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The Duel Between General Homma and MacArthur and the Philippine Battles

Updated on December 31, 2017

The beginning

World War II is a watershed in world history and was in many ways the “Mother of all wars”. The Japanese for perhaps what are now known as valid reasons decided to breakout of the stranglehold of the US and Britain and launched a war in SE Asia. Their initial success was simply magnificent as the Imperial army swept all before it. In 1942 One of the steps of the Imperial army was to invade the Philippines. The commander of the Imperial army was Lieutenant General Mashharu Homma.

Philippines were a protectorate of the USA and it had a large contingent of the US armed forces stationed there. The Japanese attack was characterized by lightning speed as well as a well formulated battle plan. The commander of the US forces was general Douglas MacArthur who faced General Homma. In this battle general Homma proved himself an astute general and MacArthur had to flee the Philippines.

general Homma at his war crimes trial
general Homma at his war crimes trial

The battle

. The battle lasted for 3monthsfrom 7 Jan-9 April 1942 and at the end almost 75000 US and Philippine troops surrendered. The battle is important as it is the first occasion that such a large number of US troops surrendered

This by itself is not anything new, as in war surrenders do take place. But this surrender needs evaluation as its aftermath an act of great cruelty by the Imperial army took place. Before this the Americans were outthought and outgunned by the astute Homma, a fact that rankled with MacArthur later when Homma was brought to trial as a war criminal. The fighting was severe, but the Imperial army carried the day.

Do you feel general Homma Merited the Death penalty ?

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Escape of General MacArthur

General MacArthur slunk away secretly by a special boat to Australia leaving another American general to surrender the US Troops. MacArthur if he had some strategic sense should have immediately planned to evacuate the troops to Australia when the Japanese offensive began, but he had no such plans and finally like Rommel leaving the Afrika Corps to fend for himself while he escaped to Germany, MacArthur also left his troops and escaped to Australia

. This was to say a step dictated by self-survival and has not been adequately covered by western writers who have tried to cover the escape in romantic tales. Leaving the soldiers to become POWs of the Japanese was the first step in great hardship for the captured soldiers. The US general staff were aware of the Japanese philosophy of treating surrendered men and a harsh treatment was only expected of them.

US troops captured/ The Death March

General Homma accepted the surrender of US and Philippine troops and now their ordeal began. The captured POWs without food and water were made to walk 80 miles from Mariveles Corregidor to San Fernando. A box train was used by the Japanese army to take the POWs from San Fernando to Capas. This train had no ventilation or sanitary facilities. This is known as the Bataan death march.
The death march consisted of making the POWs walk on foot for the entire day without stopping. No food or water was given by the Japanese. Those POWs who were sick or infirm were just bayoneted to death by the Japanese soldiers. Nearly 12000 Philippine and US soldiers died in this death march.

End of the War

One wonders how this atrocity took place as Japanese ignored all canons of law and the Geneva Convention, while executing this march. At the end of the war this was classified as a war crime and general Homma was arrested. General Homma denied that he had knowledge of this crime but this by itself is a weak defense as a commander in the battlefield must know what his subordinates are doing.

The trial of General Homma

The trial commenced on 3 January 1946 at Manila. The Philippine population which had suffered badly at the hands of the Japanese was hungry for the blood of the general who was classified as the ‘Butcher of Manila’. General Homma pleaded not guilty to all the charges. He claimed that he was not aware of the march and the subsequent hardship it caused. In court he came out as a suave, polished officer of the Imperial army. But witness after witness testified on oath that General Homma was responsible, though the court could find no document that directly linked Homma with the acts of the Imperial army.

Weak evidence

Most of the evidence presented would not in modern jurisprudence pass the test of natural justice. But as Homma had mentioned the trial was a foregone conclusion and Homma was sentenced to death by a firing squad. The supreme Court of the United States refused to intervene though two judges Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge dissented and in their judgments asked that the trial be not treated as a trial by a victor as it would set “dangerous precedents
The question which needs to be answered is whether Homma received a just sentence or not? There is no doubt that the death march took place and thousands died. The event took place when the Imperial army commander was general Homma. It is possible he was not fully aware as he claimed about the death march. But in legal jurisprudence there is something called vicarious liability. Homma was thus culpable; a commander cannot absolve himself of the act of his troops. But perhaps he did not merit the death sentence.

The finale

The defending team led by Major Skeene and Lieutenant Robert Petz recall that they were convinced that Homma was not culpable to be shot by a firing squad. But the handpicked members of the Court martial did what MacArthur expected them to do, sentencing Homma to Death. The general’s wife also met General MacArthur in Tokyo and requested him to review the sentence. MacArthur has recorded this in his book, but he confirmed the Generals death sentence. One factor that may have played on the mind of MacArthur was his humiliating defeat earlier at the hands of Homma.

The defense lawyers were convinced Homma was not guilty and at the most merited only a prison sentence. One has a lurking feeling that the bigger crime of general Homma was of having defeated MacArthur in the battle of Bataan. Hence he was executed in a nondescript place in the jungle with no trace.


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    • emge profile image

      Madan 2 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      thank you Lions for your opinion. Nice to read it.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      I respect your argument Emge, but I have to disagree. I just finished General Wainwright's memior of his time in captivity. Homma was directly responsible because he accepted Wainwright's surrender personally (on film) and could have improved the treatment of American and Fillipino soliders immediately prior to his removal from command in June 1942 (he remained as CO in name only; Yamashita took over). Orders could have been written up and approved. But nothing was done. Same goes for Yamashita.

      As for MacArthur, ego did a play a role in his decisions. There's no doubt about it. That doesn't make them bad decisions. His greatest achievement was the occupation of Japan, far greater than any of his battlefield victories. And his performance in the Philippines was not up to par, including his return in 1944.

    • emge profile image

      Madan 2 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Thank you Nate B11 for commenting and reading

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 2 years ago from California, United States of America

      Very interesting events in world history.