Smoke rises in Manila – February 27, 1945
Catastrophic World War Two events like the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Iwo Jima and the Normandy landings have become well-known landmarks in popular culture. Yet compared to an episode like Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Manila has been largely forgotten. This is tragic, because it was one of the most devastating confrontations of the entire conflict.
Manila has historically been known as the “Pearl of the Orient” and was once regarded as among Asia’s most beautiful cities. It was a place of blended cultures – including Spanish, Asian and American traditions. What’s more, it was a city rich with incredible architecture and artworks. Just before the outbreak of WWII, Manila was a vibrant, cosmopolitan place with a population of over one million people.
However, in February 1945, it became the scene of some of the most violent and terrible urban fighting of WWII and the setting for the second most destructive Allied involvement of the entire war – surpassed only by Warsaw. By the end of the battle, over 100,000 civilians, including many women and children, had been killed. The city was destroyed, and many say it has never recovered.
Women and children massacred by Japanese forces in Manila – 1945
“Noisy? It was so damn loud,” recalls one ex-US Army sergeant who was stationed in the Philippines with the 148th Regiment, 37th Division. “Hot and sticky and stinking, too. That’s what I remember most about the Battle for Manila. That and the blood and the death, the bodies and the smell. The sounds of death, dying, living or trying to live when all around everything was dying.” In addition to the civilian deaths, over 1,000 US soldiers lost their lives and 5,565 were injured in the month-long battle. Well over 16,000 Japanese troops died in one section of the city alone.
American forces entering a burning Manila – February 14, 1945
The Battle of Manila took place towards the end of the ongoing WWII Philippines Campaign of 1944 and 1945. It was waged by American and Filipino forces, with the aim of defeating and expelling the Japanese occupiers who had been controlling the islands since 1942. US and Australian troops had already won several victories in the Pacific. However, the Japanese military stationed in the Philippines were determined not to go quietly.
American troops face Japanese fire in Manila’s Chinatown – 1945
The Allied push to liberate Manila began with American forces – helped by Filipino guerillas – converging on the city from various directions throughout January 1945. General Tomoyuki Yamashita had ordered most of the Japanese troops to leave the city, as he was hoping to attack the opposing forces in another region of the Philippines.
Filipino children sit among the wreckage of a battle; one of them looks badly burned – 1945
In spite of General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s orders to evacuate, Rear Admiral Iwabuchi Sanji of the Japanese Navy re-occupied the city almost immediately afterwards. Iwabuchi Sanji brought around 16,000 naval men with him and took over control of the few thousand soldiers who remained in Manila. His reasons are thought to have been at least partly personal. He had lost a warship under his command and was determined to regain his honor by holding on to the Philippine capital. Moreover, he was willing to pay with the lives of his troops, right down to the last man.
Manila Bay with bombed Japanese ships. The district of Intramuros is visible on the right, as yet mostly undamaged – circa 1944-1945
Japanese forces prepared for the American assault by creating traps and bottlenecks, laying mines and barbed wire all over Manila. They also blew up every installation that could have been used by the Americans, including bridges and vital facilities. Using this strategy, they were able to hold their ground surprisingly well. Upon arriving in the city, US soldiers were forced to engage in much more fighting than they had expected.
The Legislative Building, which was made of reinforced concrete – 1945
Small Japanese units were set up in reinforced buildings and foxholes, the men firing their guns through windows or holes cut in the walls and floors. The only weapons they had in any number were machine guns and automatic cannons. There’s no question that the US forces were better equipped and used superior tactics, but the cornered Japanese soldiers were willing to fight to the death.
This woman was lying wounded in her burning home when Japanese troops bayoneted her – 1945
“We burned ‘em with flamethrowers, we shot ‘em, shelled ‘em, mortared ‘em, bombed ‘em, bayoneted ‘em,” continues the former US sergeant, describing combat with the Japanese. “We killed them any way we could. We didn’t take frickin’ prisoners even if they had given themselves up, which most of them never did. They would kill themselves rather than surrender.” The dire consequences of this brutal urban warfare were felt not only by the opposing forces but by the citizens trapped in the city as well.
Children play amongst the rubble that was once their homes – circa 1945-1946
The atrocities inflicted on the men, women and children of the city during the month of fighting are collectively known as the Manila massacre. Under a constant barrage from the Americans, and facing almost certain defeat, Japanese troops vented their frustration on the innocent Filipino populace. No mercy was shown to anyone: the old, the young, the sick and the elderly were all subjected to beheadings, torture, sexual assault and other brutal attacks.
Japanese prisoners of war in Manila – 1945
One particularly horrifying incident involved the then Mayfair Hotel in Manila. The Japanese used the building to incarcerate hundreds of Filipino citizens that they had taken captive. Before US troops could reach the hotel, the Japanese barricaded the doors and windows and set the building on fire. Any prisoners who attempted to escape were bayoneted or gunned down.
Destroyed buildings along Manila’s Pasig River – 1945
Compounding the threat of targeted killings by the Japanese, many Filipino civilians also became casualties of friendly fire. To limit civilian deaths, General MacArthur of the US Army imposed strict limitations on the use of aerial bombing and artillery attacks, but this didn’t stop the indiscriminate damage done by land weapons such as tank guns, grenades and bazookas.
Civilian survivors in the ruins of their once majestic city
Japanese troops had created a stronghold in the district of Intramuros and held 4,000 hostages. When the American soldiers attacked, there were many civilian deaths. In the end, fewer than three quarters of the hostages survived.
A woman does her laundry in a shell crater filled with water – 1945
The Japanese troops stationed in Intramuros continued to fight right until the end. No more than 25 Japanese military surrendered, and all were non-Japanese members of the Labor Force. It’s believed that, sensing defeat, Rear Admiral Iwabuchi Sanji and his staff committed suicide through the traditional method of self-disembowelment (seppuku) on February 26, 1945. However, Iwabuchi Sanji’s body was never found.
Fire burns fiercely in urban Manila – February 13, 1945
Despite the loss of the Rear Admiral, pockets of Japanese resistance remained throughout the city. Fighting lasted until March 3, when the last of the Japanese soldiers were cleared away. Yet while it was the end of the battle, it was not the end of the suffering for the people of Manila. Their city had been devastated. Water and electricity were out, and garbage collection services were halted. Educational establishments and hospitals had been razed in the fighting. And food and medical care were scarce. Furthermore, civilians who survived the gun battles and bombardments were now without shelter and in danger of dying of starvation.
An American medic aids a woman and her child – 1945
US forces stayed in Manila to help get the city back on its feet. Army engineers worked to restore vital facilities, and US troops cleared mines and unexploded shells. Mines were still causing injuries until the end of March. And the war in the Philippines would continue until August 15, 1945.
The Manila City Hall Clock Tower post-shelling – 1945
In the aftermath of the war, Japan’s General Tomoyuki Yamashita was tried and hanged for war crimes – including the Manila massacre and other atrocities enacted in the Philippines. Even though General Yamashita had called for the evacuation of Manila, he was still judged responsible for what occurred in the city. The judgment was not without controversy.
In 2001, a delegation from Japan’s Aoyama Gakuin University was horrified to find out about the history between Japan and the Philippines. They issued a “Statement of Peace and Reconciliation Between the Philippines and Japan” in which they apologized for what had happened on behalf of the Japanese people.
Victims in the Philippine General Hospital, Manila – 1945
A poignant memorial erected in Intramuros on February 18, 1995 reads: “This memorial is dedicated to all those innocent victims of war, many of whom went nameless and unknown to a common grave, or even never knew a grave at all, their bodies having been consumed by fire or crushed to dust beneath the rubble of ruins.”
“Let this monument be the gravestone for each and every one of the over 100,000 men, women, children and infants killed in Manila during its battle of liberation, February 3 – March 3, 1945. We have not forgotten them, nor shall we ever forget.”
“May they rest in peace as part now of the sacred ground of this city: the Manila of our affections.”
A mother and daughter lie together in death – 1945
The civilian death toll brought about by the Battle of Manila is comparable to that caused by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The horrific urban warfare has also been likened to what unfolded in Stalingrad. Even so, many people have since forgotten the Battle of Manila. We thank John Tewell for helping to keep the memory alive with his collection of photographs – and for sharing them with us.