Action at the Northern Apex
The motives that prompted General Krueger to direct USAFIP(NL) to attack inland from Luzon's west coast toward Bontoc were similar to those that had led to I Corps' drives toward Baguio and Bambang, for Bontoc was equally important in the Japanese scheme of defense in northern Luzon.1 The principal road junctions of northwestern Luzon--that portion of the island lying north of San Fernando, La Union, and west of the Cagayan Valley--lie within relatively easy distance of Bontoc. Krueger knew that if Volckmann's USAFIP(NL) could seize and hold these road junctions, simultaneously securing control of Route 4 inland from Libtong (on the coast) to Bontoc, the guerrilla division would effectively isolate Japanese forces in northwestern Luzon. The USAFIP(NL) would also be able to block Japanese secondary routes of access from the Cagayan Valley to Yamashita's defensive triangle, making it nearly impossible for the Shobu Group to move troops and supplies from the central and northern sections of the valley into the redoubt. The success of USAFIP(NL)'s impending attack, together with the success of I Corps operations at Baguio and Balete Pass, would seriously curtail the Shobu Group's freedom of maneuver around the periphery of the defensive triangle--and only the peripheral roads could bear military traffic. Finally, if it succeeded in opening Route 4 inland from Libtong, the USAFIP(NL) would provide Sixth Army with a back door entrance to Yamashita's triangular redoubt. (See Map 19.)
The Roads and the Terrain
Bontoc, capital of Mountain Province, lies in the valley of the Caycayan River about 2,750 feet up in the Cordillera Central, the backbone range of northwestern Luzon. The town is the site of one of two junctions of Routes 4 and 11. Coming northeast from Baguio, Route 11 travels more or less along the top of the Cordillera Central and, reaching spots over 8,500 feet above sea level, alternately traverses grassy slopes and forested ridges. Along its ninety miles of road distance to Bontoc, the highway provides some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
Unpaved in 1945 between Baguio and Bontoc, Route 11 was scarcely two lanes wide along most of its length. The road, only one narrow lane wide and poorly surfaced, continues northeast from Bontoc along the canyon of the Chico River,
emerging into the central portion of the Cagayan Valley nearly 35 miles--in a straight line--beyond Bontoc. At Sabangan, 16 miles southwest of Bontoc, Route 11 makes its first junction with Route 4, the two traveling together to Bontoc. Route 4, a narrow, unpaved road, strikes southeast from Bontoc and after traversing high, very rough country, joins Route 5 at Bagabag, about twenty-five miles north of Bambang. Over one-lane Route 4, the distance between Bontoc and Bagabag is approximately seventy miles.
The junction barrio of Sabangan, 3,500 feet above sea level, is 60 miles inland from Libtong via Route 4--as opposed to 32 miles straight-line distance. About 24 road miles west of Sabangan is the town of Cervantes, lying 1,000 feet above sea level in the valley of the Abra River. Going west from Cervantes Route 4 traverses first a mile or so of open, rice-paddy country, but then starts abruptly up the grassy eastern slopes of the Ilocos, or Malaya, Range. In the next two miles of straight distance westward, the one-lane unpaved road climbs to 4,600 feet at Bessang Pass,2 where it goes through a cut in a sheer rock ridge nose. In another straight-line distance of some five miles, the road twists violently down the western slopes of the Ilocos Range to a 500-foot elevation in the Amburayan River valley.
Like Sabangan, Cervantes is an important road junction town. South from Cervantes Route 393, a one-lane, dirt road, ascends a spur of the Cordillera Central, rising from less than 1,000 feet at Cervantes to about 5,800 feet at its junction with Route 11, fourteen miles in a straight line southeast of Cervantes.3 Passing the Lepanto Copper Mine and through the municipality of Mankayan, Route 393 joins Route 11 at KP 90, fifty-six miles northeast of Baguio and twenty miles southwest of Sabangan. Route 393 descends the east side of the ridge along which Route 11 runs at KP 90, dropping into the tiny but beautiful Loo Valley. Situated about 5,100 feet above sea level, the Loo Valley is on the upper reaches of the Agno River, the headwaters of which rise on the east side of Route 11 less than four miles northeast of KP 90.
Mankayan was of great importance to the Japanese who, in referring to the northern apex of their defensive triangle, spoke of Mankayan and Bontoc in the same breath. One reason, of course, was that Mankayan provided the Shobu Group with an ideal assembly area whence troops could move rapidly either to Route 11 or to Route 4. Of more importance was the nearby Lepanto Copper Mine, six twisting miles northwest along Route 393 from KP 90. The Japanese had spent an extraordinary amount of effort developing this mine--coming close to ruining it in the process--and had trucked the rich ore northwest along Route 393 to Cervantes and thence west along Route 4, over Bessang Pass, to the coast for shipment to Japan.4
Just as the headwaters of the Agno rise on the east side of Route 11 near KP 90, so the headwaters of the Abra River rise on the west side of the highway about a mile and a half south of KP 90. The Abra system is rivaled in size on Luzon only by the Agno and Pampanga, draining through the Central Plains, and the Cagayan-Magat complex of the Cagayan Valley. From its headwaters the Abra, passing by Cervantes, flows almost due north for seventy miles. Then, gathering to itself an increasingly large number of tributaries, the river turns westward for some sixteen miles and empties into the South China Sea near Vigan, on Route 3 about forty miles up Luzon's west coast from Libtong. Route 3, the coastal highway, continues north from Vigan some fifty miles to the large town of Laoag, and then stretches on northward to round Luzon's northwestern tip and continue east along the north coast to Aparri, at the mouth of the Cagayan Valley.
From Laoag, Route 2 extends inland about fifteen miles along various river valleys. The route then degenerates into a foot trail that crosses the Cordillera Central, swings southeast, and emerges as a narrow road running eastward through the north-central part of the Cagayan Valley to the Cagayan River. Originating at Sulvec, ten miles south of Vigan, is Route 6, which runs inland along the valleys of the Abra and other rivers for about thirty miles. The road then turns into an exhausting foot trail that crosses the Cordillera Central and joins Route 11 about twenty-five miles northeast of Bontoc. Neither Route 2 nor Route 6 through the Cordillera Central is a road over which significant military operations can be conducted; Route 11 from Bontoc to the Cagayan Valley fits into the same category.
Except along the coastal river valleys, there is scant population in the vast mountainous area of northwestern Luzon, which extends over 70 miles from the west coast to the Cagayan Valley and 140 miles north from San Fernando, La Union, to Cape Bojeador at Luzon's northwestern tip. Barren is the word to best describe much of the country. Imposing in their grandeur, most of the steep-sided mountains are grassy sloped. Thick forest is the exception in this region, and in clear weather it is easy to pinpoint movements of men and vehicles at unbelievable distances. Some ravines among the mountains have fairly thick woods and dense undergrowth, but lush tropical growth is not to be encountered except along the coast. Along Route 4 inland from Libtong, for example, there is rather scrubby jungle growth up to a height of 3,000 feet above sea level along the western slopes of the Ilocos Range. From this point to Bessang Pass scattered pines, patches of which are interspersed with open grassland, account for most of the vegetation. The east side of the Ilocos Range, where Route 4 descends to Cervantes, is completely open and grassy.
The jumbled, rough, and steep mountainous terrain of northwestern Luzon makes a major military effort a problem even in dry weather. Route 4, the USAFIP(NL)'s axis of approach toward Bontoc, traverses much rougher terrain than Route 5 between San Jose and Santa Fe, and I Corps observers declared during the war that the terrain along Route 4 was more difficult than that the Villa Verde Trail crosses. The foot trail portions of Routes 2 and 6
make the Villa Verde Trail look like a superhighway, while Route 11 between Bontoc and the Cagayan Valley is one of the roughest thoroughfares on Luzon to be dignified by the name road.
The roads of northwestern Luzon are bad enough in dry weather. In wet weather, even in peacetime, the task of road maintenance is herculean. Summer rainfalls of over ten inches a day are not uncommon in the mountains. For Route 4 from Libtong to Bontoc--and for other roads as well--such rains mean landslides and washouts, coupled with flash floods that tear out bridges and render sections of the road impassable quagmires. The USAFIP(NL) would have to strive to secure Route 4 from Libtong to Bontoc before the heavy rains began toward the end of May, or it might be unable to accomplish its mission.
While it was not until late March that General Krueger directed the USAFIP(NL) to open a third front in northern Luzon with a concerted offensive toward Bontoc, strong elements of Colonel Volckmann's guerrilla force had been in action throughout northwestern Luzon ever since the Sixth Army had come ashore at Lingayen Gulf.5 The region north of an east-west line through Vigan was the responsibility of the USAFIP(NL)'s 15th Infantry, Lt. Col. Robert H. Arnold commanding.6 With an ostensible muster of about 2,900 officers and men, the 15th Infantry was understrength, ill trained, and poorly equipped. In early January the regiment's three battalions were scattered along the western slopes of the Ilocos Mountains from Vigan to a hideout northeast of Laoag. The country south of the line through Vigan was the responsibility of the 121st Infantry, under Col. George M. Barnett.7 Most of the 121st was operating in the vicinity of San Fernando, but the 3d Battalion was in the hills near Route 3 from Libtong north toward Vigan. The 3d Battalion, 66th Infantry, was harassing Japanese convoys along Route 11 from Baguio to KP 90; troops of the 1st Battalion, 11th Infantry, were manning ambushes in the Sabangan-Bontoc area and along Route 11 between Bontoc and the Cagayan Valley. The bulk of the 66th Infantry later moved south to support the 43d and 33d Divisions on the Baguio front; the rest of the 11th Infantry operated in the Cagayan Valley. The Cagayan Valley and its surrounding hills were also "home" for USAFIP(NL)'s 14th Infantry, which does not figure in the story in northwestern Luzon.
In early January the principal mission of USAFIP(NL) units in northwestern Luzon was to gather intelligence and institute a program of sabotage and demolitions designed to cut Japanese lines of communication throughout the region. But as was the case everywhere under Volckmann's sphere of influence, Sixth Army's landing precipitated more direct action among the guerrilla units in northwestern Luzon, leading ultimately to such operations as the 121st Infantry's investiture of San Fernando.8 Thus, while most of the 121st Infantry
concentrated in the San Fernando area, the regiment's 3d Battalion moved to clear Route 3 from Libtong north to Vigan. Meanwhile, the 15th Infantry started operations to drive the Japanese from the rest of northwestern Luzon.
The Japanese against whom the USAFIP(NL)'s units began moving in early January were little better prepared than the USAFIP(NL) to conduct major engagements. In the early weeks of the Luzon Campaign (before the 19th Division started north from Baguio), there were some 8,000 Japanese in northwestern Luzon, most of them near Vigan and Laoag.9 The two towns had been of considerable importance to the enemy ever since the opening days of the Pacific war, the Japanese having seized Vigan on 10 December 1941 and Laoag the next day.10 Throughout the war the Japanese had maintained an airfield at Gabu, near Laoag, and another near Vigan. Both towns were secondary base areas, although most shipping that put into Luzon north of San Fernando used Salomague Harbor, fifteen miles north of Vigan. The last Japanese convoy to reach Luzon arrived in the Vigan area on or about 30 December 1944, where it suffered heavily at the hands of Fifth Air Force planes.11
In early January the major Japanese combat unit in northwestern Luzon was the RCT-sized Araki Force, which was built around two independent infantry battalions of the 79th Infantry Brigade, 103d Division.12 Maj Gen. Shoji Araki, the force commander, stationed about 2,500 of his 3,000 men along Route 6 from Sulvec northeast fifteen miles to Bangued. His other 500 troops he scattered in small detachments along the coast from Vigan north. Araki had no control over the 500-man 357th Independent Infantry Battalion, 103d Division, which held Route 4. The 357th operated under the direct control of Shobu Group headquarters in Baguio, while General Araki reported to 103d Division headquarters, near Aparri.
The remaining 4,500 Japanese in northwestern Luzon included a few antiaircraft units, Japanese Army Air Force ground organizations, and some Army port and service troops. Of this group about 2,000 were stationed in the Laoag area, 2,000 more at or near Salomague Harbor, and 500 at Vigan, where the Araki Force had 250 men. There were minor garrisons, varying from 20 to 100 men in strength, at a number of coastal barrios and inland at such points as Cervantes, Mankayan, Sabangan, and Bontoc.
Most of General Araki's men were garrison troops rendered soft and inefficient by long service on occupation duties. The service units contained a large percentage of Formosans and
Koreans who were ill armed, poorly trained, and easily disaffected. For artillery, Araki Force had only a few 70-mm. battalion guns; it lacked ammunition of all types except for small arms. The force did not have enough weapons to arm all the service units that were passing to General Araki's control; medical supplies were short from the start; food would be at a premium within a month or two after 9 January.
Laoag, Vigan, and the Araki Force
Only a few days after the Sixth Army landed on Luzon the Araki Force began having serious clashes with the 15th Infantry, USAFIP(NL).13 The 15th's initial efforts centered on a campaign of raids and skirmishes designed to clear Route 3 north of Vigan, force minor Japanese garrisons out of the regimental sector, and capture Japanese supplies and equipment for use in later operations. By mid-February the regiment had secured most of Route 3 north of a point twenty-five miles north of Vigan, and on the 15th the 1st Battalion entered Laoag. The Japanese who had been holding at Laoag retreated to the Salomague Harbor area, but under pressure from the USAFIP(NL) withdrew on south to Vigan during the first week of April. Almost immediately the Araki Force began a general retreat from Vigan, and by mid-April nearly all the Japanese originally stationed at or north of Vigan had withdrawn south and inland to join the main body of the Araki Force, now deployed along Route 6 about midway between Sulvec and Bangued. The 121st Infantry, USAFIP(NL), had meanwhile cleared Route 3 south of Vigan, thus opening the highway all the way up the west coast from Lingayen Gulf.
Assembling along Route 6, the Araki Force hoped to deny the USAFIP(NL) access to the northern reaches of the Abra River valley, a rich farming area centering about twenty miles inland from Vigan. Araki's men were in poor condition to accomplish this mission. Almost all supplies except small arms ammunition had long since vanished, and the ill-equipped service troops withdrawing from the coastal barrios quickly consumed the few supplies left at mid-April. Communications equipment was nonexistent, and General Araki had lost contact with 103d Division headquarters. In mid-March Yamashita had transferred the Araki Force to Shobu Group control, which did not help. Indeed, it appears that General Araki was completely out of touch with any higher headquarters from late March until mid-May.
The 15th Infantry planned to strike northeast astride Route 6 from Sulvec with two battalions while another battalion, employing back country roads and trails to get into position, would drive toward Bangued from the east, taking the Araki Force in the rear. Volckmann reinforced the 15th Infantry for this attack with two companies from other USAFIP(NL) regiments. Fifth Air Force planes from Lingayen area fields provided limited support, and the 15th Infantry operated the few Japanese artillery weapons it had captured.
The 15th Infantry began its attack on 10 April and it took only five days to convince Araki that he might as well
retreat again. A general Japanese withdrawal started on the 15th of April, and by the 25th the bulk of the Araki Force had departed southward for the Abra River valley. Pursued by the 15th Infantry, the Araki Force headed for Gayaman, twenty-five miles upstream (south) from Bangued. The 15th Infantry also sent a small enveloping force inland from Route 3 to Angaki, on the Abra about twelve miles north of Cervantes. Elements of the 121st Infantry, USAFIP(NL), were already blocking the Abra Valley at Angaki in order to prevent the Araki Force from moving on south to reinforce Japanese units on Route 4 west of Cervantes.
Finding his way south closed, General Araki struck east and southeast from Gayaman over trackless, virtually unexplored sections of the Cordillera Central, passing through virgin pine forests and over uncharted streams and ridges. Losing far more troops from starvation and disease than in combat, and becoming increasingly more disorganized, the Araki Force in mid-May began straggling into Besao, a mountain barrio at the end of a third-class road seven miles west of Bontoc. Few more than 1,500 men of the Araki Force had survived the coastal skirmishes, the battles in the Bangued region, and the tortuous overland trek to Besao, to reassemble late in May at Bontoc. Of the nearly 8,000 Japanese stationed in northwestern Luzon at the beginning of the year some 4,000 had been killed or had died of starvation and disease by the end of May. Another 1,500 had escaped to Bontoc, and the remaining 2,500 had scattered into the mountains in small groups that Filipino guerrillas ultimately hunted down or that also died of malnutrition and sicknesses. The losses of the 15th Infantry, USAFIP(NL), in northwestern Luzon were approximately 125 men killed and 335 wounded.14
Relatively unimportant in the larger picture of the whole Luzon Campaign, the 15th Infantry's operations against the Araki Force were to stand the regiment in good stead. At the end of May the regiment was in far better shape than it had been on 9 January; it was up to strength; it had seized arms and supplies from the Japanese; it had received much equipment from the Sixth Army. The four months' fight against the Araki Force, however minor in nature much of the fighting had been, had given all components of the 15th Infantry the experience, training, and confidence that only combat can provide. Now the 15th Infantry was to move to Route 4, where it was urgently needed to reinforce the 121st Infantry.
The Fight for Bessang Pass
Early Operations Along Route 4
When in early January the 15th Infantry, USAFIP(NL), had started to clear Route 3 from Vigan north, the 3d Battalion of the 121st Infantry began to secure the highway from Vigan south to Libtong, the junction of Routes 3 and
4.15 Before the end of January the battalion had substantially completed this task. Colonel Volckmann was not, however, satisfied. He decided that the continued security of Route 3 demanded that his troops clear Route 4 inland from Libtong to Cervantes so that the 357th IIB, known to be holding the road, could mount no raids and counterattacks toward the coast. He accordingly directed the 121st Infantry to strike inland for Cervantes and establish roadblocks in the Cervantes area along Route 393, to the south, and Route 4, to the east. The only force that could be assigned to this rather substantial mission was the 3d Battalion, 121st Infantry.
While the main body of the battalion was assembling for the drive toward Cervantes, Company L destroyed a small Japanese garrison at barrio Bitalag, a mile and half inland from Libtong. On 2 February the entire battalion moved east out of Bitalag and four days later was at the municipality of Suyo, three miles farther inland. Volckmann there called a halt. For the time being San Fernando was a more important objective than Cervantes, and he needed all the troops he could get for the attack on that port city. Accordingly, on 6 February the bulk of the 3d Battalion, 121st Infantry, departed, leaving only Company L at Suyo.
By this time outpost troops of the 357th IIB, along with a few stragglers from coastal garrisons, had withdrawn to Bessang Pass, where the Japanese battalion had started digging in. Bypassing the pass via back-country trails, Company L, 121st Infantry, entered Cervantes on 24 February after a brisk fight with a small Japanese garrison. But at this juncture elements of the 19th Division began pulling into the Cervantes area from Baguio and early in March drove the guerrilla company out of town. Company L recaptured Cervantes on 13 March, but soon found itself under the sights of Japanese artillery emplaced on rising ground to the south.
Volckmann saw that Company L could not hold for long by itself and reinforced the troops at Cervantes as best he could, forming a provisional battalion under Capt. Serafin V. Elizondo of the 11th Infantry. The components were Company A of the 11th Infantry, which had previously operated in the vicinity of Sabangan; Company L of the 121st Infantry; an 81-mm. mortar section from the 121st Infantry; Company D of the 66th Infantry, which came up from the Baguio area; and two platoons from the Replacement and Casualty Battalion, USAFIP(NL). The Provisional Battalion held out at Cervantes until 3 April, on which date Japanese pressure from the east and south forced the unit into hills northwest of the town.
On 23 March, about a week after the Provisional Battalion was organized and on the same day that USAFIP(NL) cleared the last Japanese from the San
Fernando area, General Krueger directed Volckmann to open the third front in northern Luzon with a drive inland along Route 4 to Bontoc. Krueger set Cervantes as USAFIP(NL)'s intermediate objective.16 These orders were to project USAFIP(NL) into a fight of three months' duration.
The First Month
The only units that Volckmann could muster for the attack toward Cervantes were the Provisional Battalion, already on the ground, and the 121st Infantry, which had just finished the reduction of San Fernando. The 11th and 14th Infantry Regiments were scattered through the Cagayan Valley and could not be brought out; the 66th Infantry was attached to the U.S. 33d Division on the Baguio front; and the 15th Infantry was thoroughly engaged against the Araki Force.
The 121st Infantry, with a strength of less than 3,000 troops, was the best equipped, best trained, and most experienced regiment of the USAFIP(NL). Its supporting artillery initially included only captured Japanese weapons--two 70-mm. infantry guns and two 47-mm. antitank weapons. The two larger weapons lacked fire control equipment, and ammunition was short for both types. Lingayen-based planes of the Fifth Air Force would provide air support insofar as weather and other commitments permitted. The 121st had two ill-equipped engineer companies attached to it; its transportation consisted of seventeen captured Japanese trucks. The regiment had enough food and possessed plenty of ammunition for small arms and machine guns. Medical support was adequate, although hardly up to the standard a regular U.S. Army regiment would expect. The Provisional Battalion was attached to the 121st Infantry on 3 April, and the regiment brought north with it from San Fernando one company of USAFIP(NL)'s Military Police Battalion.
On 29 March the 121st Infantry assembled at barrio Butac, seven miles inland along Route 4 from Libtong at the point where the road begins its steep ascent to Bessang Pass. The regiment planned to push two battalions east astride Route 4, holding the third battalion in reserve. The Provisional Battalion was to hold Cervantes, block the movement of Japanese reinforcements to Bessang Pass, and revert to a reserve role when the 121st Infantry reached Cervantes. (Map 23)
About 2,000 yards east of Butac Route 4 swings northward, uphill, in the beginning of an irregularly shaped horseshoe bend, open on the south. The distance across the open end of this horseshoe is approximately two miles. Dominating the center of the horseshoe is Lamagan Ridge, rising from a height of about 1,000 feet at the southwestern corner of the horseshoe to more than 5,000 feet at the center--a rise of almost 4,500 feet in less than one mile. Along the west side of Route 4 at the eastern arm of the horseshoe is Yubo Ridge, the northern nose of which, crossed by Route 4, was known to the USAFIP(NL) as Baracbac Point. Ascending southward, Yubo Ridge gives way to Lower Cadsu Ridge, which in turn leads to an east-west ridge line, rising to over 6,000 feet, known as Upper Cadsu Ridge.
The Fight for Bessang Pass
U.S. Army Forces in the Philippines
29 March-22 May 1945
East across Route 4 from Yubo and Lower Cadsu Ridges is Langiatan Hill, an extremely steep-sided terrain feature that reaches a height of over 4,000 feet. Langiatan Hill gives way on the east to Magun Hill, some 4,500 feet high. Bessang Pass, proper, the rock cut, lies at a southeastern nose of Langiatan Hill. South of the pass the terrain rises within two miles to a peak of 6,830 feet known as Mt. Namogoian.
In a week of seesaw battling after 29 March the 121st Infantry gained footholds along the northern sections of Lamagan and Yubo Ridges. Meanwhile the Provisional Battalion, now reinforced by Company G of the 121st, attempted with little success to strike from the northeast against the rear of Japanese positions at Bessang Pass. Unable to hold Cervantes or Route 4 west of the town, the Provisional Battalion failed to prevent Japanese reinforcements from reaching the pass. By the end of the first week in April, the Provisional Battalion had taken up new positions northeast of Magun Hill and temporarily was out of the fighting.
The 121st Infantry, on the west side of Bessang Pass, continued to make slow and painful progress and by mid-April controlled Route 4 almost to the southeastern corner of the horseshoe. The regiment had cleared Yubo and Lower Cadsu Ridges and had gained footholds on the western slopes of Upper Cadsu and the southern portion of Langiatan Hill. The Japanese (the 73d Infantry, 19th Division, and remnants of the 357th IIB) still held some of Lamagan Ridge, in the center of the horseshoe, as well as most of Upper Cadsu Ridge and Langiatan Hill. On 21 April the 121st Infantry overran the last Japanese positions on Lamagan Ridge and about a week later completed the occupation of Lower Cadsu.
UPPER AND LOWER CADSU RIDGES
At the end of April the newly formed 1st Field Artillery Battalion, USAFIP(NL), arrived along Route 4 to reinforce the 121st Infantry, bringing up 2 Japanese 105-mm. howitzers, 2 Japanese 75-mm. guns, and 4 American 75-mm. pack howitzers. The new support was doubly welcome. The 2 Japanese 70-mm. guns the 121st Infantry had started out with had been lost during a Japanese counterattack, and adverse weather conditions were beginning to curtail air support operations drastically. With the new artillery support, the 121st Infantry anticipated more rapid progress.
The 19th Division Counterattacks
Contrary to expectations, during the first part of May the 121st Infantry literally inched forward over precipitous terrain against Japanese defenses that daily became stronger as the 19th Division brought more reinforcements forward, expending lives to gain time. By mid-May the lines of the 3d Battalion, 121st Infantry, facing north and northeast, extended from Route 4 at Yubo Ridge east and southeast across much of Langiatan Hill, The 2d Battalion, reduced to two companies by the attachment of Company F to the Provisional Battalion, held along Route 4 from Baracbac Point on Yubo Ridge southeast almost a mile and a quarter to the southeastern corner of the horseshoe. The 1st Battalion held a line stretching southeast from this corner of the horseshoe for three-quarters of a mile, ending along the eastern section of Upper Cadsu Ridge. Considering their limited fire power and strength, all three battalions were badly overextended. The Provisional Battalion, out of contact with the 121st Infantry, still occupied positions north of Route 4 and Magun Hill.
At this juncture the USAFIP(NL) lost almost every significant piece of ground it had secured since 29 March. On 17 May the 73d Infantry, 19th Division, behind new artillery support, instituted a series of strong counterattacks all across the Bessang Pass front, the main weight of the effort hitting the 1st and 2d Battalions, 121st Infantry. The 73d pushed both battalions back across Lamagan Ridge and completely dispersed the 1st Battalion, which, for a few days at least, just disappeared. Some troops of the 3d Battalion also retreated from Langiatan Hill, but elements of that unit, cut off, succeeded in holding on to rough terrain along the eastern slopes. The Japanese also struck the Provisional Battalion, forcing it farther north.
Meanwhile, a 600-man battalion of the 76th Infantry, 19th Division, bypassing Bessang Pass far to the south, had begun moving toward Route 4 at barrio Butac, almost two miles behind the 121st Infantry's front. When the 76th Infantry battalion neared its objective, just before the 73d began its counterattack
105-MM. HOWITZER FIRING AT EXTREME ELEVATION in Bessang Pass area.
at Bessang Pass, there were few troops of the USAFIP(NL) at Butac,17 but for reasons unknown the Japanese battalion milled around in the rough terrain south of Butac for two or three days before attempting to mount an attack on the barrio. By that time the USAFIP(NL) had a strong garrison at Butac, Volckmann having brought the 2d Battalion of the 15th Infantry south to Route 4. This USAFIP(NL) battalion immediately moved against the Japanese unit, which thereupon withdrew, having accomplished nothing.
Volckmann now sent the entire 15th Infantry into a new offensive eastward, the 121st Infantry reverting to a reserve role and reorganizing. By the end of May the 15th Infantry had resecured the south flank from Butac to Lamagan Ridge. Bypassing pockets of Japanese on Lamagan Ridge, the regiment next started a drive against Japanese forces holding Upper and Lower Cadsu Ridges. Before the month ended the 1st and 2d Battalions, 121st Infantry, had also reentered the fight and had begun to clean off Lamagan Ridge. The 3d Battalion, meanwhile, had regained some of the positions it had lost on Langiatan Hill and, this time attacking from the east, had retaken a foothold on Yubo Ridge.
Order had begun to emerge out of near chaos, and Colonel Volckmann had begun planning for a new, stronger attack against 19th Division forces at Bessang Pass.
Preparations for a New Attack
On 1 June, with operations on the Bambang and Baguio fronts entering the pursuit stage, General Krueger turned operational control of the USAFIP(NL) over to I Corps so that General Swift could more effectively co-ordinate the efforts of all forces in northern Luzon. Simultaneously, Krueger directed Swift to provide USAFIP(NL) with the assistance necessary to assure the early capture of Cervantes, and ordered Swift to return the 66th Infantry, USAFIP(NL), to Volckmann's control from attachment to the 33d Division. I Corps, in turn, directed the 33d Division to send north to Route 4 and Bessang Pass the 122d Field Artillery Battalion (105-mm. howitzers) and the 1st Battalion, 123d Infantry. Swift then instructed Volckmann to mount an immediate all-out offensive toward Cervantes.18
Volckmann set up an attack with three regiments abreast. The 121st Infantry would clear Route 4 around the horseshoe and secure the northern half of Lamagan Ridge. The 15th Infantry, striking east over the southern half of Lamagan Ridge, would drive on to seize Upper Cadsu Ridge and then advance generally northeast along the south side of Route 4. The 66th Infantry would first deal with the remnants of the 76th Infantry's battalion south and southeast of Butac and then swing eastward on the 15th Infantry's right. The Provisional Battalion--now commanded by Capt. Herbert Swick19 and consisting of three companies of the 11th Infantry as well as one each from the 66th and 121st Regiments--was to clear Magun Hill and adjacent dominating terrain. The 1st Battalion, 123d Infantry, would remain at Butac as USAFIP(NL) reserve, would protect the 122d Field Artillery, and would furnish an 81-mm. mortar platoon to support the guerrilla attack. The 122d Field Artillery, with the 1st Field Artillery, USAFIP(NL), attached, would provide direct and general support.20
As of 1 June the 121st Infantry, USAFIP(NL), was still not in good shape. Since 15 May the regiment had lost about 150 men killed and 315 wounded, losses quite harrowing to a guerrilla unit. It had not yet completed its reorganization after the Japanese counterattack; part of its 3d Battalion was still out of contact between Langiatan and Magun Hills; one of its rifle companies was attached to the Provisional Battalion. To bring the regiment up to strength, Volckmann attached to it two companies from the 14th Infantry and three from the Military Police Battalion, USAFIP(NL). The 15th and
BESSANG PASS. Langiatan Hill is at left.
66th Regiments, although both suffered from the "disease" of attachments and detachments, were about up to strength. The 1st Field Artillery had lost the two Japanese 105-mm. howitzers and the two 75-mm. guns during the Japanese counterattack, but had saved the four American 75-mm. pack howitzers. Since the USAFIP(NL) lacked the heavy weapons organic to American units, it sorely needed the artillery and mortar support the 33d Division provided.
The Japanese at Bessang Pass on 1 June were in worse shape than the USAFIP(NL).21 By that date only 2,250 Japanese were left in the region--1,100 of the 73d Infantry, 450 of the 76th Infantry, and the rest artillery and service troops. Japanese supplies were virtually exhausted and troops were rapidly dying from malaria, beriberi, and other diseases. Small arms ammunition was almost gone, and the artillery, although still possessing numerous weapons, was reduced to firing a few rounds each evening. The counterattack that had begun on 17 May had represented the last major effort--either defensive or offensive--of which the Japanese at Bessang Pass were capable. No reinforcements were available, for the rest of the 19th Division had orders to hold Mankayan, the Lepanto Mine, and the road junctions at KP 90, Sabangan, and Bontoc.
Breakthrough to Cervantes
During the period 1-5 June the 15th and 121st Infantry Regiments had little
Through Bessang Pass to Cervantes
U.S. Army Forces in the Philippines
1-15 June 1945
trouble clearing all Lamagan Ridge and Lower Cadsu Ridge.22 The 15th then turned against Upper Cadsu while the 121st struck directly toward Bessang Pass. On 12 June, after a week of bitter fighting, the 15th Infantry overran the last organized resistance on Upper Cadsu Ridge. Meanwhile, the 66th Infantry, coming in over trackless terrain south of Route 4 and chasing Japanese remnants before it, had reached the southwestern corner of Upper Cadsu. The Provisional Battalion, after a series of minor setbacks, succeeded in clearing much of Magun Hill by 10 June. (Map 24)
On the 10th the 121st Infantry launched a final attack toward Bessang Pass, striking from the west and southwest, and the next day the Provisional Battalion began driving in from the north and northeast. Behind exceptionally close artillery support--the 122d Field Artillery placed concentrations as close as fifty yards in front of the guerrillas--the 121st Infantry overran the last organized defenses at Bessang Pass on 14 June and made contact east of the pass with the Provisional Battalion. On the same day the last opposition melted away before the 15th and 66th Regiments, south of the pass.
Japanese remnants fled east along Route 4 toward Cervantes, pursued by elements of the 15th and 121st Infantry Regiments. Before dark on 15 June the 15th Infantry had secured the town, and on the next day the 66th Infantry put the finishing touches on the battle by setting up a roadblock across Route 393 about two and a half miles south of Cervantes.
The last phase of the drive through Bessang Pass to Cervantes, covering 1-15
June, had cost the USAFIP(NL) approximately 120 men killed and 220 wounded, divided as follows:
Unit Killed Wounded Total 121st Infantry 73 139 212 15th Infantry 28 71 99 66th Infantry 3 2 5 Provisional Battalion 4 1 5 1st Battalion, 123d Infantry 1 1 2 1st Field Artillery Battalion 9 4 13 122d Field Artillery Battalion 1 2 3 Total 119 220 339
The USAFIP(NL) estimated that it killed some 2,600 Japanese in the same period. This figure, however, seems exaggerated in light of the fact that the Japanese had no more than 2,250 men in the Bessang Pass-Cervantes area as of 1 June and that some of these, according to the USAFIP(NL)'s own report, escaped toward Mankayan and Bontoc.
Results of USAFIP(NL) Operations
Though by 15 June the USAFIP(NL) had not reached Bontoc--the objective Krueger had assigned it on 23 March--the "division" had accomplished the mission I Corps had given it on 1 June. The success of the final attack can be attributed almost entirely to the great strength Volckmann was at last able to bring to bear. From late March until 1 June a boy--the 121st Infantry--had been trying to do a man's job. Only that regiment's spirit and the inability of the Japanese to follow up an advantage had saved the 121st Infantry from far greater disaster than the retreat that began on 17 May.
The USAFIP(NL) had, indeed, made a substantial contribution toward the Sixth Army's campaign in northern Luzon. Even before the Sixth Army's offensives on the Baguio and Bambang fronts had begun late in February, the activities of the USAFIP(NL) had helped prompt General Yamashita to redeploy the 19th Division deep into northern Luzon. After the 121st Infantry had begun its attack toward Cervantes late in March, the USAFIP(NL) had kept the 19th Division pinned to the triangle formed by Bontoc, KP 90, and Bessang Pass. There can be no question that Yamashita could have employed the 19th Division to better profit elsewhere, and there can be no doubt that he would have done so had not Volckmann's forces been operating in northern Luzon.
But the story of the USAFIP(NL)'s contributions does not end here. Taking upon itself the task of seizing San Fernando and clearing Route 3 up the west coast, the USAFIP(NL) had permitted the Sixth Army to forget about plans to use a "regular" division along that coast, thereby allowing Krueger to assign a division to more decisive operations elsewhere. Finally, the USAFIP(NL) had been directly or indirectly responsible for the death of nearly 10,000 Japanese in northwestern Luzon between 9 January and 15 June.23 The USAFIP(NL)'s accomplishments had cost the guerrilla unit roughly 3,375 casualties: over 900 men killed, 2,360 wounded, and no missing.24
In the end, as in the beginning, it must be noted that the USAFIP(NL) accomplished
far more than GHQ SWPA, Sixth Army, or I Corps had apparently expected or hoped. The USAFIP(NL)'s battles were not over. The "division" was next to drive south and east from Cervantes, joining the rest of I Corps in pursuit of Shobu Group forces that were retreating ever farther into the mountain fastnesses of northern Luzon. USAFIP(NL) and I Corps were laying plans for further advances even as the 15th Infantry moved into Cervantes. Indeed, the bulk of I Corps had already become involved in pursuit operations.
1. Additional background material on the decision to send the USAFIP(NL) toward Bontoc is to be found in Chapter XXIV, above.
2. Bessang Pass is actually a redundancy, since in the local Filipino dialect a "bessang" is itself a cut or pass.
3. Route 393 is a wartime designation, and the road has no official numerical designation in the Philippine highway system.
4. The mine, of extreme antiquity, was worked long before the Spanish came to the Philippines. In April 1957, when the author was at the mine, trucks no longer used Route 393 to Route 4, but instead took Route 393 to KP 90, followed Route 11 to Baguio, and then Routes 9 and 3 to San Fernando, La Union.
5. Information on the USAFIP(NL) in this subsection is based mainly on: USAFIP(NL) Rpt, pp. 2, 12, 30-31, 38, 41-45, 62-65.
6. A Signal Corps officer who, stationed in northern Luzon at the outbreak of war, "failed" to surrender.
7. Another unsurrendered officer.
8. See above, ch. XXV.
9. Japanese information in this chapter is based on: 14th Area Army Opns on Luzon, pp. 89-94, 99-108, 114-17, 128; 14th Area Army Opns Orders Nos. A-487 and A-517, 3 and 13 Feb 45, Trans, III, item 3: 14th Area Army Tr Org List; Interrog of Col Setomu Terau (CofS 19th Div), USAFIP(NL) Rpt, pp. 148-50; USAFIP(NL) Rpt, pp. 19-21, 40-41, 61 ff.; Sixth Army G-2 Wkly Rpt 86, 2 May 45; SWPA Hist Series, II, 421, 470-71, 489; ibid., II, Maps following pp. 419, 468, and 485.
10. See Morton, Fall of the Philippines, pp. 106-08.
11. See above, ch. III.
12. As originally constituted, Araki Force was composed of the 176th IIB, the 178th IIB less two infantry companies and a machine gun company, the 26th Machine Gun Battalion less one company, 79th Brigade headquarters, and brigade service troops. Later, organizing various service troops and antiaircraft units in northwestern Luzon, Araki Force added two provisional infantry battalions and two machine cannon (20-mm. or 40-mm.) companies.
13. This section is based mainly on the USAFIP(NL) Report, pages 40-57.
14. USAFIP(NL) G-3 Opns Rpts 21 and 22. The 15th Infantry claimed killing about 4,300 Japanese, while the USAFIP(NL) Report, page 56, provides a figure of 6,406 Japanese killed in northwestern Luzon to the end of the first week of June. Both guerrilla figures are undoubtedly exaggerated, but it seems logical to assume that certainly no more than 2,000 Japanese, including Araki's group of 1,500 that went to Bontoc, actually made their way from northwestern Luzon to rejoin other Japanese forces.
15. The remainder of this chapter is based largely upon two MSS prepared by Maj. Billy C. Mossman, AUS, at OCMH during the summer of 1954: Volckmann's Guerrillas (20 pp.), and Volckmann's Provisional Battalion (5 pp.), both in OCMH files. The sources used by Major Mossman include: USAFIP(NL) Rpt, pp. 29-31, 58-82; USAFIP(NL) G-3 Opns Rpts, 6 Jan-15 Jun 45; USAFIP(NL) FO's 1-29, dated between 4 Jan and 14 Jun 45; USAFIP(NL) G-2 Per Rpts, 24 Apr-16 Jun 45; Terau Interrog, USAFIP(NL) Rpt, pp. 146-50. Additional sources from the Japanese side employed by the present author have been cited previously. Also checked was Col. Russell W. Volckmann, We Remained: Three Years Behind the Enemy Lines in the Philippines (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1954), pp. 208-12.
16. Sixth Army FO 58, 23 Mar 45, Sixth Army Rpt Luzon, I, 162.
17. As far as can be ascertained from available records, a Military Police company and a few Quartermaster troops comprised the USAFIP(NL) garrison at Butac on 17 May.
18. Sixth Army FO's 62 and 63, 24 and 28 May 45, Sixth Army Rpt Luzon, I, 164-65; I Corps FO 18, 29 May 45. The portions of these orders relevant to the USAFIP(NL) became effective on 1 June.
19. At the outbreak of war Swick was a civilian gold mining engineer in northern Luzon. Rather than be interned by the Japanese he had hidden out in the mountains and had joined the guerrillas in October 1942. Captured and interned as a civilian early in 1943, Swick had broken out of camp with USAFIP(NL) help in April 1943. Volckmann, We Remained, pp. 79, 112, 148.
20. USAFIP(NL) FO 27, 30 May 45; 122d FA Bn Rpt Luzon, p. 9.
21. Additional information on the Japanese is from: An. 1, Intel, to USAFIP(NL) FO 27; 122d FA Bn Rpt Luzon, pp. 11-12.
22. Additional information for this subsection comes from 122d FA Bn Rpt Luzon, pp. 12-16.
23. This figure is based upon a study of all relevant Japanese, U.S. Army, and USAFIP(NL) sources available. The USAFIP(NL) claimed 19,700 Japanese killed, including those killed by units operating under 43d and 33d Division control on the Baguio front.
24. These figures include losses of 66th and 121st Infantry units operating under 43d and 33d Division control on the Baguio front.