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Manila as a Logistics Center

For a brief period after Japan attacked the United States in World War II, Manila served as the center for American logistics in the Philippines.

As part of their attack on the United States in December 1941, the Japanese attacked U.S. Forces in the Philippines only hours after their attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. When the attack on the Philippines occurred on 8 December, General Douglas MacArthur’s Philippine Army was in the early stages of mobilization. MacArthur was trying to create an army from U.S. troops, native Regular U.S. Army Philippine scouts, recent Philippine Army draftees, and Philippine Constabulary policemen. [The Philippine Constabulary was a Philippine national police force that was organized by the United States in 1901. It became the backbone of the Philippine Regular Army under General MacArthur.] Although the United States was busy shipping equipment and supplies for the Army to the Philippines, planners estimated that it would take another 4 to 5 months to meet minimum requirements. Eighty thousand Soldiers on Luzon, the largest and most populous Philippine island, needed supplies. Without adequate supplies from the United States, MacArthur’s U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) had to draw its supplies from those available on Luzon.

After the attack on the Philippines, the port area in Manila had no serious bomb damage and was fully functional. Manila had large docks that the United States had been using to unload its military supplies. Manila became the center of American logistics. Luzon’s government, business, finance, maritime shipping, and wire and radio communications were centered in Manila. Luzon had the finest transportation network in the Far East and Pacific outside of Japan. When war began, Manila started exercising its primacy as the largest commercial storage center in the islands.

Local Purchases

Before Japan attacked, the War Department already had lifted all financial restrictions on the Army’s local purchase authority. Almost all of the advance depots’ supplies flowed from the Manila Quartermaster Depot, except for perishable food, rice, sugar, and coffee, which Army officers in the field purchased locally as needed. Starting on
8 December, 35 trainloads of supplies were shipped to the depots at Tarlac in northern Luzon; Los Baños, south of Manila; and Guagua, northeast of Bataan. Simultaneously, the Quartermaster Depot began procuring large stocks of polished rice.

The military soon was making so many purchases that civilian businesses nearly stopped serving the Filipino populace. In the most blatant cases, the requisitioning of property trended toward outright theft. American officers’ actions were so arbitrary and technically illegal that, had it been peacetime, they would have spent the rest of their lives justifying their actions. Commander Harry H. Keith was acting as the Navy’s fleet maintenance officer while he recuperated from the bombing of his destroyer, the USS Peary. “You just walked into a store,” he wrote to his wife, “took what you wanted, and walked out. If you had time, you signed a receipt and if not, you tried to remember to send one the next day. My name is signed to thousands of dollars [worth] of paper all over Manila.”

The USAFFE Finance Office put its peacetime regulations in a bottom drawer and never looked at them again. They approved claims if they were arithmetically correct and had some kind of proof that the supplies had been delivered, dispersing cash for the supplies received. Vendors delivering supplies appeared with hand-written receipts that were signed by just about anybody. USAFFE also hired temporary labor as needed and paid them in cash at the end of each shift. Finance officers developed shortcuts to help fund the Philippine Army. These solutions and casual bookkeeping practices would have made a pre-war auditor scream.

Blackout Restrictions

Quartermaster officers boarded ships in Manila Bay, examined their manifests, and brought the vessels carrying militarily useful supplies and equipment to the docks. The ships could discharge cargo only during daylight hours. Nightly blackouts prevented unloading, so the ships would leave the docks and anchor in the bay each evening. These blackouts were actually more harmful than helpful. The Japanese seldom flew at night, and blackouts slowed land convoys carrying needed materiel to the troops. An exception to this restriction would have permitted cargo to be discharged at night, which would have sped cargo deliveries.

Maréchal Joffre

The Vichy French ship, Maréchal Joffre, posed its own problem. Its skipper had reported that, although fully fueled and manned, the ship could not sail. Dissension between crewmen supporting the Vichy government sympathetic to Nazi Germany and crewmen supporting the Free French forces led by General Charles de Gaulle had immobilized the ship. The Americans decided to send an armed boarding party to seize the ship and sail it to Australia. The Americans were uncertain as to how the French might react. Would they need cutlasses and pikes to board the ship? Would the French resist? A Navy lieutenant, armed with a sword, a pistol, and a carbine, led his men aboard. The French were calm and offered no fight. The ship’s captain strode up, smiled, and welcomed the Americans with an accented “Allo.”

The Americans had each man choose either Vichy or de Gaulle. Vichy men stepped to the port side and went ashore into internment. The 63 de Gaulle supporters assembled starboard. A Navy lieutenant gathered 100 American naval air ground crewmen and aviators and raised anchor late on 18 December. They sailed the ship through Japanese waters to Australia, where the Maréchal Joffre was renamed the USS Rochambeau.

Use of the City

Manila’s dock area was chaotic as the city prepared for war. The Army had taken over all of Manila’s piers for military use. The piers were jammed with pre-war goods that commercial brokers had not hauled away and with stocks of food that Armour and Company, Swift and Company, and Libby, McNeill, and Libby had agreed to turn over to the military. In addition, the piers were swamped with priority discharges. Vehicles and manpower to clear the piers were irregular and insufficient to do the job.

The city hummed with military activity. Inter-island freighters filled the mouth of the Pasig River. Truck convoys with American Soldiers in khakis and Filipino recruits in blue dungarees rushed through Manila. Many buildings and institutions were used to house military activities. MacArthur’s headquarters was there, and the Navy had offices at the Marsman Building on the waterfront. U.S. Army engineers moved into the University of the Philippines. Finance offices occupied the Villamor Hall College of Liberal Arts, a two-story, reinforced concrete building that was the Taft Avenue campus of the University of the Philippines. The Quartermaster Corps took over Santo Tomas University and San Beda College. USAFFE’s press relations section moved into the monastery and school of the Order of the Virgin Mary. The Office of the Superintendent, Army Transport Service, moved into the Custom House opposite Pier 5.

Supply Shortages

The military coordinated with local oil companies to control the distribution of approximately 10 million gallons of commercial gasoline that were in storage. The oil companies agreed to open their distribution centers at six sites. Those sites then serviced 30 issue points along the major highways. Each center could handle from 75,000 to 100,000 gallons a day. The oil companies ran rail tank cars out of Manila to replenish these centers.

Although most supplies for the Regular U.S. Army establishment had arrived before the war, supplies for the Philippine Army had not. Expected first in late October and then in late November, the convoy carrying quartermaster supplies was diverted to Australia after 8 December. The supplies and equipment requisitioned for the Philippine Army never did arrive. The Filipinos would go into battle with whatever they had been issued from local U.S. Army stocks or could be purchased from the local economy.

To remedy that shortfall, USAFFE purchased or contracted for what it needed. The Quartermaster Corps bought all the new cars and trucks it could find, directly from salesrooms and warehouses. Purchasing agents also bought all the second-hand vehicles they could find. USAFFE acquired title to several complete commercial motor transport companies. The cooperation of the vehicle dealers was all that could be desired. Automotive companies in Manila used their maintenance shops to service military vehicles. The Army turned the grounds of Santo Tomas University into a motor pool.

USAFFE took control of the various truck and bus companies on the first day of war. USAFFE froze sale of all vehicles, parts, and accessories without military clearance. The Army placed Soldiers and its own civilians in all shops to ensure that nothing was sold without Army permission. Bus companies stopped servicing the civilian community and placed all their fuel, repair parts, and vehicles at the disposal of the military. Without the support of the civilian transportation system and its employees, MacArthur’s army would have been nearly immobile.


The Signal Corps purchased all available photographic, communications, and radio gear. It took over the Manila Long Distance Telephone Company and made its president a lieutenant colonel. The Army leased the Mackay Radio high-speed, machine-operated radio channel between Manila and San Francisco and staffed it with Signal Corps personnel.

Medical Preparations

Medical personnel swept through medical stores and surgical supply houses and bought or signed for enormous quantities of medicine, surgical instruments, and bedding. They used equipment from one of the two general hospital sets received from the United States to establish new hospitals at Santa Escolastica College, Rizal Stadium, the Women’s Normal School, La Salle College, Holy Cross, and the Philippine Women’s University. Doctors prepared to treat as many as 10,000 casualties.

Rizal Stadium became a medical supply depot. The chrome, steel, and glass jai alai building became a hospital. Its Keg Room served as an x-ray room and operating pavilion. Workers stuffed the once plush, red-carpeted, air-conditioned ballroom with cots for doctors and staff. The cavernous courts became wards with hundreds of metal-framed beds. The building was poorly suited to provide medical care, so extensive work was required to turn it into a hospital. Only one patient was ever treated there—a Soldier who fell off a truck outside the hospital and dislocated a hip.

For 2 weeks, Manila pulsed with logistics activity, but it was all for naught. The Japanese landed at Lingayen Gulf on 22 December and swept aside the Philippine Army troops. MacArthur decided to withdraw into Bataan, leaving Manila unprotected. After the decision was made to move, the Army’s effort was focused on getting as much as possible out of the city and over to Bataan before the Japanese arrived. Even though Manila served as a logistics base for less than a month, it had served the U.S. Army well.

Lieutenant Colonel John W. Whitman, USA (Ret.), is the author of Bataan: Our Last Ditch, The Bataan Campaign, 1942. He has a bachelor's degree from San Jose State College and a master of military art and science degree from the Army Command and General Staff College, holds a secondary Army speciality of historian, and is an Advanced Research Project Associate of the Army Military History Institute.