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

Continued from Part One.

At Del Monte airfield in Mindanao, the Philippines, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his party wait for B-17s to take them to Australia, while Japanese troops advance on his position. Officers in Melbourne are trying to scrape together the necessary aircraft. While MacArthur waits, his aide, Sid Huff, takes Jean MacArthur's mattress off PT 41. This will lead to a wild story that the mattress is supposedly full of gold bars. In fact, it's full of feathers.

Two B-17s arrive around midnight on March 16th, 1942, the runway lit by two flares, one at each end. Lead pilot Lt. Frank P. Bostrom drinks eight cups of coffee to fortify himself for the return flight while mechanics repair his defective supercharger. Bostrom tells MacArthur his party must abandon their luggage. Jean MacArthur boards the plane carrying only a silk scarf and a coat with a fur collar. MacArthur gives Jean's mattress to Lt. Bostrom.

MacArthur and Sutherland arrive in Australia.


Meanwhile in the Philippines the war goes on. Japanese siege guns hammer American forts in Manila Bay. One 240 mm shell detonates beneath a Fort Frank powder room, breaking up the concrete and hurling 60 filled powder cans about. Miraculously, none of them explode or catch fire.

Shortly after midnight, Gen. Douglas MacArthur's two B-17s taxi out onto Del Monte airfield, again lit by two flares. The General sits in the radio operator's seat, his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Richard Sutherland, squeezed into the bomb bay. Bostrom's overloaded B-17 staggers into the air with one engine spluttering. Then it heads south for a five-hour flight, covering the distance from Boston to New Orleans. It is MacArthur's son's first airplane flight, and he is excited until turbulence renders him airsick. The two planes hurtle over islands recently captured by the Japanese -- Celebes, Timor, northern New Guinea -- and avoid enemy Zero fighters. When the plane reaches Darwin, the city is under Japanese attack, and MacArthur’s flight is diverted to the emergency strip, Batchelor Field, 50 miles away. They deplane at 9 a.m., barely able to stand. "It was close," MacArthur tells Sutherland, "But that's the way it is in war. You win or lose, live or die -- and the difference is just an eyelash."

MacArthur spots an American officer and asks him about the buildup to reconquer the Philippines. The officer says, "So far as I know, sir, there are very few troops here." Startled, MacArthur turns to Sutherland, and says, "Surely he is wrong."

MacArthur and his party breakfast on canned peaches and baked beans. The General demands a motorcade to the nearest train station, Alice Springs, a thousand miles away -- the distance from Boston to Chicago -- because his wife is exhausted from air travel. But MacArthur's son, also exhausted, is now on intravenous feeding. The doctors cannot guarantee that "little Arthur will make it over a long desert drive without shelter or food." MacArthur and his party board two DC-3s borrowed from a local airline, and take off as a Japanese air raid is starting. They reach Alice Springs, which resembles an Old West town replete with saloon, wooden boardwalks, and flies, without further incident. MacArthur watches a double feature at the local movie theater, his first film since leaving Manila, and the party sleeps on cots on the hotel's verandah.

In the morning, MacArthur sends his staff officers by plane south from Alice Springs, while he orders up a special train for himself and his family. Jean MacArthur will have no more flying. The MacArthurs board a three-car wooden train drawn by a steam locomotive that scuttles down a narrow-gauge line. The train chugs off on a 70-hour journey down 1,028 miles of track to Adelaide.

MacArthur and his party endure travelling in a tiny railroad coach with two hard wooden seats running lengthwise. The second car is a diner with a long wooden table, washtubs full of ice, and an Australian army stove. Two Australian sergeants and an army nurse do the housekeeping. To switch from diner to passenger car, the train has to be stopped, and passengers have to get out of one car and walk along the ground to the other. MacArthur and his family sit in the car, besieged by flies. MacArthur goes to sleep. At one point, the engineer stops the train, surrounded by sheep ranchers. The general thinks they want a speech from the war hero. Actually they want a doctor to assist one of the ranchers. After the surgery, the train leaves.

Late in the afternoon of March 21st, MacArthur's train reaches Kooringa, 80 miles north of Adelaide. One of his staff officers, Col. Dick Marshall, who had been sent on ahead, boards the train. He has bad news for the general. MacArthur has believed that a huge army awaits him. Instead there are fewer than 32,000 Allied troops, American, British, and Australian, in the whole country, most of them service forces. There are fewer than 100 aircraft, many Australian Gypsy Moths, with fabric-covered wings and propellers that have to be started by spinning them by hand. There is not a single tank in the nation. The only combat-ready force is one brigade of 6 Australian Division. Australian planners intend to withdraw to the "Brisbane Line," holding the settled southern and eastern coasts, abandoning the northern ports to the Japanese. Supply lines to the rest of the Allied world -- committed to defeating Germany first -- are long. "God have mercy on us," MacArthur whispers. It is, he writes, his greatest shock and surprise of the whole war.

In Adelaide, MacArthur swaps his little train for a luxurious private car provided by Australia's commissioner of railways. The press is there to greet him, seeking a statement. MacArthur scrawls on the back of an envelope, "The President of the United States ordered me to break through the Japanese lines ...for the purpose, as I understand it, of organizing the American offensive against Japan, a primary object of which is the relief of the Philippines. I came through and I shall return."

That last sentence proves the galvanizing statement of the Pacific war, inspiring Filipinos. It becomes, as MacArthur himself writes, "the battle cry of a great underground swell that no Japanese bayonet could still." Throughout the war American submarines provide Filipino guerrillas with cartons of buttons, gum, playing cards, and matchboxes bearing the message, and they are widely circulated. Scraps of paper with "I shall return" written on them are found in Japanese files. Filipino leader Carlos Romulo later says the phrase "served as a promise and command to the Philippine peoples. They knew his words were his bond."

Two years later, MacArthur, grimly scowling at the beachmaster as he splashes ashore at Leyte's Red Beach, redeems that pledge. After inspecting the American invasion of the Philippines, he grasps a microphone at a mobile communications truck. The crack of riflery and thunder of naval gunfire, the power of an overwhelming American force, can be heard in the background, beneath a steady downpour. MacArthur clears his throat and says, "This is the voice of freedom, General Douglas MacArthur speaking. People of the Philippines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil -- soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples. At my side is your president, Sergio Osmena, a worthy successor of that great patriot, Manuel Quezon . . . the seat of your government is now, therefore, firmly re-established on Philippine soil. The hour of your redemption is here . . . Rally to me. Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on. As the lines of battle roll forward to bring you within the zone of operations, rise and strike. Strike at every favorable opportunity. For your homes and hearths, strike! For future generations of your sons and daughters, strike! In the name of your sacred dead, strike! Let no heart be faint. Let every arm be steeled. The guidance of Divine God points the way. Follow in His name to the Holy Grail of righteous victory."

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the defense of the Philippines. Order now.

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.