Defending Dipolog April 1945
The Battle of Dipolog is an interesting study of World War II in the Pacific Theatre, because not only was it a small scale showcase of the American armed forces joint operation tactics to retake its Philippine territories from the Imperial Japanese Army, featuring close coordination not only between the US Army, Navy and Marines but even more strategic, how the intelligence on the ground and support from local Filipino-American guerrillas contributed to the eventual victory.
Although founded earlier by Spanish missionaries, Dipolog was only separated from the Segundo Distrito de Misamis in 1903 as part of the Dapitan District of the Provincia Mora (which later became Zamboanga), and became a barrio of Dapitan a year later.
In 1912, John J. Pershing, Governor of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu, granted the petition to reorganize Dipolog into a municipality and it was formally inaugurated as a municipality on July 1, 1913.
In 1942, the Seat of the Provincial Government was transferred from Zamboanga City to Dipolog by Acting-Governor Felipe B. Azcuna, making it the cabacera de facto.
Dipolog rose to prominence in the Victor IV Operations to retake Mindanao due to the complementary, albeit significant role it played in the ensuing Battle for Zamboanga and the Sulu Archipelago, because of the strategic location of its airfield.
Built in 1937 with a single 500 meter runway surfaced with macadam at the instance of Gov. Matias Castillon Ranillo, it was located near the Philippine Constabulary Camp, now Camp Hamac in Sicayab.
In 1942, it was occupied by the Japanese until 1945. Gov. Ranillo was appointed by Col. Wendell W. Fertig as provincial military governor and Filipino guerrillas seized control by late 1944.
Prelude to Zamboanga
By 1945, bands of Filipino guerrillas had seized control of key areas in Mindanao. They controlled over half a dozen airstrips where Army transport aircraft, escorted by Marine F4U Corsairs, often landed with necessary supplies.
One of these was the Dipolog airfield. Not far from the town, in a clearing right next to the water’s edge (Sulu Sea), lay a narrow grass-surfaced airstrip with importance out of proportion to the relatively small facility it afforded.
Eight Army Commander Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger and his staff had noted the airfield at Dipolog in planning VICTOR IV Operations and were counting on it as a base from which to stage a MAG-12 fighter squadron to cover landings and subsequent assault operations in the vicinity of Zamboanga town.
It seemed necessary to ensure friendly control of Dipolog, at least until the bigger San Roque Airfield in Zamboanga could be s seized and readied for aircraft operations.
Allied Air Forces planes taking supplies to 10th Military District (Mindanao Guerrillas) under Col. Wendell W. Fertig’s guerrillas had been using the field since late 1944; the field had also been the site of many emergency landings by American aircraft.
(For a firsthand look at the Dipolog Airfield “Rescue Station” here’s archival film footage from the 1945 Army Air Force Weekly Digest #69 Philippine Operations, 1945 72572 you can view by clicking here go to 00.10.21:20-00.13.12:14 Rescue Station)
Many times during January and February, Marine pilots from Leyte and Samar had landed at the airstrip on supply missions, or simply seeking haven for their planes when weathered away from their bases.
But because of increasing pressure from Japanese forces in the area, the guerrillas were finding it increasingly difficult to hold Dipolog.
A week before the first Army landing, two US Marine officers with six enlisted men were inserted behind Japanese lines and taken to the guerrilla held airstrip near the town of Dipolog. Captured at the airfield were a Japanese L2D Tabby and a G4M3 Betty Bomber.
The Thirteenth Air Force therefore decided to send a squadron from Marine Air Group 12 to Dipolog to supplement the air support that could be provided from other available bases.
To strengthen the guerrilla garrison at Dipolog during the critical support period, two reinforced companies of the 21st Infantry Brigade , 24th Infantry Division, were brought in by air to Dipolog Field on 08 March to provide additional protection for 16 F4U Corsairs of Marine Air Group 12 on 08 March (two days before Zamboanga’s J-Day) and then to provide blocking forces in the north for the invasion force that landed on Zamboanga on 10 March.
This was but one example in the campaign of ground forces directly supporting the air domain. From there, the Marines could cover a larger landing on Zamboanga on 10 March with the 162nd and 163rd Infantry of the 41st Infantry Division.
On the same day (08 March) naval bombardment units began a pre-assault pounding of the beaches at the other end of the peninsula, near the town of Zamboanga. Combat air patrol for the bombardment units was furnished by Marine planes temporarily stationed at Dipolog.
Within the next two days, 16 planes from MAG-12 had been flown to the little airstrip, and as the task force approached its objective from Mindoro, these planes flew cover over the convoy, and later covered the landing of the 41st Sunset Division at Zamboanga on D-Day, March 10, 1945. It was used by USMC Marine Air Groups 12 and 32 during March 1945 to support operations in southern Mindanao and as an emergency airfield.
MAG-12 Corsairs taking off from Dipolog made support strikes in the San Roque-Pasonaca area in Zamboanga on March 12-14. Dipolog based planes had also flown daily patrol missions over the beach area during this period.
Dipolog Airfield was occupied by minimum personnel necessary to stage one fighter squadron from 08 March through 22. A temporary flight control center was also set up there from 06 March until such time as the fighter control center could be established at Zamboanga.
By March 15, American forces were able to operationalize the San Roque Airfield (renamed Moret Field) with Marine units VMF-114, followed in the next three days by flight echelons of VMF-211, VMF-218 and VMF-313 (all from MAG-12) from Tanauan Field, Leyte and commenced operations. Nine days later, MAG-32s SBD’s patrol dive bombers arrived from Luzon.
But the Japanese were not about to give up Dipolog Airfield without a fight given its’ strategic role in providing air cover to the Zamboanga and Sulu operations, and protecting the logistics lifeline from the Visayas.
About 150 Japanese troops armed with two knee mortars, a light machine gun, two automatic rifles, and over a hundred rifles, had advanced within 16 kilometers of Dipolog on March 27.
These were well-seasoned troops that had been moved into the area from Zamboanga about five weeks earlier. Over 500 Filipino guerrillas who opposed the Japanese forces “were evidently keenly interested in avoiding a fight with the Japs.” Major Donald Wills felt that an air strike might boost their morale and damage the enemy at the same time.
There were no maps or photographs of any kind available, no method of marking targets, and no means of communication with the troops – all these factors combined to make control of the strike by normal means impossible. But ingenuity found a way.
Into the cockpit of a Marine Corsair climbed Major Wills, who was thoroughly familiar with the enemy positions; after him climbed the smallest of the Marine pilots in the division, First Lieutenant Winfield S. Sharpe.
Both men squeezed into the cockpit, with Sharpe sitting on Major Wills’ lap. Soon afterward, with the major pointing out targets to the pilot, the Corsair led the four plane division in six strafing passes over the enemy’s positions\
The planes used all ammunition with which they had been loaded; the enemy area was thoroughly strafed; compelling the Japanese to withdraw 3-5 kilometers.
Cpl. Ilogon’s Final Mission
At this point, we are fortunate to have access to a first-hand account of the final phase of this battle by a young guerrilla who was dispatched with the 108th Expeditionary Company in early 1945 to reinforce the guerrilla forces defending Dipolog Airfield early April, 1945.
Corporal Jesus B. Ilogon, who just turned 20, was just recovering from a minor operation at the 108th Division Regimental Hospital at Talacogon, Alubijid in Misamis Oriental, when he was summoned by his commanding officer, Capt. Gil Sumpio to join the 108th Expeditionary Company to Dipolog.
“My immediate reaction was to refuse him,” Ilogon wrote in his unpublished manuscript, “Memoirs of the Guerrillas: The Barefoot Army”. “I was enjoying my life in Iligan as a teen-ager. I had several new Iliganon friends, both guerrillas and civilians. Iligan was very lively compared to what we had undergone in the mountains. I wanted to continue my four months of glorious, carefree life. I found the courage to tell him ‘No’. So far, my tale was about being alive in 1942-1945, being young and have my share of war.”
But Capt. Sumpio would not take no for an answer and told him, “an order is an order.”
According to Ilogon, the 108th Expeditionary Company was a composite unit. The enlisted men came from various companies of the 120th Regiment and the officers from the 108th Regiment. Both were part of the 108th Division.
“I met my old friends like Private Dominador Rosal from Laguindingan, and First Sergeant Raymundo Diaz from Initao, a classmate from Misamis Oriental Provincial High School. We were to reinforce the 105th Regiment guerrilla force under Major Marcelo Bonilla at Dipolog, Zamboanga. We were given more ammunition. I was lucky to be issued a pair of leather army shoes, my first shoes in two and a half years. The others were still barefoot and we wore the same ragged clothes.”
This operation was undertaken to prevent the enemy from pushing into Dipolog. The 108th Expeditionary Battalion with a strength of five officers and 78 men aided the 107th Infantry Regiment, 105th Division, and the Headquarters Company Service Troops of the 105th Division.
The 108th Division Expeditionary Battalion left Iligan on an LCI No. 361, on 06 April 1945 arriving at Katipunan, Zamboanga on 07 April, 1945.
“The people of Iligan were at the pier to send us off. The 108th Division marching band played martial music. The American sailors were shocked to see a different kind of army-no shoes, no uniform, no helmet,” Ilogon noted.
“The guerrillas who were mostly farmers and barrio boys were excited because it was their first experience to ride a boat across the sea and there were many interesting things in the ship, like toilet paper, water flushing in a toilet bowl, water shower, and soap, among other things. Things my friends from the barrios never though existed.”
“The sailors were dumbfounded to see guerrillas unrolling very long toilet paper for no purpose, washing their hands in the toilet bowls, and smelling the sweet fragrance of the soap.”
“The guerrillas could not understand the frantic mutterings and gestures of the sailors, as if the guerrillas wanted to tell the sailors to mind their own business.”
When they arrived in Katipunan, the town next to Dipolog, the whole town turned out to greet the first American ship to arrive there since the war started but were startled to see a ragged group of guerrillas instead of American soldiers disembarks from the boat.
“We were also shocked to see the front wall of the ship open and disembarked us on the beach instead of a wharf! Surprises all around. We were ordered to follow a dirt trail until we reached our assigned position.”
On 08 April 1945, instructions were received from Major Donald Wills and Maj Marcelo Bonilla who were then in charge of the operation. Maj Wills showed them the map of the Japanese occupied area.
On 09 April 1945, the Expeditionary Battalion left with Maj. Bonilla and Lt. Lubaton, S-3, passing his Advance Command Post for Dinoman Valley. The troops then bivouacked at the school building and established security. The enemy could be seen at the nearby hill.
Attack Carefully Planned
The morning of 10 April 1945, the troops succeeded in getting through the Jap’s first line of defense which our troops occupied in turn. This location was about 300 yards from between the hills. Security was again established and maintained.
At noon of 11 April 1945, Lt. Alviola of the 107th Infantry, with his .50-cal. Machine gun arrived. He then supported the advance to Barren Hill supposed to be the second line of defense of the Japs.
“In skirmish formation we rushed nearer the Japanese positions,” Ilogon recalled. “The Japanese in their foxholes were still full of fight.”
His unit was flanked by the 105th Regiment (guerrilla) on the other side of the hill in slit trenches. The first platoon under Lt. Bartolome Canoy of Maigo, Lanao to their left, and the 3rd Platoon under Lt. Antonio Picardal of Linamon, Lanao to their right.
The 2nd Platoon, under a former Philippine Constabulary noncom was between the first and 3rd Platoon.
The fight lasted for about one and a half hours. The area was taken and line maintained until 13 April, 1945.
Ilogon was apprehensive since they were facing veteran Japanese jungle fighters who had conquered Asia and the Southwest Pacific.
On 14 April 1945, nine US planes bombed and strafed the enemy. Assaults were then made at the Bushy Hill nearby, where Japs established their line of defense. This assault should have been successful had the Combat Company of Maj. Bonilla which was supposed to be the reserve company appeared.
The men did succeed in reaching the top of the hill, but were stopped there and withdraw shortly thereafter. This troop had to withdraw due to the superiority of fire from the enemy. One Pvt Calisagan of the Expeditionary Battalion was killed in the morning of 15 April 1945 by a sniper who was able to follow the withdrawal.
On 16 April 1945, the force moved back to Dinoman and waited for orders from Maj Wills and Maj Bonilla. A patrol was sent to contact them. On 17 April 1945, S-2 (Regiments Intelligence Section-107th Regmt) reported that the enemy moved to Dohinob Diet. Lt. Caballero with four enlisted men was sent out to verify the report. They came back with a report that the Japs were actually occupying the place. Six planes bombed and strafed the Japanese occupied area.
After breakfast on 18 April 1945, the troops left for Japono to contact the enemy, but were late. The enemy was followed but the Jap move was too fast for them.
On the evening of April 23, 1945, Ilogon was ordered to lay out three white 2×20 foot reflectorized sheets fifty meters in front of each platoon to direct US planes towards the enemy.
“At 8AM in the morning of April 24, 1945 three P-38 Lightnings (called double-body by the locals) made a shallow dive and strafed the Japanese in three passes. The plane barrage was a grim show from our grandstand ridge.”
As he ran towards the three platoons to monitor their movements for the jump-off, Ilogon noted his fellow guerrillas had the “bright glint of fear in their eyes.”
“Faces were tense, lips moving in silent prayer. They were now engaged in a war very different from the guerrilla where they were in an ambush position waiting for the enemy to appear. They care about staying alive and making sense of what was happening immediately around them. For many, especially the civilian volunteers, it was their first taste of what a real battle was and thus obviously an unforgettable experience.”
Ilogon survived the skirmish unscathed and lived to write his memoirs 56 years later in the US while visiting his children.
In the assessment of the 10th Military District written in its History of the Mindanao Guerrilla: “The operation in Dipolog was a success. The enemy was not able to proceed to the town proper, thus was unable to occupy the airstrip, two kilometers north of the town. The combined troops of the 107th Infantry Regiment, 10th Headquarters Company Service Troops, and the 108th Expeditionary Battalion, not only proved good fighters, but also proved to be disciplined soldiers.”
Ilogon’s memories of his final mission were no less succinct: “On May 1, 1945, we were ordered back to Iligan via Oroquieta, Misamis Occidental, leaving one dead and four wounded confined at the Dipolog Army Hospital. This long after, I can still remember every day of those twenty days and nights as clearly as though they were days and nights last week.”
1. Ilogon, Jesus B., Memoirs of the Guerrillas: The Barefoot Solder (Unpublished Manuscript)
2. History of the Mindanao Guerrillas,10th Military District, United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USFIP)
3. Eichelberger, Robert L., AUS, 8th; Report of the Commanding General Eight Army on the Mindanao Operation (Victor V)
4. Schmidt, Larry S., Major USMC, American Involvement in the Filipino Resistance Movement on Mindanao during the Japanese Occupation, 1942-1945. The John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, 1970, page 233
5. Rein, Christopher M., Multi-Domain Battle in the Southwest Pacific Theatre of World War II., Combat Institute Pres, US Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 2017, page 160
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