For weeks, Douglas MacArthur had been sending reports from the Philippines about how the badly outnumbered, neglected, abandoned, and under supplied American and Filipino forces (…) were holding the line against the Japanese only because of his sheer tactical genius and infallible leadership. His messages in mid-February were completely divorced from reality, but they nonetheless cemented the perception that he alone “was worth five corps” (written by a sarcastic Eisenhower who as MacArthur’s former aide, saw through his bombastic proclamations).
One of MacArthur’s biggest fans was Australian Prime Minister John Curtin. With the collapse of ABDACOM, Curtin demanded the three divisions of the Australian Corps back from the Western Desert and the Middle East for home defense against an expected Japanese invasion. (He would get two, the third was sent to Ceylon/Sri Lanka. The Allies completely overestimated Japanese amphibious capability, capacity, and operational reach). With all supplies and reinforcements from the MidEast diverted to India and Burma, Curtin correctly surmised that Australia was being left to fend for itself by Britain (Its defense was “desirable” but not “critical” to Allied victory). He couldn’t take the chance that the Americans would do the same: an erroneous, if understandable assumption, since Adm King had just announced the “Germany First Policy”. Like the American public, Curtin was besotted with the imaginary and hagiographic newspaper accounts of MacArthur’s prowess in the Philippines. But unlike the American public, he knew the cause at Bataan was lost. Neither he nor Churchill wanted to see MacArthur, “a good and occasionally brilliant general” languish in a Japanese prison: he would serve a much more strategic purpose defending Australia. At the very least, America would never abandon the Southwest Pacific with MacArthur in charge. After an intercession with Churchill, FDR ordered MacArthur on 22 February to depart for Australia and assume command of the growing Allied forces in theater.
FDR directed MacArthur to depart at a time of his own choosing, but the Japanese invasion of New Guinea made abundantly clear that that time was already well passed. He could no longer avoid the public relations hit that would ensue with abandoning his troops, whether he was ordered to or not. On 10 March, he transferred command of Allied Forces in the Far East to MG Johnathan Wainwright in a small ceremony on the island of Corregidor that guarded the entrance to Manila Bay.
Instead of departing by submarine, the claustrophobic MacArthur wanted to use the smallest US Navy craft in its arsenal to escape Bataan “to settle a score” with the Navy for not coming to his aid in the Philippines, whose inevitable fall he blamed on Nimitz. The next day, 11 March, 1942, 22 members MacArthur’s staff and household, including his wife, 4 year old son, and his son’s Filipino nanny loaded onto the patrol torpedo (PT) boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three commanded by Lieutenant J. D. Bulkeley. His four remaining worn down PT boats would carry MacArthur and his party on the six hundred mile trip through Japanese patrolled waters to Mindanao, where a B-17 would take them to Australia. Bulkeley would have to leave 32 men to fight as infantry on Bataan to accommodate the passengers and their luggage. When his family was boarded, MacArthur told those whom came to see him off, “Keep the flag flying; I’m coming back.”
At dusk the heavily laden PT boats departed for Tagauayan Island, where they would rendezvous if separated, and refuel. Though by all accounts the extremely seasick MacArthur and his family were no problem on the trip, the generals and colonels of the staff caused considerable difficulty for the crews of the PT boats, and subsequently were left out of many official accounts of the voyage. Furthermore, in the heavy swells and bad weather, the blacked out PT boats became separated in the night, and only two arrived at the appointed time, including Bulkeley’s with MacArthur on board. A third PT boat limped in and was judged not seaworthy enough for the second leg of the 600 mile trip, and their passengers transferred to the others. Considerable animosity ensued when some of the staff felt that they were going to be left behind instead of more members of the already shorthanded skeleton crews, but space was found for everyone. The two seaworthy PT boats departed, and only by luck were they not spotted by a nearby Japanese cruiser. The fourth PT boat arrived shortly thereafter, and quickly sailed on once the skipper found out the other two were gone. A US submarine would eventually pick up the stranded PT boat’s crew and take them back to Corregidor.
The harrowing journey of the three PT boats ended when they straggled into the harbor at Cagayan on the north coast of Mindanao on the morning and afternoon of the 13th. MacArthur told Bulkeley, “You’ve taken me out of the jaws of death, and I won’t forget it.” And to his credit, he did not. MacArthur eventually recommended silver stars for each of the crewmembers, and became a tireless advocate for PT boats during the war. He even had Buckeley and his officers flown to the States to oversee their expansion and training.
On 21 March, MacArthur flew to Australia where he met reporters there and told them, “I made it through, and I shall return”.