186 Infantry Regiment and 167 Field Artillery: The Palawan Story

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

        At 0650 on 28 February1945, 186 Infantry's 80-ship convoy of 8,150 men deployed at the throat of Puerto Princesa Bay, mid-way on the east coast of Palawan Island. Missions were to seize an air-base 150 miles closer to the Jap life-line in the South China Sea, and to free the fifth largest Filipino island.

        Bay shores were reported undefended, but Rear-Admiral Fechteler took no chances. After two days' XIII Air Force sorties, Rear-Admiral Riggs' light cruisers Denver, Cleveland, Montpelier, and four destroyers salvoed for 15 minutes. (Jap sources reported that we had two battleships and an escort carrier!) By 0845, 186 Infantry was landing at the end of the peninsula east of Puerto Princesa Bay. General Eichelberger watched from a B-17 overhead.

        Although LVTs of 532 Amphibious Engineers had trouble hitting assigned beaches, we fought no Japs. Beaching farthest east on the peninsula, 1st Battalion rapidly advanced eight miles north across the Air Strips and dug in on Irahuan Road on the northwest side of the Bay. Detached C Company hiked east to Canigaran Beach and took three deserted 20mm guns before I Company from 3rd Battalion floating reserve relieved us. Other 3rd Battalion companies blocked roads to the north.

        Since battered Puerto Princesa City was clear of Japs, 2ndBattalion (less G Company and some "H" weapons men in reserve) boarded LCMs at 1600 and crossed the Bay. We hiked two miles through rice paddies to Iwahig. Next day at 1200, we contacted 1st Battalion at Irahuan School.

            There was still no fight; the Puerto Princesa plain was secure.  But where were the Japs, and how many were there?

        Of the estimated 2735 Japs in the Palawan area, 1800 had garrisoned Puerto Princesa. The others outposted on nearby islands to guard their small ships enroute to Luzon. Except for occasional patrols and raids to harvest rice, they left the interior to our guerillas who kept some law and order there.

        Hard core of Puerto Princesa garrison was Commanding Officer Obayashi's 4 Company. 174 Independent Infantry Battalion less a platoon. Other outfits were 131 Airfield Battalion, 1st Independent Maintenance Unit. Commanding Officer Tominaga's 3 Company of 174 Battalion. was divided into platoons on outlying islands and never fought at Puerto Princesa at all.

        Yet without air cover and field artillery, the three Puerto Princesa units fought well - slew ten 186 men and a 167 Field Artillery man, and wounded some 35. (We also lost a K 186 man who drowned.)

        On 2 March 1945, 1st Lieutenant. Reeves' E Company patrol fought our first Japs -- on Hill 1125 north of Irahuan. A booby-trap exploded too soon to kill Sergeant Holston on the point of a patrol. When two Japs charged him from a gulley with bayonets, Holston killed the first with an M-1 clip, the second with a six-shooter.

        To find limits of the Jap position, Reeves tried to circle the hill back towards the coast. Suddenly a Jap machine gun and rifles shot up the lead squad, killing two and wounding four, Reeves included. While our wounded lay exposed, 50-75 Japs fired down on us. We expected a charge.

        Staff Sergeant Tyrell of 167 Field Artillery radioed for gunfire, but gunners could not find our position on the poor maps available. Then Lieutenant Colonel Beach's Piper Cub flew near enough to catch the sun on a mirror which some bright "E" man flashed up at him.

            Then Beach ranged in 105s on the Japs. "E" fought to save our wounded. While Sergeant. Singer's picked riflemen hit the Japs' right flank, Matey, Watkins, Sergeant Musch, Shonyo, and another saved the wounded. Shonyo dragged out Reeves, but later took a gouge in the back from a 167 Field Artillery fragment.

        Reeves lost 2/3 of his knee-cap, but later could walk with only a little stiffness. Shonyo had a "pork chop" sliced from his back. A bullet holed through Huber on the left side. A fragment hit Vezane on the wrist. Watkins' type of wound is unknown. A neck wound killed Roy R. Sansbury. After his first wounding. Charles R. Maurer moved and drew more fire that killed him.

        The "E" Platoon withdrew two hills off from the Japs while 167 Field Artillery shelled them. At 1715, A Company relieved E's Platoon. A's William B. Moulton Jr. was probably killed then. D Company's Fersch took a slug in left bicep, and McKenzie another in the right knee.

        On 3 March, B Company tried to take Hill 1125 where "E" fought the day before. On our first attack at 0800, machine guns drove us to the' ground. After 167 Field Artillery's 1st Lieutenant Ehrlich adjusted fire from C Battery, "B" attacked a second time. But machine gun fire from a pillbox halted us. A third time, after C Battery neutralized that pillbox, "B" tried again and failed again. "B" lost Leon L. Kimberly killed, and 4 wounded: Kilgore, Rauktis, Staff Sergeant Sorensen, and Tech Sergeant Moskila.

        Only on the third day, 4 March, did B Company overrun Hill 1125 after field artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire. Using a flame-thrower, "B" took the pillbox by 1440. Our C 167 Battery had made a hit on it, and other shells had exploded nearby. B's Hiller was wounded. By 1600, Hill 1125 was ours. To help 1st Battalion "C" had fired 341 rounds in three concentrations on these die-hard Nips.

        While "B" fought bloodily on 2-5 March, E Company began another action against the Nips on 3 March, and fought until 5 March. Near Iratag at 1430, E's advanced platoon occupied a position which the Nips had just left. In a shack, food was still warm; cigarette butts smoldered. When the other "E" men reinforced us after 1600, Jap fire hit several men. Perhaps at this time, Pvt. David W. Harrington was killed, and 4 others wounded: Nemyo in the calf, Sergeant Mueller in the thigh, Creed in the chest, and Sliski in an unknown place. Creed survived his chest wound, after an operation. Jap fire was intermittent on "E" that night.

        But next day, 4 March, "E" seized the Jap position without fighting, found a machine gun, a truck and 13 dead Japs. On 0945, however, when we tried to occupy Firm Hill on our right front, Japs resisted strongly. After Cannon Company shells, we tried again, but a machine gun and other automatic weapons halted us. Cannon fired again; we attacked at once but failed again. Tech Sergeant Frank Hopkins died there - a man said to have been commissioned Lieutenant the day he died.

        Patrolling three miles behind Hill 1125, L Company had three unfortunate casualties. At 0400 5 March, two men were wounded accidentally, and that morning, 1st Battalion unintentionally shot another "L" man. Landry and Staff Sergeants Lager and Letendre were wounded, although exact time and place of each man's wound are unknown.

 

        "E" found Japs' resistance still so fierce that on 5 March, 167's B and C Batteries plus Cannon Company and mortarmen staged a barrage together. Adjusted on target at 0715, we crashed down surprise. fire at 0830. By 1145, "E" secured Firm Hill, with no losses. Firm Hill had been Jap headquarters for a large group, with motor park, food dump, and hospital.

 

 

        On that 5 March also, G Company replaced "E" and began battle for Hill 1445; the last great stronghold on Palawan. Only 8 miles north of Puerto Princesa, Hill 1445 was a tall, blind jungle hogback under giant trees where Jap pillboxes were invisible. At once, a "G" patrol scouted up a spur of Hill 1445 through dense rainforest. From a steep slope, machine gun hail drove us to cover - perhaps from some 20mm shells also. BARs and rifles sprayed the jungle but could not kill the guns. Our 167 Field Artillery silenced this fire.

 

        Probing on 6 March, we met that fire again. Rifles were useless against those two unseen machine guns. Wounded were Schultz, Hubbard, 2nd Lieutenant Melton. Unable to pinpoint the guns, 167 Field Artillery blasted the trees overhead with delayed fuse.

 

        With no regular forward observer nearby, Captain Frank M. O'Laughlin Jr., the 167 liaison officer, volunteered to help G Company. Creeping to within 30 yards of the strongpoint, O'Laughlin died in 43 minutes, a rifle bullet in his chest. G Company's Staff Sergeant Davis thought that the same bullet wounded his foot. Radioman Gower observed for 167 Field Artillery until Master Sergeant Weinberg replaced him, and then 2nd Lieutenant Bain. But Field Artillery could not find the pillboxes.

 

 

        At 1850, 167 ceased shellfire, but "G" failed in another attack. Robert Garoutte was killed and unrecovered. Hubbard had a bullet in his shoulder; Schultz was wounded, McCurly injured in action.  

 

        Withdrawing 150 yards into a hasty perimeter, we guarded the narrow downhill trail with a light machine gun flanked by two foxholes for riflemen. Japs fired down on us that night, and charged with daylight at 0415. Our light machine gun slew four Nips and broke the charge. Two other Japs killed themselves behind a large tree./

 

        On 7 March, despite field artillery smoke markings, P·38s with 1,000·lb bombs totally missed Hill 1445. After field artillery and mortar shells, 1st Lieutenant Andrew Kossl's 1st Platoon attacked. Machine gun fire killed  Kossl; his dying body rolled behind a tree and took a final burst after death. A bullet pierced Engbourg's lung. Ed James, Wallace, Drinkard, Mansfield, Rod Murphy were all wounded from "G"; H's Daily was probably wounded in this action also.

 

        Despite our bloody repulse, 2nd Lieutenant Harbig's platoon brought good news. Harbig found a trail on G's left flank that Sergeant Bennet's squad with Scout McQuaid leading, had traced to the crest of Hill 1445. Setting up a trail-block for the night, Harbig got a light machine gun section for security - and Captain Fulmer's order to fight up that trail on 8 March.

 

        On 8 March, 167's C Battery precisely adjusted each gun. After removing a few trees with quick fuse, the guns covered the forest with delayed fuse. At 1,000 yards, two guns of 186's Cannon Company fired directly into the hogback .

.!.           As Harbig lifted field artillery fire, his killer platoon stormed the hogback. Sergeants Smith and Atchinson's squad charged over the crest into the Nip foxholes. Scout Kirby's Tommy slew a Jap on the trail. The squad fired into Nip foxholes, heaped dead around a Jap machine gun that never got off a burst. Horn was G's only wounded that day. We saw just eight Jap dead, but "E" and "F" patrols found clues of Jap wounded, walking or being carried.

        The small battle of Palawan had ended, but hunting down the other 1900 Japs on the mainland and offshore islands never ended. Although Palawan is the fifth largest Filipino island (4550 square miles), it was still frontier country in 1945 with only 10 people per square mile on the mainland. Although 275 miles long and only 25 miles wide, it has a mountain core averaging 15 miles across. The mountain core is a labyrinth of rain forested wilderness where Japs were elusive.

            But we can account for almost all other Jap infantry that did not fight near Puerto Princesa. Their duties had been as guards and port details for small Jap ships that no longer came. On 8 April, F Company with two Cannon Company guns and "H" weapons landed to clear Busuanga Island just north of Palawan. Here were rich island has grasslands for cattle, and manganese mines. Near San Jose, an "F" patrol fought some 30 Japs (probably 4 Company 174 Battalion with some Navy men) and killed seven and routed the rest. Other Japs panicked into the hills. On 7 April we left Busuanga to Filipino Captain Amores of Palawan Special Defense Force. Over 100 more Japs still remained to be hunted down.

        Our PT boats discovered a platoon of 3 Company 174 Battalion on Pandanan Island just south of Palawan and silenced its return fire. After we secured nearby Balabac Island for guerillas on 16 April, a "G" rifle platoon and weapons men landed safely on Pandanan on 22 April, and found nobody. Jap sources say that their platoon was wiped out before "G" landed.

       

         When orders had come for Jap Headquarters Platoon and 2nd Platoon to concentrate with other outfits for battle at Puerto Princesa, they were stationed far north in Palawan. Embarking in a sailboat and bancas (native canoes) towed by a 10-ton motor vessel, they could travel only at night, and hide by daylight. Seeing our Navy blasting Puerto Princesa 28 February, they landed safely up the coast, and tried to reach battle by slogging through the mountains. When rations ran out, they stopped to forage, and heard of their Jap defeat at Puerto Princesa from refugees of 4 Company. From time to time, they fought Filipinos - often had to disperse and reassemble in the mountains. Many died in action - or from malaria or starvation. Fighting became impossible; only 22 men of 3 Company were known to have survived.

        Our 186 Infantry lost just three more. Herman James of 1st Battalion was shot on 15 March. I Company's Gilbert was wounded 18 March, probably somewhere on southwest Palawan where mountains come close to the sea. On 19 March, K's Samuel Campbell was trapped by a wave when he had to walk between two seaside boulders. The wave dragged him into the sea. Other waves hurled him against cliffs and killed him. Chaplain Trayler emplaned to the beach and conducted Campbell's funeral.

    

            All important action for Palawan ended, however, back on 8 March, most 186 men were not needed. Major Pablo Myco's Filipinos of Palawan Special Battalion, 1,000-odd strong, had begun fighting the Japs. So by 18 March, all 186 men but 2nd Battalion and Cannon Company had left Palawan to reinforce the Division at Zamboanga.

        Of 2735 Palawan Japs, there were 502 known dead by 30 April, and 8 prisoners. Of 186's total of 11 dead and 35 wounded, "E" and "G" lost the most. "E" had four killed, nine wounded; G had three killed, 12 wounded. "B" was third with two killed, four wounded. Thus, three companies had 34 of our 45 Palawan casualties.

  

        From Puerto Princesa strips, our Air Force now slashed at Jap lines of communication from the East Indies, and supported Army operation on Borneo. Our 186 Infantry had done well in taking Palawan.  

 

Credit: Main sources for this new Palawan story are untitled 186 Infantry Journal (21 February - 8 March 1945), "History of 167 Field Artillery during Palawan (V-3) Operation", "Report of Commanding General, Eighth Army on Palawan and Zamboanga Operations, "Samuel Eliot Morrison's The Liberation of the Philippines, RR Smith's Triumph in the Philippines, 186's "Battle Casualties 27 February to 27  1945," and 186's  Morning Report.  Extremely useful were Probationary Medical Officer Tosimichi Urata's "Action of 3 Company (Tominaga Company) of 175 Battalion", letter of Chaplain (now Lieutenant Colonel) Frank Trayler (12 Oct 1978) and "Guerilla Organization and Radio Communications" (27 November 1944).  Dwight Shonyo wrote of E 186's first fight on Palawan (Jungleer, February 1962), Roy Bennett wrote of "G" 186 on Hill 1445 (Jungleer, June 1972).