World War Two: Fall of Philippines (3-10B); Withdrawal to Bataan

As the front-line units moved back, the troops to the rear began to carry out the supply plan. On 24 December General MacArthur’s headquarters had ordered the evacuation of Fort Stotsenburg and the destruction of its 300,000 gallons of gasoline and large amounts of high octane fuel. Lieutenant Colonel Wallace E. Durst, Post Quartermaster, was able to save about 50,000 gallons of gas by shipping some of it to the rear and issuing the rest to vehicles in the immediate area. “No material amount of gasoline,” reported Durst’s assistant, Lieutenant ColonelIrvin Alexander, “was abandoned to the enemy.”

In addition to gasoline, Stotsenburg stocks included 8,000 pounds of fresh beef, about 100,000 components of dry rations, large supplies of clothing, and air corps ammunition and equipment. When the post was finally abandoned, almost nothing of value was left, according to Colonel Alexander. All supplies, he said, had been shipped to Bataan or issued to troops in the Stotsenburg area.

The evacuation of Fort Stotsenburg long before the approach of enemy forces, aroused much criticism from officers who disagreed sharply with Colonel Alexander’s optimistic statements on the amount of supplies saved. Colonel Collier exaggeratedly described the evacuation of Stotsenburg as a “frenzied departure” in which “warehouses filled with food, clothing, and other military supplies were left intact.” Also left behind, he reported, were 250,000 gallons of gasoline and several obsolete but serviceable planes. General Drake, MacArthur’s quartermaster, reported that only a portion of the reserve supplies stocked at Stotsenburg had been removed before its evacuation.

On the afternoon of 25 December, as North Luzon Force fell back to the D-2 Iine, Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Lawrence, commanding the Tarlac Depot, had informed Drake that evacuation of the depot would be necessary very soon. In the absence of orders to thecontrary, he said, he would issue all his supplies, including five days’ subsistence for the North Luzon Force, at one time and head for Bataan with his men. That night he learned from Lieutenant Colonel Gyles Merrill, Wainwright’s supply officer, that the line through Tarlac would be occupied on the night of 27 December. Merrill suggested that Lawrence place his remaining rations in dumps at Tarlac, to be picked up by the troops as they withdrew. With Wainwright’s approval Lawrence placed the supplies in separate dumps, one for each division or separate unit. Troops of the 21st Division Headquarters Company were posted as guards. This done, Lawrence and his men left for Bataan.

The evacuation of Stotsenburg and Tarlac was typical of the hurried movement of supplies once the plan of withdrawal had gone into effect. “The troops withdrew so fast,” reported General Drake, “that we could not put into operation any of our withdrawal plans to cover this movement.” There was scarcely time to remove “a few defense reserve supplies” from McKinley and Stotsenburg and no time to evacuate the depots established before the war at Tarlac and Los Banos. Fortunately, many of the supplies left behind were picked up by the units as they withdrew, and much of the remainder was destroyed.

Closely related to the difficulty of supply and evacuation was the scarcity of motor vehicles on Luzon. Even the addition of civilian vehicles did not solve this problem. “The fact is,” wrote Colonel Lawrence, “that there was not sufficient motor equipment in the Philippines to begin to meet fully all the requirements.” This shortage was made more serious by the failure of commanders to return the vehicles which brought their supplies. Even more reprehensible was the hijacking and commandeering of vehicles along the highways, often by commanders who feared that they would not have the transportation to move their troops and equipment in an emergency. These practices “resulted in confusion and caused a complete interruption in motor transport service during the period of evacuation of supplies to Bataan.”

The Tarlac-Cabanatuan Line

The original plan of withdrawal called for only a brief halt at the D-4 line, just long enough to force the enemy to stop and prepare for a co-ordinated attack. A determined stand would be made on the D-5 line. On 27 December General Wainwright Changed his plan. Fearing that a quick withdrawal from D-4 would leave too little margin for error between his last defensive line and the vital bridges across the Pampanga River at Calumpit, over which the South Luzon Force would have to pass, he decided to hold at Tarlac and Cabanatuan, the D-4 line. Late that night he issued new orders to his North Luzon Force abandoning D-5 as the final line of defense. “D-4 will be held at all costs until ordered withdrawn,” he announced. “Maximum delay will be effected on each position. Withdrawal plan later.”

The final plan for holding the D-4 line and for the withdrawal to follow utilized the existing deployment of units already on the line. The 91st Division was assigned the eastern edge of the central plain, the zone between the Pampanga River, which paralleled Route 5, and the mountains to the east. The critical point in this sector was Cabanatuan, where the roads from the north converged into Route 5 which led south toward Manila. When ordered to withdraw, the division would move down Route 5 to Plaridel, a distance of forty-five miles, thence west to Calumpit where Route 3 crossed the Pampanga River.

The 11th Division was on the left of the 91st, in the area between Carmen and Route 3. It was to retire along the secondary roads in its sector. The 21st Division was on the western edge of the central plain, covering Tarlac and Route 3. Its line of retreat was along Route 3 to Angeles, thence to Bataan by Route 74. As a further protection to the Calumpit bridges and the South Luzon Force route of withdrawal, the 194th Tank Battalion, reduced to twenty tanks, was pulled out of the D-4 line by MacArthur’s headquarters on the 29th and ordered back to Apalit, three miles northwest of Calumpit, to a position of readiness.

The day before, Company A of the 192d had been shifted from the 91st Division sector to the area west of the Pampanga and now, with a platoon of the 194th, formed the only tank support between the Pampanga and Route 3. The rest of Colonel Wickord’s battalion remained in position east of the Pampanga, in support of the 91st Division.

When all units were on the line, General MacArthur reported to the War Department that he was “endeavoring to temporarily hold hard in the north” until the North and South Luzon Forces could join at San Fernando after which he would “pivot on my left into Bataan.” American and Filipino troops were “tired but well in hand.” In this report, MacArthur mistakenly estimated that his North Luzon Force alone was facing three Japanese divisions. These enemy troops, he pointed out, were excellent, and their equipment “modern and extensive.” Although the Japanese were not then exerting heavy pressure against his line, MacArthur believed that this inactivity would soon end. The enemy, he warned, was “undoubtedly setting up a powerful attack both north and south simultaneously designed to pin me down in place and crush me.” General MacArthur’s estimate of the enemy’s intentions was correct. The arrival of the 48th Division at the Agno River had completed the landing phase of the operation. General Homma was now ready to drive on through Cabanatuan and Tarlac to Manila.

As of noon, 27 December, the North Luzon Force position seemed to the Japanese to favor a rapid advance. American air power had been knocked out and the Philippine garrison was effectively cut off from reinforcement. Three of the divisions which had opposed their landings, the 11th, 71st, and 91st, as well as armor and cavalry, the Japanese believed, had suffered decisive defeats. The Japanese were also aware of General MacArthur’s move to Corregidor and of the transfer of at least one division the 31st-to Bataan. On the basis of his intelligence estimate General Homma reasoned correctly that MacArthur planned a delaying action “in one corner of Bataan” and on Corregidor.

Despite this correct evaluation of American intentions, the consensus in the 14th Army staff was for a continuation of the drive on Manila. The mission assigned by Imperial General Headquarters was to take Manila, and it is doubtful that Army had the authority to divert any of its forces from that mission. As Lieutenant Colonel Yoshio Nakajima, 14th Army intelligence officer, wrote: “Since the mission of the 14th Army was to occupy Manila, the main force proceeded to that city.” Some even felt that, since Manila was the main objective, the withdrawal to Bataan “expedited the completion of our mission.”

The plan finally adopted for the advance from the Agno River utilized one division, reinforced, supported by armor and aircraft. The main effort was to be made on the east, along Route 5, and the immediate objective was Cabanatuan. The 48th Division would jump off from the Agno River on the 28th and advance toward that town. Simultaneously, the Kamijima Detachment, consisting of elements of the 9th Infantry and supporting artillery, would move from its positions along the Lingayen coast to Carmen to protect the right flank of the 48th Division. From there it would presumably advance down Route 3 toward Tarlac. The only concession made to the obvious American withdrawal to Bataan was to order General Tsuchibashi to send an infantry regiment with heavy artillery support to Tarlac to assist the 9th Infantry in its effort to move speedily down the central plain and seize the road net leading into the peninsula. Supporting the 48th Division advance were the 4th and 7th Tank Regiments, 14th Army artillery, and the 5th Air Group.

Threat on the East

The key to the right flank of the D-4 line was Cabanatuan. Situated on the banks of the Pampanga River, the town is an important road junction on Route 5. The river, about 100 yards wide at this point, and unfordable by motor vehicles, flows swiftly in its twisting and irregular course. Approaching Cabanatuan from the mountains to the northeast, the Pampanga passes the town about 3,000 yards to the north then turns sharply south to flow west of the town and continue its errant way in a southwesterly direction toward Manila Bay. At Cabanatuan two bridges span the swiftly flowing river: one to the north and another to the west. It was in the general vicinity of these bridges that the Japanese first attacked the D-4 line.

The 14th Army advance from the Aguo began on schedule on the morning of 28 December, at the same time that General Homma moved his command post to Binalonan. In the lead were the 4th and 7th Tank Regiments, a battalion of the 2d Formosa, and a battalion of the 48th Mountain Artillery which advanced through San Quintin to San Jose. From there, they struck southeast, crossed the Pampanga at Rizal, and by 29 December had reached Bongabon, in position to threaten the right flank of the D-4 line.

The 48th Division followed in two columns. The west column, consisting of the 1st Formosa supported by a battalion of artillery, left Rosales before dawn of the 29th and marched southeast through Guimba, then east to Baloc on Route 5, north of Cabanatuan. The east column, consisting of the 2d Formosa, 47th Infantry, 48th Reconnaissance, and artillery and engineer units, followed behind the tank regiments to San Jose, where Route 5 intersected Route 8, and then followed the former toward Cabanatuan.

At Cabanatuan, the main strength of the 91st Division, the 92d Combat Team, waited for the attack. In and around the town were the 2d and 3d Battalions, and to the left extending to the Pampanga, was the 1st Battalion. Both bridges had been blown and were considered impassable for wheeled traffic, but not for foot troops.

Moreover, the river was fordable north of Cabanatuan. On the morning of 29 December, the left (east) column of the 48th Division reached the Pampanga northwest of Cabanatuan, but it was the tanks, driving down from Bongabon, that reached the town first. As the tankers approached, the 47th Infantry, under cover of an artillery bombardment, began crossing the river. It was now late in the afternoon, and the 92d Combat Team, outflanked and faced by a superior enemy, fell back. That night the Japanese entered Cabanatuan.

The Japanese did not stop at Cabanatuan. Led by Major General Koichi Abe, 48th Division infantry group commander, they continued south along Route 5 on 30 December. Followed by two battalions of the 48th Mountain Artillery and a battalion of 150-mm. howitzers of the 1st Field Heavy Artillery Regiment, the 47th Infantry pursued the withdrawing 91st Division toward Gapan, about fourteen miles below Cabanatuan. Just north of that village the defenders crossed the Penaranda River, destroying the steel highway bridge over that stream. Urged on by Lieutenant Louis L. Bentz, Jr., about sixty-five Filipinos of the 92d Infantry formed a line along the south bank of the river, while the remainder of regiment, bolstered by three hundred high school ROTC boys who had arrived that morning from Manila, occupied a milelong line from the village west to the Pampanga.

The 47th Infantry hit this line late in the afternoon and broke through with little difficulty. By nightfall the enemy had entered the town. The remnants of the 91st Division withdrew toward Baliuag, twenty-five miles south on Route 5, where they planned to reorganize.

The rapid advance of the Japanese along Route 5 jeopardized the American right and resulted in a shortening of the D-5 line. The North Luzon Force right flank would now have to be anchored on Mt. Arayat, west of Route 5, instead of Sibul Springs to the east. Route 5 lay open and the enemy was well on his way toward the Calumpit area. Unless he was held, the withdrawal of the South Luzon Force would be threatened.

Advance in the Center

The center of the D-4 line, from the Pampanga to Tarlac, was held by the 11th Division. Paralleling the front was an eastwest road. The critical points in the line were Zaragoza and La Paz, held by the 11th Infantry. The 2d Battalion was in front of La Paz, the 3d Battalion to the east above Zaragoza, and the 1st Battalion in reserve about 5,000 yards to the south. Company A, 192d Tank Battalion, was in general support near Zaragoza. The only route of withdrawal was down a secondary road from La Paz to Concepcion, about thirteen miles, then west to Route 3.

In the initial deployment of the 11th Infantry no provision had been made for guarding the eastern entrance to the critical east-west road which ran behind the line. The 92d Infantry on the right was supposed to protect that flank, but Major Russel W. Volckmann, acting 11th Infantry commander, was uneasy about this arrangement.

Recognizing the importance of the road and the vulnerability of his position he shifted his line so that troops of his 3d Battalion were in position to guard the road. A roadblock was established on the west side of the bridge across the Dalagot River, leading into Zaragoza, and a platoon of tanks placed in position there. The bridge was prepared for demolition, but the river was easily fordable by foot troops. The organization of the roadblock was a wise precaution, for the Tarlac-Cabanatuan road had already been exposed on the east by the withdrawal of the 91st Division.

The assault against the 11th Division was made by the Kanno Detachment, consisting of the 3d Battalion, 2d Formosa, supported by a battalion of the 48th Mountain Artillery, substantially the same force which had landed at Vigan on 10 December. This force was the one which General Tsuchibashi had assigned to assist the Kamijima Detachment in its drive toward San Fernando.

Its mission was to move south along Route 5 to Cabanatuan, then push west to outflank Tarlac, which Colonel Kamijima was approaching from the north. This maneuver would cover the right flank of the 48th Division and, if executed speedily and successfully, would turn the North Luzon line and cut off the retreat of the American troops in the center.

The Kanno Detachment jumped off from Talevera, north of Cabanatuan, at 0100 on 30 December. Preceded by bicycle-mounted infantry, the unit cleared Cabanatuan, already in Japanese hands, shortly after and pushed on along the Cabanatuan-Tarlac road, disregarding security measures. At 0315 an alert tanker of the 192d Tank Battalion observed a large number of cyclists in column approaching Zaragoza. When the Japanese reached the American position they were greeted by point-blank fire from the alerted tanks. At the mercy of the tanks, the cyclists lost an estimated eighty-two men before they could make their escape. It was still dark when the action ended.

The tank commander, fearing infiltration by enemy infantry, withdrew his platoon across the Zaragoza bridge, then insisted that the bridge be blown though the 11th Infantry troops were still on the other side. The commander of the engineer detachment had no choice but to comply and lit the time fuses. So surprised was the troop commander when the bridge was blown that he ordered an investigation immedately and incorrectly concluded … that the engineer lieutenant had left the destruction of the bridge to his platoon sergeant and departed for the rear. The platoon sergeant detailed a private and departed with the rest of the men. The private, not to be outdone, had found a civilian, instructed him how to light the dynamite, paid him one peso and then left to join his platoon. The civilian, after hearing the shooting, became excited and blew the bridge. The premature destruction of the bridge took the tanks out of the action and left the infantry, still on the far side of the shallow river, without the support of the armor.

When daylight came the Kanno Detachment struck the roadblock with heavy rifle and mortar fire. Part of the detachment had swung around to the north and now began to exert pressure from that direction. Fearing that his battalion might be outflanked, the commander pulled his men back across the river. By noon, they were established in positions along the west bank. Despite heavy casualties and the presence of a strong hostile patrol above La Paz, the battalion commander felt he could hold the enemy at the river line.

Shortly after noon the Japanese artillery opened fire against the 3d Battalion, preparatory to an infantry attack. After a twenty-minute barrage by 75-mm. guns of the 48th Mountain Artillery, the Kanno Detachment began to cross the river. Unable to halt the enemy, the 3d Battalion moved west along the Zaragoza- La Paz road. Colonel Kanno brought his men safely across, then halted the advance until he could get his heavier weapons across the river. The 3d Battalion, about 500 yards to the west and supported by tanks, awaited the attack. At 1415 a Japanese antitank gun moved into the Japanese line and directed its fire against the Americans. It was finally knocked out, but only after it had destroyed the lead American tank.

With the lead tank gone and their location known to the enemy, the tanks began to pull back. Since they were not under 11th Infantry control, there was no way to keep them in position. The Japanese immediately unleashed a heavy barrage, threatening the American positions. Major Volekmann, who was on the scene, organized a counterattack with the battalion reserve. The counterattack opened at 1500 and, although no ground was gained, it evidently surprised the Japanese and led them to believe the defenders were stronger than they actually were. When the Japanese fire slackened, the 3d Battalion withdrew again, this time about 1,500 yards to the west along the La Paz road. By 1360 the men were in their new positions.

No sooner had the 3d Battalion taken up its new position than it received orders to pull back. These orders originated in Wainwright’s headquarters, where it had become apparent during the day that the entire line was threatened by the 48th Division’s breakthrough at Cabanatuan. Division commanders were ordered to pull back to the D-5 line. General Brougher, accordingly, directed his men holding the center of the line to withdraw through La Paz to Concepcion. The 11th Infantry immediately began to assemble at La Paz. By 1730 the 3d Battalion had fallen back across the bridge just east of that point, the remainder of the regiment retiring before it. When all the troops were across, the bridge was destroyed. At this moment the Kanno Detachment appeared along the Zaragoza road and was met with machine gun fire. With its rear momentarily secure, the battalion retired toward the D-5 line.

Of the 550 men of the 3d Battalion only 156 remained. Many of these were wounded. But the Japanese had been stopped effectively. By delaying Kanno for twenty-four hours, the 3d Battalion had prevented him from reaching Tarlac on 30 December in time to join in the attack on that town. It had thus frustrated a maneuver which might well have turned the left anchor of the North Luzon Force line.

Fight on the West

At the western end of the D-4 line stood the ruined city of Tarlac, its streets a shambles from the repeated strikes of enemy bombers. Just south of the city, the 21st Division, as yet untried in battle, awaited the advance of the Japanese. On the gently sloping ground to the west was the 21st Infantry guarding the bridge where Route 13 crossed the Tarlac River. The 22d Infantry, on its right, straddled Route 3. In reserve was the 23d Infantry, eight miles south of Tarlac at Santa Rosa. The terrain, except for the area in which the 21st was deployed, was low and level, consisting largely of rice fields and offering little opportunity for cover. The infantry derived what protection it could from dry cornstalks, bamboo trees, and swamps. The only consolation the rifleman could draw from his position was that he had a clear field of fire.

The Kamijima Detachment, which was assigned the mission of assaulting Tarlac, had shown a curious reluctance to advance below the Agno River. Heavy casualties during the landings had made Colonel Kamijima, in the words of 14th Army Chief of Staff Maeda, “very cautious.”

Such reluctance might well expose the right (west) flank of 48th Division, and General Maeda, whose interest in Bataan had led him to emphasize the importance of the advance on Tarlac, took steps to correct the situation. He reprimanded Kamijima for his excessive caution and ordered him to move across the Agno.

By 29 December the Kamijima Detachment had apparently progressed to a point just north of Tarlac. On that day the 3d Battalion, 21st Infantry, reported that it had been fired on by Japanese patrols. The 23d Infantry was ordered to reconnoiter and organize a position along the high ground between Santa Rosa and San Miguel, east of Route 3. At the same time the rear of the 22d Infantry was strengthened. That night the men of the 22d found occasion to open fire against Japanese patrols. Their fire was not returned, and it is possible that the imagination of the men in combat for the first time was responsible for the many Japanese patrols reported south of Tarlac.

Shortly after noon of the 30th, advance elements of the 9th Infantry led by Colonel Kamijima himself entered Tarlac. With only two companies of infantry Kamijima refused to push on. At about 1500 the remainder of the 9th Infantry (less the 3d Battalion) and the two batteries of the 22d Field A rtillery reached the area. Thus reinforced, Colonel Kamijima felt strong enough to attack and sent his men against the 22d Infantry positions along Route 3. The defenders held firm, inflicting severe losses on the 9th Infantry and killing Colonel Kami jima himself.

During the course of the action, the 22d Infantry noted a number of men advancing down the road from Tarlac. These men were first thought to be 13th Infantry troops retiring from positions east of the city, but just before they reached the stream in front of the American line they were identified as enemy troops and fired upon. A few minutes later, five American tanks and two SPM’s broke out of Tarlac and fought their way down toward the stream. Their retreat had been cut off by Colonel Kanno’s advance along the Cabanatuan-Tarlac road, and after much difficulty they had pushed their way through enemy-held Tarlac. The 21st Division troops recognized the tanks and half-track and furnished them with artillery support in their flight to the stream. But here they met an insuperable obstacle and the men had to abandon their vehicles. With the exception of one crew whose tank was hit, all the men reached the 21st Division lines safely. Attempts to rescue the vehicles were unsuccessful and the artillery was ordered to destroy them.

Late in the afternoon the 21st Division received orders to withdraw under cover of darkness to the D-5 line. That evening units began moving out of their D-4 positions. Pressure on the 22d Infantry had died down, but now the 21st Infantry came under heavy attack. As the division pulled back, this regiment supported by the 3d Battalion, 21st Field Artillery, covered the withdrawal alone. During the fight the 21st Infantry received many casualties and was badly battered. Finally, still intact but greatly weakened, the regiment began to pull back. The artillery battalion remained in position to cover the infantry’s withdrawal. Long after its scheduled hour of retirement, the artillerymen, led by their American instructor, 1st Lieutenant Carl J. Savoie, continued to fire.

To the rear the division covering force waited impatiently and anxiously for the 3d Battalion to pass through its line. When the trucks and guns of the battalion finally came down the road, Colonel Mallonee noted that the men “were tired, worn, hungrybut cocky, proud, aggressive.” They had good reason to feel cocky. The battalion, unaided, had held up the Japanese advance and made possible the successful withdrawal of the 21st Infantry. ” … every man of the 21st Infantry who came out of Tarlac … alive should get down on his knees and thank God for that redheaded son of a bitch [Savoie]. He was everywhere he was needed at the right time. . . .He kept the guns in almost three hours after he could have withdrawn to give us a chance to break off. We were all out and the enemy back into Tarlac before he pulled up a gun.”

By dawn, 31 December, the 21st Division was on the D-5 line. The 21st Infantry at Bamban, fifteen miles south of Tarlac, was here joined by its 1st Battalion. This battalion had been detached and placed in North Luzon Force reserve earlier and had seen action on the Agno line in the fighting around Carmen. The Japanese 9th Infantry was also reinforced when its 3d Battalion caught up with the rest of the regiment. The enemy force at Tarlac was further strengthened on the 31st by the arrival of the Kanno Detachment and by Lieutenant Colonel Katsumi Takahashi’s 8th Field Heavy Artillery Regiment. This greatly increased Japanese force spent the day preparing to push south along Route 3.

In the brief period of seven days, from Christmas Eve to the year’s end, there had been a radical change in the situation in northern Luzon. The Japanese, who on 24 December had just secured their beachhead, now threatened Manila and the road net into Bataan. The enemy had broken out of his initial lodgment and was now moving rapidly in two columns down the broad central plain of Luzon.

The North Luzon Force had withdrawn approximately fifty miles from its first defense line to its D-5 positions at Bamban and Arayat. The left and center had retired with moderate success, but the right flank was in grave danger. On that flank, General Homma had placed the main strength of the 48th Division supported by two regiments of tanks and increasing amounts of artillery and other supporting arms. Should the right flank give way, the withdrawal of the South Luzon Force to Bataan might well be imperiled.

The first part of the withdrawal had been completed. Although it had been successful, there had been difficult moments. Communications had broken down at times, supply had proved difficult, and some of the bridges had been blown too soon. The defense lines had sometimes been hastily and inadequately manned, or not occupied at all. “Not a single position,” wrote the assistant G-3 of USAFFE, “was really occupied and organized for defense. Troops were barely stopped and assigned defensive sectors before they stampeded into farther withdrawal, in many instances without firing a shot.” This view portrays the withdrawal at its worst. Not all troops stampeded, and there were numerous instances of heroism under fire and determined stands. For the most part, the withdrawal was conducted as well as it could be with the untrained and ill-equipped Philippine Army troops.

SOURCE: The Fall Of The Philippines by Louis Morton (United States Army Center of Military History)

World War Two: Fall of Philippines (3-11); Withdrawal in the South, 24 December 1941

World War Two: Fall of Philippines (3-10A); Withdrawal to Bataan 1941


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