Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila

By James M. Scott | W.W. Norton & Company Inc. | $32.95| 640 pages | 2018

What happens when a modern and Americanized city becomes as much a massive crime scene as the site of a vast battlefield?  The saga of the violation and obliteration of Manila and at least one-tenth of its one million occupants, and the ensuing legalities and war crimes trials, is the focus of Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila by James M. Scott.

In spring 1942, Manila, the Philippines’ capital and a place described as the “Pearl of the Orient,” fell to the Imperial Japanese Army.  Before World War II’s onset, the city featured parks and wide boulevards designed by U.S. architects; a department store with air-conditioning; and ice cream shops.  Its most famous expatriate American resident (and a man who, with good reason, considered it as his home town), General Douglas MacArthur, declared Manila to be an “open city” under international law.  In doing so, he spared Manila from the wrath of combat.

MacArthur succeeded in saving Manila in 1942.  On his return in 1945, however, not only would Manila be wracked by war, it would effectively be leveled.  Its inhabitants would experience savagery on a magnitude experienced between 1937 and 1945 by Nanking, Warsaw and Berlin. 

An award-winning former reporter, Scott’s work is a tour de force that fleshes out in considerable detail one of the crucial battles in the Pacific Theater and one that enhanced the bitterness and desires for retribution of U.S. and Allied troops as they fought against Japan during the war’s last months. For lawyers, the book brings to light an often-neglected side of the Allies’ war crimes prosecutions, given the prominence and notoriety of the Nuremberg Trials on the other side of the world.

For students of MacArthur, the “American Caesar,” this book fills in several life-story gaps not often depicted in other accounts of his career, humanizing this complex man. Yet, MacArthur’s delay in not appreciating the true nature and scope of the urban combat overtaking Manila — hardly aided by his planning for a victory parade after prematurely declaring victory just days into the weeks-long battle! — cost U.S. forces precious time. That lost time contributed to the bloodbath that engulfed Manila in February 1945. (The word “hubris” comes to mind.)

The term “bloodbath” hardly does justice to describing the hellscape of Manila in 1945. Scott pulls no punches: his survey of the barbarities inflicted on Manila’s citizens is on par with many accounts of the Holocaust. It makes for difficult reading, even for toughened lawyers and seasoned historians. 

Any comparison of what Japanese troops and sailors under Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi — the diehard commander on the ground in Manila, out at all costs to avenge his own tarnished honor after losing his battleship at Guadalcanal — did in that city to the Rape of Nanking, or Warsaw’s 1944 obliteration, is entirely apt. 

Violating orders from his higher commander, the conqueror of Singapore and Malaya, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, to withdraw from Manila, Iwabuchi vowed to fight to the death. The disgraced admiral also rejected the open-city precedent of 1942, opting to turn Manila into an Asian Stalingrad.

Instead, Iwabuchi ordered his men not just to reduce the city to ashes, but essentially to kill every civilian they could find. This, his several thousand naval and army troops proceeded to do — sometimes within eyesight of helpless GIs, stranded on the other side of the Pasig River that subdivided the city. 

The most poignant accounts in Rampage are those of Manila’s civilians. The liberation of the long-suffering inhabitants of the Santo Tomas prison camp provides high uplift towards the beginning of the book. Afterwards, as Iwabuchi’s forces — with few orders from the distant (and out-of-touch) General Yamashita to halt the insubordinate admiral, or strip him of his command — began their orgy of rapine, torture and slaughter, the account becomes increasingly grim, right up to the moment of the city’s final liberation. 

The book’s last third comprises a gripping legal drama.

On trial for his life, Yamashita became the defendant in the Allies’ first war crimes tribunal in the Pacific Theater, a case that predated the Nuremberg Trials.  Ordered to represent Yamashita — once the vaunted “Tiger of Malaya”; now, the “Louse of Luzon” — his American legal team was initially appalled by their mission, having themselves seen Manila’s fate first-hand. However, his lawyers rallied to advance the best defense available in the face of overwhelming evidence of the scope and ghastliness of the atrocities committed in Manila.  Their representation of a hated defendant was zealous and highly professional, in the face of an antagonistic press, public and military hierarchy.

Yamashita’s case went before the U.S. Supreme Court.1 His defense team contended for the rest of their lives that what passed for “justice in Manila” was only that of a kangaroo court, with Yamashita served up for revenge at MacArthur’s behest. The wealth of information adduced by Scott on the structure, proceedings and deliberations of the court does give pause to the fundamental fairness of the case against the general. Yamashita’s pretrial plea to one American lingers: “How can I be convicted of crimes I did not even
know about?”

Panoramic in its accounting of Manila’s agonies, detailed in its reporting, and compelling in its telling, Rampage amply — and graphically — reminds us of the destructiveness of modern warfare and the legalities that accompany it, calling into question the old Roman maxim, “In times of war, the laws are silent.” It is a gripping, and haunting, work of history.

Note
1. See In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1 (1946) (affirming the lawfulness of the creation and use of a military commission to try and sentence General Yamashita). After 9/11, this case garnered renewed interest with the 21st century use of military commissions to detain captured Al Qaeda terror suspects and other combatants in Afghanistan and elsewhere.


Jack H. (“Nick”) McCall Jr. serves as senior attorney on the Commercial Law and Corporate Team in the Office of General Counsel, Tennessee Valley Authority. McCall received his law degree with honors from the University of Tennessee in 1991. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society and is a former member of the TBA’s Board of Governors. Any opinions and views expressed herein are solely the author’s and are not to be attributed to his employer or the federal government.
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