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Will Wilson - Battle of the Philippines

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Recently, I’ve had occasion to do some research on justices of the Texas Supreme Court buried out here at the State Cemetery. There are quite a few and they all have stories to tell, but Will Wilson has a larger story to tell than most. He was present at some of the key moments in 20th Century Texas history. He was an associate justice on the court from 1950 until 1956, but he was a crime fighter by nature and ran for attorney general in 1957 and served six years. President Richard Nixon appointed him to the Justice Department as an Assistant Attorney General under John Mitchell and served there two years. He resigned before the Watergate break in, having no knowledge of it. Wilson wrote a book about his experiences in the Nixon White House called A Fool For A Client. Just like many highly respected politicians in Texas, he was caught up in the Sharpstown scandal of the 1970s. There’s plenty to write about in just that one paragraph alone, but I would like to elaborate on a point mentioned briefly in his obituary:

He served in New Guinea and in the Philippines, where he was on the staff of Generals Kruger and I.P. Swift and he was the Battalion Commander of the 465th Field Artillery as well. Will accepted the surrender of General Yamashita’s staff and was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism in combat by General I.P. Swift.

The Philippines Campaign of 1944-45 was the final death knell of the Japanese Empire. That death knell was first sounded at the Battle of Midway where the United States Navy sunk three irreplaceable Japanese aircraft carriers. It was a long road from Pearl Harbor to the final surrender. That road included a disastrous defeat in Southeast Asia of an Allied army and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Faced with an untenable position in the region, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered General Douglas MacArthur to withdraw to Australia and thus began the occupation of the Philippines. Some truly horrific things happened to the Filipino people and the surviving Allied forces that surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army. Hell ships, forced labor, starvation, massacres and other atrocities awaited them. If you read the bit above from Wilson’s obituary you will see the name General Yamashita, also known as the “Tiger of Malaya” for the capture of Singapore from Allied Forces.

Yamashita was a brilliant general having joined the Japanese Army in 1916. He was blunt and to the point and feuded constantly with Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. He was ordered to Manchuria, a military backwater during a large part of the Pacific Conflict. He was finally called on to defend the Philippines against the American advance, but by that time it was much too late. Yamashita was a clever enough commander to see a losing proposition when put to it, but he still fought a mostly defensive campaign to deny the Americans use of the whole of the Philippines.

Both Yamashita and General Douglas MacArthur had ordered their forces not to destroy Manila, the Philippine capitol and Yamashita withdrew his forces to that end. However, and this is where it gets complicated, a force of Japanese naval personnel, some 16,000 men, immediately reoccupied the city.A Rear Admiral Iwabuchi Sanji was in command of the Japanese forces in Manila and either disobeyed Yamashita’s orders to not turn Manila into a battle field or was ordered to do so; there is still controversy about this. Regardless, what followed was the Battle of Manila, a month long bloodbath of urban combat. In the beginning, MacArthur had restricted aerial bombing and artillery fire on Manila in order to avoid civilian casualties. He rescinded the order on artillery to drive the Japanese out of the city and the howitzers opened fire, including Wilson’s 465th Field Artillery.

When all was said and done, Manila lay in ruins, only Warsaw got it worse than Manila. American forces discovered the true cost of Manila, some 100,000 civilians were dead; a seventh of the city’s population at the time. American howitzers had done a share of the damage, but Japanese forces brutalized the citizenry under the occupation, executions, looting, burning and killing of men, women and children and even Red Cross workers. Just how much of the Manila massacre was Yamashita’s fault? Well, it’s up for debate. Some say Sanji acted in direct defiance of Yamashita’s orders, others say he was under Yamashita’s command and therefore he is responsible for the rear admiral’s actions. Whatever it may be, Yamashita was executed in 1946 for war crimes in the first major trial of the Pacific Theatre.

Yamashita played defense for the rest of the war until ordered by the emperor to surrender. Will Wilson was there when Yamashita’s staff surrendered. He retired from the Army as a major and came home to the United States with a bright future ahead of him just like many other of the notable Texans buried at the Cemetery. John Connally comes immediately to mind, but there are many, many others.

In researching this blog post, I came across numbers, big, big numbers like 100,000 civilian deaths, but if you look further than that, look at the big picture, you see why the Battle of Manila was necessary. Historian Chalmers Johnson is quoted everywhere on the internet about this subject, so I’ll let him finish.

It may be pointless to try to establish which World War Two Axis aggressor, Germany or Japan, was the more brutal to the peoples it victimized. The Germans killed six million Jews and 20 million Russians [i.e. Soviet citizens]; the Japanese slaughtered as many as 30 million Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians and Burmese, at least 23 million of them ethnic Chinese. Both nations looted the countries they conquered on a monumental scale, though Japan plundered more, over a longer period, than the Nazis. Both conquerors enslaved millions and exploited them as forced laborers—and, in the case of the Japanese, as [forced] prostitutes for front-line troops. If you were a Nazi prisoner of war from Britain, America, Australia, New Zealand or Canada (but not Russia) you faced a 4% chance of not surviving the war; [by comparison] the death rate for Allied POWs held by the Japanese was nearly 30%.

What continues to amaze me about men like Will Wilson, men that saw those big numbers up close, is they were able to keep going and put the war past them and have careers that had nothing to do with war. They saw shocking disregard for human life and came back to the United States with their values intact and strengthened. Read an article here written by Will Wilson about being a conscientious lawyer, it’s a good read.



- Will Erwin