Escape from Bataan
Memoir of a United State Navy Ensign in the Philippines, October 1941 to May 1942
Ross E. Hofmann, edited by David L. Snead and Anne B. Craddock
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2016, 228 pages
Book Review published on: July 28, 2017
Escape from Bataan is the compelling account of retired U.S. Navy Lt. Cdr. Ross Hofmann as a Navy supply ensign in the Philippines from October 1941 to May 1942. The story begins with Hofmann, serving as an ensign in the Navy Reserve, receiving a call from the Navy directing him to report to the Harvard Business School. At Harvard, he attends a Navy Supply Officer’s Course where he meets two other students, Bud and Jack. At graduation, fearing a stateside assignment, the three go to the school commander’s quarters and request a foreign assignment. Three days later, all three receive orders to the U.S. Naval Facility, Shanghai, China. They learn, while at the stopover in Manila, Philippines, they were being reassigned to the Cavite Navy Supply Office on the southern shore of Manila Bay across from Manila.
Hofmann captures the hubris of the Americans serving in the Philippines in October 1941. All were fairly confident in the quality and quantity of American servicemen, their Filipino comrades, and the new equipment coming in from the states. Hofmann records the conversations over drinks where Army Air Corps pilots describe the superiority of the P-40 Warhawk and the ability of the incoming new B-17 bombers to ensure the Japanese never make it past the edges of Luzon. The Navy was equally confident that their ships, although older than the Japanese, were superior. A fellow Navy officer informs the group that increased patrolling of Navy ships and aircraft would provide advance warning of Japanese naval groups moving toward the Philippines. If the Japanese made it through, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had War Plan Orange to defeat them. Hubris was everywhere in October and November 1941.
Hofmann describes the shock of being awakened at 3:45 a.m. to learn that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. That shock was nothing compared to the shock of learning that none of the fighters or bombers were up in the air when the Japanese bombed Clark Air Field around 12:30 p.m. The P-40s and the B-17s were lined up neatly on the airfield when the Japanese attacked. As losses of the Air Corps sunk in, Hofmann recounts the main reaction was one of anger directed at MacArthur. Rumor indicates that MacArthur had denied approval to Gen. Lewis Brereton, commander of the Air Army Corps in the Far East, to take off early that morning and bomb the Japanese air base at Formosa. MacArthur, it was also rumored, denied Brereton’s request for his aircraft to take off prior to the attack. Hofmann records the daily Japanese air attacks that finally destroyed Cavite Naval Yard, forcing the Navy garrison to retreat to Mariveles on the southern side of Bataan.
Hofmann and his fellow comrades find themselves integrated with a remnant of marines from the Fourth Marine Regiment. He describes his role and the bravery of a group of airmen, sailors, and marines in defeating an attempt of a Japanese battalion to outflank I Corps. Hofmann makes a prophetic observation following the Battle of the Points. He writes that the war in the Pacific would be a very long and bloody war for both sides. The Allies would dig out the Japanese and kill them man by man. Japanese pressure eventually force Hofmann and his comrades to Cebu, where they would assist in supporting blockade runners providing support to Corregidor. They are amazed to discover that Cebu is largely removed from the horrors of war they left on Luzon three days prior. The people are happy, stores are filled with merchandise, and food is in abundance everywhere. American soldiers appear to have little interest for the events taking place on Bataan. Hofmann and his group work earnestly in coordinating with local sailors to run badly needed supplies thru the Japanese blockade to starving defenders on Bataan who experienced relentless Japanese attacks. Eventually, advancing Japanese forces would force the group to relocate to Mindanao. Hofmann’s harrowing account of flying out of Mindanao abroad a damaged PBY amphibious aircraft to Australia is nothing less than miraculous.
Hofmann made it to Australia where he would serve in a joint Army-Navy procurement office, in charge of all purchasing and manufacturing under MacArthur. He was honorably discharged from the Navy on 14 March 1946 as a lieutenant commander. Hofmann included an epilogue in which he described what followed after arriving in Australia, what happened to close comrades, and his reflection of the experience. His daughter, Anne B. Craddock, would provide an overview of his life after leaving the Navy.
Escape from Bataan is more than a memoir. The book serves as a reminder of the consequences of leadership failure: the failure of leaders to properly prepare and train their soldiers in the months leading up to the war, and the failure in not reacting to the news of the Pearl Harbor attack that resulted in the destruction of Army Air Corps aircraft. It also chronicles the mistake of Army logistic planners in pushing the majority of its supplies to the forward areas and Manila with very little for Bataan. Several of the larger forward supply depots were abandoned before there was any sign of the advancing enemy, while others were ordered evacuated and destroyed by MacArthur. Thousands of Filipino and American soldiers were starving by the time they were forced to surrender in April 1942.
Escape from Bataan tells the story a Navy ensign’s experience in the Philippines and is highly recommended to those interested in leadership, the Pacific theater of war, or the battle in the Philippines.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas