5th Company 33rd Naval Guard(Japanese Marines): Against U.S. Tanks and Mountain Jungle

by Shinji Suzuki, Naval Paymaster Lieutenant. Senior Grade with Translator Makoto Ikeda and Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

During the first week of Zamboanga Battle, the Japanese Marine's veteran 5th Company, 33 Naval Guard, were entrenched in their strong point on a low rise of ground at Cabatangan. Cabatangan was about 25 miles inland, northeast of San Roque's doggedly held valley. This strongpoint anchored the right flank of 128 Air Defense Company's position in the Pasananca cockpit were US 163 Infantry Regiment and 146 Field Artillery fought them. Commanding Officer Suzuki named 5th Company's position "The Emperor's Shield." Against US air strikes, field artillery barrages and tanks, 5th Company's only weapons were rifles, light machine gun's, 20mm machine-cannon and sticky grenades.

On the day the tanks first attacked, heavy shellfire began in the morning and continued deep into the afternoon. Shelling never ceased. US planes precisely guided the shells.

Yet, deep in log-braced bunkers, Jap Marines actually slept in helmets, with rifles under their arms. Digging, carrying supplies, and turns on guard had tired them. Unbroken roar and explosions were soothing like waves on a beach. And while field artillery fired, US tanks dared not risk an attack.

When a shell hit close to Commanding Officer Suzuki, earth and sand grated on him. A hot wind blasted through his dug-out. He awoke, found that he had no casualties, and slept again.

About 1400 hours, silence did awake Suzuki. The sentry shouted, "Commander! Tanks! Tanks come!"

"Be ready for action," Suzuki ordered. Grasping his saber, he peered over the parapet. At 200 meters (about 180 yards), he saw the heavy monsters moving from concealment behind a fold of the earth.

Soon they halted, half hidden in bamboo undergrowth.

They did not fire; Suzuki's Marines had orders not to fire. In death-like silence, the tanks seemed to watch carefully the Marines. Then the tanks' cannon moved quietly from right to left to back again - for three minutes, four minutes, five minutes. Then with motors throbbing, the tanks heaved their whole bodies above the bamboo bushes and stopped short.

The lead tank's big gun turned its black muzzle toward 5th Company. Muzzle flashed red flame. Now all three tanks' guns roared; their machine guns opened up. They shrouded 5th Company's right pillbox.

Suzuki had a harrowing muzzle view of the salvos aimed to kill him and 5th Company, but most of the fire missed them. Tracer tracks seemed to pass 4-5 feet over 5th Company's heads. Guns were not sighted to fire on the trench on the rising slope. Only a few Japs would be wounded that day.

To help morale, Suzuki and Orderly Tanabe crawled up to talk to the 20mm gunner at the most forward curve of their convex position. Suddenly Suzuki realized that the lead tank aimed directly at him. Muzzle flamed dark red; he lowered his face. The shell dashed sand and earth on him. His cheek was hot, perhaps from a graze.

Tanks slowly closed in, were now only 110 yard off.

Casually, Suzuki crept to 1st Platoon's position, 150 yards to left rear. First-Warrant Officer Akana exposed half his body above the trench to hear Suzuki. A shell exploded a black pall above Akana. Suzuki feared that his casual words had ordered Akana to raise his head to his death.

But Akana's helmet lifted up. He waved his left hand, but held right to his face, as if lightly wounded. Suzuki motioned him to hide again.

By now the tanks had closed in to about 40 yards, in a slanting line. US BARmen crouched on top behind the lead tank turret. Seeming to fear a charge from the trench, they still fired and halted and advanced, in fear of a Jap charge.

In this 40 yards, Suzuki was about to order "Fire!"

But the tanks halted. Lead tank's turret opened slowly. For his first time in the war, Suzuki saw US faces - tank Infantry gathered on the ground beside the lead tank. One tankman dropped from turret to the ground - talked loudly to the Infantry.

For his first time, Suzuki heard the voices of the men he was fighting. He discerned sunburnt ruddy faces and disordered fair hair. A big tankman was throwing out empty shell casings, four or five at a time. Another tankman on his tank was drinking coffee.

Seeing coffee caused Suzuki to crave a cigarette. Still withholding firing orders, he crept back into a trench and smoked. His Marines gazed at him down the trench: riflemen, gunners of three 20mm guns, a flame-thrower man, others with sticky grenades to burn into openings in tank armor.

The unwary tank-infantry teams were advancing again. But instead of guarding the tanks from the ground, the infantry were riding. The teams seemed to think that no fighting men still lived in the trenches. Now they were just 10 yards away - a golden opportunity for blasted Japanese.

"Fire!" shouted Suzuki. His three 20mm cannon opened up - with light machine gun's, automatic rifles. All bullets hit tanks or men. Infantry scattered in disorder; tanks backed and turned and ran.

A Formosan "special volunteer," Okamoto laid down his sticky grenade to beg for a rifle. After a shot too high, in the next four rounds, he collapsed one American.          

But Suzuki heard no fire from his right pillbox. He found a trench almost caved in, 2-3 men flat on their faces. A shell had buried their light machine gun into sand. He exhorted those men to fire. About 110 yards away, he shot an American prone on a fleeing tank. Warrant Officer Inamori and his pillbox crew also began to fire.

Red tracers of 20mm shells sparkled on the turrets of all three tanks. About 150 yards off, Tank No.2 had halted evidently in mechanical trouble.

Suzuki wanted to destroy that tank. He ordered Tomito with his nikko to creep over the ground to strike that tank. (For 5th Company was tactically divided into 5-man fighting teams called Nikko.) They crawled to within 50 feet, and would have flamed the tank by a sticky grenade, but it suddenly fled.

Back in their trenches, 5th Company jubilated. Losses all day were just seven seriously wounded. First-Warrant Officer Akana was burned in the face. For their seven, they claimed 30 US wounded, but no American dead. The Marines' heroic fight well deserves a place in Japanese history.

For five days, Suzuki's 5th Company held the right flank of 128 Air Defense Company's Pasananca cockpit. Well had he named this Cabatangan strongpoint Mitate-Kochi, "the Emperor's Shield."

But 5th Company was down to 20 men – two of the three 20mm guns destroyed, Hakoneyama's pillbox pulverized, Petty Officer Tsurumi's party all slain. Americans were infiltrating from the direction of the almost neutralized Pasananca cockpit. US tank fire rumbled from 5th Company's right rear.

At dark fall, Suzuki went to headquarters to discuss a suicide attack tomorrow. Over shell battered ground, he first visited the tunnel of 5th Company's wounded. There he thought of the beloved picture in his chest pocket - of parents and brother and sister last seen three years ago. He refused to let an enemy hand touch this picture on his corpse.

He lighted a corner of the picture. The flame slowly turned those beloved faces to ashes. With no more regrets, he went to Marines' Vice Commanding Officer Sasaki to prepare for death in battle.

But Sasaki refused Suzuki's desire for a suicide charge. New orders were for all men to survive and hope to restore the Empire. All Marines began to retreat from near Zambo City into the northern rain-dripping jungle mountain wilderness. For over three months, they would slog and fight northward alongshore, then east across Zambo Peninsula, and drop their many dead from starvation, disease, or combat.

On 20-27 March, 5th Company fought rear guard actions north from the caved-in position at Cabatangan. Jap commanding officers tried to build a new strongpoint near Moroc. Suzuki's men seized and held Moroc heights until 54 Independent Mixed Brigade relieved them.

Near Tumaga River headwaters, 5th Company changed from rearguard to vanguard. By now, this two-man Company was reinforced to 300 Marines.

Fighting Suzuki was unequipped to lead the Guards into unknown mountains. Map was incomplete. "Compass" was a bar magnet suspended from a string to indicate north. Assets were hardworking, zealous scouts, and his own ability at quick, accurate decisions. He was terribly responsible for all the Marines.

On 30 March, 5th Company hiked north, then over two weeks curved west over mountains about 25 miles to the coast. On 17 April, through a rift in seaside mist, they saw a planted field. They routed a band of 100 probable guerillas and dug camotes - Filipino sweet potatoes. Suzuki felt full of energy again.

A nearby deserted village gave supplies for two weeks - both for 33 Naval Guards, and Independent Mixed Brigade.

Again marching north, they looked down to Sibuco Bay Strip. Morale was still high; they wanted to sabotage the Strip, but headquarters refused permission. Instead, orders came for 5th Company to lead north for the rice-lands of Siocon Bay - impossibly far.

Disease was now rampant notably malignant malaria that could kill with brain-fever. Tropical skin ulcers pained and crippled many. Horrible little leeches sucked their blood. Cripples had to fall by trailside and die.

At Anungan on 14-19 May, 5th Company fought their last great fight against Americans. They captured "delicious" US rations, enough to feed entire 33 Naval Guard for a month. But the entire Naval Guard failed to come to 5th Company.

US troops had closed in between 5th Company and the main body, and forced them to try a circuitous route through the starved mountains. Suzuki's men went in to rescue them - found them thinned down to half the strength of a few days back.

Moving still farther north on the coast to Siragauy, 5th Company fought off Americans landing from LCIs, and waited for their main body. Again, Suzuki's Marines had to rescue two of the remaining Company's from the jungle mountain maze. But Suzuki was deeply worried. The unit of his beloved Vice-Commanding Officer Sasaki was still missing. (Sasaki would die apart from him on 1 September.)

Orders came to give up the march for Siocon and the rice fields and turned inland. Diseased, thinning 5th Company left the heavily guarded west coast of Zambo Peninsula and limped east. In 5 days, they made 20 more hard mountain miles to near the east coast. At Tapilisan, they dug abundant food from the fields and had an actual 5 days' rest.

By 25 July, 5th Company had slogged north again and had dug in on Gariguan Heights. By October, Suzuki now hoped to march east off Zambo Peninsula and join the Jap army near Davao on the southern Mindanao. He did not know that those Jap divisions were already broken fragments in the mountains. On Gariguan Heights, so sick were his own men that only 20 at a time were available for duty.

But suddenly, 5th Company's war was over. On 28 September under roadside rain, a Fleet liaison officer told Suzuki that his Emperor had ordered a surrender of all Jap forces.

For six days, Suzuki agonized in the dilemma of any chivalrous Jap officer in World War II. His duty was to obey his Emperor and surrender. But an easier way for him would be to commit suicide and avoid the humiliation of surrender. He desired death without surrender, like Sasaki.

Finally, Suzuki had his solution. He would be a coward to die and leave his men by themselves to undergo that disgrace of laying down their arms.

Near Sanito, 60 miles north northwest of Zambo City, Lieutenant Suzuki had a gallant finale to his war. After a tearful speech before decimated 5th Company erect in ranks, he drew his saber and ordered, "Mark time! Right shoulder arms! Forward, march!" With measured tread, 5th Company marched proudly and straight before the ranks of the surprised Americans.

He took their chivalrous salute and returned their salute in the spirit of Japanese bushido - the way of the warrior. He himself ordered 5th Company to disarm. They were the surviving 109 of the 300 whose retreat from Tumaga River headwaters had started five months ago. What Americans could call Suzuki's "Appomattox" occurred on 9 October 1945. It was Japanese honor to surrender thus, and American honor to receive their surrender thus.

(Final comparative statistics of Naval Guard's Mokoto, Ikeda will demonstrate the hardships of those Marines. Beginning with 5,197 native Japanese, the Army's 54 Independent Mixed Brigade finished with 1,166 native Japanese to return home. Beginning with almost as many 4,365, the Marines had just 560 survivors. Army survival rate was 22 percent of the 5,194; Marine survival rate was just 13 percent out of 4,365.)

 

CREDIT. Mr. Makoto Ikeda of Tokyo, a "Civilian Marine" also of 33rd Naval Guard, translated Mr. Suzuki's three manuscripts. Titles of Suzuki's three MSS are "The First Day of the Fighting Against Tanks" (6 pages), "Determined to Make a Suicide Attack" (2 pages), and "Dairy" from 1 January 1945 through 10 March 1946 (17 pages). These manuscripts all came to me written in English, in Ikeda's small, clear, painstaking handwriting. Provenance of Suzuki's "Diary" is unusual. Suzuki's original "Diary" disappeared into hands of US troops after he surrendered. But about nine months later, Suzuki rewrote it from memory; he needed it for his own post-war rehabilitation. Ikeda himself supplied an excellent large-scale map of the presumed Marines' retreat north from near Zamboanga City, then west to the Zambo Peninsula coast - then back and forth across the Peninsula to the place of his final surrender. After I rewrote Suzuki's original work, I returned it to Tokyo for Ikeda's final revision.