Seventy-three years ago on March 3, 1945, the Battle for Manila ended with the city in ruin. By that time the battle started on February 3, majority of the bridges over Pasig River had been destroyed by the Japanese in anticipation of the Americans advancing into the city.
During the month-long battle between February 3 and March 3, 1945, Manila was completely destroyed. All that remained by the end were heaps of smouldering rubble. The charred bodies half-buried in the ruins bore terrible witness to a massacre beyond the nightmare of any Manileño. An estimated 100,000 Manileño had been killed. The Battle for Manila occupies a unique place in the history of the Pacific War. It was the only occasion on which American and Japanese forces fought each other in a city and it was the largest battle of its kind yet fought by either the American or the Japanese armies. The destruction of Manila was on the same scale as the destruction of Warsaw (Aug. 1-Oct. 2, 1944), and smaller only than the battles of Berlin (Apr. 20-May 2, 1945) and Stalingrad (Sept. 13, 1942 – Feb. 2, 1943).
The Japanese Fourteenth Army commander, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, had ordered withdrawal from the city, but he could not control other commands, notably the Japanese Navy, which decided to defend the city with more than 16,000 ill-trained fighters.
When the American troops moved in, the Japanese fought back and the civilians fled their homes. So it went in one section of the city after another as the battle raged through Manila. Many citizens ran blindly into the line of fire and were hit by shrapnel or bullets. Others were deliberately mowed down by vindictive Japanese soldiers.
In the two weeks after the liberation of Santo Tomas, the Americans fought the Japanese street by street, building by building. They drove the Japanese out of Malacañang Palace, fought them at the Manila Hotel and in downtown business districts. The business district was dust and cinders, and the smell of rotting flesh permeated the streets. The Malate and Ermita districts, where the Japanese had set up barriers, were hard hit – they torched buildings as they retreated. As they destroyed local infrastructure, Japanese troops left whole neighborhoods without water, food, or housing. Sometimes the fighting was floor to floor. For a time, U.S. troops held the main floor of the Manila Hotel but the Japanese launched sniper fire from the upper floors. After taking over Manila Hotel, the U.S. troops fought their way to retake City Hall and the Post Office simultaneously before they advanced into Intramuros.
In early February, about 4,000 residents of Intramuros were taken hostage by the Japanese. The men were locked up in Fort Santiago; the women and children were herded into two churches. They had practically no water, and the food they brought with them was soon exhausted.
U.S. troops could not force the surrender of several thousand of the Japanese troops who were holed up at Intramuros. U.S. Commanders set up loudspeakers and blasted demands that the enemy soldiers give up. When that failed, the U.S. commanders ordered a massive artillery attack on the old city.
The American began shelling the city on Feb. 17. Shell fragments showered down on the churches. In one, more than 300 people died. The attack halted temporarily when the GIs who ran through the shattered walls discovered three thousand civilians who took sanctuary in the churches within Intramuros. The refugees, mainly women and children – most men had been executed – were escorted out.
Soon after the civilian hostages had been released from Intramuros, the Americans resumed firing and completed the capture of the old walled city. Here they saw the remains of the missing hostages: priests who had been buried alive inside underground shelters, women and infants who had been mutilated with bayonets and sabers, men who had died in torture and flames.
No place held by the Japanese was safe for the civilians. Many people thought they would find refuge within the reinforced concrete walls of the Philippine General Hospital. But Japanese units set up positions behind the Philippine General Hospital and lobbed shells from behind the hospital toward American positions . When the Japanese turned the hospital into a fortress, the Americans shelled it. For five days nearly 7,000 men, women and children and several hundred patients were thus isolated within the walls. Survivors testified that some Japanese soldiers executed civilians, raped women, and burned people live.
Remaining Japanese troops huddled in Intramuros and other pockets of hopeless resistance. Desperate and unyielding, they began demolition of military facilities that devolved into wider destruction. They committed reprisals and random executions of civilians in Intramuros and elsewhere downtown. There were deaths even among the former detainees at Santo Tomas in the days after the cavalry ousted their Japanese guards.
On February 22, 1945, even as fighting raged elsewhere, General Douglas MacArthur raised the American flag over the U.S. embassy on Manila Bay, recovered after a two-day battle with the Japanese. Fires smoldered, battles still raged, and the U.S. forces faced no alternative but to answer the Japanese gunfire with howitzers.
The Japanese standoff against 35,000 well-equipped U.S. soldiers and 3,000 guerillas devolved into a month of unimaginable carnage. When it was over, most of the Japanese troops had died and more than 1,000 U.S. troops had been killed. An estimated 100,000 Filipinos were dead. Manila, the Pearl of the Orient, had steadily been striped of its remaining glory – three years of occupation, hunger, dehumanization, decay, and the underlying horror of the conflagration to come.
The scale of urban destruction in the capital of the Philippines was a singular horror, rivaling the lethal battle for Warsaw, comparable to the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo. Buildings that had not been bombed in the U.S. assault to retake the islands were destroyed by the Japanese as they often fought to the death. The Sixth U.S. Army continued sweep-up operations on Japanese holdouts throughout February. The port area was secured by the end of the month.
Finally the bloody siege of Manila was declared over on March 3, 1945. The city had been flattened and the Pearl was gone.
The Battle for Manila by Richard Connaughton, John Pimlott and Duncan Anderson
MacArthur Spies by Peter Eisner
Crisis in the Pacific by Gerald Astor
Return to the Philippines WWII, Time Life Book
On a side note, here are some pictures of Intramuros taken by my husband, Matthew Morgan, a few years ago when he went to Manila for the first and only time he was in the Philippines.
And here is Matt Morgan in Intramuros with the young daughter of our compadre who was his host for a couple of days in Manila.