On 9 January 1945, the Sixth U.S. Army under Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger waded ashore on Lingayen Gulf and began a rapid drive south in the Battle of Luzon. On 12 Jan., MacArthur ordered Krueger to advance rapidly to Manila. The 37th Infantry Division, under the command of Major Gen. Robert S. Beightler, headed south.
After landing at San Fabian on 27 Jan., the 1st Cavalry Division, under the command of Major Gen. Vernon D. Mudge, was ordered by MacArthur on 31 Jan., to "Get to Manila! Free the internees at Santo Tomas. Take Malacanang Palace and the Legislative Building.".
On 31 January, the Eighth United States Army of Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, consisting of the 187th and 188th Glider Infantry Regiments of Col. Robert H. Soule, components of the U.S. 11th Airborne Division, under Maj. Gen. Joseph Swing, landed unopposed at Nasugbu in southern Luzon and began moving north toward Manila. Meanwhile, the 11th A/B Division's 511th Regimental Combat Team of Col. Orin D. "Hard Rock" Haugen parachuted onto Tagaytay Ridge on 4 February. On 10 Feb., the 11th Airborne Division came under the command of the Sixth Army, and seized Fort William McKinley on 17 Feb.
Swing was joined by the Hunters ROTC Filipino guerrillas, under the command of Lt. Col. Emmanuel V. de Ocampo, and by 5 Feb., they were on the outskirts of Manila.
As the Americans converged on Manila from different directions, the bulk of the defending Japanese army troops had earlier engaged in a tactical move to the outskirts on orders of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, commander in chief of Japanese army forces in the Philippines. Yamashita had withdrawn his main forces to Baguio City, where he planned to hold back the Filipino and U.S. forces in northern Luzon, poised for the invasion of Japan. Yamashita had three main groups, 80,000 in the Shimbu Group were in the mountains east of Manila, 30,000 in the Kembu Group were in the hills north of Manila, and 152,000 in the Shobu Group were in northeast Luzon.
In 1941, General Douglas MacArthur had declared Manila an open city before its capture. Although Yamashita had not done so in 1945, he had not intended to defend Manila; he did not think that he could feed the one million city residents and defend a large area with vast tracts of flammable wooden buildings. Gen. Yamashita had originally ordered the commander of Shimbu Group, Gen. Yokoyama Shizuo, to evacuate the city and destroy all bridges and other vital installations as soon as any large American forces made their appearance.
However, Rear Admiral Iwabuchi Sanji, commander of the 31st Naval Special Base Force, was committed to following the naval program, rather than the army program of abandoning the city. Prior to being promoted to Admiral, Sanji had commanded the battleship Kirishima in 1942 when she was sunk by a US Navy task force off Guadalcanal. Iwabuchi had 12,500 men under his command, designated the Manila Naval defence Force. Iwabuchi was joined by 4500 army personnel under the command of Col. Katsuzo Noguchi and Capt. Saburo Abe. They built defensive positions in the city, including Intramuros, cut down the palm trees on Dewey Blvd. to form a runway, and set up barricades across major streets. Iwabuchi formed the Northern Force under Noguchi, and the Southern Force under Capt. Takusue Furuse.
Before the battle began, he issued an address to his men which went:
We are very glad and grateful for the opportunity of being able to serve our country in this epic battle. Now, with what strength remains, we will daringly engage the enemy. Banzai to the Emperor! We are determined to fight to the last man.
On 3 February, elements of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division under Maj. Gen. Verne D. Mudge pushed into the northern outskirts of Manila and seized a vital bridge across the Tullahan River, which separated them from the city proper, and quickly captured Malacanang Palace. A squadron of Brig. Gen. William C. Chase's 8th Cavalry, the first unit to arrive in the city, began a drive toward the sprawling campus of the University of Santo Tomas which had been turned into the Santo Tomas Internment Camp for civilians and the US Army and Navy nurses sometimes known as the "Angels of Bataan".
Since 4 January 1942, a total of thirty-seven months, the university’s main building had been used to hold civilians. Out of 4,255 prisoners, 466 died in captivity, three were killed while attempting to escape on 15 February 1942, and one made a successful breakout in early January 1945.
Capt. Manuel Colayco, a USAFFE guerrilla officer, became an allied casualty of the city's liberation, after he and his companion, Lt. Diosdado Guytingco, guided the American First Cavalry to the front gate of Santo Tomas. Colayco died seven days later in Legarda Elementary School, which became a field hospital. At 9 PM, five tanks of the 44th Tank Battalion, headed by "Battlin' Basic," headed into the compound.
The Japanese, commanded by Lt. Col. Toshio Hayashi, gathered the remaining internees together in the Education Building as hostages, and exchanged pot shots with the Americans and Filipinos. The next day, 5 February, they negotiated with the Americans to allow them to rejoin Japanese troops to the south of the city, carrying only individual arms. The Japanese were unaware the area they requested, was the now American-occupied Malacañan Palace, and soon afterwards were fired upon and several were killed including Hayashi.
On 4 February, the 37th Infantry Division freed more than 1,000 prisoners of war, mostly former defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, held at Bilibid Prison, which had been abandoned by the Japanese.
Early on 6 February, General MacArthur announced "Manila had fallen". But the battle for Manila had barely begun. Almost at once the 1st Cavalry Division in the north and the 11th Airborne Division in the south reported stiffening Japanese resistance to further advances into the city.
General Griswold continued to push elements of the XIV Corps south from Santo Tomas University toward the Pasig River. Late on the afternoon on 4 February, he ordered the 2nd Squadron, 5th Cavalry, to seize Quezon Bridge, the only crossing over the Pasig that the Japanese had not destroyed. As the squadron approached the bridge, Japanese heavy machine guns opened fire from a formidable roadblock thrown up across Quezon Boulevard, forcing the cavalry to stop its advance and withdraw until nightfall. As the Americans and Filipinos pulled back, the Japanese blew up the bridge.
On 5 February, the 37th Infantry Division began to move into Manila, and Griswold divided the northern section of the city into two sectors, with the 37th responsible for advancing to the south, while the 1st Cavalry Division responsible for an envelopment to the east. The Americans secured the northern bank of the Pasig River by 6 February, and had captured the city water supply located at the Novaliches Dam, Balara Water Filters, and the San Juan Reservoir.
On 7 February, Gen. Beightler ordered the 148th Regiment to cross the Pasig River and clear Paco and Pandacan. The bitterest fighting for Manila—which proved costliest to the 129th Regiment occurred in the capture of the steam-driven power plant located on Provisor Island, the Japanese there managed to hold out until 11 February. By the afternoon of 8 February, 37th Division units had cleared most of the Japanese from their sector, although the damage done to the residential districts was extensive. The Japanese added to the destruction by demolishing buildings and military installations as they withdrew. Japanese resistance in Tondo and Malabon continued until 9 February
In an attempt to protect the city and its civilians, MacArthur had placed stringent restrictions on U.S. artillery and air support. Yet, by 9 February, American shelling had set fire to a number of districts. "If the city were to be secured without the destruction of the 37th and the 1st Cavalry Divisions, no further effort could be made to save buildings, everything holding up progress would be pounded." Iwabuchi's sailors, marines and Army reinforcements, having initially successfully resisted American infantrymen armed with flamethrowers, grenades and bazookas, faced direct fire from tanks, tank destroyers, and howitzers, who attacked one building after another and killed the Japanese—and often the trapped civilians—inside, without differentiation.
Subjected to incessant pounding and facing certain death or capture, the beleaguered Japanese troops took out their anger and frustration on the civilians caught in the crossfire, committing multiple acts of severe brutality, which later would be known as the Manila Massacre. Violent mutilations, rapes, and massacres on the populace accompanied the battle for control of the city. Massacres occurred in schools, hospitals and convents, including San Juan de Dios Hospital, Santa Rosa College, Santo Domingo Church, Manila Cathedral, Paco Church, St. Paul's Convent, and St. Vincent de Paul Church.
By 12 February, Iwabuchi's artillery and heavy mortars were destroyed, and with no plan for withdrawal or regrouping, "each man had his meager supply of rations, barely sufficient arms and ammunition, and a building in which his life would end..." The 1st Cavalry Division reached Manila Bay on 12 February, but it was not until 18 February that they took Rizal Stadium, which the Japanese had turned into a ammunition dump, and Fort San Antonio Abad. On 17 February, the 148th took the Philippine General Hospital, freeing 7000 civilians, the University of the Philippines Padre Faura campus and Assumption College San Lorenzo's original Herran-Dakota campus.
Iwabuchi was ordered by Gen. Shizuo Yokoyama, commander of the Shimbu Group, to break out of Manila on the night of 17–18 February, in coordination with counter-attacks on Novaliches Dam and Grace Park. The breakout failed and Iwabuchi's remaining 6000 men were trapped in Manila. The destruction of Manila, a quarter of a million civilian casualties, and the subsequent vengeful execution of General Yamashita after the war was the result. 1,010 Americans, 16,665 Japanese and 100,000 to 500,000 civilians were killed. There was no animosity amongst the liberated Filipinos, claiming, "We were with the Americans! We were safe! We were liberated!"
By 20 February, the New Police Station, St. Vincent de Paul Church, San Pablo Church, the Manila Club, City Hall and the General Post Office were in American hands. The Japanese retreated into Intramuros on the night of 19 February, and the Manila Hotel was liberated on 22 Feb., but MacArthur found his penthouse in ashes. Only Intramuros, plus the Legislative, Finance, and Agricultural Buildings, remained in Japanese hands.
The assault on Intramuros started at 0730 on 23 February, with a 140 gun artillery barrage, followed by the 148th attacking through breaches made in the walls between the Quezon and Parian Gates, and the 129th crossing the Pasig River, then attacking near the location of the Government Mint.
The fighting for Intramuros continued until 26 February. Fewer than 3,000 civilians escaped the assault, mostly women and children who were released on 23 February afternoon. Colonel Noguchi's soldiers and sailors killed 1,000 men and women, while the other hostages died during the American shelling.
Iwabuchi and his officers committed seppuku (ritual suicide) at dawn on 26 February The 5th Cavalry Regiment took the Agricultural Building by 1 March, and the 148th Regiment took the Legislative Building on 28th Feb. and the Finance Building by 3 March.
Army Historian Robert R. Smith wrote:
"Griswold and Beightler were not willing to attempt the assault with infantry alone. Not expressly enjoined from employing artillery, they now planned a massive artillery preparation that would last from 17 to 23 February and would include indirect fire at ranges up to 8,000 yards as well as direct, point-blank fire from ranges as short as 250 yards. They would employ all available corps and division artillery, from 240mm howitzers down. (...) Just how civilian lives could be saved by this type of preparation, as opposed to aerial bombardment, is unknown. The net result would be the same: Intramuros would be practically razed." "That the artillery had almost razed the ancient Walled City could not be helped. To the XIV Corps and the 37th Division at this state of the battle for Manila, American lives were understandably far more valuable than historic landmarks. The destruction stemmed from the American decision to save lives in a battle against Japanese troops who had decided to sacrifice their lives as dearly as possible."
Before the fighting ended, MacArthur summoned a provisional assembly of prominent Filipinos to Malacañan Palace and in their presence declared the Commonwealth of the Philippines to be permanently reestablished. "My country kept the faith," he told the gathered assembly. "Your capital city, cruelly punished though it be, has regained its rightful place—citadel of democracy in the East."
For the rest of the month the Americans and Filipino guerrillas mopped up resistance throughout the city. With Intramuros secured on 4 March, Manila was officially liberated, but large areas of the city had been levelled. The battle left 1,010 U.S. soldiers dead and 5,565 wounded. An estimated 100,000 to 500,000 Filipinos civilians were killed, both deliberately by the Japanese and from artillery and aerial bombardment by the U.S. military. 16,665 Japanese dead were counted within Intramuros alone.
In the month-long battle, the Americans and Japanese inflicted worse destruction on Manila than the German Luftwaffe had exacted upon London, which resulted in the destruction of the city and in a death toll comparable to that of the Tokyo firebombing or the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
The battle for Manila was the first and fiercest urban fighting in the entire Pacific War. Few battles in the closing months of World War II exceeded the destruction and the brutality of the massacres and savagery of the fighting in Manila. In Manila's business district only two buildings were not damaged and those two were looted of their plumbing.
A steel flagpole stands at the entrance to the old U.S. Embassy building in Ermita, which was pockmarked by numerous bullet and shrapnel hits, and still stands today, a testament to the intense, bitter fighting for the walled city. In this category, Manila joined Stalingrad as being the host to some of the fiercest urban fighting during the war.
Filipinos lost an irreplaceable cultural and historical treasure in the resulting carnage and devastation of Manila, remembered today as a national tragedy. Countless government buildings, universities and colleges, convents, monasteries and churches, and their accompanying treasures dating to the founding of the city, were ruined. The cultural patrimony (including art, literature, and especially architecture) of the Orient's first truly international melting pot - the confluence of Spanish, American and Asian cultures - was eviscerated. Manila, once touted as the "Pearl of the Orient" and famed as a living monument to the meeting of Asian and European cultures, was virtually wiped out.
Most of the buildings damaged during the war were demolished after the Liberation, as part of rebuilding Manila, replacing European style architecture during the Spanish and early American era with modern American style architecture. Only a few old buildings remain intact.
On February 18, 1995, the Shrine of Freedom also known as Memorare Manila Monument was erected.
The Memorare-Manila 1945 Foundation erected a memorial called the Shrine of Freedom to honor the memory of the over 100,000 civilians killed in the battle. It is also known as the Memorare Manila Monument and is located at Plaza de Santa Isabel in Intramuros. The inscription for the memorial was penned by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin and reads:
"This memorial is dedicated to all those innocent victims of war, many of whom went nameless and unknown to a common grave, or even never knew a grave at all, their bodies having been consumed by fire or crushed to dust beneath the rubble of ruins."
"Let this monument be the gravestone for each and every one of the over 100,000 men, women, children and infants killed in Manila during its battle of liberation, February 3 - March 3, 1945. We have not forgotten them, nor shall we ever forget."
"May they rest in peace as part now of the sacred ground of this city: the Manila of our affections."