MacArthur's Escape, Part One
By David H. Lippman
June 2016

On March 8th, 1942 in the Philippines, with the American position on Bataan and Corregidor steadily deteriorating, Gen. Douglas MacArthur issues a communique saying that his opponent, Gen. Masaharu Homma, has committed suicide out of frustration. This story gets heavily embellished and just as heavily repeated. Homma reads the report with some amusement. He is less amused when inspecting officers from the Imperial General Staff in Tokyo arrive to find out why he hasn't taken the Philippines on time. They reprimand Homma for allowing his staff officers to live in plush hotels in Manila while their troops fight in the jungle. Some of Homma's staff are shipped off to Manchuria. However, the staff officers realize that Homma needs reinforcements, and ship in the 65th Brigade of 3,500 men and the 4th Infantry Division from Shanghai. Homma is not happy. The 4th's 11,000 men are the worst-equipped division in the whole Japanese army. However, the siege guns from China are most welcome, and they hurl 240mm shells at American islands in Manila Bay, including Fort Drum, the "concrete battleship."

On the next day Franklin D. Roosevelt nudges Gen. Douglas MacArthur by radio, and MacArthur agrees that he will leave Corregidor by March 15th. The question is how. There are two choices available: submarine or PT boat to Mindanao. Japanese patrols are heavy, Tokyo Rose is broadcasting that MacArthur will be captured within a month, and US Navy officers give MacArthur a one-in-five chance. MacArthur, however, is greatly impressed by Lt. John Bulkeley's Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3, based at Bataan, and its four decrepit PT boats, and decides he and his family will ride them to Mindanao on March 11, and fly to Australia from there. He orders three B-17s from Australia to Mindanao's Del Monte airfield, and spends the next three days planning the great escape.

Lt. John D. Bulkeley, shortly after his epic voyage.


Lt. John D. "Buck" Bulkeley, "that bold buckaroo with the cold green eyes," faces his voyage to Mindanao with four PT boats that lack decent compasses and good charts. PT boats, 77 feet long and 20 feet wide, are armed with four torpedo tubes and four .50 caliber machine guns. No armor. These boats are now clogged with carbon and rust from lack of maintenance and overhaul. The General will go on PT 41, Adm. Francis Rockwell, commander of naval forces in the Philippines, on PT 34. PT 41 will be the lead ship, and the vessels are to leave at dusk on March 11th. MacArthur issues food rationing orders to assure Bataan and Corregidor's survival until July 1st, when he expects to be back with the counterattack force. MacArthur has orders to keep his evacuation party slim, but adds his son's Cantonese nanny Ah Cheu, 13 officers, two naval officers, and a technical sergeant to the list. Chief of Staff George Marshall is later amazed that Ah Cheu is included, and not one of the American nurses on Corregidor.

MacArthur summons the top officer on Bataan, Maj. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, to Corregidor and gives him command of all troops on Luzon. Wainwright, always rawboned, is now cadaverous from three-eighths rations. MacArthur gives Wainwright a box of cigars and two jars of shaving cream, and says, "I want you to understand my position very plainly. I'm leaving for Australia on the orders of the President. Things have reached such a point that I must comply with these orders or get out of the Army. I want you to make it known throughout all elements of your command that I'm leaving over my repeated protests." MacArthur tells Wainwright to hold on. Wainwright says, "You'll get through." MacArthur snaps, "-- and back. When I get back, if you're still alive, I'll make you a lieutenant general." Wainwright says, "I'll be on Bataan if I'm alive."

The MacArthurs gather what food they can -- Bulkeley can provide none -- and pack it into four duffel bags, one per boat. Bulkeley carries the MacArthurs' luggage aboard PT 41 himself. As the sun sets over Manila Bay, PT 41 idles by Corregidor's shores, its three-shaft, 4,050-horsepower Packard motors humming. MacArthur's family clambers aboard from the shell-blasted island. MacArthur boards last, as American guns, firing diversionary shells, open up. Amid haze and gunpowder, MacArthur steps on PT 41's deck and says, "You may cast off, Buck, when you are ready." Bulkeley glides off to the bay's turning buoy, hooks up with the other three PT boats, and heads south through the US minefield. All hands are nervous...American air reconnaissance has reported the Japanese heavy cruiser Ashigara nosing about. For an hour, the PT boats pick their way through mines, then, at 9:15 p.m., clear the mines and crack on full ahead. The textbook says PT boats can do 45 knots. These, lacking proper maintenance, can only do 23. Japanese destroyers can do 38. The PTs race ahead through 15- and 20-foot high waves, drenching everyone topside. MacArthur suffers the agonies of seasickness, suffering the mental torment of defeat and retreat with the physical agony of the voyage. The PT boats struggle through heavy seas (avoiding Japanese coastwatchers) and lose their formation.

Douglas MacArthur, far right, returns to Corregidor aboard PT 313 in 1945.


At 3:30 a.m. on March 12th, Bulkeley's PT boats are scattered by heavy seas. PT 32, behind schedule, sees an enemy destroyer and jettisons its gasoline to escape. But it lacks enough fuel to reach Mindanao. The four battered PTs stagger into the Cuyo Island hideout. PT 32 has to be abandoned, its gas and engines finished. PT 35 is also a write-off with fouled gasoline strainers. The passengers are divided between PT 32 and PT 41, MacArthur and his son soaked and seasick, Jean MacArthur smiling bravely. The plan calls for another night move to Mindanao, but MacArthur is behind schedule. He orders Bulkeley to sail at 2:30 p.m., risking a daylight encounter with the Japanese Navy. The PT boats put to sea at 3:30, and spot Ashigara at 3:45. Ashigara, packing eight-inch guns and Long Lance torpedoes is cracking along at 35 knots. PT 41 is doing 18. Bulkeley takes evasive action and is never seen by the Japanese. Later that evening the PTs cruise by Negros Island. Japanese artillerymen hear engine noises, and figure it's American planes. They light up the sky with flak tracer shell, and MacArthur's party again escapes. The general lies deathly ill in PT 41's lower cockpit, gritting his teeth while his wife rubs his hands.

At 6:30 am, PT 34 sights Cagayan Point on Mindanao. After 35 consecutive hours at the conn, having passed through 560 miles of Japanese-dominated waters, John D. Bulkeley arrives at Del Monte precisely on time. MacArthur arrives standing on the prow of his PT boat. He shakes the salt water from his braided cap, flips it back on at a jaunty angle, and helps his wife ashore. Then he turns back to the boat. "Bulkeley, I'm giving every officer and man here the Silver Star for gallantry. You've taken me out of the jaws of death, and I won't forget it." Then he concisely asks Col. William Morse where he can relieve himself.

Bulkeley's fame grows as the story of his exploit becomes the book and movie "They Were Expendable." He takes command of PT boats in the Mediterranean, rises to the rank of admiral, and outlives nearly everyone, dying in 1996. He is buried in Arlington with full honors.

MacArthur's arrival in Mindanao makes the Japanese launch an attack to seize Del Monte Airfield and bag the general. Only one B-17 arrives from Australia and it wheezes in to a wobbly landing. MacArthur, furious, will allow no one to board the "dangerously decrepit" aircraft, and demands the "three best planes in the US or Hawaii," manned by "completely adequate, experienced" airmen. Maj. Gen. George Brett, commanding the US air forces in Australia, has neither.

To be continued.

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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II Plus 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content.