The Book of the Week is “The Edge of Terror, The Heroic Story of American Families Trapped in the Japanese-Occupied Philippines” by Scott Walker, published in 2009.
This was a suspenseful story that focused mostly on a few lucky survivors of a war ordeal, but “American military losses in the Philippines are staggering and have never been fully realized by the American people.” For the reason of brevity, the author obviously could not cover all aspects of the historical backdrop that came together to determine which people in the story survived or died.
Anyway, in 1898, the Philippine islands became a protectorate of the United States. After WWI, Baptist medical missionaries settled in the city of Capiz on the island of Panay there. They established a nursing school and teaching-hospital, treating patients in a province comprised of approximately three hundred thousand people.
American expatriates in the Philippines fell largely into two categories: missionaries and mining-industry employees. They interacted socially– playing bridge and volleyball, attending beach parties and dances. The islands had mineral resources, and were strategically located on major trade routes.
In the first half of 1941, General Douglas MacArthur was appointed the supreme leader of American troops in the Philippines. But he wasn’t physically present for the rest of the war. That summer, some expatriate and military families sent wives and children back to the United States because they knew America would be entering WWII at some point. Up until the last week of December, others were evacuated from Manila to Bataan or Dumalag.
A week after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in early December 1941, they attacked Luzon. American and Filipino troops retreated, leaving large quantities of ammunition, supplies and food. MacArthur, already suffering from a bad case of hubris syndrome, incompetently waited a few weeks too long before deploying American troops to deter an attack on Manila Harbor; that Japanese attack came in the first week of January 1942. Many American lives were lost, and much American military hardware was destroyed. Mining engineers would no longer receive shipments of food, currency and supplies from the harbor.
By February 1942, what with all the bloodshed and disease, about 17,000 Japanese men died on Bataan alone. A couple of months later, the vast majority of 10,000 Americans commanded by 62,000 Japanese men, marched to their deaths there. In certain regions, the American military used scorched-earth tactics. They burned a hospital and sabotaged electricity and water supplies so that the Japanese couldn’t avail themselves of the benefits when they took over.
After several more aggressive attacks in the Philippines in the next several months, the Japanese demanded that the Allies surrender by June 6, 1942 so that they could occupy all of the islands, or they would kill every last person on them.
One particular group of American miners and missionaries decided to defy the Japanese order, and fled into the foothills to hide outside of Katipunan on Panay. They built a community called Hopevale. A few thousand Filipino troops also refused to surrender, and cobbled together a ragtag guerrilla army to fight the Japanese. At any time, the Japanese could have bribed a disloyal individual to tell them were the enemy was hiding. By then, the Japanese had a reputation for barbarism, and didn’t hesitate to massacre, torture, bayonet, rape or behead people, burn villages, etc.
The Japanese aimed to occupy the strategic location of Port Moresby near Australia, but the Americans bested them with air power in the Battle of the Coral Sea. In early 1942, about 3,200 people who didn’t flee for whatever reason, were interned in Manila.
By summer, that number had grown to 7,000. About three quarters of them were American. They organized themselves to fulfill their basic needs, and even educated the young. The living conditions were primitive of course: lack of food and other necessities, poor sanitation, vermin, and limited activities. However, the Japanese were sufficiently liberal to allow dancing, poker playing and touch-football.
Read the book to learn of additional ways war brings out the best in human beings– in terms of cooperating to survive; and the worst in human beings– how they have learned war-crime techniques from previous combatants; and the fates of the Hopevale expatriates, their families and others in the Philippines (Hint– even the survivors’ stories never have an entirely happy ending.)