125 Infantry Regiment (Moro): The Sulu Guerilla Story, Part I

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

              This is the proud story of the Sulu guerillas who helped 163 Infantry to free their islands from the Japs. After the Japs conquered the Philippines, many refused to surrender. Mostly Moros, they became 126 Infantry of 1477 men commanded by the noble Colonel Alejandro Suarez. In early 1945, they had fixed the Japs where 163 could fight them - on Bongao Isle and Jolo.

"Guerilla" is actually Spanish for "a little war." The Sulu "guerilla" began perhaps when 1st Lieutenant Trespeces of the Philippine Constabulary disdained to surrender on Bongao, a little isle near Borneo. (We now know that Trespeces commanded the Constables' 8 Company, whom Suarez had ordered not to surrender.) Since food was scarce on Bongao, Trespeces moved across the narrow channel to larger Tawi Tawi Island. Here food was plentiful, in some 250 square miles of wilderness for maneuvering.

A second "guerilla" grew on Siasi Island, 27 miles southwest of Jolo Island. Captain Charles Morgan, a fierce Mindanao guerilla, sent a Jolo Moro, Lieutenant Imao and some 20 others to fight in Siasi. Imao’s men were the "Fighting 21" who attacked the Jap Siasi garrison on 25 December 1942 and captured 30 badly needed rifles from them. (One informant credits the "21" with liberating Siasi completely, but Japs still held Siasi Town in late 1944.) Early in 1943, the Japs attacked these Siasi guerillas but failed to destroy them.

Thus began the Suluans' revolt, but they needed a supreme Commanding Officer to get supplies and apportion them. They needed a supreme Commanding Officer to mediate disputes among officers and Moro tribal chiefs. Colonel Wendell Fertig, Commanding Officer of 10 Military District in the southern Philippines, sent Colonel Suarez to command the Suluans.

            Colonel Wendell Fertig wrote a book after the war called “They Fought Alone” describing his roll and Alejandro Suarez and others as Guerrillas in the Southern Philippines after Japanese occupation.

Right Commanding Officer for the Suluans was Colonel Alejandro Suarez. Son of a Spanish father and a Tiruray mother (from a non-Moro Mindanao tribe), Suarez had been a Moro officer of the Philippine Constabulary. Serving most of 27 years mainly in Mindanao and the Sulus, he became Governor of Sulu Province in 1941.

When Jap General Sakaguchi's Jolo Force landed on 24 December 1941 at Taglibi Beach, only opposition was Suarez' 300 Constables. Suarez was wounded, the Constables routed, and Jolo City captured on Christmas Day, 1941.

            Escaping to Mindanao, Suarez served under US Brigadier Fort, but surrendered with him in early 1942. The Japs made Suarez Commanding Officer of the puppet Cotabato Constables. But he escaped to Tawi Tawi in January 1943. Almost solid jungle, Tawi Tawi in the far western Sulus is second in size only to Jolo, but with only 2-3,000 people in 1942, with maybe 35,000 on offshore islands.

Here Suarez found Lieutenant Trespeces with still 30 men against the Japs. Headquarters was in jungle near Malum Rives in southwest Tawi Tawi. If too many Japs attacked, he had a jungle-like New Guinea for escape. Tawi Tawi was almost roadless - some 8 miles wide and 32 miles long, with the Sibankat Massif (up to 1800 feet) on the south shore.

            Suarez organized his 125 Infantry Regiment on three important Sulu islands. His 3rd Battalion on Tawi Tawi was then largest with 350 men. His 2nd Battalion on Siasi and 1st Battalion on Jolo were both 200 strong. With a basic all free civil government, he printed currency and organized distribution of supplies as they became available. With Suarez' protection, US Captain Hamner (Allied Intelligence Bureau) set up a radio station to monitor Japs' ship movements.

The Japs reacted slowly because they needed troops in less remote areas. On 8 February 1943, only Japs in the Sulus were 150 men whom 125 Infantry penned in Jolo City. But in August 1943, the reinforced Japs dispersed our Jolo Battalion. In September, they defeated our Siasi Battalion and on 17 September beheaded seven of their prisoners, members of the original "Fighting 21." Then Tawi Tawi's men endured Jap pressure that required months for recovery.

But by 20 January 1944, Suarez' command was secure enough for him to radio General MacArthur to ship in arms, ammo, medicine, clothing. He also wanted money - Filipino, Dutch, or Indonesian, to buy food and spies' information. Suarez' capable radioman, Filipino-American Frank Young, requested radio parts and a storage battery. Young began daily reports of Jap ship moves at Bongao and Sanga Sanga Isles.

MacArthur planned to ship 25 tons of supplies to Suarez by submarine - probably Narwhal. He asked Suarez to name a secure site to land - with a clear, deepwater approach and shelter from seasonal winds. It must be remote from Jap observance. To mark the site, Suarez must display a large white disc about two meters wide atop a three-meter pole. When Narwhal surfaced at sundown, only one small shore craft must come for final landing arrangements.

Suarez chose the south coast of Mantabuan for the landing - an islet south of mid-Tawi Tawi. Between Mantabuan and Tawi Tawi were six miles of shallows mixed with drying reefs and boulders - great for shallow draft boats to escape if necessary.

On 9 March, Narwhal surfaced, probably at darkfall, and took on some 32 persons evacuating. Perhaps six small craft hurried the unloading. But two Jap patrol planes saw Narwhal and attacked. They surely used flares to light up the sub. Narwhal dived with some cases of supplies still on deck.

The two Jap planes failed to hit the six craft, but some supplies were hidden or buried on the beach. Suarez finally received 288 carbines, 10 BARs, 10 tommie guns, four cases of grenades, much ammo - also medicines, clothing, three cigarette cartons, a case of garden seeds.

 Important were two more radios for coast watcher stations on those strategic passes into the South China Sea. Luckily, no Japs searched the beach for the buried radios.

Thus on 1 April 1944, Suarez men seemed well equipped, despite the ration problem. Suarez sent a Company to Suka Bulan (perhaps Buailin Creek Inlet) near the northeast Tawi Tawi coast where the Moros were surely pro-American. We could raise food there, safe from Jap naval guns and a day's hike from Jap infantry. Small boats could land only at high tide; we could defeat any Jap patrol up to 200 men.

But our security was only short-lived. For by 16 May, the main Jap battle-fleet had anchored in the spacious deep-water harbor of 50 square miles southwest of Tawi Tawi - carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and tankers. They were handy to Borneo oil-wells and safe from Allied land-based planes. They guarded the main Jap oil route north through Macassar Strait to Manila and Tokyo. They could strike the Americans in New Guinea, or defend the Philippines or the Central Pacific. An air-strip was building on Sanga Sanga Isle for training their green carrier pilots, but the Japs needed protection from Sulu spies or saboteurs.

Before the Jap fleet arrived on 16 May, the Japs tried to liquidate the guerilla menace. On 12 April 1944 at daybreak, three Jap ships and four seaplanes blasted Suarez' headquarters near Bato Bato in southeast Tawi Tawi. Guided by pro-Jap Moros, 675 soldiers from Borneo beached with light tanks and drove us into the jungle. We struck back with our new "submarine issue" carbines - filled three Jap trucks with casualties. On 25 April, we raided Kilometer 3 north of Bato Bato and slew 20. Another fight wiped out Jap advance guards.

But for three months, the Japs gave Suarez a hard time. They garrisoned Bato Bato with 800 men. They set up menacing jungle outposts. Huge patrols searched that tangle of vines and trees. For security, radioman Young took his team to the highest peak of Sukabudan Mountain. Young was indeed experienced in evading Japs. Originally a guerilla in central Luzon, he had carried messages to Australia through the Visayas and Zamboanga. He returned to serve under Suarez.

Jap patrols with Moro traitors hunted Suarez. A wave of 12 Jap planes flew over the opaque jungle in a daily search for him and other guerilla radiomen.

Yet while hiding on 26 May, Young got off his most important war message. Lurking on the edge of the anchorage, US submarine Bonefish could not observe the number of ships in the closely protected harbor. But Young reported almost exactly the right number: six carriers, 10 battleships, and 40 other fighting ships. This message guided our Navy to concentrate for our victorious Battle of the Philippine Sea.

The Japs' Tawi Tawi expedition separated Young from Suarez some months. By 27 May, guerilla officers on Mindoro and Mindanao reported that our 125 Infantry was temporarily disbanded, with its supplies buried. Rumor was that both Suarez and Young had fled Tawi Tawi. Young's messages were indeed few in those months - but partly because MacArthur ordered radio silence but for important ship movements. Not until 12 July did Young radio that Suarez with 80 men was rumored at "Maranino" (perhaps Maraning Bay) on the Tawi Tawi north coast. Starting evidently with the Jap landing at Bato Batok we claimed killing 300 Japs, and but few losses of our men.

After the Jap battle fleet left Tawi Tawi for defeat in the Philippine Sea Battle, pressure relaxed for a time on the Tawi Tawi guerillas. On 1 August, Japs halted work on Sanga Sanga Strip - planted food crops on it instead. At sea, we Suluans became adept at finding and disarming Jap mines. We removed their charges and used them for our own demolitions.

We now had more coast-watcher stations - on 4 August, a radio at Tongehatan Point near the northeast coast. We later set up a local radio station to cover the strategically important Sibutu Passage, route of tankers from Borneo to Japan. When 20,000 Jap infantry staged in Sulu to reinforce their divisions already fighting the Battle of Leyte, we informed Navy and Air Force to bomb them.

By 20 October, some 3,000 Japs had arrived in Bato Bato from Borneo, but US planes destroyed their supply dumps. Under cover of night, some Japs were ferried to Bongao Isle's better protected food supplies. Some Japs dispersed in small groups to forage in Tawi Tawi. They were easy to ambush and slay. In all November, we killed 200 Japs but had only two of our own dead. Our carbine ammo was almost exhausted, but a sub would bring us more. (By January 1945, the Japs were in a situation like ours. Because of our Air Force raids, they had to import supplies by submarine.)

While Suarez' 3rd Battalion was winning on Tawi Tawi, his Moros on Siasi Island 23 miles northeast were winning also. From the deep forest of northeast Siasi, Lieutenant Imao and 100 men struck the old Spanish fort in Siasi Town on the west coast, and drove out 300 Japs on 28 December. But on Lapac Island, just 100 yards across the channel from Siasi, Japs with Moro traitors regrouped and took back Siasi Town. With Jolo Jap reinforcements, they strongly held Luuk Maulana on Lapac Island also, with machine guns, mortars, and rocket launchers. At Luuk Maulana, a swamp before their positions kept us from basing our mortars close enough to blast them. On 25 January, six US bombers hit Luuk Maulana and Siasi Town, but not until 15 March could we wholly free Lapac and Siasi Islands. Surely some of the original "Fighting 21" were with Lieutenant Imao in their triumphal reconquest.

Back on Tawi Tawi on 1 January 1945, a sub brought us 21 tons of supplies and equipment. For three months more, the Japs still fought, despite the danger from Zamboanga after the 41st landed on 10 March. Japs struck little Banaran Isle south of Bato Bato and looted and burned. East of Bato Bato, they overran Camp Parangan, but we penned them on Balimbing Mountain until they withdrew. Using two launches and two barges from Bongao, for liaison, they tried to keep detachments on the islands flanking Sibutu Passage. We forced them off Sibutu Island. When we held Manuk Manunka Isle, two bargeloads attacked us. Luckily, Allied planes arrived and sank both barges. The Japs lost heavily; we had two killed, 10 wounded. That night, the two Bongao launches rescued their survivors. Then on 17 February, four Jap ships evacuated some 2500 Japs from the area – the 25 Independent Mixed Regiment. Entire Jap force in the Tawi Tawi area was now down to 250 Marines of 33 Naval Guard with a few light artillery pieces for 2nd Battalion 163 Infantry with 146 Field Artillery to drive into the sterile hills of Bongao.

This is part of the surface story of the Sulu guerillas, mostly Moros, the 125 Infantry Regiment of Colonel Suarez. Unrecorded are most of the horrors of any guerilla warfare: looting and burning, cold-blooded torture and murder and rape of innocent women and children. Unrecorded also is the vicious struggle against the Moros deluded to ally with the Japs.

But the Sulu guerillas still had to fight the 3500-man Jap garrison of Jolo. Already, five months before, on 5 November 1944, Colonel Suarez with 76 veterans embarked in four native vessels to lead the guerillas of Jolo to make the landing of 163 Infantry much easier for us in April, 1945. By 31 December 1945, 3rd Battalion 125 Infantry had 465 guerillas under orders of their great leader, Colonel Alejandro Suarez. Months before our US landing, the real Battle of Jolo had begun. 

 

CREDIT: Core of this history is 360 pages of Colonel Alejandro Suarez' messages to General Douglas MacArthur sent by Lieutenant Frank M. Young. Highly useful were letters of Mrs. Rose Marie Adjawie (Public Relations Officer of the Mayor of Jolo) of 20 August and 25 October 1976, with U.S. Army Recognition of Philippines Guerillas, and Major General Charles Willoughby's Guerilla Resistance Movement in the Philippines: 1941-1945. Other details came from Louis Morton's Fall of the Philippines, Reports of General MacArthur: Japanese Operations in the Southwest Pacific, and Samuel Eliot Morison's New Guinea and the Mariannas. Story was still impossible without guidance among the Sulu islands by Allied Geographical Section's Terrain Study No. 102. The Sulu Archipelago/Philippine Section, generously lent by Mr. Edward Boone, Jr., Administrator of MacArthur Memorial of Norfolk, Virginia.