RAMPAGE: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila. By James M. Scott. Norton. 640 pages. $32.95.
I still remember my 10th-grade history teacher, Betty Seizinger, describing the Battle of Manila.
“The fighting was house-to-house,” she said, “which, if you think about it, means it was really room-to-room.”
She was not the first person to describe the February 1945 battle as “room-to-room,” but I always liked the way she internalized the facts, and encouraged us to do so as well. It was military history made intimate and immediate.
“Rampage,” James M. Scott’s third book on the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, is by far his most immediate and intimate.
His first, “The War Below,” followed three submarines on a high-stakes guessing game, the enemy viewed mostly through radar and periscopes. In the second, “Target Tokyo,” the Doolittle Raid pilots get a fleeting, 30-second glance of Tokyo.
In "Rampage," the war is agonizingly and microscopically close: the enemy soldiers, the Filipino and American citizens, the American generals. We see what they eat, what they wear, how they survive, how they die.
From the time of the 1898 U.S. occupation to World War II, the Philippine capital had blossomed into “the Pearl of the Orient.” Daniel Burnham, architect of the Flatiron Building in New York and the Chicago Expedition, laid out a master plan with wide palm-lined boulevards, golf-courses and theaters.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur considered Manila home, and it’s easy to see why. Expatriated American businessmen and their families lived the good life: gardeners, housekeepers, afternoon siestas. And no American loved the Philippines more than MacArthur. He was first sent there in 1903 — one of several assignments, the last of which came in 1935 — to oversee the creation of the Philippine Army. The general lived with his wife and son in a penthouse apartment in the luxurious Manila Hotel. When forced to evacuate in 1942, he made his famous, personal vow of “I shall return.”
Left behind were thousands of Americans, most of whom were interned by the Japanese at the University of Santo Tomas. At first, the internees mobilized to make a mini city, creating a hospital and a school, planting gardens, building toilets, even devising a system to provide sanitary napkins for women. Three years later, conditions had deteriorated so severely that families were eating their pets.
As the U.S. eventually turned the tide against Japan, MacArthur did return to Manila in 1945. He grossly underestimated the Japanese resistance and planned a victory parade down Dewey Boulevard. But the Japanese had so well-fortified the streets of the city that the G.I.s were forced to blast through buildings. The enemy booby-trapped dead bodies, set much of the city on fire and, in an attempt to eliminate any potential guerrillas, massacred Filipino civilians.
In truth, the word massacre doesn’t begin to describe the atrocities that Scott depicts. Many of the rapes and killings are so awful I wouldn’t bring them up in private conversation, much less in a family newspaper. Low on manpower and ammo, the Japanese resorted to swords and bayonets, even on children.
Often, in the middle of one of many vivid accounts of families being rounded up and led off to be killed, I’d pause and think, 'Who could have possibly survived to recount this?' As awful as these stories are, a reader begins to feel a sense of purpose. By reading the stories, we honor those who miraculously survived to tell them, and those who didn’t.
Many lights shine brighter here for the darkness. Amidst the bloodbath, little moments of humanity, such as the woman who baptizes an infant with garden water just before the child dies, are even more poignant. Thanks to Scott’s exhausting research of personal accounts and diaries, “Rampage” seems to feature as many women as men (a film adaptation might be the rare war movie to pass the Bechdel Test). At the end of a Pacific campaign that had brought so much destruction and killing, MacArthur and his men found themselves in the unique business of saving lives, sheltering and feeding thousands of Americans and Filipinos.
By a strange coincidence, this is the second book on Manila by a Charleston author this year. Memoirist Cinelle Barnes’ “Monsoon Mansion” depicts another fall from grace and luxury, decades later.
Barnes has called her hometown a “ghost of a place.” With thorough research and vivid writing, Scott has managed to make incarnate many of these haunting spirits, and honor their lives, their struggles and their dignity.