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Thoughts on Elizabeth and Michael Norman's "Tears in the Darkness"

 Everyone who has read "Tears in the Darkness" by Michael Norman calls it the best of the best, and I agree. Here is what I know about the events that led to the horriffic Bataan Death March.

    On Pearl Harbor day, church bells pealed from cupolas in Manila, the sounds cresting, suspended, and six-inch long monkeys went swinging from lily to lily as if the flowers were trees. In Malacanan Palace, cleaning men polished the ballroom floor by skating over it on banana leaves, chefs prepared sweets called bibingka, and florists filled vases with fragrant purple frangipani and yellow butterfly orchids. Tonight the twelve hundred men of the 27th Bombardment Group would host a glamorous party.

On what would be the last night of American Manila, a laughing crowd swayed on the dance floor, uniformed men swapped stories and downed their whiskey. Just after midnight, the band played:

Good morning, good morning, we danced the whole night through

          Good morning, good morning to you

 

   Douglas MacArthur swept out of the party, making elaborate gestures of farewell to his admirers, and returned to his penthouse apartment. At three in the morning, the telephone screamed into his sleep.

    “The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor,” an aide gasped. “They devastated our Pacific Fleet.”

    MacArthur jumped out of bed, looking as if he had hit an electric fence. He quickly shaved and dressed in uniform, took stock of himself in the mirror. His waist had thickened, and he slicked his hair across a balding head. He had steely eyes and large-pored skin, well tanned and glistening with lotion and a row of large square teeth huddled behind thin, dry lips. His narrow face formed a rectangle.

   He called his Chief of Staff, Richard Sutherland, and a few key advisors for a meeting at headquarters. They came at a gallop. Sutherland warned that the Japanese would bomb the Philippines next, and MacArthur needed to get his planes in the air and out of reach.

  Though eager to gloriously defend the Philippines and win more medals, MacArthur replied there was no hurry as far as he was concerned. The Japanese would not strike before January 1, so he would disperse the aircraft later on. He lit his corncob pipe.

   The flabbergasted Sutherland desperately explained that Japan would strike immediately to avoid the usual January storms that hamper visibility. Clark Field’s planes should instantly head north to bomb Formosa or south out of danger. Captain Joseph McMicking agreed.

  “Stand by and wait,” MacArthur replied, twirling the pearl handled pistol he always packed.

    Sutherland averted his eyes; he had never been able to endure MacArthur's fixed gaze for long. He looked out on Manila Bay toward the island of Corregidor and, on its right, the Bataan Peninsula. If the Japanese invaded and overran Manila, MacArthur could retreat to the peninsula and from there to the island. He urged the general to quickly stock the two areas with ammunition, medical supplies and gas, while they still could.

    MacArthur raised his fist, and, in a shrill, piercing voice, proclaimed that his men would never retreat. After all, he had spent the past four years training them. He began pacing, his arms moving back and forth, while he orated about his loyal troops, describing their impregnable defense strategies. They would thrash the enemy back into the sea in a matter of days.

    Sutherland stood, stricken-looking, his mouth aslant. He knitted his brows, a habit he had developed, and no wonder. MacArthur, he bitterly reflected, listened only selectively, at best. After the war, he wrote a letter to Claire Booth Luce, saying, “When MacArthur said to stand by and wait, I was closer to weeping from sheer rage than I had ever been in my life.”

    Nine hours later, a long, bright flock of Japanese planes streaked across the sky and attacked Clark Field where our entire force of three—dozen B-17 bombers conveniently nestled wingtip to wingtip. Molten metal smoked on the airstrip as the lords of the rising sun flew back to their carriers, and terrified Filipinos ran for cover, shouting, Los Japanese, they bomb, they bomb!”

    Two days later, the Japanese bombed Manila Bay until the antennae and funnels of sunken ships bobbed above the surface of the water like crosses. Chaos rippled through the city as looters roamed the streets, hotels emptied, and the last army horse unit, the 26th Cavalry, rode out of Fort McKinley. As the horses and their riders galloped north to head off the Japanese, the Filipinos waved good-bye to them.

Reading about Douglas MacArthur’s conduct during World War II becomes curiouser and curiouser as you go along, at least that was my experience. Brilliant, charismatic, worshipped and hated, he could be noble or despicable. Eventually I decided the tangle of his character, though obscured by intellect and dazzle, defined the man.

   Unfortunately, his claim that he did not need to stock Bataan and Corregidor turned out to be another tragic error. On December 22, Japanese troops invaded the main Philippine island of Luzon, and in no time, MacArthur's men beat a retreat to Bataan and Corregidor. Without adequate provisions, they soon began dying from starvation and malaria, as well as enemy firepower.

   MacArthur established headquarters in the dimly lit Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor and holed up there, only once visiting Bataan to “hearten” his men. To the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” they sang:

 

Dugout Doug MacArthur lies ashaking on the rock

Safe from all the bombers and from any sudden shock

Dugout Doug is eatin’ of the best food he can find

And his troops go starving on.

 

    Ignoring them, he busied himself issuing 109 press releases describing himself as “The Lion of Luzon” and “going in everywhere.” With the tenacity of a fly hitting a window, he kept repeating his mantra. Pair an eager press with a man enamored of self—expression, and you have a fine romance.

On February 22, 1942, Roosevelt decided the general could not save the Philippines and ordered him to leave for Australia to plan a counteroffensive. MacArthur eagerly agreed, and off he went. Some staff members accompanied him, the Filipinos motivated by a hope of helping their country, more than adoration of him personally.

    He wanted his wife and son to leave Corregidor in a submarine, but she said she had drunk from the same cup as her husband and would stay by his side.

When his P-T Boat made it through the Japanese blockade to an airstrip, he regretted abandoning his men, so, once safely in Australia, he raised his fist and screamed at the waiting press, “I give the people of the Philippines my sacred pledge: I shall return!”

    Water had soaked the "scrambled-egg" cap he had nicknamed with the fondness he accorded everything involving himself, so he promptly sent it to a hat stretcher.

 - Ann Seymour author of "I've Always Loved You," a true story of WW II in the Pacific