March 20, 2023

General MacArthur Vows to Return to the Philippines

General MacArthur Vows to Return to the Philippines

March 20, 1942. During World War II, US General Douglas MacArthur escapes the Japanese-occupied Philippines, and makes his famous vow to return.


Cold Open

It’s December 10th, 1941, in the US-controlled Philippines, and the War in the Pacific is underway.

In Manila Bay, just off the coast of the Cavite Naval Yard, American Lieutenant John D Bulkeley stands on the deck of his Patrol Torpedo boat or PT Boat. It’s one of several floating in the bay, all part of a small fleet under the Lieutenant's command.

As Bulkeley walks to the edge of his boat and looks out over the horizon, he knows the enemy is out there somewhere, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Three days ago, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Hours later, and over five thousand miles away, Japan also attacked a US airstrip sixty miles north of the Philippine capital, Manila. In one fell swoop, the Japanese nearly wiped out America’s entire air force in the region. Then, they turned south and started scouting for targets in and around Manila Bay. This morning, in anticipation of an impending attack, Bulkeley ordered his men to board these PT Boats, push out into the harbor and wait at the ready.

Now, as Bulkeley stares off into the distance… he hears what sounds like a swarm of hornets. He looks up to see instead a swarm of Japanese planes flying in a perfect V formation. As the aircrafts soar over the bay… bombs begin to splash and then explode into the water.

Bulkeley orders his fleet of PT boats to spread out, stay on the move and use evasive maneuvers. But just as the Japanese planes appear to be done, several of the enemy bombers peel off and dive down toward Bulkeley’s PT Boats.

Seeing the planes, two of Bulkeley’s gunners man the 50-caliber weapons mounted on the deck. But as they take their positions… a bomb strikes the water close by, nearly tipping the boat over. Bulkeley looks up to see a Japanese plane flying directly overhead, with another close on its tail. When the second plane nears… another bomb drops. Bulkeley’s helmsman clenches the steering wheel… and makes a sharp right to avoid the explosion.

Their aim is good and the bombers begin rattling and wobbling... before splashing into the water below. His men cheer their success, but Bulkeley orders the gunners to keep firing, and not to stop until every last Japanese plane ends up at the bottom of Manila Bay.

During the attack, Lieutenant Bulkeley’s men manage to shoot down three Japanese planes all while losing none of Bulkeley’s PT Boats, or as he sometimes calls them: his “mosquitos”. But their heroic efforts do not prevent the Japanese from reducing the Cavite Naval Yard to rubble and destroying the barracks, a power plant, and a critical torpedo repair facility, as well as a nearby army base. In the end, the Japanese achieve their primary objective: preventing the American military from using the Philippines as a forward base of operations. Their victory is a major setback for the American officer in charge of the Philippines: General Douglas MacArthur.

After this crushing defeat, MacArthur is forced to swallow a bitter pill. He, and the more than 70, 000 American and Filipino troops under his command, are surrounded by an enemy they cannot defeat. Eventually, the dire situation will force MacArthur to flee the islands. And to help him slip away, MacArthur will turn to Lieutenant John D Bulkeley and his quick and agile PT Boats. With the help of his men, Lieutenant Bulkeley will manage to get General MacArthur out of the Philippines as part of a daring escape that reaches its climax on this day, March 20th, 1942.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is March 20th, 1942: General MacArthur Vows to Return to the Philippines.

Act One: The Order

It’s February 23rd, 1942 on Corregidor, an island fortress at the mouth of Manila Bay.

At a staff meeting with his fellow officers, General Douglass MacArthur angrily paces back and forth. MacArthur is frustrated by recent events and the terrible choice he now faces.

After the Japanese attack on the Cavite Naval Yard, MacArthur was forced to accept the fact that he and his troops in Manilla were surrounded and no match for the Japanese. But he was reluctant to abandon the Philippines completely. So instead, he opted for a strategic retreat. He moved the bulk of his troops from Manila to the Bataan peninsula, located just across Manila Bay. Then he set up his new headquarters here on Corregidor Island, or as it’s also known, “The Rock”. Ultimately, MacArthur’s deft retreat saved the lives of his men and slowed down the enemy’s advance. But MacArthur knows it’s only a matter of time before the Japanese overwhelm the American forces in the Philippines.

After evaluating the situation himself earlier today, President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave the Philippines. The president informed MacArthur that he will be sending a plane or submarine to facilitate his escape to Australia where he’ll take up a new post as Supreme Commander of the South-West Pacific.

And this is the choice MacArthur faces. If he ignores the president’s order and tries to stay and fight, he will face consequences. But if he does as he’s told, he will be leaving tens of thousands of American and Filipino troops to die.

His staff officers look on as MacArthur pulls out a piece of paper and waves it in the air. MacArthur barks that this is his letter of resignation. He plans to step down as an officer, re-enlist as a volunteer, and then join the rest of the fighting infantry on Bataan.

Hearing this, one of the staff officers rises and demands that MacArthur see reason. President Roosevelt clearly believes that America cannot win this war without his leadership. If he stays in Bataan, he will be captured and likely killed. And that would be a propaganda victory for the Japanese, and a crushing blow to the American people, many of whom already regard MacArthur as a war hero.

The staff officer consoles MacArthur by reminding him that he is not running away. He is going to Australia to take up command of an army, one that he can use to return to the Philippines and rescue his men. Besides, he says confidently, the men have held the Japanese off this long. They can continue to do so. As the meeting goes on, it becomes clear that the rest of the staff agree: MacArthur must heed the president’s order.

MacArthur doesn’t like the idea of abandoning his men, but he recognizes that his staff have a point. Besides, MacArthur’s wife and young son are here on the island with him. They will be much safer in Australia.

So the next day, MacArthur radios the president and informs him that he will do as he’s been instructed. But privately, MacArthur has concerns about attempting the escape in a plane or a submarine. The island is surrounded by a Japanese naval and aerial blockade. Any plane, submarine, or ship would easily be intercepted by the enemy unless it’s small and agile… like one of Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley's mosquitoes.

Over the past few months, MacArthur has gotten to know Lieutenant Bulkeley well; a man he considers something of a kindred spirit. MacArthur has come to like and trust the swashbuckling Bulkeley, even if he is a Navy man.

So on February 28th, MacArthur informs Bulkeley that he wants to inspect his small fleet of PT Boats. But MacArthur doesn’t just want to look them over. He wants to go for a ride. So, that afternoon, Bulkeley orders his men to make preparations for a demonstration.

The next morning, several of Bulkley’s men board their PT Boats in Bataan and speed across the bay to Corregidor Island where MacArthur and his wife are waiting. With several American planes circling the sky for security, MacArthur and his wife step onto a PT boat which then zips them out across the placid bay. MacArthur is impressed by the small boat’s speed and agility. He recognizes that this “mosquito” is the perfect vessel to sneak him and his family off the island.

But MacArthur doesn’t let Bulkeley, or anyone else, know of the secret scheme. Instead, after the demonstration, MacArthur makes a surprise proclamation announcing that due to the Lieutenant’s heroism in past combat, Bulkeley is being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, one of the highest decorations a soldier can receive. The honor is normally reserved for members of the army. But MacArthur believes Bulkeley, and his PT boats, are special.

After making the announcement, the general pulls Bulkeley aside and invites him to a private lunch at MacArthur’s headquarters on Topside, the highest point on the island. And it is there, MacArthur will recruit Bulkeley into his secret plan and ask the young Lieutenant to help him pull off a daring mission - one that will alter the course of the war.

Act Two: The Escape

It’s March 1st, 1942.

Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley follows General MacArthur toward his headquarters on Topside. Bulkeley was asked here for an informal lunch, but he has a feeling there’s more to this invitation than MacArthur is letting on. Bulkeley’s suspicions are confirmed when MacArthur leads him away from his headquarters, and out into an abandoned field, far from prying ears.

MacArthur begins by insisting that what he’s about to say is top secret. Bulkeley promises discretion. Then he listens intently as MacArthur explains his predicament. The president is ordering him to leave the island and go to Australia where he will take up command of an Army. He doesn’t want to go, but he has no choice. Orders are orders. But he promises to use his new army to return and rescue his men on Bataan at the earliest opportunity.

When Bulkeley asks MacArthur what he can do to help, MacArthur says he’d like Bulkeley and his men to help him escape on their PT Boats. He wants Bulkeley to transport him, his family, and some of his officers, away from the Rock, through Japanese lines, and six hundred miles south to Mindanao, an island in the Southeastern Philippines. There, a plane will be waiting to take them the rest of the way to Australia.

Concerned, Bulkeley responds "But, General MacArthur, sir, wouldn't it be safer for you to get to Mindanao by submarine?” MacArthur smiles and says the Japanese likely expect him to leave by sub. But they wouldn't be expecting a PT Boat. And even if the Japanese were to get wise to the plan, MacArthur is confident that Bulkeley’s mosquitoes can outrun them. MacArthur wants to leave no later than March 15th, two weeks away. The general asks Bulkeley, “ you think you can pull it off?”

Bulkeley weighs the danger that awaits them. Even if they get past Japanese lines, they will have to travel for over 30 hours through uncharted waters, and unpredictable weather, all while evading Japanese boats, planes, and mines. But Bulkeley is a soldier through and through. So instead of expressing reservations, he calmly replies: “General, it’ll be a piece of cake.”

Almost immediately, Bulkeley and his men get to work making the necessary arrangements for the March 15th departure. On March 9th, Bulkeley spends the day putting together a detailed escape plan: at the agreed-upon time, three of Bulkeley’s PT boats will depart from various locations on Bataan to draw the attention of any Japanese that may be patrolling the area. Meanwhile, Bulkeley’s PT Boat, which will carry MacArthur, his family, and some officers, will depart from a discreet dock on the northern point of Corregidor Island. From there, the boats will proceed to an agreed-upon rendezvous point before they head south and take a carefully planned route that they hope will keep them away from the enemy.

Early the next morning, on March 10th, Bulkeley sits down with the general to get his plan approved. MacArthur signs off, but he proposes one significant alteration. Instead of departing on March 15th, as they previously discussed, MacArthur now wants to leave tomorrow, on March 11th, a full four days early.

Though MacArthur doesn’t say it, Bulkeley suspects that the general has known he’d be leaving on the 11th for some time, but kept the information close as a matter of security. Bulkeley nods and promises MacArthur that he and his men will be ready to depart tomorrow.

The following evening, Bulkeley stands on the deck of his PT boat, which is docked on the northern part of the island. Bulkeley smiles as MacArthur’s four-year-old son stumbles a bit as he follows his mother and father on board. Watching the general shepherd his son onto the boat, Bulkeley can’t help but notice that MacArthur seems nervous.

Recently, rumors have been swirling that the Japanese discovered that an evacuation of the general was imminent. Over the past few days, there has been a marked increase in the number of enemy ships patrolling the waters surrounding Bataan and the Rock. Still, Bulkeley is confident that, with a little bit of luck, he and his men will break through the Japanese lines, get General MacArthur out of the Philippines, and complete the mission. If they succeed, MacArthur will take up his new command, and Bulkeley and his men will have done their part to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific. 

Act Three: The Speech

It’s March 20th, 1942 at the Terowie Railway Station, a little over 500 miles from Melbourne, Australia.

General MacArthur, his wife, and his young son stand on the train platform fielding questions from local reporters who are all eager to hear about the long, arduous journey that brought him to this moment.

After traveling hundreds of miles by boat, and then flying to the northern coast of Australia, MacArthur flew inland to catch a train that brought him and his entourage here to this rail station, one of the last stops on his way to Melbourne.

MacArthur is exhausted, but he’s glad to be talking to the press. He knows many people will question his decision to leave Bataan. Some might even call him a coward. So MacArthur wants the public to know why he left. Standing on the train platform, MacArthur tells the reporters, “The President of the United States ordered me to break through the Japanese lines and proceed… to Australia for the purpose… of organizing the American offensive against Japan… a primary object of which is the relief of the Philippines.” MacArthur concludes his speech with a now famous line, “I came through and I shall return."

It’s not the only promise General MacArthur has made since he escaped. After the most perilous part of the journey was over, MacArthur approached Lieutenant Bulkeley and told him, "You’ve taken me out of the jaws of death, and I won't forget it.” MacArthur promised Bulkeley that he and his men would all be awarded the Silver Star for gallantry. MacArthur will make good on his promise to Bulkeley. But his vow to return to the Philippines is more complicated.

When MacArthur finally arrives in Melbourne, the general is disappointed to learn that there are fewer troops in Australia than President Roosevelt led him to believe. Given this, MacArthur has no choice but to abandon his plans to go back to Bataan.

The 70,000-plus American and Filipino troops there resist the Japanese for months. But finally, in April, the Battling Bastards of Bataan, as they come to be known, are forced to surrender and embark on a march to Prisoner of War camps many miles north of Manila. As many as 10,000 die before they even reach their destination. Many will point to the so-called Bataan Death March as the direct consequence of MacArthur’s cowardice. And months later, the very last of the American troops on Corregidor Island also surrender.

But MacArthur never forgets the promise he made, even as he oversees the vast military operation in the South-West Pacific. Finally, two years later, in October 1944, MacArthur returns to the Philippine islands to break the yoke of Japanese rule there. In the midst of a raging battle, and against the advice of his staff, MacArthur steps foot on the shores of the Philippine islands, fulfilling his promise.

Despite his flaws, MacArthur will go on to fame and glory. The five-star general will accept Japan’s surrender and supervise the country’s subsequent occupation and rebuilding. MacArthur also receives the Medal of Honor, one of over a dozen decorations he's bestowed throughout his notable career. Still, MacArthur’s distinguished service to the Allied cause might have come to a premature end were it not for Lieutenant John D Bulkeley’s daring escape mission that culminated with General MacArthur’s now famous vow to return to the Philippines - a promise he first made on March 20th, 1942.


Next on History Daily.March 21st, 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leads a march against laws repressing the voting rights of African Americans in Alabama.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Samuel Wooley.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.