The fiercest battle of World War II in Bukidnon
With Marion Hess and Maj. Thomas Deas, MD
On 17 April 1945, the returning forces of the United States successfully landed in Parang, Cotabato for the final phase of the Battle for Mindanao dubbed Operation VICTOR V.
Mindanao posed a greater challenge than most of the VICTOR operations for three reasons: the inhospitable island geography, the extent of the Japanese defenses, and the size and condition of the defending force.
Like most of the Philippine Islands, indeed like most of the places where the U.S. Army operated in the Pacific, the geography of Mindanao offered little to inspire the soldiers who would have to fight there.
The second largest island in the Philippines, Mindanao boasts a long and irregular coastline. Inland, the topography may be kindly characterized as “rugged” and “mountainous.” Most of the terrain is covered by rain forests and contains innumerable crocodile-infested rivers, except for those areas that are lake, swamp, or equally trying grassland.
Within the grassland regions, furthermore, the cultivatable areas contained dense groves of abaca trees that produce not only Manila hemp fiber, but also a vision-limiting, strength-draining obstacle through which soldiers would have to force their way.
Exacerbating the problem of movement on Mindanao was the existence of only a few roads worthy of the name. Two were operationally significant.
Cutting across the southern portion of the island, from just south of Parang on Illana Bay in the west to Digos on the Davao Gulf in the east and then north to Davao, was the generously named Highway No. 1.
At Kabacan, about midway between Illana Bay and Davao Gulf, the main north-south road, the Sayre Highway also known as Highway No. 3, ran north through the mountains to Cagayan and Macajalar Bay on the northern coast.
The Japanese had long expected MacArthur to begin his reconquest of the Philippines with an invasion of eastern Mindanao. Believing that the American attack would come in the Davao Gulf area, they had built their defenses accordingly.
Greatest attention had been paid to defenses around Davao City, the island’s largest and most important city. Strong coastal defenses stretched along the shoreline which bristled with artillery and antiaircraft batteries. Davao Gulf itself was heavily mined to counter an amphibious landing. Inland, the Japanese had prepared defenses in depth, in keeping with their intention of prolonging the campaign as much as possible.
Anticipating that they ultimately would be driven from Davao, the Japanese also prepared defensive bunkers in the jungle behind Davao to which they could retire. Situated from two to four miles inland, the extensive fortified positions ran from approximately thirteen miles southwest of Davao City to about twelve miles north of the city.
Japanese Disposition and Strength in Mindanao
The major units in eastern Mindanao were the 100th Division, commanded by Lt. Gen. Jiro Harada; the 30th Division, under Lt. Gen. Gyosaku Morozumi; the 32d Naval Special Base Force, headed by Rear Adm. Naoji Doi; and the Hosono Unit, an Air Force command of ill-armed service personnel. The 100th Division, with the 32d Naval Special Base Force attached for ground combat operations, held the Davao area and controlled the southeastern third of eastern Mindanao. The 30th Division was responsible for the defense of the rest of eastern Mindanao.
Nominal command in eastern Mindanao rested with General Morozumi, who became de jure commander of the 35th Army after General Suzuki’s death on April 19th after Allied planes attacked his ship. But Morozumi chose not to exercise his authority except insofar as to largely ignore advice from General Tomochika, 35th Army chief of staff, who reached Mindanao in late April.
Beset with formidable communications difficulties, and realizing that most inhospitable terrain separated the main bodies of the 30th and 100th Divisions, Morozumi believed he could render his best service by staying with the 30th, leaving General Harada and Admiral Doi more or less to their own devices.
On paper the Japanese forces seemed formidable. But numerous supply shortages—artillery and ammunition, communications equipment, and transportation vehicles—left the defenders unable to compete with the Americans at the operational level.
Further complicating life for the Japanese was a vibrant guerrilla force led by Col. Wendell W. Fertig, an American reservist who had escaped from Bataan in 1942. By mid-April 1945, Colonel Fertig’s 24,000-man force controlled most of the island, keeping the Japanese confined to their garrison towns and to the major roads. The guerrillas were prepared to participate actively in future actions.
The guerrillas had added greatly to the woes of Morozumi and Harada by April 1945. For example, the Japanese transportation problems were many times compounded by guerrilla demolitions, roadblocks, and bridge destruction. Guerrilla raids had destroyed communications equipment and supply dumps. It was impossible for the Japanese to send small truck convoys up and down the roads of eastern Mindanao, and small patrols had been out of the question for months.
American estimates of Japanese strength in eastern Mindanao ran from 34,000 (Eighth Army), to 40,000 (X Corps), to 42,600 (Fertig), with more agreement on the deployment of major units. Fertig’s estimates were the closest, for there were over 43,000 members of the Japanese armed forces in eastern Mindanao, and there were, in addition, nearly 12,850 Japanese noncombatant civilians in the area.
Japanese Army ground combat and service troops (including about 7,350 civilians recently inducted into the armed forces) numbered roughly 28,600. There were some 8,000 Army Air Force troops, almost all of the service category, and around 6,450 Navy personnel. Of the total, almost 15,000, including 500 men of the Navy, could be classed as trained ground combat effectives. Most of the service troops were armed as auxiliary infantry.
Also working against the Japanese was their belief that the March 1945 operations in the Zamboanga Peninsula by General Doe’s 41st Division constituted the extent of American plans for Mindanao.
VICTOR V Operations
On 11 March General MacArthur formally ordered the Eighth Army to clear the rest of Mindanao in Operation VICTOR V. MacArthur expected that the campaign could take four months.
Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger, Eight Army commander, thought otherwise. Based on his knowledge of how the Japanese units were disposed, he expected the strongest Japanese resistance to be centered around Davao City, in eastern Mindanao. In just over two weeks of hard work, Eichelberger’s Eighth Army staff produced an operation plan to deal with the Japanese dispositions as efficiently as possible.
Instead of the expected frontal assault into the teeth of the Japanese defenses, the plan called for securing a beachhead at Illana Bay in the undefended west, then a drive eastward more than one hundred miles 23 through jungle and mountains to strike the Japanese from the rear.
If the invading force achieved surprise and pressed forward quickly and aggressively, Eichelberger calculated, the attack would unhinge the Japanese both physically and psychologically.
The plan was not without risk. Success was highly dependent on the beachhead performance of the landing force at Illana Bay and then on the ability of the Americans to maintain the momentum of their attack. The invading force had to move faster than the Japanese could react and had to do so before the rainy season arrived and turned every island road and trail into a morass.
Eichelberger assigned ground operations to Maj. Gen. Franklin C. Sibert’s X Corps. Sibert’s principal combat units were the 24th Infantry Division, under Maj. Gen. Roscoe B. Woodruff, and the 31st Infantry Division led by Maj. Gen. Clarence A. Martin.
The plan called for Task Group 78.2, now under Rear Adm. Albert G. Noble, to carry the 24th Division and the X Corps headquarters to the assault beaches near Malabang on 17 April to secure an advance airfield. Then, five days later the 31st Division would be transported twenty miles farther south to Parang, located near Highway 1, the route to Davao.
Major General Paul B. Wurtsmith’s Thirteenth Air Force, reinforced by elements of the Fifth Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Command, and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing under Maj. Gen. Ralph J. Mitchell, was designated “air assault force” for the Mindanao Operation. Its mission prescribed a continuing air offensive over the Southern and Central Philippines to neutralize Japanese air, ground, and naval forces, and to prevent Japanese reinforcements and supplies from reaching the objective area.
Displacement of the four scout bombing squadrons equipped with the SBD Dauntless patrol dive bomber from Luzon to Moret Field in Zamboanga (formerly San Roque Airfield) began on 24 March. VMSB’s 236 (Black Panthers) and 142 (Wild Hares/Wild Horses) arrived at Moret on the 24th; followed by VMSB-341(Torpid Turtles) on the 25th and VMSB-243 (Flying Goldbricks) on the 26th.
As Task Group 78.2 moved toward Illana Bay, Colonel Fertig sent welcome word that his guerrillas owned Malabang and its airstrip. Earlier, Fertig’s men had trapped a battalion-size force of Japanese within Malabang, but could not evict them.
Beginning on 3 April, Colonel Jerome’s Marine aviators from Dipolog landed at the airstrip, received targeting information from the guerrillas, and then bombed the Japanese positions. This broke the stalemate, and by 14 April the surviving Japanese had fled through the guerrilla lines.
With friendly forces in complete control of Malabang, an opportunity was presented to speed the initial penetration of central Mindanao. Generals Sibert and Woodruff and Admiral Noble quickly changed their plans to take advantage of the new developments.
Although one battalion from the 21st Infantry would still land at Malabang, the bulk of the 24th Division was to come ashore at Parang, much closer to Highway No. 1, and thus speed up the entire operation.
Japanese in the Malabang-Cotabato area numbered 1,500 men–the reinforced 166th Independent Infantry Battalion, a 100th Division unit operating under 30th Division control.
In the event of an American attack, the 166th IIB would conduct a fighting withdrawal to the Sayre Highway-Route 1 junction at Kabacan and would then help defend the southern section of the Sayre Highway, along which Morozumi had deployed the bulk of the 30th Division.
There were no Japanese along Route 1 from Kabacan southwest for thirty miles, but the 100th Division was responsible for holding the highway for the next twenty miles to Davao Gulf.
The landing at Parang on 17 April went unopposed, and the division quickly headed inland along Highway 1.
Correctly perceiving that the Japanese would destroy the bridges along the highway, the planners decided to use the 533d Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, 3d Engineer Special Brigade, to exploit the Mindanao River (Rio Grande de Mindanao).
This waterway ran roughly parallel to Highway 1 and was navigable for thirty-five miles, some ten miles west of the crucial town of Kabacan and the north-south Sayre Highway.
On 21 April Lt. Col. Robert Amory led a small fleet of gunboats upriver and seized Kabacan and the junction of Highway 1 and the Sayre Highway the next day. The Japanese garrisons, startled by the sudden appearance of an American freshwater navy, fled north and west.
The Mindanao River soon became the main line of supply as troops and supplies were offloaded far upriver. If “not for the successful completion of this river campaign,” Admiral Noble stated, “our forces would be at least a month behind their present schedule.”
General Martin’s 31st Division began landing on 22 April, the same day that Marine Air Group 24 arrived at Malabang to provide air support for Mindanao ground operations.
Marines Close Air Support
At the earliest possible date after R-Day, (target date for initial landings) the dive bombers of Colonel Lyle H. Meyer’s Marine Aircraft Group 24 were flown from Luzon to the Malabang Airstrip and took station there, 150 miles across the Moro Gulf from the Marines at Moret Field, Zamboanga.
The Marines re-named the airstrip Titcomb Field, in honor of Captain John A. Titcomb, who had died of wounds received while a member of a support air party on Luzon.
Guerillas were used to guard the field and any planes that landed there. By 20 April (R-plus 3) when MAG-24’s planes began to arrive from Luzon, the pilots and crews found an engineering line already set up and a camp area beginning to take shape.
Even before the SBD’s of MAG-32 arrived, Thirteenth Air Force had designated Colonel Clayton C. Jerome as Commander, Marine Aircraft Groups Zamboanga (MAGSZAM), which would include not only MAG-12 and MAG-32, but also MAG-24 when it arrived on Mindanao a month later.
The organization for flight operations was set up by Lieutenant Colonel Keith B. McCutcheon, who, although the operations officer of MAG-24 (still at Mangaldan), had accompanied Colonel Jerome from Luzon for the express purpose of placing into effect an operations structure similar to the one used by MAGSDAGUPAN.
MAG-24’s ground echelon arrived in Mindoro on 12 April, and left that island two days later in a convoy with 24th Division assault troops. During its operations on Mindanao, MAG-24 once again would be under the direction of Colonel Jerome, for the Malabang-based group would be a part of Marine Aircraft Groups, Zamboanga.
Once the strip at Malabang was available, the Marines poured in the dive bombers of MAG-24, which arrived on 20 April from Luzon.
First of the dive bomber squadrons to arrive was VMSB-241(Sons of Satan) ; on the following day the flight echelon of VMSB-133 (Flying Eggbeaters) arrived, and on 22 April the last SBD squadron, VMSB-244 (Bombing Banshees), landed safely at Malabang.
After MAGSZAM operations began to get well under way, and the dive bombers had arrived from Luzon, the F4Us and SBDs frequently carried out assignments together, and they made a good team. Both were capable of delivering close and accurate support attacks, and the Corsair could serve as a fighter escort for the more vulnerable dive bomber on the way and to and from the target area.
The Corsairs, although designed as fighter planes, proved to be well adapted for close support work. They had three bomb racks capable of carrying a variety of bomb and napalm loadings, and they were armed with six forward-firing machine guns.
Faster than the SBDs they possessed ample speed to get in and out of a target area in a hurry. Also, since Corsairs were equipped with both VHF and MHF radio sets, they fitted into the air-ground liaison system easily, without a necessity for additions or alterations to existing equipment.
On 22 April MAG-24 commenced air operations in support of the 24th and 31st Divisions, whose forces were pushing eastward across Mindanao. Strikes were concentrated in two principal areas: (1) Davao City and environs and the western margin of Davao Gulf south to Sarangani Bay. (2) The Central Valley, from Kibawe north along both sides of the Sayre Highway to Del Monte.67
With both divisions ashore and ahead of schedule, Sibert ordered them to undertake separate thrusts.
General Woodruff’s 24th Division, minus the 21st Infantry in corps reserve, was to continue its advance along Highway 1 to Digos, then seize Davao City. General Martin’s 31st Division would follow to Kabacan and then attack north up the Sayre Highway toward Macajalar Bay.
The Japanese apparently blundered in allowing the Americans to seize the key road junction of Kabacan so easily; the 30th and 100th Japanese Divisions were hopelessly separated with the American advance, while allowing X Corps to build up momentum and ultimately lead to their destruction. That Japanese error was the direct result of the surprise achieved by Eight Army Commander Lt Gen Robert L. Eichelberger’s decision to land at Illana Bay.
With General Woodruff’s 24th Division moving so rapidly, the Americans were almost on top of the Japanese around Davao before General Morozumi realized that the western landing was, in fact, not a diversion.
Upon reaching Digos on 27 April, the Americans quickly overwhelmed the defending Japanese, who were prepared only to repel an assault from the sea, not from their rear. The 24th Division immediately turned north and headed toward Davao City.
Highway 1 to Kibawe
Meanwhile, the 31st Division had forged ahead to the town of Kibawe on Highway 1, some 40 miles (64 km) away, since 27 April, with the 124th Infantry Regiment of Colonel Edward M. Cullen at point.
Landing at Cotabato on 23 April at the southwest coast of the island, the 124th Regiment was ordered to Kabacan and then to advance north on the Sayre Highway No. 3.
The 124th Infantry Regiment consisted of three battalions. Each battalion consisted of four companies, and each company had about 200 men at full strength. 1st Battalion consisted of Companies A, B, C, and D; 2nd Battalion consisted of Companies E, F, G, and H; and 3rd Battalion consisted of Companies I, K, L, and M (letter ‘J’ was not used). Companies D, H, and M were heavy weapons companies.
“We arrived at Cotabato, Mindanao, on 23 April and debarked under peaceful conditions as the 24th Division had landed here a couple of weeks before and headed due East to Davao on the East coast,” wrote Maj. Thomas Deas, regimental surgeon of the 124th Medical Detachment in his post-war memoirs. “We were given the assignment to move by land and by boat to Fort Pikit and Kabacan. “
Getting to Kabacan involved a 50-mile trip in landing craft up the crocodile infested Mindanao and Pulangi Rivers to Fort Pikit.
We reached there about 27 April, 1945. Then we headed North up the Sayre Highway, a wide dirt trail through fields of grass six to seven feet high and at times through swamps where the road was just two planks about 18 inches wide for wheels to ride on.”
The so-called highway, General Eichelberger later recalled, was soon “discovered to be something of a fraud.” A thirty-mile stretch had never been completed and dissolved into deep mud whenever it rained—and it rained virtually every day.
Furthermore, the combination of Japanese and guerrilla activity had destroyed every bridge along the route. The first twenty five miles north of Kabacan alone contained at least seventy bridges that required some degree of repair or reconstruction.
Japanese Disposition on Sayre Highway
In central Mindanao, where there were fewer troops to cover a far greater area, operational preparations of the 30th Division had been virtually stalemated because of other urgent requirements.
Due to an acute shortage of foodstuffs prevailing in the upper highlands along Highway 3 since August 1944, troops were used to forage for provisions, particularly rice in Cotabato Province, and to transport them over the inadequate roads to Malaybalay.
However, Morozumi hastily stopped these foraging operations and proceeded with regrouping his available troops thus three widely dispersed elements were moving to the northern part of Central Mindanao by mid-April when an American landing in Cagayan became imminent.
The 3d Battalion, 41st Infantry, had recently arrived in the Ampayon area en route to Balingasag from Surigao. The main strength of the 11st Battalion, 74th Infantry, was ordered to suspend the foraging of supplies in the Dulawan area and was near Kabacan en route north to join the main strength of the regiment. Farther south, the 11st Battalion, 30th Field Artillery Regiment, was in Dulawan on its way north from Sarangani Bay.
The tactical grouping of the 30th Division was now as follows:
|Surigao Sector Unit:|
|…..3d Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment|
|North Sector Unit:|
|…..30th Reconnaissance Regiment|
|…..1st Battalion, 77th Infantry Regiment|
|Central Sector Unit:|
|…..74th Infantry Regiment|
|Under Division Control:|
|…..30th Field Artillery Regiment (less 3d Bn.)|
|…..30th Engineer Regiment (less 2d and 3d Cos.)|
|…..30th Transportation Regiment, reinforced|
|…..Miscellaneous division troops|
|South Sector Unit:|
|…..One Company, 1st Battalion, 74th Infantry Regiment|
|…..Two field duty companies. (temporary)|
|West Sector Unit:|
|…..166th Independent Infantry Battalion|
When the Sayre Highway operation began, Morozumi had about 8,200 men to defend it.
“5,000 were concentrated in the Malayabaly area, 500 along the highway from Kabacan to Malaybalay to destroy bridges and build road blocks, 100 above Malaybalay for the same purpose, 900 at Butuan, 300 at Talakag, 400 at Dalirig, and about 1,000 were stricken with malaria.”
He had two field artillery companies, one howitzer company with 12 pieces altogether moved by manpower with 100 rounds per weapon concentrated at Malaybalay.
The infantrymen all had rifles with 240 rounds each supported by four light armored cars, which were used to tow artillery and patrol the roads but were never used in combat. There was an ammunition dump north of Malaybalay which they did not get to use either.
Kabacan to Kibawe
Departing Kabacan about 1800 on 27 April, Col. Edward M. Starr’s 124th Infantry led the division’s advance up the primitive road. Colonel Starr planned to compensate for his transportation shortage by leapfrogging his battalions up the highway—each with a battery from the 149th Field Artillery attached.
At approximately 2200 at a point about nine miles north of the Pulangi crossing during the first evening of the advance, the division vanguard—Lt. Col. Robert M. Fowler’s 2d Battalion with Battery B, 149th Field Artillery —ran into the 1st Battalion of the 74th Infantry Regiment, IJA 30th Panther Division with a strength of 350 under Major Kasuyoshi Hayashi that was moving north from Kabacan on its return to Malaybalay.
Morozumi had earlier dispatched this unit southward to reinforce the 166th IIB but had pulled it back when, on 21 April, he had learned that the 24th Division had reached Fort Pikit. On the 26th, no American thrust up Sayre Highway having developed, Morozumi again started the battalion south, directing it to hold the crossing over the Pulangi River just north of Kabacan.
Although darkness and the jungle prevented coordinated maneuver during the ensuing engagement, Fowler committed his force unit by unit into the fighting. During the ensuing engagement Battery C, 149th Field Artillery, hurriedly unlimbered its 105-mm. howitzers and within twenty minutes delivered accurate support fire, as observers at the front adjusted range by the sounds of the exploding shells.
Before the skirmish was over at dawn on 28 April, the 124th Infantry had lost about 10 men killed and 25 wounded, and had killed at least 50 Japanese. Its morale apparently shattered by the unexpected turn of events, the Japanese battalion broke and disappeared from the Sayre Highway.
After 28 April the 124th Infantry drove on northward against very scattered opposition, delayed mainly by the poor condition of the highway.
Guerrilla demolitions, given the finishing touch by engineers of the Southern Sector Unit, had accounted for most of the bridges along the road north of Kabacan, and there were some seventy bridges, in varying states of ruin, from Kabacan north twenty-five miles to the Mulita River.
In a post-war interrogation, Gen. Morozumi admitted that the destruction of bridges along the Sayre Highway formed an integral part of the Japanese defense plans.
“Demolitions were already placed at the bridges. All bridges north of Malaybalay were blown as soon as the Americans landed. South of Malaybalay bridges at Omanay and 10 kilometers south of Omanay were blown and defenses prepared at these positions,” Morozumi said.
“With the retreating Japs blowing up about 75 bridges, it made our advancing troops face many problems while crossing streams and ravines,” recalls M/Sgt. Aubrey (Paul) Tillery of the Service Co. who wrote a World War II History of the 124th Infantry after the war.
“Getting trucks through with supplies was extremely difficult, At points we moved jeeps as well as supplies across these places on cables rigged for such purposes. At other times, the “Biscuit Bombers” (c-47 Dakotas) were used.”
Click here and go from 06:05-08:10 to view archival film footage of C-47 “Biscuit Bombers” air dropping supplies to the 124th Regiment in Kibawe without parachutes
When they came to the Muleta (Melita/Mulita in other accounts) River which was about four feet deep and 50 yards across, they had to build a makeshift bridge to get their half-dozen jeeps across.
We “jerry rigged” the blown bridges over the narrower creeks and had built a “sometimes bridge” over the shallow river using 55 gallon oil drums and 75 mm artillery ammo that we found in an enemy supply dump, Deas recalled.
“Filling the drums with rock and using 2×8 and 2×12 planks from the destroyed bridge, we made a 2-track contraption so that we could drive our vehicles across. This bridge was about 100 feet long and shaped like a lazy S. It worked and later was very helpful in casualty evacuation. We were right proud of it, for HQ Company and the Medics built it.”
“Our objective was the Kibawe Air Strip, where the road took off east to Davao. As we passed it on May 6, we had been fighting up the road for nearly 50 miles.”
Deep gorges and landslides induced by heavy rains added to the 31st Division’s supply problems. At one point, the 124th Infantry and the 108th Engineer Battalion had to rig cables to get jeeps, quarter-ton trailers, three-quarter-ton weapons carriers, and 105-mm. howitzers across a pair of gorges.
It was not until 3 May, when engineer bulldozers completed fills, that the 124th could bring up heavier equipment. Obviously, the 31st Division would have to depend in large measure upon air supply to maintain its advance northward.
The 124th completed its first mission when it reached Kibawe on 3 May after a 45-mile, five-day push up the Sayre Highway, despite determined resistance, banzai attacks, blown bridges and three treacherous mountain gorges. It set up roadblocks north of that barrio, and probed about a mile southeast along the trail that supposedly led to Talomo on Davao Gulf.
Despite its supply problems the regiment had, within a week’s time, secured the 31st Division’s first objective. The advance from Kabacan to Kibawe had cost the 124th Infantry approximately 15 men killed and 50 wounded, while the Southern Sector Unit had lost over 175 men killed.
The Talomo Trail Recon in Force
Until the first week of May the 31st Division had been able to employ only one RCT along Sayre Highway. When the 41st Division’s 162d Infantry reached eastern Mindanao from Zamboanga, it took over responsibility for the protection of the X Corps rear areas from Parang to Fort Pikit, and permitted the 31st Division to bring its 155th RCT forward. The 167th RCT, 31st Division, aided by guerrilla units, protected the supply lines from Fort Pikit to Kibawe.
Since two RCTs were now available along Sayre Highway, General Sibert assigned additional tasks to the 31st Division.
First, he directed the division to continue northward to clear the highway and to establish contact with the 108th RCT, 40th Division. General Eichelberger, the Eighth Army’s commander, had decided to put the 108th ashore at Macajalar Bay both to speed the conquest of Mindanao and to open a new supply route to the 31st Division, the supply problems of which increased with every step its troops took northward.
The 31st Division’s second job was to strike southeast along the Kibawe-Talomo trail. General Sibert’s preoccupation with this maneuver reflects the state of mapping and of weather information the Army had concerning Mindanao.
Kibawe was the northern terminus of a supposed Japanese supply trail that twisted and turned south until it reached the ocean shore town of Talomo, a few miles west of Davao City. American planners had initially regarded the Kibawe-Talomo trail as an important line of communication for the 100th Division, and the 31st Division was prepared to begin a major push down it.
Sibert soon learned from Colonel Fertig that much of the Kibawe-Talomo trail was a figment of the imagination. Wheeled vehicles could negotiate only the first five or six miles of the trail south from Kibawe even in dry weather, and as a recognizable trace the trail extended only thirteen miles southeast from Kibawe to the Pulangi River.
In the Davao area the trail was fairly good from Calinan (terminus of Route 1-D from Talomo) northwest about six miles to the Tamogan River, but then disappeared. In the unmapped region between the Pulangi and Tamogan Rivers rainfall in April, May, and June sometimes reached a total of forty inches per month.
During June and July 1945 Japanese troops hacked a fairly definite path through the jungles and rain forest across the forty-five miles of rugged terrain separating the Pulangi and Tamogan Rivers, but never was this stretch such that large bodies of men could use it.
After making an aerial reconnaissance over the ground southeast from Kibawe, General Eichelberger put an end to plans to make a major effort southeast along the trail from Kibawe and about 10 May directed Sibert to limit operations on the trail to a battalion-sized reconnaissance-in-force.
By this time, the 24th Division had the situation well in hand in the Davao area and the 31st Division could employ additional troops to good advantage along Sayre Highway. Sibert accordingly directed the 31st Division to push one battalion southeast from Kibawe as far as the Pulangi River and with the rest of its available strength to resume the drive up Sayre Highway. A battalion of the 167th Infantry began moving down the Talomo trail on 11 May.
A 1,000-man Japanese force held the trail, but jungle rain forest, torrential rains, and abysmal trail conditions were the real obstacles.
The Kibawe-Talomo Trail became a regular hunting ground for the low-flying PBJ’s of VMB-611 (in this unexplored and precipitous area, Lieutenant Colonel George H. Sarles, the squadron’s commander, was lost on 30 May); and MAG-32’s SBDs, together with MAG-12’s fighters and the dive bombers of MAG-24, now based at Titcomb Field, also pressed the attack.
Airdropped supplies to the isolated infantrymen were common as the trail was impassable for motor vehicles. Well beyond normal supply lines, they were dependent on air drops and beyond the range of their heavy supporting weapons, which had to be winched across the gorges on cables.
Eighteen days were required to reach the Pulangi River, some thirteen miles down the trail, and the sheer physical requirements of occupying the trail soon entailed committing the entire regiment to the operation.
Yet even with the assistance of Filipino guerrillas, it took the 167th Infantry until 30 June to move five miles beyond the Pulangi River and seize the Japanese trail-force headquarters at Pinamola Mountains in Kibawe. By that time the enemy was already retreating farther south, and the 167th was content to let them go.
Skirmishing along the trail cost the American regiment 80 men killed and 180 wounded, while counting almost 400 Japanese dead.
General Morozumi was also making changes in his plans in early May. Appalled by the speed of the 31st Division’s advance as far as Kibawe, Morozumi directed his units to start assembling at Malaybalay immediately in preparation for retreat eastward to the Agusan Valley.
He ordered a battalion of infantry southward to delay the 31st Division in the vicinity of Maramag, fifteen miles north of Kibawe, until 10 May at least, by which date he hoped his main forces would have passed through Malaybalay. The Japanese battalion was hardly in position when the 124th Infantry, which had started north from Kibawe on 6 May, reached Maramag.
A day earlier, on or about the 5th of May, the Americans reached the deep gorge located 10 kilometer south of Omonay, Damulog where the retreating Japanese had destroyed the bridge.
Colonel Kanetake Ouchi, with his two companies of engineers from the 30th Engineer Regiment and the remnants of the Hayashi and Murase (formerly the Sanitation Unit) Battalions which were also withdrawing, took positions on the north side of the gorge and put up a determined resistance.
However, the combination of superior engineering ability, abundant supplies, and efficient air support of the Americans forced them out after two days.
Into the woods
The 124th Infantry had resumed its progress up the Sayre Highway on 6 May, even before the Talomo trail reconnaissance had begun. In doing so, the regiment moved into its toughest fight of the Mindanao campaign, if not of the Pacific war itself.
Difficulties stemmed from two separate factors. First, the regiment initially lacked artillery support. Destroyed bridges, rain, and generally impassable terrain had left the artillery battalions farther and farther behind the hard-pushing infantry.
Second, General Morozumi had decided to consolidate his 30th Division around Malaybalay before undertaking a final withdrawal eastward into the Agusan Valley.
In an effort to gain time for this movement, Morozumi ordered Ouchi to engage the enemy while in the dense forest. The 2nd Battalion, 74th Regiment, under the command of Major Hotta, was ordered to Omanay as reinforcement. This force retreating from the position, took advantage of the dense jungle to delay the advance.
With no heavy artillery in place, the regiment advanced with the support of a company of 4.2-inch mortars. After only a few hundred yards the regiment encountered the enemy in strength and began the hardest, bloodiest, most costly action during its entire service.
The Japanese troops had entrenched themselves in well-prepared and completely camouflaged spider-type pillboxes with connecting tunnels. These lined both sides of Sayre Highway, which was little more than a dirt road.
The advancing American soldiers could pass within a few feet of the pillboxes and not see them. The Japanese occupants would let the troops pass and then rise up and shoot the unsuspecting soldiers from behind. An entire morning’s fighting by the 1st Battalion gained 300 yards.
“The Japs were effectively dug in and determined to halt our advance at this point,” recalls M/Sgt. Paul Tillery. “Being well prepared for combat and with such strong positions they were able to inflict heavy losses upon our attacking troops. Our foot soldiers attacked these positions time and again, sustaining heavy casualties to no avail.”
With the artillery yet to catch up with the fast moving infantrymen, Marine SBD dive bombers and F4U Corsairs were called in to pound the hardened Japanese positions with bombs and napalm.
Describing the concentrated strikes in the Colgan Woods, one of the pilots, First Lieutenant Thurston P. Gilchrist, said:
“This was the most heavily bombed area of any in the whole Philippine campaign. The Japs were dug in underneath trees and in foxholes so well that we had to blow up the whole area before the Army could advance. Our Marine observers, who were with the ground liaison party in this area, said the damage was terrible and almost indescribable. Flight after flight of planes bombed and strafed this small area for days. When we began it was a heavily wooded area and when we finished there wasn’t . . . anything left but a few denuded trees . It was from these Marine observers that we pilots found out for about the first time how much damage we were doing to the Japanese troops.”
Click here and go to 2:16-3:10 to view archival footage of US Marines SBDs dive bomb Japanese positions in Colgan Woods, followed by US Marines F4U Corsairs dropping napalm, and Japanese KIA in one of two banzai charges.
On 8 May, VMSB-241(Sons of Satan) and VMSB-133 (Flying Eggbeaters) flew what one squadron report termed “the closest support mission yet flown.” The Japanese lines were only 200 yards from the infantrymen of the 31st Division, and the enemy was unyielding. Marked with smoke, the tiny target area was plastered with nearly five tons of bombs, and the Japanese position simply disintegrated.
However, the 124ths infantrymen on the ground did not share the Marines’ optimism on the efficacy of their bombing sorties.
“It would be days before the sorely missed artillery could get up in order to land their support. In the meantime, Marine dive bombers were called in and made raids for a few days but were not effective against these strong enemy positions,” M/Sgt. Tillery opined. “Our artillery finally arrived and began shelling and in just a few hours on 12 May 1945, our troops were able to move through this area. The remaining Japs retreated from this heavy artillery barrage.”
On the same day, the 3rd Battalion was ordered to bypass the bogged down 1st Battalion and secure the Maramag airstrip No. 1 less than two miles to the north. They were caught in the flank by a banzai attack which inflicted heavy casualties. Cries for medics could be heard and the corpsmen of the 124th Medical Detachment dashed into the woods to evacuate the wounded. They, too, were shot down.
“The 1st Battalion was stopped and so was the 2nd Battalion on the other side of the road. Many were wounded. The Japs would let us advance so far and then come out of their holes and shoot from behind,” Deas said. “Their holes were not over two feet wide and were five to seven feet deep with connecting tunnels. It was a devious situation.”
The medics spent most of the day trying to get to the wounded and bring them back, an almost miraculous task. Nineteen year old Pfc. Hugh Summerfield of the 124th Medical Detachment worked tirelessly and seemed to have a charmed life as he brought back man after man till dark.
“Then he was sure that another one of his comrades was alive and in a certain place. Against all warnings by his commanding officer, Summerfield crawled back out to get his comrade. He didn’t come back that night and the next morning our troops advanced again,” Major Deas relates.
“They found Summerfield lying over a comrade. Both were dead.”
“They had prepared these positions well in advance with the intention of wreaking severe damage to any American troops coming up this road. Thus, they were well prepared when our 124th Infantry foot soldiers arrived. Their pillboxes were connected with tunnels, some of which ran under tree roots. The positions were well covered and camouflaged rendering them most difficult to recognize. Troops would pass nearby and not even be aware of these fortifications. Considering these well-built defenses, it’s no wonder it took the artillery to drive them out,” Sgt.Tillery noted.
However, General Morozumi said it was the attacks of the American infantrymen which led to their final defeat in Colgan Woods.
“Our positions, coupled with the jungle, offered excellent protection against air attacks. After the loss of this battle (Colgan Woods), we had little hope of winning.”
He considered the battle for the Sayre Highway lost from about May 8th to May 10th.
Father William V. O’Connor, Chaplain of the 155th Infantry Regiment, recalls visiting Fr. Thomas Aquinas Colgan, the 124th’s chaplain on that day. “His march had been very long and hard and he was tired,” said O’Connor. “I urged him to drop back and take a rest, but he said he wanted to be where his men needed him.”
Chaplain Colgan walked up to the battalion command post, calmly surveyed the situation and said to the command post personnel, “Those are my boys in there. They need me. I should be with them.”
Staff Sgt. Charles Morgan, who often assisted the priest in his duties, said Father Colgan disregarded a warning from a senior officer that he should not attempt to go into the woods because of snipers.
“He just went down the road and walked right into the woods,” Morgan recalled. “He must have known that he had little hope of coming out alive.”
Father Colgan encountered Staff Sgt. Edgar Beatty, C Company, 1st Battalion, on the scene. Beatty also admonished the chaplain not to go into the woods. “He just told me a joke and said that’s where he belonged,” said Beatty.
Father Colgan entered the woods amid the fighting. Spotting a wounded man, he began to make his way ducking automatic fire. Suddenly he was hit in the shoulder, but he still continued to crawl through the underbrush until he reached the wounded medic Robert Lee Evans lying in a shell hole. A moment later, a quick burst of machine gun fire killed Chaplain Colgan instantly.
The cruel war
Banzai charges struck the 124th, fighting without supporting artillery, first on 7 May and then on the night of 14 May. The latter ended in a rout, as American automatic weapons stopped the attackers, killing 73 Japanese, marking the end of the battle.
The 149th Field Artillery managed to get within range on May 12 and after an intense barrage, the 2nd Battalion plus L Company finally pushed through the shrapnel-shredded woods.
The Americans named the side of the woods where Chaplain Colgan was killed as Colgan Woods, while the woods on the opposite side of the Sayre Highway were they named Berlin Woods.
Click here and go to 2:16-3:10 to view archival footage of US Navy SBDs dive bomb Japanese positions in Colgan Woods, followed by US Navy F4U Corsairs dropping napalm, and Japanese KIA in one of two banzai charges.
The woods were finally taken after six days of mortar fire, dive bombing by Marine SBD dive bombers dropping high explosive and fire bombs, and daily infantry assaults.
In the fighting for Colgan Woods and Maramag, an area the size of a city block had cost the 124th Infantry Regiment 69 men killed and 177 wounded from 6 to 12 May.
In a post-war interrogation, General Morozumi admitted about half of the battalion defending the Colgan woods were killed in action, with the remnants retreating into the mountains to conduct guerrilla warfare. An IJA battalion typically has a complement of 1,100 men in 4 companies of 180 men each, along with other units commanded by a lieutenant colonel. American estimates placed the number of Japanese casualties from this action at 580.
The casualties could now be retrieved, and Father Colgan was found, his arms still embracing the man he had tried to save. He was identified by the marks on his uniform.
Corporal Lou Hall said that he was one of the men who recovered the padre’s body.
During that battle, he was firing his BAR from a “chevron” position (a description of the shape of the hole) when a Japanese mortar round impacted behind him and blew him out of the hole.
“I still remember flying through the air with my arms out. They put me in a field hospital that was made of tents set up in the kunai grass,” Hall recalls.
He was not seriously injured, and returned to duty. At one point he was also hospitalized with malaria for two weeks.
The Japanese battalion ordered by Morozumi to delay the 124th at Maramag some 30 miles (48 km) south to enable the regrouping of his 30th Division, did so with such ferocity, that it took six days for the 124th to reach Maramag.
The battle area from Talomo to Maramag was later renamed Colgan Woods by the troops in remembrance of Chaplain Colgan. The battle remains one of the many brutal struggles in the Pacific theater that mostly remains forgotten to this day.
On to Malaybalay and beyond
With the end of most of the Japanese resistance around Maramag, Col. Walter J. Hanna’s 155th Infantry passed through the 124th on 13 May to continue the drive northward.
Organized opposition along Sayre Highway south of Malaybalay had now melted away, and the 155th Infantry was delayed principally by supply problems and difficulties entailed in keeping supporting artillery within range of possible points of Japanese resistance.
About noon on 20 May the 155th reached the outskirts of Malaybalay, where fire from remnants of the 30th Field Artillery Regiment halted the advance. Realizing that the regiment could not haul its weapons into the mountains east of Malaybalay, Morozumi had left the unit at Malaybalay to fight a rear-guard action, which was successful in keeping the 155th Infantry out of the town until late on 21 May.
On 22 and 23 May the 155th continued up Sayre Highway, encountering elements of Morozumi’s Northern Sector Unit that had not learned that American troops had reached Malaybalay and were still withdrawing southward to join the 30th Division’s main body.
With the Japanese airstrips at Maramag and Malaybalay now in Allied hands, air resupply for the leading ground troops became feasible, and the supply situation began to ease.
The Macajalar Bay Landing
As the 31st Division was fighting up the Sayre Highway, General Eichelberger had ordered the 108th Regimental Combat Team, 40th Division, to land at Macajalar Bay and open the Sayre Highway from the north. The regiment, commanded by Col. Maurice D. Stratta, moved ashore unopposed on 10 May and headed south.
Click here and go to 00:23-06;04 to see actual archival film footage of 108th Regt Landings at Macajalar Bay, Tin-ao, Agusan, Cagayan, Misamis Oriental on 10 May 1945 ; followed by Lt Gen Eichelberger and Rear Adm Struble Inspecting 108th Regt landing and moves inland.
Advancing inland, the 108th Infantry encountered no significant resistance until 13 May, when, eighteen miles inland, it came upon strong Japanese defenses where Sayre Highway zigzags up and down the steep slopes of the Mangima River canyon. Here Morozumi had posted a delaying force of about 1,250 men who had the support of a few pieces of light artillery.
Click here and go to 0:56-2:15 to view actual archival film footage of the 108th RCT fighting at the Mangima Canyon, machinegun covering the withdrawal of US troops, medics transporting wounded personnel under fire, and US Sherman tank attacking a bunker.
Although Morozumi probably did not know it, he had stationed his delaying groupment at the same point a Fil-American force had chosen to hold just three years earlier when the Kawamura Detachment, an elite unit of the IJA 5th Division, foreshadowed the 108th RCTs operation and landed at Macajalar Bay to drive south along Sayre Highway.
In May 1942 the Fil-American force had held at the Mangima Canyon area for four days, and now in May 1945 history repeated itself, for it took the 108th Infantry, 40th Division, from 15 through 18 May to clean out the region.
Following this action the 108th Infantry–its rear protected by the 3d Battalion of the Americal Division’s 164th Infantry, which reached Macajalar Bay on 14 May–continued south to its rendezvous with the 31st Division.
Pressed by troops of the 108th Infantry, 40th Division, which had already landed at Macajalar Bay, the retreating forces gave the 155th Infantry little trouble and, about 1400 on 23 May, the 155th made contact with the 108th Infantry near Impalutao, twelve miles northwest of Malaybalay, opening another supply route.
Supply problems slowed the 108th Infantry’s advance to some degree, but Sayre Highway was in so much better shape from Macajalar Bay south to Malaybalay than it was from Kabacan north that Eighth Army immediately changed the 31st Division’s supply route to one originating at Macajalar Bay.
Its share in the task of clearing Sayre Highway cost the 31st Division approximately 90 men killed and 250 wounded, while the 108th Infantry, 40th Division, lost roughly 15 men killed and 100 wounded. Together, the two units killed almost 1,000 Japanese during their operations along the highway, and captured nearly 25 more.
The 108th Infantry’s juncture with Hanna’s 155th Infantry meant total American control of the Sayre Highway and the end of organized Japanese resistance in Mindanao.
The seemingly low cost in battlefield casualties for the Americans in the Mindanao campaign stemmed, aside from the overall brilliance and skill of the Eighth Army planners and leaders, from increasing assistance by Filipino guerrillas, which in military terms, constituted a valuable “force multiplier” for the Eighth Army units.
Before landings, guerrillas harassed Japanese units, provided valuable intelligence about enemy dispositions and the relative suitability of landing beaches. And after each landing, the Filipinos fought alongside the Americans and pursued the Japanese through the island’s interior.
However, in the case of the Battle for Colgan Woods, it appears the American officers did not give much weight to intel reports from the two battalions guerrillas in Bukidnon who had joined up with them in the course of their advance, perhaps leading them to absorb more casualties than they should have.
“I told Colonel [Edward M.] Starr that a big force of Japanese had dug in around the lake, and advised him to strafe and bomb the area before proceeding,”said Franklin Labaon, in a personal interview conducted by author Ronald K. Edgerton on 29 April 1977 in Kibawe and published in the latter’s book “People of the Middle Ground, A Century of Conflict and Accommodation in Central Mindanao 1880s-1980s.”
Then First Lieutenant Labaon was the commander of the guerrillas 2nd Battalion,117th Regiment, 109th Division under Lt. Col. James Grinstead. At this time, the 117th Regiment was commanded by Maj. Waldo McVickers with a personnel complement of 41 officers and 534 enlisted men with headquarters near Mailag.
Even though his troops had outdistanced their artillery support, Starr went ahead and sent one company to reconnoiter. They immediately came under heavy enemy fire.
In the article The Battle of Pinamaloy published in the April-June 2013 issue of The Army Troopers Newsmagazine, Brig. Gen. Restituto A. Aguilar (ret)., former head of the Veterans Memorial and Historical Division of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) and currently executive director of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), said the Americans ignored repeated warnings from the guerrillas about the well-entrenched Japanese and would have even suffered more casualties had not the Filipino guerrillas helped them destroy the well-sited Japanese fortifications.
“Many of them were barefooted that was why perhaps the Americans thought they were not knowledgeable in the art of fighting,” Gen. Aguilar noted. “They did not have decent uniforms, some were in tattered clothes or old khaki uniforms.”
Gen. Aguilar relates how he got first-hand accounts from two former guerrillas who witnessed the brutality of the fighting when he was assigned to Cotabato in 2004. One rued the complete lack of accounts about the battle, while another related how he cried upon seeing the gory scenes of dead Japanese. The terrible scenes of carnage were apparently the reason why many who witnessed the Battle of Colgan Woods were reluctant to talk about it at all.
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