Allen Boyer: Review of “Rampage” by James M. Scott

In every way, this book is provoking – saddening and savage. In February 1945, as Japanese troops fought to the death in the city of Manila, more than a hundred thousand Filipino civilians died in the wrecked city, massacred by the enemy or killed by American artillery fire.

Cover of “Rampage” by James M Scott. Photo provided.

The Japanese commander in the Philippines was Tomoyuki Yamashita, a general in the Imperial Japanese Army. Yamashita had withdrawn to the mountains north of the capital, where he and his infantry fought until the war ended. In downtown Manila, holed up in huge civic buildings built to withstand earthquakes, Japanese admiral Sanji Iwabuchi rejected orders to break out. His blue-clad marines were the most infamous perpetrators of an order issued early in the fighting: “All people on the battlefield with the exception of Japanese military personnel, Japanese civilians, and special construction units will be put to death.”

There is fighting in this book, but the main story is a chronicle of atrocities. There were massacres in churches, colleges, lumberyards, a Red Cross clinic, and Manila’s German Club. Families were bayoneted in their homes. When American troops captured Fort Santiago, they found sealed dungeons crammed with prisoners’ bodies. An undertaker, Ricardo Esquerra, survived a sword blow during an assembly-line beheading. Kicked into a basement, with a hideous gash on the side of his neck, he waited and finally crawled to safety over a mound of corpses.

There is no comic relief here – only grainy glimpses of the incongruous and absurd. As they entered Manila, GI’s learned to sense when Japanese forces were near: it was when the cheering crowds vanished. POW’s and internees at Bilibid Prison crowded onto the roof to watch American troops make their way toward the prison, dodging sniper fire. At Rizal Memorial Stadium, a firefight raged across the baseball diamond, with Americans in the outfield and Japanese gunners dug in at home plate.

American troops advancing through the rubble of Intramuros, the walled city in downtown Manila – February 1945. Photo from “Rampage.”

No one had expected the Japanese to make a battlefield out of Manila. On Feb. 6, 1945, Allied commander Douglas MacArthur announced that the city had been liberated. In fact, fighting had hardly begun; it would end only on March 3.

MacArthur was notorious for such self-congratulation. Yet even he confronted a loss that troubled him. Throughout February, MacArthur could look across to where he had lived before the war, the air-conditioned penthouse of the Manila Hotel. He reached his family home only after Japanese soldiers had set fire to the hotel and died on its stairwells. Fanatically loyal servants had hidden the MacArthur family silver, but little else remained. Symbolically, of his vast military library, the general found only ashes: “You could read the titles on their spines, but when you touched them, they disintegrated.”

“Manila has never truly recovered from the battle,” James Scott observes. Nor has the imperial confidence upon which the city had been built:

“The battle served as the violent end to America’s colonial experiment in the Philippines, symbolized by the pulverization of the grand neoclassical public structures that had long represented Washington’s influence in the islands . . . . The Walled City lay in ruins and was filled with squatters for decades [and] much of the postwar investment was aimed at Makati, just south of the capital. There stand the steel and glass high-rises that house the banks, department stores, and international corporations – a shiny new city next to the old.”

Scott marshals his material eloquently. In earlier books, he has covered military operations in which gallantry redeemed the grimness: American submariners’ silent, lonely campaigns against Japanese shipping (“The War Below”) and the Doolittle Raid that brought the war home to Japan (“Target Tokyo”). With “Rampage,” he writes unblinkingly of the Pacific War’s crushing horror.

“Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila,” by James M. Scott. W.W. Norton. 635 pages. $32.95.

Allen Boyer is the Book Editor of His most recent book is “Rocky Boyer’s War,” a history of the Pacific air war based on his father’s wartime diary.


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