Remembering a Greater Pacific Hero

By Bolger, Lt Gen Daniel P. | Army, August 2015 | Go to article overview

Remembering a Greater Pacific Hero


Bolger, Lt Gen Daniel P., Army


When the orders came that September morning in 1940, the newly promoted major general could not have been happier. A combat veteran and star of a recent field exercise to evaluate training and logistics, he had served in uniform for more than 30 years. With the world in turmoil for the second time in two decades came the assignment Maj. Gen. Jonathan M. "Skinny" Wainwright had wanted his entire life, the assignment any general wants most: command of a division.

Wainwright, of the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, was not taking command of the elite 1st Cav. Instead, he drew an even tougher posting: commanding general of the superb Philippine Division, the most forward-deployed U.S. Army contingent in the western Pacific Ocean. The Philippines were U.S. territory-though they had been promised future independence-and America administered the lands with full responsibility for defense against all enemies. By 1940, the threat was all too obvious. Imperial Japan was on the march across East Asia.

The Philippine Division consisted of the understrength U.S. 31st Infantry Regiment (about 2,000 soldiers) and nearly 8,000 Philippine scouts, carefully recruited, well-trained locals led by American officers and a few well-chosen NCOs. The Philippine Division wore a distinctive patch: a red shield with the gold head of a horned carabao, the notoriously strong and stubborn water buffalo native to the islands. The symbol was well-chosen. Wainwright's division was expected to defend the archipelago with the strength and determination of a stout carabao-or so went conventional military wisdom.

A joint Army-Navy defense plan for possible war with Japan had been established after World War I. Under War Plan Orange, the Philippine Division's mission was to withdraw to the rugged Bataan Peninsula, fronting Manila Bay, and defend the bay "to the last extremity." They expected to be able to hold on for six months while the U.S. gathered strength to reinforce the division and mount a counteroffensive.

Wainwright and his Army and Navy counterparts believed there would be some major sea battle offshore to clear the way. Then the U.S. Pacific Fleet would arrive with powerful battleships, aircraft carriers teeming with warplanes, and troop ships full of reinforcements. It was the story line from a Hollywood Western: Hang on to Fort Apache until the cavalry arrives to save the day. Longtime cavalry officer Wainwright knew it well.

As soon as he took command of the Philippine Division, Wainwright was everywhere, pushing himself and his men hard as they trained to do their part. Then their part changed.

By late 1941, the U.S. had brought Gen. Douglas MacArthur back on duty. Wainwright was quite familiar with his new commander. Both men had been first captains-the top cadets in their West Point classes-but while Wainwright had served in the Great War as a dutiful General Staff officer in the 82nd Division (Sgt. Alvin York's outfit, and not yet "Airborne" in 1918), MacArthur had been the dashing beau sabreur of World War I's famous 42nd Rainbow Division, leading attacks, patrols and trench raids while sporting a crushed cap and long scarf and armed with a riding crop. After World War I, MacArthur went on to be a reforming superintendent at West Point and Army Chief of Staff before being recalled to active duty.

Brave, brilliant and creative, MacArthur could also be pompous, self-centered and vain. He talked of duty, and performed his far better than most. But too often, he was all about MacArthur. Now that gifted, flawed general commanded Wainwright and the rest of the Americans out on a limb in the Philippines. As usual, MacArthur would do things his way.

Faced with imminent Japanese invasion, MacArthur dismissed War Plan Orange as "stereotyped" and "defeatist." He chose to go with a bold defense of multiple beaches, relying on newly raised Philippine Army units. MacArthur thought his Army Air Forces bombers and Navy submarines could keep invaders at bay. …

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