146 Field Artillery and 2nd Battalion 163 Infantry Regiment: Bongao and Sanga Sanga Islands

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian and 146 Field Artillery's Captain Robert Allen

 

            At 0800 31 March 1945, Battery B 146 Field Artillery and 2nd Battalion 163 Infantry with attachments sailed from Zamboanga City to seize Sanga Sanga Island Strip and Bongao Island that guarded the Strip. Some 200 miles southwest of Zambo City at the west end of the Sulu Archipelago, these islands held an estimated 500-man Jap garrison who might reinforce Jolo, where 163 would soon attack. Capturing these islands would cut off a night escape route by small craft from Jolo into Borneo. To assist the coming Aussie invasion of oil-rich Borneo, Sanga's all-weather coral strip was needed by our 13 Air Force.

            Our Sulu White Task Force made an imposing small convoy. Destroyers Phillip and Waller and at least four LCls protected us from suicidal attacks by small launches. Overhead was cover from Marine Detachment A, 419 Night-Fighter Squadron; we might expect frequent sneak-plane attacks. We also carried a platoon of Battery C 202 Ack Ack, a 116 Combat Engineer PIatoon, B Company 658 Amphibious Tractor Battalion, some 116 Battalion Medics, and 12 Portable Station Hospital. We took A Company 873 Aviation Engineer Battalion to work on the Strip.  At 0600 2 April, we sighted our beach, in Sanga Sanga Bay.

            Less than a year ago, in June 1944, an enormous Nippo Combined Fleet had assembled at the great deepwater anchorage south of nearby Tawi Tawi with plans to wipe out our Division on Biak. Nakajima sea-planes had based near Bongao. Sanga Strip had teemed with planes. But the Jap fleet and Air Force had broken themselves in battle for Leyte and Luzon. Now the sea was bare of any ships but ours. For 10 days before our landing, Marine and Army planes had pounded the beaches with 500-lb bombs and strafing. PT boats had shot up coastal targets.

            Thus we drew no Jap fire on 1 April. Destroyers' guns were silent. Our four support LCls - two mortar craft, two rocket craft - held fire. We feared to endanger Filipino guerillas already holding Sanga Sanga. In three years' valiant struggle, they had laired in the wilderness of large Tawi Tawi Island just across channel from Sanga Sanga where our submarines had supplied them. Their observers had radioed submarines in to sink ships of the Japs' Combined Fleet. From Tawi Tawi had fared guerilla supplies and men to build up the harassed freedom fighters of Jolo.

            Rough seas and the reef delayed our Amtracks' landing for 40 minutes. About 0930, F Company beached with a section each of H Company's mortars and heavy machine guns. Forming a line 1,000 yards inland north of the Strip, "F" tied in with E Company and another "H" heavy machine gun section protecting our right flank

            Guerillas happily guided our 2nd Battalion staff from the beach to Filipino-Spanish Colonel Suarez' headquarters near the Strip. The son of a Spanish father and a Tiruray mother, this fine Moro Colonel was somewhat taller and lighter in color than other Filipinos. He said that a Jap force of 100-175 had fled from Sanga Sanga cross the narrow channel to Bongao Island, that rocky little chunk of low mountains. Instead of 500 Jap Marines, the garrison was probably 300. Already our striking force of G and E Cos with an "H" heavy machine gun section was forming to take Bongao.

            Battery B 146 Field Artillery's guns were being landed. For freedom to maneuver offshore, they were lashed onto landing barges, one gun to a barge, with two field artillery men in charge. LSMs had towed them through the Sulu Sea. These barges now cast off from their LSMs and hit the reef before the beach.

            Tractors easily dragged the guns across calm water 3-4 feet deep between reef and land. Then a mud-hole bogged them down. A DC-4 bulldozer had to heave tractor-teams up the slope. Not until 0930 were 146's guns ready to fire. Bongao Island is small and roughly oblong, some 4,500 miles east-west by 3,000 yards north-south-some four square miles.

            A narrow spit some 800 yards long curves from its northeast corner. North coast was then rice paddies and some fields. Southern two-thirds is cliffs and dense jungle rising to Bongao Peak (1030 ft) on the southwest, and Kabogan Peak (706 ft) on the southeast. Connected by a low saddle, these jungled peaks made a formidable wilderness. Six years ago, island population had been only 975.

            A March Air Force recon had noted 3 AA positions on high ground near the spit beside Bongao Town and three more AAs and three 37 mms in the southern mountains. We never accounted for all of those guns.

            About 1300, under strength G, E, and H Company men deployed on Sanga Sanga for the 500-yard Amphtrack dash across channel to Bongao Island. We chose to hit a probably undefended area 1,000 yards east of Bongao Channel's western exit. Across the channel, we saw rugged Bongao Peak and dark jungle below.

            After Marine air strikes at suspected AA positions above Bongao town and on Bongao Peak, the Navy barraged our landing site. While our Amphtracks' guns raked the foreshore, G Company was borne across Bongao Channel at 1330, with no casualties.

            Then "G" guarded E's and H's crossings. G Company cut the east-west trail to the south and patrolled the overgrown trail to Pahut Village on Sibutu Passage, but found no Japs, Scouting 100 yards south, "E" saw five Japs, killed one. All outfits dug night perimeters at a four-trail crossing. At 1630, a few Jap mortar shells impacted harmlessly.

            Back on Sanga Sanga meanwhile, ineffective Jap 20mm fire struck from the Bongao spit at 146 Field Artillery's pilot Lieutenant Parks with driver and mechanic assembling a Piper Cub. Some 20mm fire hit our unloading ships but without casualties. By 1500, Parks was flying above Bongao to guard our infantry until night.

            About 2130 that night, "G" men in holes saw seven Japs come at us down the trail from Bongao Town, probably trying to escape into the mountains. We killed all seven. We found new rifles with them, plenty of ammo, and a radio in good condition.

            Next morning, "G" and "E" patrolled from their cross-trails perimeter. East towards Bongao Point, "G" found Jap food and medicines scattered all along the trail. We checked deserted trucks, empty mess-halls and barracks, undefended cement pillboxes. At the edge of Bongao Town, a silent 40mm gun was in position.

            Scouting southwards, "E" drew fire from Kabogan Peak but worked around it and probably penetrated through the low pass between Kabogan and Mount Bongao, to the south shore. "E" then rounded the coast northeast to contact G's Bongao town patrol.

            The Japs struck as hard as they could, ambushed a field artillery wire-party coming from Sanga Sanga with its field artillery guides and infantry guards. Hidden Jap rifles caught us in an open flat, wounded Battery B's Dillard, Corporal Lisuzzo. Other casualties probably were H Company's: Zoumandakis, Sergeant Fralin and Alois Legleiter, who died of wounds on 3 April. While others hugged the earth, H's Corporal Cortez rose to give aid to one of these wounded and carry him to safety.

            Some die-hard Japs were still on Bongao Point. About 1530, a twin Jap 20 mm gun made light hits on two LCMs unloading supplies back on Sanga Sanga. Captain Wilkins, Lieutenant Parks emplaned, caught the gun still firing, killed it with a direct 105mm hit. With HE and time fuze, we silenced 2 more guns nearby. About 2100 that night, Lieutenant Simpson's gunners saw lights in the same position, put them out with time-fire. 

            We first had to find and kill two Jap 20 mm guns on Hill 101 north of the peak. To pinpoint the guns, field artillery men had to climb to the top of Hill 101 itself to sight the guns below. Lieutenant Simpson, Lieutenant Swanson, S/Sgt Remme, Corporal Westerman, a Marine observer scouted to the unguarded top of the hill.

            After setting up defenses, we marked the guns with our shells, then killed them with a 27-plane Marine air-strike. Then G Company with the observers overran the hill and 706-foot Kabogan Peak, but found only a wounded Jap, who escaped. G's two platoons wisely did not follow anyone of the many trails leading into deep ravines where the Japs were surely in ambush.           On 5 April, a Formosan prisoner led an E Company patrol and field artillery observers back up Mount Kabogan. He said that he knew where 300 Japs hid in a cave. Climbing the southeast slope first, we then crossed to the southwest slope. This Formosan - a civillian laborer - showed us a mountain rift with sheer cliffs on both sides. Japs guarded it at both ends. Fearing that the prisoner had led us into a trap, "G" withdrew and did not fight. Before 11340, E Company had caught seven Japs in the cliffs and killed four. E's Smard was wounded some time this 5 April.

            On 6 April, 163's Major Munkres and 146's pilot Park flew over Kabogan's northwest slope to adjust fire. At 0920, 100 H Company's 81 mm mortar shells and 142 shells of 146 Field Artillery impacted the area. Then 163's men moved up to the base of the northwest slope, but got no farther. Jap riflemen slipped back into the impact area and fired down on us. Our men were too valuable to waste.

            The Japs were now certainly at bay in the mountains, and all their 20mm or 40mm machine cannon out of action. We never found any of their alleged 37mm guns. The Japs seemed to have sufficient ammo and food, but they lacked enough water on little Bongao where there was just one small stream on the south shore. Guerillas could readily replace our ground troops, outpost the water-points and harass the Japs to extinction. By 1700 on 6 April, all our troops were gone to Sanga Sanga.

            But next day, 7 April, there were again small actions on Bongao. A seven-man souvenir-hunting party of engineers met an ambush. Perhaps two were wounded; but three or four others died. We do not know what outfit they belonged to - but probably not A 116.

            On 7 April also, a small "F" patrol from Sanga Sanga covered Pahut Village and Tampat Point on southwest Bongao. Three-fourths of the way up Mount Pajar (660 ft), we drew rifle-fire, and returned to Sanga Sanga. B 146 marked the area; Marine bombers hit Pajar with three out of eight Napalm bombs that they dropped in that area. "F" had killed 2 Japs somewhere on that patrol.

            Then most of the Sulu White Force embarked on 10 April to help our 163 in the Battle of Jolo. F Company remained to protect Marine Engineers expanding the Strip. Remained also 12 Portable Hospital, and a detachment of Amphibious Engineers for water transport.

            Bongao still had a tragic finale - found only in a terse entry dimly read on a microfilm Morning Report in Federal Archives. On Bongao on 15 April, an "F" patrol met an ambush under mortar, machine gun, and small arms fire. Killed were Pfcs John W. Ash, George O. Bloomquist, and Hugh Conner. F Company had to send a reinforced pIatoon to recover Conner's body at 1430. Seriously wounded were Girardo, Garner, Stites, Brady, Quattrocki.

            And what became of Bongao's Jap garrison, Marines of 33 Naval Guards, overestimated as 500 strong when Sulu White Force landed? Originally 4,400 had occupied Tawi Tawi on 1 May 1944 to secure this great Jap fleet base and war viciously with the guerillas of Colonel Suarez. After the Jap Combined Fleet departed, 3,700 went to Zambo to fight well against us, until we annihilated them. Some 300 died in their tenacious defense of Mount Daho on Jolo. The remainder held the Bongao area beside the larger 25 Independent Mixed Regiment, part of the Jap 37 Army of eastern Borneo. When 25 Regiment withdrew to Borneo, the Guards were left to die.

            Instead of 500, they were then only 250 strong - three groups, Infantry, Engineers, and Air Ground troops. Under harassment of guerillas and our planes, they were down to 200 by 26 April, with diminishing rations and critically short of water. Next day, they tried to escape in various hidden craft across 40 miles of Sibutu Passage into Borneo. Our planes and surface craft - presumably PT boats - killed all but 24 whom our naval-air personnel rescued. Only 16-17 arrived in Sandakan to continue military service.

            By 2 May, Marine Engineers had lengthened the 2,800-foot coral Strip on Sanga Sanga to 5,000 feet. Fighter planes of 13 Air Force based there for close support of Aussie landings in Borneo. By mid-May, Royal Aussie planes had replaced our American planes to continue supporting raids on Borneo.

            About 20 May, an LST brought back soldiers of 93 Infantry Division to relieve homesick F Company to rejoin 163 Infantry at Zambo. Most of us gladly said farewell to the sheer red cliff of Bongao above the harbor.

            And surely by the end of 1946, little Bongao Town was rebuilt and carrying on business as usual. The third port in the Sulus after Jolo and then Siasi ports, it had exported dried fish and railroad ties. It was another Moro town much like Taluksangay of Zambo City. From the little pier, a broad path led into the single street on piles above the water. Chinese shops lined both sides of the street. We are happy that we liberated Bongao Town.

            Such is the story of B 146 Field Artillery's and 2nd Battalion 163 Infantry's Sulu White Operation. It was a necessary task, to subdue still potentially dangerous men of 33 Naval Guards. A veteran combat team had carefully planned this action in order to conserve every available soldier for the infighting which we expected in attacking the Japanese Home Islands.

 

CREDIT: A Prime source was 6-page typescript entitled only "D-Day," attributed to Captain Robert Allen. Used also but often vague and sketchy were 2nd Battalion 163's "Narrative Report," with "Casualty List," and 5-page "Journal." I also cited 163 Regiment's April, 1945, Morning Report. Important data also were from Sulu White Task Force Field Order No.1, Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Hintz' "V-4 Sulu White/Sanga Island," and Award Stories of Ernest Cortez and Herman Stier. Background came from RR Smith's Triumph in the Philippines, Reports of General MacArthur/Japanese Operations in the South-West Pacific, and Terrain Study No. 102/Sulu Archipelago (from Allied Geographical Section, Southwest Pacific, Area 1). G 163's great Commanding Officer Buck Braman first suggested this story to me by his gifts of F.O. No.1, a map of Bongao Island, and an Air Command Sketch of Bongao.