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(Published here with the permission of the author. Part of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Manila.)


February 2005 marks the 60th anniversary of the most vicious crime in Philippine history, the sack of Manila in February 1945 by Japanese military forces. No other single event in our history even remotely approximates it in the extent of physical destruction, the number of casualties, the manner of dealing death, and the loss of cultural heritage.

One hundred thousand non-combatants died, the overwhelming number Filipinos, but also including neutral or friendly nationalities like the Swiss, Irish, Russians, Spanish, Germans and others. Among Asian nationals, Chinese and Indians suffered considerably. The military casualties were almost all of the Japanese garrison of over 16,000, and about 1,000 dead and 5,500 wounded among the American forces of liberation.

Manila was the only Allied capital in the Pacific to be destroyed. William Manchester recorded that 70 percent of utilities, 75 percent of factories, 80 percent of the southern residential district and 100 percent of the business district were razed (American Caesar. Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964).

The Japanese did their utmost to make the city unlivable, dynamiting the bridges across the Pasig river, destroying utilities like electric power, gas, telephone and public transportation (the streetcars were used as antitank barriers), and even attempting (and for three weeks succeeding) in cutting off the water supply. For six months after the battle, the stench of rotting corpses hung heavy over the ruins of martyred metropolis.

Of all Allied cities in World War II, only Warsaw suffered more. But it should be recalled Warsaw was destroyed as the result of an urban uprising starting August 1, 1944 by the Polish Home Army, with civilians fighting alongside, and the ruin resulted from the savage German reprisals that followed. There was no such uprising in Manila. The civilians huddled fearfully in their homes and evacuation centers, but they were slaughtered anyway.

If Manila was second to Warsaw in terms of destruction, it was second to Nanking (Nanjing) in the number of casualties in Asia. There, in December 1937, the Japanese raped, tortured and murdered more than 300,000 Chinese civilians, an atrocity that the Japanese government still denies. The difference was that the rape of Nanking lasted longer weeks), and was perpetrated by a Japanese military in an arrogant mood of victory. (See Chang, The Rape of Nanking.)

The rape of Manila, on the other hand, was committed by a Japanese military facing defeat and annihilation, and already in a frame of mind that was both murderous and suicidal. This had been seen in Saipan in the summer of 1944 when even Japanese civilians preferred suicide to surrender. This would become even clearer in the subsequent battle for Okinawa which lasted from April into late June, marked by hundreds of kamikaze attacks, far more than the few dozen made during the Philippine battles.

The killings in Manila took many forms. Sometimes, they were individual murders with shots to the head or by bayoneting or beheading. Sometimes, they were massacres of whole families, or groups of people confined in buildings and blasted with hand grenades. Women were raped, then sliced with bayonets from groin to throat and left to bleed to death under the hot sun. Children were seized by the legs and had their heads bashed against the wall. Babies were tossed in the air and impaled on bayonet points, or skewered with bayonets on the ground and lifted into the air. Unborn fetuses were gouged out with bayonets from pregnant women.

The Manila atrocities were, in the words of Yamashita’s defense counsel, “studded with rape.” This was not only in connection with the killings, but in moves to force ordinary girls into being what might be called “instant comfort women” to sate the lewd desires of the lust-ridden soldiery.

Notorious was the case of the Bay View Hotel which the Japanese filled with women fleeing from their burning homes. When the women became aware of the Japanese designs, they took whatever defensive measures they could.

Ambassador Isabel Caro Wilson Emerged unharmed from the ordeal at Bay View Hotel.
Ambassador Isabel Caro Wilson Emerged unharmed from the ordeal at Bay View Hotel.

The younger girls were sent to the rear of the rooms, and the more mature women placed themselves nearer the entrance and offered themselves to the soldiers. Especially helpful in this regard were prostitutes, including Russian women from Shanghai who normally worked the high end of the flesh market. But young girls whom the rapists found hard to enter had their genital openings enlarged with pocket knives. At least one girl was spared because she was having period. One who survived unharmed was Isabel Caro (Wilson), later Philippine ambassador to Spain.

Filipino survivors have written about these barbarities, like Lourdes Reyes-Montinola, board chairman of Far Eastern University, and Spanish author Antonio Perez de Olaguer has compiled the stories of many victims. There are also foreign eyewitnesses like Austrian couple Hans and Mona Lisa Steiner, German Jewish refugee Frank Ephraim, and Hungarian ballet personality Paul Szilard.

Manila could have been spared if, as MacArthur had done in December 1941, it had been declared an open city. But Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, over-all Japanese ground commander in the Philippines, fended off requests by Filipino officials of the pitiable Occupation “republic” to make such a declaration. Although he had pulled most of his forces to three mountain redoubts and said he had; decided not to defend Manila (but did intend to blow up the Pasig river bridges), Yamashita had; left the Abe and Noguchi detachments totaling about 4,000 men supposedly to guard military supplies that were being removed. At least that was what he told his legal counsel at that time.

General Tomoyuki Yamashita
General Tomoyuki Yamashita
Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi "The Butcher of Manila"
Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi “The Butcher of Manila”

But why was it taking them weeks to carry out what MacArthur had done in a few days in a few days in 1941. They must have been doing something more. In fact, the Japanese army troops did not themselves to guarding and removing supplies, but took an active part in the demolition of civilian buildings and the shooting of non-combatants on the north bank of the Pasig.

Not all civilian deaths were committed by the enemy. The Japanese were assisted, particularly in the burning of houses, by traitorous Filipino Makapilis. Many thousands also died as a result of excessive and indiscriminate American shelling.

But ultimate moral culpability must be placed on those who ordered Manila to be converted into a battlefield and, even worse, a killing ground, namely, the Japanese.

The invidious title of “Butcher of Manila” undoubtedly belongs to Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi who perished during the battle. His mission was supposedly also to destroy military supplies and installations. But this oversimplification is belied by the frantic activity in the last weeks before the entry of American troops in building up defensive strong points, often with the help of forced labor picked up off the streets. To this day, one can still see a naval cannon emplaced in the hoary walls of Intramuros. Obviously, he was preparing for defense, not mere demolition.

And whence came the decision to engage in the widespread massacres of civilians and destruction of civilian buildings? Did Iwabuchi act on his individual initiative, or did he receive, as suggested in a documentary film of the time, “Orders from Tokyo”? Gen. Akira Muto, Yamashita’s chief of staff, stated that in all other conquered areas of Southeast Asia, the local populations had been acquiescent, if not cooperative. Only in the Philippines did the Japanese encounter “fanatical resistance.”

Was Tokyo punishing the Filipinos for such resistance? We do not know for sure. Between the announcement of Japan’s surrender and the start of the Allied occupation, two weeks elapsed, and during that period, many incriminating documents were undoubtedly hidden or destroyed.

While Manilans probably nursed faint hopes for the declaration of an open city, these hopes became increasingly forlorn as defense works were visibly built up. When the debacle finally came, it seemed no surprise to anyone. The cruelties to war prisoners in 1942 and three years of a brutally repressive occupation had conditioned people to expect the worst of the Japanese. But even so, they probably did not expect them to go to the extremes that they did. Nobody could imagine that they would plumb the nethermost depths of evil. And one had to ask what conceivable military objective was attained by the mass slaughter of non-combatants.


(Address delivered at the symposium, “The Battle for Manila—The High Price of Freedom,” National Historical Institute (now National Historical Commission of the Philippines), Thursday, February 3, 2005 and published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 11, 2005. Part of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Manila.)