The Japanese Defenses

The Background

It was not Yamashita's intention to preside over the destruction of Manila.4 Since he had decided to let the vital Central Plains--Manila Bay area go by default, the defense of Manila to him would be meaningless. He reasoned:

First the population of Manila is approximately one million; therefore, it is impossible to feed them. The second reason is that the buildings are very inflammable. The third reason is that because [Manila] is on flat land it requires tremendous . . . strength to defend it. For these reasons my policy or plan was to leave Manila outside the combat zone.5

When, in December, Yamashita decided to evacuate troops and supplies from the city, he planned to leave behind a small Army force to maintain order, protect supply movements, and, ultimately, to blow bridges over the Pasig and Marikina Rivers in order to delay Allied occupation of the entire metropolitan area and slow development of an Allied drive against the Shimbu Group, east of the city. The Japanese would hold the Pasig bridges only so long as the spans remained useful for supply movements--they had no plan for a last-ditch stand at the bridges.

Yet, as the XIV Corps and 11th Airborne Division approached the city it became obvious that Manila was strongly defended. There had been a change in Japanese plans.

The change reflected no reversal of Yamashita's policy. Rather, it mirrored a picture of disagreement and confusion existing among the lower-level headquarters under Yamashita's nominal control, and especially between the Army and Navy echelons of his command. Contrary to Yamashita's expressed desires, these conflicts led to a decision to give battle within the city--a development that was a cancerous growth on the 14th Area Army's plan for the defense of Luzon and that stemmed from a series of compromises among Japanese Army and Navy commanders in the Manila area.

Until late December 1944 the protection of Manila had been charged to Maj. Gen. Takashi Kobayashi's Manila Defense Force, roughly equivalent to two RCT's in strength and armament. When, on 27 December, Yamashita organized the Shimbu Group for a final defensive stand in the mountain country east and northeast of Manila, he placed the city and the Manila Defense Force under General Yokoyama, Shimbu Group and 8th Division commander. Since Yamashita contemplated no defense of Manila, one of Yokoyama's principal missions was to oversee the evacuation of the city, and he directed General Kobayashi to speed the movement, which was already under way. Two Army units, responsible for carrying out the evacuation and assigned demolitions, were to remain in and around the city for the nonce. The first was the Noguchi Detachment, two provisional infantry battalions and supporting troops under Col. Katsuzo Noguchi. Stationed within the northern part of the city and in the northern suburbs, the detachment was to withdraw eastward once it had knocked out the Pasig bridges. Another reinforced provisional infantry battalion under Capt. Saburo Abe was stationed south of the city and was responsible for blocking the southern approaches along the narrow Hagonoy Isthmus, separating Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay.

Throughout December and January, however, while Army units were pulling out of the city and environs, naval troops were moving in. As it had for Yamashita, the Allied move to Mindoro in December had prompted a flurry of changes in plans by Vice Adm. Denshichi Okochi, the commander of the Southwestern Area Fleet and the ranking Japanese naval officer in the Philippines.6Okochi, apparently on his own initiative, decided to strengthen the Navy's defenses of Manila and he assigned some 4,000 men to a new organization that he designated the Manila Naval Defense Force--not to be confused with General Kobayashi's Manila Defense Force. To head the new force, Okochi called upon Admiral Iwabuchi, also the commander of the 31st Naval Special Base Force, which already had troops in and around Manila.

Okochi planned to send the remainder of the large number of naval troops in and around Manila up to the Kembu area, but supply and transportation problems forestalled completion of this movement. Thus, when he departed for Baguio with Yamashita early in January, Okochi left Admiral Iwabuchi in command of a Manila Naval Defense Force that, with subsequent minor accretions, numbered nearly 16,000 naval troops. Iwabuchi's missions were to hold Nichols Field and the Cavite naval base area, mine Manila Bay, direct Navy suicide boat operations in the bay, arrange for the evacuation of ships and small craft of the 31st Naval Special Base Force, and, ultimately, assure the destruction of all Japanese naval installations and supplies in the Manila and Cavite areas. The program of demolitions Okochi directed Iwabuchi to undertake was far more extensive than that assigned to the Army troops.

When he left for Baguio, Admiral Okochi transferred the operational control of the Manila Naval Defense Force to General Yokoyama and the Shimbu Group. But operational control under the principles of unity of command did not mean the same thing within the Japanese armed forces that it did in the Allied services during World War II--it also did not mean the same thing to the Japanese Navy that it did to the Japanese Army. Thus, the control authority Okochi actually transferred was so limited as to contain the seeds of many disagreements between General Yokoyama and Admiral Iwabuchi. When it came down to cases, the Shimbu Group would have complete operational control of the Manila Naval Defense Force only within an area plainly of primary Army interest and even then only after Iwabuchi's command had successfully completed all the missions Okochi had assigned it.

Manifestly, some of these missions involved operations on land--theoretically, on Luzon, the exclusive responsibility of the Japanese Army. But to the Japanese Navy, the assignment of troops to the Army for operational control meant control only for ground combat operations actually conducted under Army command in an Army area. The fact that Admiral Iwabuchi could carry out his naval assignments while conducting ground combat operations as directed by the Shimbu Group did not alter the situation. He would not withdraw his forces from Manila until he felt he had executed his naval missions, and, whatever operations he might conduct under Shimbu Group directives, his prior naval orders would continue to take precedence over any directives General Yokoyama might issue.7

It was not until 6 January that the Shimbu Group commander learned that his operational control over the Manila Naval Defense Force would be limited to the degree implicit in the peculiarly naval missions assigned to Admiral Iwabuchi. And at the same time General Yokoyama was informed, to his evident surprise, that Iwabuchi had 16,000-odd naval troops in and around Manila. Yokoyama had based his plans for delaying action, bridge destruction, and supply evacuation on the assumption that there were no more than 4,000 naval troops in the area in addition to the approximately 3,750 Army troops of the Noguchi Detachment and the Abe Battalion. He considered these forces sufficient to carry out assigned missions and he could evacuate that number from the city without undue trouble once Allied forces arrived, an event he estimated would occur no earlier than 20 February.

General Yokoyama called a series of Manila Naval Defense Force-Shimbu Group staff conferences to discuss the obvious complications arising from Iwabuchi's divided responsibilities and the size of the naval commitment. In the course of the discussions, which took place between 8 and 13 January, naval officers made it clear that, no matter what Shimbu Group's plans, it was the consensus of the naval staff that Manila should be defended to the bitter end. Any withdrawal from the city, naval representatives pointed out, would prevent the Manila Naval Defense Force from executing the missions Admiral Okochi had assigned it. Moreover, most of the naval staff officers felt that Manila was a natural fortress that could easily be defended at great cost to Allied forces. Therefore, the naval staff was not anxious to abandon the city meekly without a struggle. In addition, many members of Iwabuchi's staff were dissatisfied with the positions in the mountains east of Manila that Yokoyama had assigned to the Manila Naval Defense Force for a last stand. Admiral Iwabuchi just about settled all arguments when he pointed out that his force had "no alternative but to carry out its primary duty of defending naval facilities."8

Faced with the fait accompli of prior naval orders that he could not countermand, Yokoyama had little choice but to assent to Iwabuchi's general concept for the defense of Manila, however unwise he might feel that concept to be. And, in accordance with the practice in the Japanese and Allied services, he provided for unified command within the city, placing the Army troops still stationed there under Admiral Iwabuchi as the senior officer on the spot--thereby making the best out of a bad situation. Extracting such concessions from the Manila Naval Defense Force as his limited operational control powers permitted, the Shimbu Group commander persuaded Iwabuchi to organize a special naval force to defend the San Juan del Monte area, lying between the city and the Shimbu Group's main positions to the east. He further convinced Iwabuchi of the necessity for strengthening the defenses at Fort McKinley, southeast of Manila, and of the wisdom of setting up an alternate headquarters there, presumably in anticipation of ultimate withdrawal from the city. Expecting existing communications between Manila and the Shimbu Group command post in the mountains to be severed once the Allies reached the city, Yokoyama also saw to it that a secondary wire communications net was established between his mountain headquarters and Fort McKinley.

Not losing sight of his principal mission--protracted defensive operations in the mountainous terrain east and northeast of Manila--General Yokoyama, late in January, issued somewhat ambiguous orders concerning the defense of the city and its immediate environs. The Shimbu Group, while concentrating its main force in its mountain strongholds, was to "firmly defend Manila and Fort McKinley and check their use by the enemy, at the same time destroying the enemy's fighting strength and preparing to counterattack the enemy rear from the main positions when a favorable situation arises." The Manila Naval Defense Force, in turn, was directed to "defend its already-established positions and crush the enemy's fighting strength."9

Despite the seemingly definitive wording of these orders, an ambiguity arises from the fact that Yokoyama used the term koshu, usually rendered as "firm defense," in regard to the plans for holding Manila. Quite weak as the wording of Japanese orders go, koshu by no means implied a fight to the death. Moreover, since Japanese Army orders did not lean toward understatement in such matters, the term seems indicative of a desire to conduct a rather limited holding action followed by an early withdrawal. Even Admiral Iwabuchi's operations officer interpreted the use ofkoshu as meaning that Yokoyama would order a general withdrawal once battle had been joined within the city.10 Apparently the fact that no specific mention of withdrawal was contained in theShimbu Group orders merely reflected a reluctance on the part of Yokoyama to impair the morale of the troops in Manila--a regard for the sensibilities to which the Japanese forces were singularly addicted.