The 200th Coast Artillery Regiment and the Bataan Death March

The Japanese Attack

In the early morning hours of 08 December 1941 (still 07 December in Hawaii), Japanese land-based naval bombers and Zero fighters from Formosa were detected by radar heading over the Lingayan Gulf in the direction of Manila. American planes were alerted and took off from Clark Field and Iba Field, but failed to make contact with the Japanese aircraft. For the Americans, the morning was confusing as reports came in of Japanese bombing of Clark Field, despite the fact that the personnel on Clark Field were still going on with their day. Seemingly unsure of the threat – even 6 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor – the Commander of US Army Forces in the Far East Lieutenant General Douglas MacArthur forbade his air corps commanders from sending additional aircraft up on reconnaissance missions. Instead, the men went to the showers, to the mess hall, or to check on their soldiers who had enjoyed a large party the night before.

Clark Field in flames after the Japanese attack. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.

It wasn’t until just after noon that Japanese aircraft actually began bombing and strafing runs at Clark Field. Jack Aldrich would later recall knowing true fear for the first time, “You get a strange metallic taste in your mouth. I didn’t know what fear was until that day.” First to fire upon the Japanese that day were the men of the 200th, with Wellington Hollingsworth and James Chaney scoring the first “kill.” By nightfall, the field was a wreck, with burning aircraft and debris everywhere. Manila had no anti-aircraft units protecting the Philippine capital, so that evening, Colonel Harry Peck would take one-third of the 200th and head south for the defense of the capital city. This detachment would form the core of the new 515th Coast Artillery.

Historian William Manchester writes in American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964:

The Japanese, as they told their postwar interrogators, could hardly believe their good fortune. There lay their prey, bunched together, wing tips almost touching. The three [B-17] Fortresses waiting to take off were the first to go; they exploded within seconds of one another. The attackers came I three waves: heavy bombers, dive-bombers, and fighters. The fishtailing bombs were terrifying, but the strafing Zeros inflicted greater damage. Coming in low, they ignited one fuel tank after another with tracer bullets. As these blew up, the operations office, the field’s headquarters, and the fighter control shack erupted in flame. By 1:37 P.M., when the last Japanese place soared away, Clark was unrecognizable.

Corporal Jack Aldrich recalls the quiet at Clark after the attack, “Except for sudden explosions, and wounded horses screaming in agony. We were standing around in shock, when John Gamble came running towards headquarters, dirty, sweaty, his pistol slung low on his hip, cowboy style, and he looked meaner than hell. Colonel Sage asked him how things were, and he snapped and saluted, and grinned a big grin. ‘Fine, sir. Fine. Couldn’t be better!’”

Captain Marvin Lucas would say, “We had underestimated the enemy. We said the Japs didn’t have good bombsights and they couldn’t see. That’s eyewash. These pilots had bombed in China and Manchuria. They were seasoned troops. They’d learned tricks we never heard of. We were so sure we could handle it. It’s a shock to learn you can’t.”

Nichols Field in the Philippines. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.
U.S. Army Air Corps P-35s destroyed on the ground during an air attack on Nichols Field, Luzon, Philippines, on 10 December 1941. U.S. Air Force photo.

Historian Dorothy Cave writes:

At home, New Mexicans listened tense-jawed. Proprietors turned up radios in stores and out on the sidewalks, where crowds gathered quietly. School children filed into auditoriums to listen. No one needed to be told it was a “day of infamy,” but they wanted to hear in enunciated. Few families in the stricken state were without friends or family in the 200th.

Aerial view of the Manila Hotel in the Filipino capital. Photo from the Smithsonian Institution.

The night following the attack, Colonel Harry Peck was ordered to take a third of the Regiment, as the “Provisional” 200th CA (officially the 515th on 19 December) to Manila, leaving only 1100 of the original 1800 at Clark. After scrounging for what supplies and equipment they could at the docks in Manila, the men moved into new positions. The newly-formed 515th set up in front of the Manila Hotel, at the Pasig River to protect gas and oil installations, near airfields, at a copra plant, and even at the San Miguel Brewery – anywhere space could be found to emplace the guns – and began searching through the bombed city for supplies, with only a few Japanese bombers flying overhead. An occasional reconnaissance plane or Zero making a strafing run flew over the city, but it was relatively quiet for the next couple of days.

Private Evangelisto “Evans” Garcia:

So many times, we were defending Manila. In December 1941, as we were defending the rear of the convoy leaving Manila, we could hear the Jap bombers coming. It was Christmas Eve, and Christmas night. We had 37mm guns, so there was not a lot we could do against bombers. I ran to a Catholic church for cover with two other fellas. There was a bridge close by that we had just crossed, and we could barely see the bombers coming. I said to myself ‘They’re such poor bombers – if they try to hit the bridge, they’ll hit the church.’ So I ran out of the church and got under the bridge, and the two other fellows followed. Here come the bombers. They hit one part of the bridge, but made a direct hit on the church. The fellows said ‘Evans, we’re going where you go.’ I just sensed it that time.

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