54 Infantry Mixed Brigade: Japanese Death March At Zamboanga

by 2nd Lieutenant Rinnosuke Maya, Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 This is a Japanese officer's story of the Battle of Zamboanga, and his part in the death-march among the hungry Zambo Mountains. Actually belonging to 9 Air Brigade stationed on Okinawa, 2nd Lieutenant Rinnosuke Maya was flown down from Negros Island 7 March 1945, three days before our 41st landed, Presumably, he went as Air Liaison for air power to reinforce the Zambo garrison - or at least to raise Jap morale for expected reinforcements. With a 3-man detachment, he joined Headquarters of Lieutenant General Tokichi Rojo's 54 Independent Infantry Brigade.

On 8 March, Maya wrote that US planes were striking Zambo. Bombs fell on Recodo Seaplane Base seven miles west of Zambo. On 9 March, 50 B-24s bombed. At 1000 came a Naval barrage. At 1400, Maya heard that Japs had repulsed our landing craft at Recodo Beach - news totally untrue. At 1400 also, Maya's three men and he took up prepared positions behind General Rojo's Headquarters - near Zambo Reservoir.

On 11 March, the day after our landing, Maya heard that we had 120 tanks. Since we actually had just a Platoon of A 716 Tank Battalion, perhaps the Japs confused our tanks with vehicles of 658 Amphib Tractor Battalion. By 12 March, large US planes had stopped bombing, but B-25s and P-38s observed overhead.

On 12-13 May after our regiments had landed, Maya had great hopes of victory; he said that Jap assault groups were making frequent night raids - as on 12 March when Jap Engineers made a "determined assault." (But our Regiments' Journals record no Jap attacks at all.) On 13 March, he learned that 40 of our alleged 120 US tanks were already made ineffective, at a price of 250 Jap casualties. (Actually, on 12-13 March, our regiments had only begun pounding Hojo's main lines.)

On 14-15 March, Maya's little group had 'orders to observe our moves from Rill 385, probably near the Reservoir. With a clear view of our lines, they watched our Air Engineers extend runways on San Roque Strip, working brazenly all night under electric lights. "Tears of chagrin welled up in our eyes," wrote Maya, who would never fly another plane.

Relieved from observing on 15 March, Maya's small command with other service units dug trenches or moved supplies. During 16-29 March, the Jap situation worsened, Maya thought that our field artillery and mortars mainly caused Jap defeat; he marveled at our great supply of shells blasting down. On 22 March, Filipino guerillas began firing at short ranges on the Japs.

Observers flew overhead constantly to direct our field artillery. On 26 March, small "Grumman" planes - probably our Marine Air - struck downstream below Hojo's Headquarters. Beginning 0600 28 March, other planes flew special missions, circled low and sometimes killed engines in trying to hear movements below them. That afternoon, 15 Grummans savaged the area again down Tumago River from Hojo's Headquarters. Maya still hoped for Jap planes - of which almost none remained in the Philippines.

            Maya never really understood our battle tactics. He said that we tried to avoid bloodshed as much as possible. Before advancing, we used thorough air-strikes, then moved under field artillery cover. Likely, we would penetrate an area where no Japs had deployed. When our barrage ceased, we appeared in the most unexpected places.

But with a Jap counter-attack, we would "involuntarily" withdraw. Then we penetrated from a different direction. “All in all," Maya concluded, our methods were "unorthodox and lacking in sincerity," - "leisurely and totally lacking in offensive spirit." Maya believed in Jap traditions of reckless and costly gallantry.

            And now began the travail of a defeated army that refused to surrender. Late 3 March, General Hojo ordered its retreat. Of his original 8900 men, Hojo still had nearly 5,000 left - but a crippled land army minus planes and tanks and field artillery. His easiest escape route would have been up the east cost of Zambo Peninsula to the Mindanao mainland, but the Filipino 121 Infantry barred this route. He tried to withdraw to the west coast, through the starved and half-explored mountain jungles.

For Lieutenant Maya, those first retreating days were days of heavy labor. He now commanded large carrying parties. On 31 March, his men left for a new bivouac area at 0200, eight hours trek on hill trails into dawn, where guerillas fired on them many times.

His tired men got a rest all of 1 April, while other troops took guerilla fire at a nearby road-fork. A large guerilla force seemed to have many US soldiers with them. On 2 April, our field artillery shells dropped nearer and nearer to Maya. That night, all men took turns guarding against guerillas.

Maya's men continued carrying rations. He equalized each man's load over those rough, wet trails - still over 130 pounds per man. On 4 April, his men could carry only 1.25 miles with this load, and we don't know when these loads were lightened.

For a time on this retreat, some formations speeded up until close behind the Marine and Army advance units. Yet each unit had a large following of walking casualties impeding the trails.

            A Jap CIC man gave Maya hope for survival. In abort 20 days march, the CIC man said, they would reach country to live off. Only in the first 3-4 days of this 20-day march would they have to guard against guerillas; afterwards, no enemy could hamper them. At the coast, Filipino boats would carry them overseas to the Mindanao mainland. (We now believe that General Hojo's true objective was to seize the rich rice lands of Siocon, 40 miles north of Sibuko Bay on the east coast. They would never come to the Siocon rice paddies.)

            On 8 April, Maya's men left Tumaga River Valley, perhaps 18 miles north of Zambo Beach, and entered Mercedes Valley, near the Zambo Peninsula west coast. Maya had joined his men with 12 Naval personnel who had emplaned from Negros to Zambo with him. Most of the 13 days from 9 April through 22 April, they spent hiking, or sometimes foraging in native gardens. But they lost about six days waiting while the Army decided on its route. Dissension sprang up between Hojo's 54 Infantry Brigade and 33 Naval Guards (Marines). The Marines often reserved native gardens for themselves, and barred the Army from them. The Marines recklessly built shelters in exposed places, and brought our bombers down on everybody. Where possible, the two arms of the Service decided on separate routes.

By 22 April, Maya's men were near Malayal Village, some two miles from the Peninsula's west coast. Since their retreat order 22 days ago, they had slogged and carried over 40 tortured miles through the mountain heart of the southern Zambo Peninsula. Now they heard heavy rifle fire ahead. Evidently they had a momentary victory against coastal guerilla where no US troops would land for another month. And they had food: great amounts of newly dug potatoes, and some vegetables.

            While digging potatoes on 23 April, Maya's men saw a Piper Cub swoop down on them. Only 150 feet overhead, the pilot fired his pistol. Expecting bombing on that garden tomorrow, they fled at once. On 24 April while carrying many loads of potatoes, they saw 12 Grummans follow a Piper Cub's smoke bomb down to strafe and blast where they had dug before. Fear of the spying Cub made them cower for hours under trees. On 25 April, 12 more Grummans bombed that garden area. For safety from planes, they decided to march at night.

Leaving at 2000 in bright moonlight on fairly easy trails, they marched slowly because the Army column was too long. En route, some Japs endured frequent guerilla sniping. Passing probably Malayal Village and fording a stream eight times, they finally hid in jungle after 0630 and slept all morning. Rearing that some 10 landing barges were hitting Malayal Beach, they moved again. (On that 26 April, C Company 186 Infantry landed at Malayal, while 186's other 1st Battalion Companies beached on Sibuko Bay, 10 miles northward.) Maya wrote that recurrent malaria and starvation for rice added misery to his overtired body.

On 27 April-2 May, this deathly Jap march continued a few miles north each day, with rations fitfully gathered from the fields. For all of 28 April, they heard the unbroken roar of US planes. Yet Jap foragers had a great haul that day: bananas, potatoes - even pigs! On 3 May, foragers were not so lucky. Men of Hojo's adjutant section narrowly escaped from either guerillas or soldiers with mortars. At 1400, 1st Lieutenant Kawauchi and 16 men found quantities of rough rice and sweet potatoes, but several men died to get them.

Despite US-guerilla harassment on 4-22 May, the Japs half-starved death-march continued on the seaside jungle trails of the Zambo west coast. On 15 May, Jap Marines barred the Army from digging sweet potatoes in Filipino gardens.

After 3rd Battalion 186 Infantry landed farther up the coast on 19 May, the Japs had to follow harder inland trails. There was despair on 19 May. US troops fired on the column from front and rear, and slew a large number of the sick and wounded stragglers. That night, Maya pitied the men standing In the rain, wet to the skin and hungry. At dawn, 0630, they marched beneath rain that had begun at midnight. Noontime chills almost made Maya fall out, but he braced himself to trudge on soddenly.

            There were deserters already, of course - even nine men from the elite CIC unit, and Captain Gyomi with 10 men from 67 Air Regiment. Chances to get food and even survival might improve away from the slow, harried main columns. Rumors of new US landings were surely convincing men to desert. Looking down from mountains north of Sibuko Bay, the Jap Chief of Staff saw a great tent city erecting, trucks unloading munitions, and Piper Cubs rising from a new strip to hunt the Japs. On 21 May, our 1st Battalion 163 Infantry from Jolo was landing near Piakan, farther up the coast, to break up the Japs' organized march to the Siocon area.

Meeting 23 May, the Jap Commanding Officers decided to let their units disperse to try to save themselves. Maya decided to lead his small group all the way to the other side of Zambo Peninsula through 20 miles more of rainy jungle mountains to Vitali on the east coast. Attaching himself to Makamura Battalion (named probably for its Commanding Officer), Maya organized his little unit into teams of an officer with two men. Maya's own group was down to 10-12 men.  

It is not clear why Maya decided thus to turn east and labor half-starved and malarious across the middle of the Zamboanga Peninsula. Soine units of 54 Infantry Mixed Brigade were already on the east coast, he knew. Besides the obvious reason of escaping our forces now on the west coast, Maya gave only two other reasons. CIC's Sergeant Nishimura said that he knew a trail eastward. And, like Maya, Nakamura Battalion was determined to reach the west coast.

             On 24 May, our men halted the Nakamura advance guard - killed one, and wounded one. The Battalion had to take a trail around us. On 25 May, US troops fired at close range. Nakamura's men threw away all excess equipment to help save themselves.

            On 26 May, Nakamura Battalion with Maya's men marched about three miles east, but they were already lost among mountains. On 27, 28, and 29 May, they made only 11-13 miles. Mountain after mountain blocked their way. On 30 May, they rejoiced at a river flowing east, but it twisted west again on them. All day, P-3Ss flew above them.

On 31 May, with 50 men of the Battalion and eight of his own, Maya was in the advance guard. Frantically, they hacked their way over mountains and forded many rivers. When four P-38s seemed to be on a recon run over them, Maya guessed that they were scouting for Jap planes. These Japanese planes were his last hope that he would never realize.

Time was surely running out for Maya; the last entries of his diary were meager indeed. On "3-4 June," food was exhausted. On 5 June, they thought that they saw the east coast far away. They were extremely tired. The final words in Maya's Diary were: “Corporal Shomojo was unable to catch up with us. Felt lonely because of this."

On 12 June 1945, 61 Filipino Infantry men captured this Diary at Mialim, three miles northeast of Vitali on the east coast. We hope that Maya survived, but he must have died already. Long before his last entry, he had written that his saber was nicked from cutting trees for shelter; both his sword and pistol were rusty. He had never fired a shot at us.

On 3 March 1945, from the 8,900-man Zambo garrison, some 5,000 began retreating with General Hojo, By 15 August, about 1,100 were captured, although many of these were probably Koreans or Formosans. About 1,385 never surrendered until the war's end: Although 3,900 died in battle, their losses in the death-march must have been 2,525 men. We pity and honor the dead of 54 Independent Mixed Brigade and 33 Naval Guard, like 2nd Lieutenant Rinnosuke Maya.


CREDIT: Main source is 13-page, single spaced typescript of 2nd Lieutenant Rinnosuke Maya, 7 February-5 June 1945. Translated by 191 Language Detachment at 41st Division Headquarters, it was captured at Mialim, 3 miles Northeast of Vitali on the Zamboanga Peninsula east coast. For orientation, I used 186 Infantry's Journal, "Zamboanga Operation," and RR Smith's Triumph in the Philippines. Maya impresses me as a sensitive, cultured officer who  kept his emotions well under control, despite his predicament as a member of a starving defeated army.