms of Zeros. “An attack on Formosa, with its heavy air concentrations,” MacArthur later wrote, ” … was impossible, would have had no chance of success.” Sutherland’s request for a photo reconnaissance mission prior to an attack would appear, therefore, to have been entirely justified. The heavy bombers were indeed far too valuable to risk in so hazardous a mission.

Another unresolved question is why the warning of approaching Japanese aircraft did not reach the bomber commander at Clark Field in time to meet the attack. All forces in the Philippines had knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor hours before the first Japanese bombers appeared over Luzon.

A dawn raid at Davao had given notice that the Japanese had no intention of bypassing the archipelago. The early morning bombings on Luzon gave even more pointed warning that an attack against the major airbase in the Islands could be expected. Colonel Campbell testifies that Clark Field had received word of the approaching Japanese aircraft before the attack. Colonel Eubank states that no such warning was ever received. Other officers speak of the breakdown of communications at this critical juncture. There is no way of resolving this conflicting testimony.

Assuming that Colonel Eubank did not receive the warning from Nielson Field, there still remains one final question. Were the aircraft on the field adequately dispersed for wartime condition? It is not possible to state definitely how the aircraft were dispersed when they came in at 1130.

There surely must have been some recognition of the danger of an enemy air attack at any moment. The Japanese state that they were “surprised to find the American aircraft lined up on the field.” And at least one flight of four B-17’s was lined neatly on the field when the Japanese came over. Captain Ind tells of finding photographs, one of which was taken by an American pilot flying over the field, showing the planes inadequately dispersed for any but high-level bombing attacks. “This entire set of photographs,” he says, “was removed from my desk a few nights later. No one seemed to know what had happened to them.”. This question, like the others, remains unanswered.

The full story of the events which preceded the Japanese air attacks against the Far East Air Force on the first day of the war will probably never be known. There was no time for reports, and if any records ever existed they have since been lost. The historian must rely on the memories of participants whose stories conflict at numerous points. General Arnold, eight years after the event, wrote that he was never able “to get the real story of what happened in the Philippines.” Brereton’s diary, in his opinion, did not provide “a complete and accurate account,” and General Sutherland’s story “does not completely clear it up, by any means.”

Whatever the answers to the questions one may ask about the events of 8-9 December 1941 on Luzon, the significance of these events is clear. As at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had removed in one stroke the greatest single obstacle to their advance southward. The Philippine garrison could expect little help in the near future. It was now almost entirely surrounded. The only path open lay to the south, and that, too, soon would be closed.

SOURCE: The Fall Of The Philippines by Louis Morton (United States Army Center of Military History)




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