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The Manila Massacre Largely Forgotten but One of the Worst in History

The Japanese army perpetrated some of the most horrific crimes in World War Two.

By Sam H ArnoldPublished 5 months ago 5 min read

At the end of World War Two, Second Lieutenant John Hanley and his team surveyed the grounds of Dy Pac Lumberyard on the morning of 7 February 1945. The soldiers had grown accustomed to violence but were unprepared for what they saw.

There, amid the fields of Manila, the troops found the dead did not wear helmets or army uniforms, but instead, they were in dresses, nightgowns, and baby clothes.

It was clear to all that this had been the site of a massacre. It would not be the only one they discovered in Manila.

When they informed General Douglas MacArthur of what they had found, he insisted they documented everything; he was outraged by the atrocities. He was not about to let the destroyers of one of his favourite cities go unpunished.

Douglas MacArthur

Douglas MacArthur's life, like his father's, was intertwined with the Phillippines. During the Spanish-American War, Brigadier General Arthur MacArthur helped capture Manila and served as the military governor for the new American Colony.

After West Point, Douglas was posted in the Philippines. He would then visit it regularly throughout his career. He was driven from the area in distress at the start of the Second World War.

He vowed even then to return to the Philippines as he considered it his hometown. But, even he could not have predicted the devastations the Japanese would cause before this happened.

Japanese Occupation

MacArthur's life in Manila ended on 7 December 1941. Within a couple of hours of the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbour, they went on to bomb the Philippines.

Hoping to spare Manila, MacArthur declared it an open city, meaning that the Americans did not intend to defend it; he then evacuated his troops. The Japanese occupied Manila on 2 January 1942.

They started by rounding up thousands of American civilians and imprisoning them at the University of Santo Tomas, which is in the north of the city. These troops would face the Death March and then years in Japan's prisoner-of-war camps.

Manila would go on to suffer hugely under Japanese occupation, with the Japanese forces looting all food supplies, medicines and department stores. The fields that provided much of their food were left to rot.

Starvation would claim 500 lives a day. For the American families locked up in Santo Tomas, the only way to survive was to eat dogs, cats and rats.

Capturing Manila

MacArthur kept his promise to return, arriving on the Lingayen Gulf on 9 January 1945. It was then a 110-mile walk south to Manila. Standing in his way was Japanese general Tomoyuki

The older general had no plan to fight for Manila and left for the mountains. Rear Admiral Sandi Iwabuchi had other ideas.

Early in the war, American troops had destroyed Iwabuchi's battleship, and he had spent much of the war behind a desk; he had a score to settle.

Iwabuchi prepared a perimeter of large concrete buildings and barricaded the rooms with desks, chairs and bookcases. He then booby-trapped dozens of intersections. The American troops would need to fight through every inch to retake the city.

When American soldiers arrived on Philippine soil, they knew they had to take Manila. The battle would take twenty-nine days.

The first area they liberated was Santo Tomas. On the same day, 3 February 1945, Iwabuchi ordered the beginning of the destruction of Manila.

American Troops battled through the capital whilst the Japanese systematically slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians in what has been described as an orgy of mass murder.

Mass Murder

The violence, however, was not haphazard. It had been carefully planned. The Filipinos were gathered into one place and disposed of using various techniques. The ones shot immediately were amongst the luckier, as many were tortured and brutalised before death.

The Japanese stated they were killing suspected guerillas; they started by murdering the people at Dy Pac Lumberyard. A timeline of events would show that they systematically destroyed the city by annihilating the inhabitants.

After Dy Pac, the Japanese went to the district of Malate and rounded up civilians, herding them towards the dining hall at Saint Paul's College. At the time, they promised them safety from the battle. The chandeliers, however, were rigged with explosives. The explosion was so powerful it blew the roof off the building. Those who stumbled out were shot.

The following afternoon, the Japanese stormed the Red Cross headquarters and killed fifty civilians, including two infants, one just ten days old.

The same day, they surrounded the German Club, where 500 civilians had gathered. They doused the building in gasoline and set fire to it; again, those who escaped were shot. Women who tried to escape were set fire too.

One of the most gruesome crimes came when the Japanese converted a home at 1195 Singalong Street by cutting a hole in the floor upstairs. They marched the blindfolded victims up to the top floor, slashing their throats and throwing them down the hole. The pile of bodies eventually reached the top floor.

Other atrocities were committed, which are too gruesome to share.

War Crimes

The stories shared by survivors angered MacArthur, which is when he demanded his troops document everything they found. The documentation he ordered his troops to capture would provide evidence for one of the first war crimes trials in Asia.

Victory over the Japanese was finally achieved, but the cost was vast: 613 city blocks had been flattened, 100,000 civilians were dead, and another 200,000 were homeless.

Iwabuchi, the architect of the horror, had committed suicide at the end of the battle, never to face justice.

The army produced thousands of pages of evidence and detailed twenty-seven major atrocities in Manila; many more existed. The investigator's work formed the basis of the prosecutor's case against General Tomoyuki Yamashita.

Yamashita walked out of the mountains on 2 September 1945 and surrendered. He was taken to a courtroom in Manila, where he was put on trial and accused of failing to control his troop and those under his command, namely Iwabuchi.

The Battle of Manila was replayed to five judges and 16,000 spectators for thirty-two days. Witnesses who testified for themselves and their loved ones were called.

The evidence provided no direct link tying Yamashita to the massacres, but the case went ahead based on circumstantial evidence. Japanese military would testify that Yamashita was in contact with Manila throughout the battle.

This was enough to convict him; he was found guilty on 7 December 1945. Despite an appeal hearing on 23 February 1946, he was walked to a sugarcane field forty miles from Manila and hanged. MacArthur had ordered that he be stripped of all decoration and military clothing.

Life After

Manila slowly started to rebuild; however, the population would never forget what had happened to them. Many suffered from physical and emotional torment from those days.

Unlike the Rape of Nanjing, the atrocities in Manila have been largely forgotten.

Nearly fifty years after the battle, the survivors formed an organisation known as the Memorare Manila Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the story of the civilians who were sacrificed for the city's liberation.

Many questioned why the Japanese went to such extreme measures to destroy a city in a fight they knew they couldn't win. Journalist Pacita Pestaño-Jacinto captured the why perfectly in her diary.

Defeat is a bitter pill that the Japanese will not swallow. Defeat is the one thing that can make them turn into beasts.

On 22 February 2024, we mark seventy-nine days since the massacre. The devastation of Manila is one of the greatest tragedies in the war. Seventy per cent of the utilities, seventy-two per cent of the factories, eighty per cent of the southern residential district, and a hundred per cent of the business district were destroyed.

World History

About the Creator

Sam H Arnold

A writer obsessed with true crime, history and books. Find all my dedicated newsletters whether you are a true crime fan, bookworm or aspiring writer on Substack - https://substack.com/@samharnold

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  • Daphsam5 months ago

    That’s a very interesting history of Douglas MacArthur. Thank you for sharing. 

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