“You May Cast Off, Buck, When You Are Ready.”

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Today in History, March 11, 1942:

General Douglas MacArthur is evacuated from the Philippines at the order of President Franklin Roosevelt.  At the beginning of WWII the previous December the Japanese had invaded the Philippines; the American and Filipino forces, commanded by MacArthur, had been fighting off persistent advances ever since.  At the outset the American air forces had been almost completely destroyed on the ground, caught by surprise by the initial attacks.  Now they had been backed up to the peninsula of Bataan, and in the middle of the bay, the island of Corregidor.

General MacArthur was already quite famous when the war began; his father Arthur was also a noted American general, Douglas served in WWI and was in command in Washington, DC when protesting WWI veterans were dispersed during the Depression.  He and his father would become the first father and son to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

American morale was already suffering, and the President did not want an additional blow of MacArthur being taken prisoner when the Philippines fell, which was a foregone conclusion at this point.  So he ordered MacArthur to evacuate to Australia, leaving General Jonathan Wainwright in command of the fall.

MacArthur had the choice to leave by submarine, aircraft, or by PT (patrol torpedo) boat.  He knew and trusted the commander of PT squadron 3, Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley, so he chose to leave by boat.

On the evening of March 11, 1942, Lt. Bulkeley’s PT-41 was alongside the north pier at Corregidor with General MacArthur and his family aboard, when the General looked to the Lieutenant and said, “You may cast off, Buck, when you are ready.”  Thus began a 600 mile run to Mindanao through minefields and enemy infested waters which MacArthur would later liken to a ride in a cement mixer.  Almost everyone was seasick.  Bulkeley would meet up with the remainder of his PT squadron, their decks filled with gasoline drums so they could make the trip.  It was a harrowing journey; from Mindanao MacArthur and his staff would continue the journey by air.

The journey, how it came to be, and it’s aftermath are all worth more detail.  But for this post, I can’t help but focus on MacArthur’s words as he set sail from his defeat in Manila Bay…

“You may cast off, Buck, when you are ready.”

General MacArthur was an intelligent, educated man, a West Point graduate and a fast climber through the ranks.  What was in his mind as he escaped one of the worst military defeats in American history that day?  The MacArthur family was also already a significant part of Philippine history.  Nearly forty-four years earlier, in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, Arthur MacArthur had been victorious during the Battle of Manila.  He would then command during the Philippine-American War and become the Military Governor General of the Philippines until he got sideways when the Civilian Governor of the Philippines, William Howard Taft.

At the outset of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines were a Spanish possession.  The war was significant because with it, America would become a player on the world stage, defeating one of the European colonial powers.

With the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, the US Navy would show it’s mettle in easily defeating the Spanish fleet stationed there.  Admiral George Dewey commanded the US Asiatic Fleet from the bridge of his flagship, the USS Olympia.  As they approached the Spanish ships, Dewey spoke a now famous phrase to the commander of the Olympia, Captain Charles Gridley…

“You may fire when ready, Gridley.”

To enter Manila Bay from the South China Sea, Admiral Dewey and his fleet would have sailed past the island which guarded the entrance to the bay, Corregidor.  Hours before his famous victory, Admiral Dewey would have sailed within a few hundred yards of where MacArthur would stand in 1942, having lost all Dewey had gained.  In his mind’s eye, was he watching the Olympia pass by?

“You may cast off, Buck, when you are ready.”

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