Manila: Stalingrad of the Pacific War

There is a great deal of danger in comparing anything to Stalingrad, or in saying that “X is/was the Stalingrad of Y,” if for no other reason than because Stalingrad was unique in the annals of warfare in sheer scale of misery and desolation, and its place in the strategy of the Russo-German War.  But in the perspective of the Pacific War, it is perhaps instructive to view the month-long city-fight for control of one of the jewels of the Pacific Rim as an example of the extreme depths of desperation the forces of Japan had sunk, and how the Americans had been compelled to fight the last of the samurai in a month-long slog of slaughter and destruction, not unlike the Germans and Russians in their death struggle on the Volga.

If the strategic situations were entirely different, the tactical ones were at least similar. From almost any perspective and by any measure, Japan had already lost the war in 1945; the Germans, in contrast, could conceivably have fought the western allies to a standstill in 1942 and turned their full attentions to the Soviets.  Thus, Manila meant nearly nothing because Japan couldn’t support any force there long-term, while Stalingrad had value as a foothold on the Volga and the hinge for the German armies in the Caucasus.  But short-term, if the Japanese could bloody the American juggernaut enough they just might make peace.  Or, at least, the samurai leadership told themselves that, and had been since Tarawa and the Gilbert Islands.

When the US 1st Cavalry and the 11th Airborne Divisions approached Manila in February 1945, the 16,000 Japanese defenders under Rear Admiral Iwabuchi Sanji had already written themselves off:

We are very glad and grateful for the opportunity of being able to serve our country in this epic battle. Now, with what strength remains, we will daringly engage the enemy. Banzai to the Emperor! We are determined to fight to the last man.

The Soviets were exhorted (if rhetorically) to fight to win.  Since a new Soviet soldier’s life expectancy at Stalingrad was about a day (and officers about three), this was pretty pointless.

The urban fighting in Manila was new to the Pacific War; not so much to the Russians and Germans.  The casualty rate was high, the noise and dust appalling and omnipresent in both cases.  But the defenders at Stalingrad, Vasili Chuikov’s little 62nd Army, would get relieved by the Soviet counterattack; there would be no rescue for the Japanese force.  When on 3 March 1945 the city had been declared secured the Japanese had died to the last man and boy, taking along with them about 100,000 Filipino civilians and nearly every structure in the city.  The Americans suffered some thousand dead and another five thousand wounded.

It is said that Soviet combat methods made casualties, not veterans, and the same can be said for the Japanese.  The island campaigns of the Pacific were fought in conditions unlike any before, where strategic retreat was possible only months before contact, but impossible because of the policies in Tokyo.  At the rate of destruction seen in Manila, by the time the war ended Japanese would indeed have been a language spoken only by the dead.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the Japanese strategic position throughout the war, and the consequences of militarism.  Available in hardback, paperback and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.

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