Manchester’s MacArthur

General Douglas MacArthur left Corregidor on this day in 1942; after escaping the Japanese blockade, he arrived several days later in Australia, delivering one of warfare’s most famous pledges: “I came through and I shall return.” It would take two and a half years for MacArthur to keep his promise, and the events of the ensuing U.S. war in the Pacific — massive surrender and the Bataan Death March, the costly valor of Midway, Okinawa, and Guadalcanal — would test and shape the nation.

Most portraits of MacArthur’s elusive personality follow the one given in the opening paragraph of William Manchester’s 1978 classic, American Caesar:

He was a great thundering paradox of a man, noble and ignoble, inspiring and outrageous, arrogant and shy, the best of men and the worst of men, the most protean, most ridiculous, and most sublime. No more baffling, exasperating soldier ever wore a uniform. Flamboyant, imperious, and apocalyptic, he carried the plumage of a flamingo, could not acknowledge errors, and tried to cover up his mistakes with sly, childish tricks. Yet he was also endowed with great personal charm, a will of iron, and a soaring intellect. Unquestionably he was the most gifted man-at-arms this nation has produced.

Manchester’s title certainly seems justified by some details surrounding MacArthur’s PT boat escape from the Philippines. After reluctantly agreeing that flight was his only option, MacArthur told his staff, “We go with the fall of the moon; we go during the ides of March.” Sensing the imperial ring to MacArthur’s “I shall return,” the Office of War Information tried to promote a “We shall return” alternative, but the general would not budge on his personalization (as he wrote later in Reminiscences) of “the battle cry of a great underground swell that no Japanese bayonet could still.” So the propagandists at OWI decided to overlook the personality cult and use the slogan to advantage:

Throughout the war American submarines provided Filipino guerrillas with cartons of buttons, gum, playing cards, and matchboxes bearing the message, and they were widely circulated. Scraps of paper with “I shall return” written on them were found in Japanese files. There was even a story — which made effective propaganda even if it was apocryphal — that a Japanese artillery battery, opening a case of artillery shells in the middle of a battle, found the sentence neatly stenciled on each of them.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.