City of Manila,  Special Feature

Manila 1945: Remembering A City’s Bloody Feburary

Originally posted on February 3, 2015, this post has been rewritten to add some new stuff and make the piece more “timeless” and less constrained from being a 70th anniversary post as it was originally written.

February has been a traditionally known worldwide as the “love month,” as well as being as being historic month for the Philippines, especially in recent years due to the events of 1986 which culminated in what we now know as the first People Power Revolution. But not many people of another historic event that happened years back in 1945, one of the darkest and most devastating chapters in the history of Manila and of the country as a whole: the Battle of Manila in 1945 in which American and Japanese forces fought for about a month in a bloody, devastating battle in a bid to liberate Manila from Japanese control.

(courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

This was the singular event that would change Manila forever as the city once known as the “Pearl of the Orient” became one of the most devastated cities during World War II.  Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost  and many of the city’s important infrastructure and landmarks were heavily damaged, if not totally destroyed, many of which would not be rebuilt ever again.


After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941, (in Hawaii time, that is) the Japanese launched a series of aerial bombardments and troop landings north and south of the city. Considering these attacks in Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines are considered to have happened on the same day in Japan and Philippine time, one must realize that the Japanese wasted no time in its offensive. In an effort to spare Manila from further destruction and bloodshed, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East, (USAFFE) declared Manila as an open city which meant the defenses and fortifications in the city would be taken down with the impending arrival of the Japanese.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur (courtesy of

By January 2, 1942, the Japanese effectively took control of the city, occupying it for the next 3 years.

Manila declared as “Open City” in 1941 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Fast forward to January 1945 as the American forces along with Filipino guerrilla troops were closing in on the capital city from different directions as they aim to take back Manila. By then, the main Japanese forces commanded by Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, AKA the Tiger of Malaya, have retreated up north so they could better hold off the advancing American forces that are after them. Yamashita ordered the remaining forces in Manila to retreat and destroy vital installations like the bridges to slow down the Americans.

Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita (courtesy of The Mad Monarchist)

However, the Japanese troops under Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi in Manila had other plans. A veteran of the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942, Iwabuchi felt humiliated when the Japanese fleet was defeated by the Allied forces. Also, he was committed to the navy ideal of defending the territory to the last man. Thus, he defied Yamashita’s orders and had his men build defense fortifications around the city that will meet the American forces head on with that hope of possibly redeeming the honor he lost at Guadalcanal at the hands of the Americans.

Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi (courtesy of Xiao Chua)

On the American front, MacArthur was eager to get to Manila, even at the expense of defying orders from higher-ups to skip the Philippines and make an attack on Japan. He had hopes that the Japanese would declare Manila an open city, or at least with lesser resistance as the Japanese were concentrating the strength of their forces up north. Some have said MacArthur had this dream of a grand parade in the city that would welcome him and his men in the city to symbolize his triumph and stroke his ego as well.

Japanese defenses in Manila which included wires and pillboxes (courtesy of John Tewell on Flickr)

Unfortunately, what transpired instead was a month of destruction and bloodshed as Japanese troops were frantically killing many innocent civilians who they thought were against them while Americans were frantically bombing almost every part of the city to wipe out or at least ferret out the Japanese who have positioned themselves in the different parts of the city, destroying infrastructure and buildings which ironically the Americans helped build.

(courtesy of
part of Manila burning (courtesy of John Tewell on Flickr)
Gen. Douglas MacArthur visiting the ruins of Manila Hotel (courtesy of US Navy’s Naval Historical Center)
American prisoners of war rescued in Old Bilibid Prison, Manila (courtesy of


The battle brought a deep scar on the city and its people who survived the carnage. A number of them decided to move away from the city and the horrible memories it brought, giving rise to the suburban communities like Quezon City, Makati, Pasig, among others while the City of Manila went on to experience a long, steady decline into an urban mess that we are familiar with today. Many structures and infrastructure in the city were lost in the battle, a number of them were sadly never rebuilt. The battle changed Manila and helped turn it into something else as it was eager to erase the horrors of the past and move on to the future.

(courtey of

Iwabuchi was believed to have been among those killed in the battle, so there was no chance to prosecute him for the crimes. Yamashita, who surrendered to the Allied forces in September at Kiangan, Ifugao, was prosecuted as well. Even though Yamashita had no direct hand behind the crimes, the fact he did not do anything else in his power to dissuade Iwabuchi from committing the atrocities was enough for the war crimes tribunal to render a guilty verdict to him, under the notion of “command responsibility.” In the midst of the controversy behind the verdict, (some legal minds thought there was no due process involved in the trial and that it was rushed) he would eventually be executed on February 23, 1946…about a year after the Battle of Manila.

As a Filipino proverb goes, “one cannot move forward if he cannot look back at the past.” Unfortunately Manila did not heed that lesson, thus we have now a city that does not have a sense of identity anymore, a city that seems to no longer value its past and thinks only of modern urbanism as the way to progress. Manila today, sadly, is still struggling to regain its soul that was lost in 1945.

The least we can do is for us to remember and learn the lessons from this dark chapter in our history as we hope and pray as well that we of this generation, and the generations to come would never have to witness such a tragedy again.


If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Manila in 1945 and how it has transformed the city, do check out all the posts to date on the Urban Roamer in the special section Manila 1945.

Also, do check out the annual event “Manila Transitio 1945.” This is held every February-early March in Intramuros to remember the events of Manila 1945. For more information do check out Carlos Celdran’s Facebook page.

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