Tactical lessons relevant to current military operations


Dr. Thomas M. Huber

Because of a resurgence of interest in urban operations within the U.S. military, the Commander, Training and Doctrine Command, in 2001 tasked the Combat Studies Institute (CSI) to research and write several in-depth case studies aimed at providing historical perspective on the subject.  The result is an anthology of studies covering a wide range of urban operations conducted by various countries from World War II to the present.  This analysis of the Battle of Manila forms part of that study.


The Battle of Manila, 3 February 1945 to 3 March 1945, was the only struggle by the United States to capture a defended major city in the Pacific War.  Manila wasone of few major battles waged by the United States on urban terrain in World War II.  It is arguably one of the most recent major urban battles conducted by U.S. forces.  The case of Manila offers many lessons large and small that may be instructive for planning future urban operations.  Basically, Manila was an instance of modern combined arms warfare practiced in restrictive urban terrain in the presence of large numbers of civilian inhabitants.  Manila provides many lessons relevant both to the combined arms aspect of the struggle and to the civilian affairs aspect of the struggle. 

The road to Manila was a long one.  After the Japanese navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. mobilized for an extended struggle.  U.S. forces in the Philippines had resisted Japanese invasion doggedly but unsuccessfully from December 1941 to May 1942.  Late in 1942, however, U.S. forces under General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Area theater command fought their way back through the Solomons and New Guinea.  Beginning in November 1943, forces under Admiral Chester Nimitz’s Pacific Ocean Areas theater command seized Tarawa, the Marshalls, and the Marianas.  By October 1944, MacArthur was prepared once again to contest the Philippines and landed major forces at Leyte Gulf.  Leyte was secured after hard fighting so that by January 1945, MacArthur was ready to land forces on the shores of Luzon (the main island in the northern Philippines) and drive toward the Philippine capital city itself, Manila. 

The city of Manila in 1945 was one of urban contrasts.  In some highly traditional sections, the teeming population still lived in nipa-thatched huts.  In other sections, citizens lived in modern air-conditioned apartments.  The city covered an area of approximately 14.5 square miles, extending 5.5 miles north to south and 4 miles east to west, from the eastern edge of Manila Bay.  The metropolitan population in 1944 was 1,100,000. [i]

Manila was bisected by the Pasig River, which flowed roughly east to west, and was interlaced with many smaller streams called “esteros.”  Six bridges spanned the Pasig in January 1945, all of which the Japanese severed during the battle for the capital.  North of the Pasig, along the bay, was the North Port area, and north of that was the Tondo district, a populous working class residential district.  Just inland from the port area was a business district that housed retail stores, manufacturing plants, and movie houses and restaurants.  East of that lay older middle and upper class residential areas. 

South of the Pasig along the bay were more modern port facilities, and just inland from that was Intramuros, the old Spanish walled city.  Intramuros was an arrowhead-bastioned sixteenth century fort with walls 40 feet thick at the base.  The north wall faced the Pasig, and the other walls were fronted by park land formed by filling in the fortress’s moat.  East and south of Intramuros were major government buildings, hospitals and schools.  These were constructed of reinforced concrete and many were built to be earthquake proof.  Large apartment buildings also of reinforced concrete could be found in this area.  Eastward from the civic buildings and parks surrounding Intramuros were prosperous modern residential districts, more recently built than the prosperous eastward suburbs north of the Pasig.  In February 1945, American forces found themselves fighting their way through all these areas and conducting their final siege operations against the old walled city of Intramuros. 

By the time U.S. forces reached Manila on 3 February 1945, much of the city was already fortified by the Japanese defenders, especially south of the Pasig.  The overall commander of the Japanese army forces in the Philippines was General Tomoyuki Yamashita.  Yamashita’s command was subdivided into several “groups,” with the Shimbu Group under Lieutenant General Shizuo Yokoyama responsible for Manila.  Yamashita wished to pull all his forces into a mountainous stronghold in Northern Luzon, so he ordered Yokoyama to conduct an orderly evacuation from Manila and not defend it.  This order included Japanese naval forces in the Manila area, which were under Yokoyama’s command.  However, Vice Admiral Denshichi Okochi, commander of the Southwestern Area Fleet based in the Philippines, who reported to Combined Fleet, not to Yamashita’s 14th Area Army, had ordered naval personnel to defend naval facilities in Manila regardless of Yamashita’s withdrawal strategy.  So as Americans approached Manila in January 1945, Japanese army troops moved out of the city while Japanese naval troops moved in.  Okochi organized the Manila Naval Defense Force [MNDF] and placed in command Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi, already the commander of the 31st Naval Special Base Force in the Manila area.  Okochi himself relocated to Baguio, Yamashita’s headquarters, early in January, but ordered Iwabuchi to hold Manila and Nichols Field south of the city as long as possible, and then to destroy all Japanese naval facilities and supplies in the Manila Area. [ii]