- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000

Douglas MacArthur biographer William Manchester chose a particularly lovely phrase to describe the renowned general's wife, Jean MacArthur, who died last Saturday at the age of 101. He called her a "poem of womanhood." The expression sounds as inscrutably quaint as it does delightful in this day of overlapping roles and poses between the sexes. It is a provocative, Mona Lisa's smile of a phrase more evocative of the age of chivalry than our own age of androgyny, a time when women bear arms and Leonardo DiCaprio is idolized as the male paradigm.

To modern ears, then, the phrase may present a puzzle: It sounds lovely, but what does it mean? Mrs. MacArthur pursued no professional career. As an heiress to a small fortune, the 36-year-old divorcee was something of a bon vivant when in 1935 she met 55-year-old Douglas MacArthur on the S.S. President Hoover. The general was en route to the Philippines where he was to assume his duties as the government's military adviser; she was headed to see friends in Shanghai. She never got there; instead, she took up residency at the Manila Hotel, beginning a courtship with the general that played out against the exotic backdrop of lantern-hung receptions at the Malacanan Palace and that quintessentially American destination, the movie theater, where six nights a week, the couple took in the latest Hollywood fare starring Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart or Katharine Hepburn.

Was she a poem of womanhood yet? Certainly, she was known to be charming, even vivacious, possessed of both good manners and an exuberant patriotism. Her friends said that "every time Jean Faircloth heard a Fourth of July firecracker go off, she jumped to attention and saluted." How fitting that she and General MacArthur married in 1937. But just as the battlefield brought out the general's greatest gifts Clare Booth Luce called his defense of the Philippines "his finest hour" it also was to bring out what was most lyrical in his wife. War would test Mrs. MacArthur, eliciting an inspiring display of what her New York Times obituary called, "an indomitable spirit and determination in the face of wartime trials."

The fact is, not the screaming shells of bombardments, not the terrifying specter of the rapidly advancing Japanese Army, and not the rigors of retreat shook Mrs. MacArthur's resolve to stay with and support her husband. When it became necessary to abandon Manila to the Japanese and move the Philippines government to the island of Corregidor, she and, by this time, their 4-year-old son Arthur moved with it. There they spent their time listening for the ominous drone of approaching bombers in the 100-foot-long Malinta Tunnel, suffering through the daily air attacks, she passing idle hours with embroidery while little Arthur ran up and down the tunnel shouting, "Air raid!" or singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

While tenacious American and Philippine troops were able to stall the Japanese advance, thus providing the lone bright spot in the early days of unstoppable Japanese conquest, defeat in the Philippines soon became inevitable. It was clear, in the words of William Manchester, "that Douglas MacArthur and his ragged, famished, garrison were caught in a gigantic trap the largest trap in the history of warfare." Indeed, Gen. MacArthur believed he had "reached the end of the road." The president of the Philippines offered Mrs. MacArthur and her son passage to Australia. Her reply: "We have drunk from the same cup; we three shall stay together." And they did, the whole way through to Australia and later Japan, where Gen. MacArthur accepted the surrender of Japan's forces in 1945.

You might say that it was a heroic brand of love that bound Mrs. MacArthur to her hero-husband, the kind of genuine emotion that might have sent the great bards into lyric rapture. What she said wasn't earthshaking; her words didn't have the impact on war and peace of, say, her husband's famous declaration, "I shall return." But there is something more than a little awe-inspiring in the steadfast loyalty, selfless strength, and the depth of feeling they reveal. One begins to get an inkling of her great appeal. No wonder her husband often introduced her as "my finest soldier."

Gen. MacArthur died in 1964. His widow quietly lived out the rest of the century in New York City. According to her obituary, one of her favorite stories to tell in recent years came from a wild taxi ride. "I'm 90 years old," she told the driver. "Can you go a bit slower please?" "I'm sorry, Mrs. MacArthur," the driver said. "I remember you from the Philippines and how you bounced around in jeeps there and it didn't bother you." Maybe that's the best way for all Americans to remember her poetry in motion.

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