Chapter 13: Return to the Philippines

After the end of the Biak campaign the 41st enjoyed a period of relief from the housecleaning duties of sweeping Japs out of the far Pacific areas. Fleet Admiral Chester N. Nimitz’s Navy forces pressed nearer and nearer the Japanese homeland. United States submarines waged unrelenting warfare against Nip supply and war craft, and the Marines carried the Star-Spangled Banner proudly to the crest of smoking, blood-drenched islands.  The great American battle fleet scoured the seas for the Jap Fleet.

Midway’s glorious victory was re-enacted twice in the two battles of the Philippines, in which proud old battleships returned from inglorious “destruction” at Pearl Harbor to strike the dwindling Jap Navy. These ships, restored to duty, fought side by side with more recently constructed craft and dealt blows which greatly reduced the Tojo fleet to the stage of impotence.

Navy flyers had a “shooting” time at Saipan, Tinian and Guam, shooting Japs out of the skies by the score.  This memorable series of aerial battles has been dubbed the “Marianas turkey shoot.” From China and India, and later from Guam and Saipan, as island airstrips were conditioned for American use, great fleets of B-29 Superfortresses began all-out warfare against the cities and war plants of Japan itself. Formosa and the Philippines began to feel the sting of Navy gunfire and the fury of Army, Navy and Marine planes.

Back in the United States people waited anxiously and amid great speculation to see what role the Jungleers would play in this new phase of the war against Japan. The usual rumors that the Division would be returned to the States as a unit were bantered back and forth. Many of the Division’s veterans were coming home via the rotation plan. Many others came back on leaves and furlough, and at their termination, rejoined the Division.

General MacArthur would make good his pledge— “I shall return”— to the peoples of the Philippines.  Everyone, including the Japs, knew this. But the secrecy, and the suddenness with which he made this long-promised return came as a tremendous surprise.  Many Pacific war observers thought the 41st Division would be chosen to spearhead the thrust into the Philippines. However, General MacArthur deceived the Japs, and amazed the world, when he launched the liberation of the Philippines by throwing a powerful force ashore on Leyte on 20 October 1944. The business of recapturing the Philippines moved forward under the cloaks of mystery and surprise, which had been so typical of the strategy in the Pacific. The Leyte invasion was followed by a strike at Mindoro on 15 December, and Sixth Army troops stormed ashore on the beaches of Lingayen Gulf on 9 January 1945 to begin the fight for Luzon. On 21 January, another powerful force hit the beaches at Subic Bay, north of Manila, and with this landing came the announcement that the participating divisions were a part of the newly formed Eighth Army, commanded by General Eichelberger.  When the 41st Division later struck at Palawan it was announced that the Jungleers also were a part of this Army.

While these Philippine battles were raging, Oregon was paying honor to the 41st Division, its location and plans now undisclosed and a topic of increasing conjecture.  On 20 January, at the Henry Kaiser Swan Island shipyards, a giant tanker, the SS Sunset, was launched to bear the name of the Northwest’s own fighting division.

There still was no word from the Jungleers and there were many on the home front who predicted and reasserted that the Sunset Division was being saved for an invasion of the Chinese mainland. This speculation continued until 2 March when newspaper headlines broke the spectacular story that the Jungleers had invaded Palawan on 28 February.

In announcing the news which electrified the Pacific Northwest, General MacArthur said, “The enemy, engrossed in operations elsewhere, again failed to diagnose our plans and properly prepare his defense.” Jungleer losses were announced as “very light.”

Much had transpired between the departure from Biak and the day when the 186th Regimental Combat Team, commanded by Colonel O. P. Newman, stormed ashore on Palawan. Late in January 1945, troops began to leave Biak, headed ostensibly for Luzon. By 9 February the outfit had arrived at Mindoro where it staged in the San Jose area. The planning phase for the Victor III operation was completed by 24 February, seven days after the activation of the force. Brigadier General Harold Haney, Assistant Division Commander of the 41st Division, was placed in command of the force whose mission was to take Palawan. Personnel and equipment were loaded by 25 February, and at 1700 the following day the eighty-ship convoy departed from Mindoro, arriving in Puerto Princesa Bay in the early morning hours of 28 February.

The Thirteenth Air Force and naval units laid down a bombardment, and at 0845, following a ten-minute rocket barrage, the assault waves stepped ashore on White Beach 1, just west of Bancaobancao Point on the north side of the entrance to Puerto Princesa harbor.  There was some confusion during the landing because of poor beaches. However, since no opposition was encountered the landing forces were quickly consolidated.  The 1st Battalion, 186th Infantry, furnished the assault waves.

The assault battalion pushed inland at a rapid pace and moved onto the airstrips. By 1100 it had passed and secured the first phase line, and the reserve battalion had come ashore. The 2d Battalion was moving very slowly but was closing in on Puerto Princesa.  Shortly after noon it crossed the second phase line, poured over the runways of the airdrome and was patrolling north of the third phase line. Late that afternoon all areas within the third phase line had been secured and patrols were continuing their activities.  The town of Puerto Princesa fell to the 2d Battalion at 1259.

The airfields were found to be unserviceable due to the pre-landing bombardments and the town was found to be seventy-five per cent destroyed, although the docks suffered little damage. The enemy apparently had taken to the hills, and it was evident that he never intended to defend Puerto Princesa since no military installations, other than air-raid shelters, were found.

The 2d Battalion, less Company G, made a shore-to-shore landing at the mouth of the Iwahig River, across the bay from Puerto Princesa, at 1700. Once again there was no opposition and the landing force moved inland and secured the area adjacent to the Iwahig Penal Colony. Some bombs had fallen in this area but damage was slight. The airfield that had once existed near the penal colony had almost vanished in the dense secondary growth. A Company I outpost on Canigaran Point killed a Jap during the night of 28 February to mark the first known contact with the enemy. It was decided that the enemy had anticipated the landing and had withdrawn into prepared positions in the densely wooded and hilly interior.

The second day found the assault forces fanning out onto the flat plains beyond the initial objectives around Peurto Princesa Bay. The 1st and 2d Battalions patrolled the Irahuan River Valley, with the 1st Battalion moving north from Puerto Princesa while the 2d Battalion moved north from Iwahig. The two forces converged on Irahuan and made contact there around 1300.  Here an abandoned Jap headquarters was found which reaffirmed the enemy’s withdrawal. During this advance small parties of Japs were encountered but no contact was established with the enemy’s main body.  A Company E patrol made contact with a party of about fifty Japs, well dug in and on commanding ground on the Iratag trail west of Tagburos. Artillery and mortar fire was directed on this position but before the attack could be pressed further, the enemy withdrew under the cover of darkness. Another Company E patrol had a fire fight south of Iratag, killed thirteen Japs and knocked out a machine gun. Meanwhile the 3d Battalion, which was the last to land, advanced inland to Tagburos. It encountered heavily mined roads and numerous booby traps. The 3d Battalion sent a motorized patrol north to contact guerrilla forces at Bacungan while other patrols reconnoitered in all directions from Tagburos without contacts. A motorized patrol from the 2d Battalion was sent south on the highway to Aborlan. A guerrilla combat patrol was dispatched from Bacungan to Babuyan on 2 March to overtake an estimated eighty Japs, who had moved from Dumaran Island.

The first real contact was made with the enemy on this date as the infantrymen reached the foothills on the rim of the coastal plain. Advance elements of the 1st and 2d Battalions were halted by a Japanese concentration in the mountainous area north of Irahuan while the 3d Battalion, proceeding westward from Tagburos, encountered another enemy strongpoint about two miles beyond the town. Companies B and C made a flanking movement to destroy pillboxes holding up the 1st Battalion and succeeded in occupying the high ground by late afternoon. Some of the enemy again took advantage of approaching darkness and escaped.  There were some contacts with guerrilla forces during the day, one of these being made by a motorized patrol at Tapul.

A patrol from Company G tracked down a group of Japs entrenched in hilltop positions within a natural barrier of dense forest north of Iratag. Company G drew fire from Hill 1445 and attacked the positions.  Intense fire wounded the platoon leader and eventually forced the patrol to withdraw. Reinforcements were requested for another attack. During the night the enemy tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate through the Company G position.

Following an air strike with Napalm bombs and 1,000-pounders, and a mortar and artillery barrage, Company G assaulted the position on 7 March. The attack was driven back with seven casualties. More artillery and mortar barrages rained on the position but the enemy held. Another attack was planned the following day but this never materialized as the Japs abandoned the position during the night. The 186th Infantry troops occupied the hill on the morning of 8 March and Companies I and K then pressed toward the coast in the vicinity of Migcauyan, this being done without further contact with the enemy. Meanwhile, smaller pockets of Jap resistance in the mountains northwest of Irahuan and at Iratag had been reduced.  The primary objectives of the mission had been accomplished and the activity in the Puerto Princesa area soon resolved itself into minor patrolling with very little contact being made.

It had been planned to build a dry-weather airstrip immediately upon landing but insufficient engineer troops prevented the execution of this plan. Finally work was begun on a permanent all-weather strip.  which took longer, but was operational by 20 March.  Excellent use was made of the port facilities at Puerto Princesa and the work of the harbor personnel was well organized and efficiently executed.

Dumaran Island, off the northeast coast of Palawan, was reconnoitered by a party from the I&R platoon on 9 March. The island was found free of Japs, making it more obvious that the enemy had completely abandoned his positions on the east coast of Palawan and had concentrated his forces on the west coast. Hill 1445 was completely occupied on this date and vigorous patrolling continued. By the close of 10 March, 94 Japs had been killed or found dead while only one had been taken prisoner.

PT boats patrolled Pandanan Island on 10 March and shelled the garrison there. The Japs returned mortar and rifle fire and wounded five in the Allied party.  The manner in which the Japs were concentrating on the west coast of Palawan and the fact that a vessel had been sighted ofi^ the west coast during the night of 8-9 March, hinted rather strongly of an evacuation plan.  Subsequent events—such as the finding of some recently constructed boats—proved that a plan possibly did exist and may have been partially carried out.  Patrolling continued during the period from 10 to 18 March. The hill areas to the north and west of Irahuan and to the south and west of Iwahig were combed. The 3d Battalion worked from Migcaygan toward Napson, and guerrilla patrols continued north and west from Bacungan. The lack of enemy resistance lent credence to the belief that when the Yanks overran the enemy on Hill 1445, they broke the backbone of his defense for the area.

It had been felt that the 186th Regimental Combat Team might be needed to reinforce the Victor IV operation on Zamboanga, and in accordance with these plans the 1st Battalion departed from Palawan on 18 March while the 3d Battalion readied itself for departure a week later. During this period, plans were made to utilize the 2d Battalion, the Cannon Company and the guerrilla forces for further operations and to establish over-all control of Palawan. Supplementary amphibious operations against outlying islands were to continue into the spring, but for all practical purposes Palawan had been liberated by the end of March.

For the most part, the remaining Japs were fighting for self-preservation. Their food stocks had been depleted and their activities consisted mostly of foraging food and dodging Allied patrols. There was one exception to this evasive action on 25 March. Guerrillas operating in the vicinity of Moorsom Point encountered an estimated two hundred Japs who were well organized and believed to be infantry troops. The Japs attacked from three sides in successive waves, using good fire control, but after losing 52 men in three attacks they scattered. It was learned from a captured Jap that there were about three hundred Nips in the general area east of Moorsom Point and most of these were in well armed small groups, but many were ill due to the lack of food.

Minesweepers were active in the waters adjacent to Palawan, clearing the channels so that islands on the fringe of the mainland could be invaded. A Company E platoon relieved a Company G platoon at Napson on the west coast of Palawan on 1 April. This relief was effected by air with five observation planes being used for the operation. The men were flown out singly and the entire movement required three days. The Company G platoon had been conducting vigorous patrolling on the west coast of Palawan for several weeks and the long trek across the mountains to the base camp at Irahuan did not look inviting even though it did mean a rest.

Extensive patrolling continued and many ambushes were prepared throughout the island. Company F, reinforced, made unopposed landings at Coron, on Busuanga Island, on 9 April. No contact was made with the enemy during the first day. The second day saw three Japs killed and two more days of patrolling resulted in the death of seven more. Scattered light resistance continued through 20 April when elements of the 2d Battalion returned to Palawan to report the Culion Islands free of Japs.

As the campaign dragged on the 2d Battalion and the remainder of the United States forces did less tactical work, turning this phase over to the Filipino troops. This did not mean, however, that the Jungleers were idle, because the Allies still were a long way from the front doorstep of Tokyo. A training program was initiated and strictly adhered to.

Elements of the 2d Battalion did make unopposed landings on Balabac Island on 16 April and on Pandanan Island on 22 April. These landings completed the liberation of the Palawan Archipelago and placed the Americans in control of the Palawan group from Mindoro to Borneo.

The liberation of Puerto Princesa brought to light an example of one of the most cruel and barbaric atrocities ever committed by any nation. About 150 prisoners, who had been captured by the Japanese in the early stages of the war, had been confined there and used as labor gangs. In late 1944 when the Allied noose began to tighten around the enemy’s throat the prisoners were herded into two air-raid shelters, which were soaked with gasoline and ignited. Those attempting to escape were mowed down with machine guns. Only four men managed to survive this ordeal by breaking through the end of a tunnel which led to the open face of a cliff over-looking the sea. In dropping to the beach below one man was injured in the fall and later died. The others were hidden by the Filipinos until they were recovered by 41st Division troops.

Now, in seven assault invasions the veteran 41st Division had, at last, wrenched from the Japanese an area with some semblance of civilization. The Palawan Task Force had marched into its first “modern” town in three years of campaigning. At Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, the troops found themselves walking along macadam streets, reading signs they could understand, seeing schools, churches, real houses and gardens bursting with blooming bougainvillea. Pending the return of the original inhabitants, the troops quartered themselves under roofs for the first time in three years. What great delight they got from such simple, everyday operations as turning on and off water faucets and opening and closing doors and windows.  From the very beginning it had been evident that the mission of taking Palawan could be accomplished with assurance of a decisive victory. Had the Japs elected to make any stand the resistance would have been shortlived.  Instead, the enemy chose to retreat and scatter in small groups, thereby forcing the Jungleers to hunt them down.

From the day of the landing to 28 March American casualties for the Victor III operation were 11 killed and 40 wounded. Cumulative casualties to 30 June were 12 killed and 56 wounded. Jap losses were 890 killed or found dead and 20 prisoners of war.

The Victor III operation was terminated on 20 June 1945.