. . . AND A FEW MARINES: Marines in the Liberation of the Philippines
by Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret)
Phase Two: Luzon Dive Bombers
While the Marine fighter planes had been prominent in
the first phase of the Philippine campaign, Leyte, Marine dive bombers
were soon to be similarly heavily employed. The Army's next major target
was Luzon, on which Manila, the capital of the Philippine Islands, was
situated. The 1st MAW had learned on 20 September 1944 that seven of its
dive bomber squadrons would be used later on for the Luzon campaign,
which was to follow Leyte.
Marine Corps aviation recorded its war-time peak at
the end of September 1944. It had rocketed from 13 squadrons following
the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to 145 squadrons at this time.
Without waiting for that future commitment, on 10
October the Marine scout-bomber squadrons in the Solomons initiated a
strenuous close air support training program. Squadrons of two units
were involved, MAG-24 and MAG-32. Their squadrons and their colorful
133 - "flying Eggbeaters"
236 - "Black Panthers"
241 - "Sons of Satan"
341 - "Torrid Turtles"
142 - "Wild Horses"
243 - "Flying Goldbricks"
244 - "Bombing Banshees"
MAG-32 was commanded by Colonel Clayton R. Jerome,
who had been chief of staff to Major General Ralph J. Mitchell in the
Solomons. MAG-24 was under Colonel Lyle H. Meyer, who had a brilliant
and professionally enterprising operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel
Keith B. McCutcheon. It was McCutcheon who assembled all the published
material that he could find on the theory and practice of close air
support. McCutcheon organized the material for 40 different lectures for
500 pilots and gunners, arranged joint training exercises with the
Army's 37th Infantry Division on Bougainville, and supervised the two
solid months of extensive indoctrination in close air support tactics
and new communication procedures vital to achieve maximum battle
These new procedures called for a total change from
the AAF practice of control through multiple command echelons to a
radically simpler process. There would be a Marine air liaison party
(ALP) with every ground unit down to the battalion level. The ALPs would
directly control the close air support planes from radio-equipped jeeps,
and would be headed by Marine aviators who very often personally knew
the pilots making the close air support runs.
On 9 December 1944, MAG-24 was ordered to begin its
deployment to the Philippines from the Solomons. For the flight echelon
their move meant a long, over-water endurance flight. For the ground
echelon it meant a miserably long sea voyage.
Marine Scout-Bomber Squadron (VMSB) 341 undertook
such a move. The ground element left its Solomons base on 17 December,
and its official history records the tortuous month on board ship that
This was a cargo vessel with no troop accommodations.
Shortly after boarding, Tokyo Rose informed the squadron that it would
never make it to the Philippines. After several days squadron personnel
had their doubts, too. Field ranges were set up on deck to feed the
troops. Shower facilities consisted of a length of pipe with numerous
holes drilled in it, secured to the rigging and connected to a fire hose
pumping seawater. Head facilities were equally primitive.
When the VMSB-341 ground element arrived at
Hollandia, New Guinea, it alternated between that anchorage and the one
at Lae, New Guinea, until finally departing for the Philippines on 8
January 1945. The squadron arrived at Leyte on 16 January and continued
the trip the following day, arriving at Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, on 21
January. Finally disembarking on the 22d, VMSB-341 proceeded 12 miles
inland and then helped establish the airfield at Mangaldan.
Lieutenant Colonel Keith B. McCutcheon
Born in 1915 and commissioned in 1937, McCutcheon had
a brilliant career. Awarded an Army Silver Star and three Legions of
Merit for his pioneering work on close air support in the Philippines,
he went on to become known as "the father of Marine helicopter
aviation." This title stemmed from his service as the commanding officer
of the only such squadron in 1950, followed by 80 combat missions in
In Vietnam he was Commanding General, 1st Marine
Aircraft Wing, and was awarded two Distinguished Service Medals. Duty at
Headquarters, Marine Corps, brought a third DSM and nomination to be
Assistant Commandant. A serious illness forced him to forego that honor,
although he was promoted to four-star rank by Congress on 1 July 1971.
Twelve days later, he died.
The following year, at the Marine Corps Air Station,
New River, North Carolina, was dedicated McCutcheon Field. Amid the
speeches, there were memories of "his boyish smile, piercing eyes, and
youthful, timeless face."
Still more Marine air power was on its way. MAG-14,
with its Corsairs, was also in the Solomons under Colonel Zebulon C.
Hopkins, and on 7 December 1944, Pearl Harbor Day, it was alerted for
movement to the Philippines. This was a group with a proud history,
having been awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its superb record
During the period 2-12 January 1945, its four fighter
squadrons, VMF-212, -222, -223, and -251 flew the 2,350 miles to Guiuan
Field on the island of Samar. (Their ground echelons would spend five
long weeks on board ship enroute.) The field conditions were abysmal:
too small for the group, partially incomplete with inadequate living
quarters, omnipresent tropical diseases, and dangerous runway surfaces.
The men of MAG-14 were glad to be part of the real action again,
although the primitive conditions at the airfield led to 19 non-combat
plane losses just in the remainder of January.
The worst of these came on 24 January when Second
Lieutenant Karl Oerth's Corsair hit bad runway bumps, blew a tire, and
careened off the runway, out of control. It struck a rock, and then
cartwheeled through rows of tents. When men nearby rushed to try to
extricate Oerth, the plane suddenly exploded and became a cauldron of
fire. The tragic episode killed 13 and severely burnt 54.
Once Leyte was secured, the aerial pounding of Luzon
increased in preparation for the Army's landing on 9 January 1945 at
Lingayen Gulf in the northern section.
In the landing with the assault troops were Jerome
and McCutcheon. They picked out a site for an airstrip between two
neighboring villages, Dagupan and Mangaldan. While the latter name was
given to the air base being built, the former was incorporated into a
title for Jerome: Commander, MAGSDAGUPAN (Marine Aircraft Groups,
Dagupan). McCutcheon became operations officer, and welcomed his
former "trainees" when MAG-24 and MAG-32 began flying in on 25 January
1945, ready to begin operations.
MAG-12 SQUADRONS COMMENDED
A War Department General order (almost two years
The Marine Fighter Squadrons 115, 211, 218, and 313
are cited for outstanding performance of duty in action in the
Philippine Islands from 2 to 15 December 1944. During this period, at a
critical stage in the operations on Leyte, first battleground in the
campaign to liberate the Philippines, these Marine fighter squadrons not
only carried out their primary mission of providing aerial cover, but
also gave close support to our ground troops and intercepted large and
heavily escorted enemy convoys.
The gallantry and fighting spirit of the Marine
pilots and the skill and tireless fidelity to duty of the ground
personnel, who so well carried out their arduous task of maintaining and
servicing the aircraft under the worst possible conditions, constituted
a major contribution to the success of the Leyte operations and initial
American victory in the Philippines.
The first mission went out two days later on 27
January. It was a strike by VMSB-241, a squadron which had been awarded
a Presidential Unit Citation for its superb performance during the
crucial battle of Midway in June 1942.
By the end of their first month, Marine pilots had
already dropped over 200,000 pounds of bombs from their 168 SBD Douglas
Dauntless dive bombers. Also crowding the Mangaldan strips were over 200
AAF planes, with the AAF's 308th Bomber Wing in operational control of
everything, including Marine planes.
The ensuing four months marked a period when Marine
close air support truly came of age. With MAG-12 and its four fighter
squadrons on Leyte, with MAG-14 and its four Corsair squadrons on Samar,
and with MAGs-24 and -32 and their seven squadrons of dive bombers on
Luzon, there was now a sufficient quantity of Marine planes to make a
major contribution to the large-scale Army drive to reconquer the
Perhaps even more important was the quality of the
Marines' role. The ground crews continued to show, under very adverse
conditions, a remarkable ability to keep a high percentage of planes
ready for their missions. The Corsairs continued to show superb ability
in aerial combat and, when operating as a fighter-bomber, equal ability
to strike deep tactical targets.
Sadly, however, casualties were a normal part of
intensive operations, and there was great concern on Samar when Second
Lieutenant Kenneth G. Pomasl of VMF 223 failed to return from a mission
on 23 January 1945. His was another fighter squadron with a storied
history: first to arrive on Guadalcanal, 83 enemy planes downed, a
Presidential Unit Citation, and a commanding officer, Major John L.
Smith, who was awarded the Medal of Honor and was one of nine aces in
the squadron in those earlier dog fights. (Now he was executive officer