Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Planning for the Philippines
Marine Artillery Arrives
Problems on Leyte
Full-Scale Operations
Phase Two: Luzon Dive Bombers
After Manila
Plans for the Southern Islands
Close Support for Guerillas
Close Air Support for the Army
Corsair Action
Phase Three: Mindanao
Turning Point
Major General Ralph J. Mitchell
Colonel Clayton C. Jerome
Lieutenant Colonel Keith B. McCutcheon
Special Subjects
VMF(N)-541 Commended
MAG-12 Squadrons Commended
Marine Aircraft Group Twelve Commendation
Marine Aircraft Group Twenty-Four Commendation
Marine Aircraft Group Thirty-Two Commendation
Marine Aircraft Groups Zamboanga
Marine Aircraft in the Philippines

. . . AND A FEW MARINES: Marines in the Liberation of the Philippines
by Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret)

Phase Three: Mindanao

During April, MAG-14 back on Samar continued a heavy round of missions on familiar targets: Cebu, Negros, and other islands. Directed by the Thirteenth Air Force on Leyte, the Corsairs reported daily to AAF support air parties, often B-24 heavy bombers, for control of their strikes. In the teeth of poor weather, the group achieved more than 5,800 flight hours that month.

One pilot on Samar who had newly joined VMF-222 had been awarded a Medal of Honor for his record in the Solomons. Captain Kenneth A. Walsh, a former NAP, joined MAG-14 with a record of 20 victories. (He would get number 21 at Okinawa later in the war.)

The Army plans for operations in the southern Philippines were complex — there were lots of Japanese troops on lots of different islands. Besides the main objective of Mindanao, there was a chain of small islands, called the Sulu Archipelago, stretching southwest to Borneo. When all of these were captured, the life line of oil flowing to Japan from the Dutch East Indies would be severed.

Filipino guerrillas
Filipino guerrillas at Titcomb Field, Malabang, Mindanao, joyfully greet the Marine pilots who came to their aid. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 117638

The first target in the chain had been Sanga Sanga. Now it was Jolo. On 9 April the 41st Division went ashore there. The division's previous close working relation ship with Marine air had led the commanding general and then all the officers of the assault regiments to make pre-landing reconnaissance flights on board the SBDs of VMSB-236. Then VMSB 243 took the commanding general to observe the actual landing.

On Jolo the Japanese had retired to the interior and holed up in Mount Daho, a defensive strongpoint studded with caves and pillboxes. For a week they held off the infantry despite artillery fire and repeated bombing and rocket attacks. One of these, by VMB-611, was later recalled by a veteran:

The first time out intelligence . . . ordered a 12-plane low level attack . . . . It's a wonder there weren't some mid-air collisions. We were tooling along at 250 feet alongside Mount Daho when the concussion of one bomb almost blew us out of the air. We strafed the top of the mountain, the target being a huge buried tank. My guess was a water tank of sorts. The tracers just ricocheted harmlessly off the silver-looking object. The entire mission was a dangerous fiasco . . . .

The problem was finally solved when one of the PBJ pilots offered a simple solution, "Why not go in at 8,000 feet and drop 1,000 pounders on it and cave the damn thing in." The veteran continued:

So back we came a day or so later. Six of us this time . . . . [Our bombardier] took his time and "walked" his three [bombs] right across the top of the mountain . . . . Some of the others got two big ones on top, some only one. But all six planes hit it. Results? They walked up Mount Daho the next day. Over 400 defending Japanese Imperial Marines had ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, on Mindanao, the Marines, carrying out instructions to support the guerrillas, flew daily sorties from the Moret and Dipolog fields. They worked in close conjunction with the Filipinos under the leadership of an American, Colonel Wendell W. Fertig, USA. When the American surrender in the Philippines occurred in 1942, Fertig took to the hills. With radio contact with MacArthur's far-away headquarters and supplies smuggled in by submarine or air or small boats, he built his guerrilla force. By February of 1945, he had 33,000 men under his command, with 16,000 of them armed. Their combined efforts provided crucial information which changed the whole landing plan for the Army's next thrust, this time on the other side of Mindanao.

As Fertig later recalled:

By February 1945, advance planning by X Corps indicated that the initial landing on the south coast of Mindanao would be made in the vicinity of Parang. With the assistance of MAG Zambo, the guerrillas were able to eliminate the strong Japanese garrisons at both Parang and Malabang. This action presented X Corps with a free beachhead when they landed on 17 April 1945. It would have been impossible for the guerrillas to have completed the elimination of the Japanese garrisons without the assistance of the Marine Air Groups, since the guerrilla troops were not equipped with artillery.

The key Marine in this intelligence coup, the man who gathered the vital information on the situation ashore and then got it to the ears of the X Corps commander, was none other than McCutcheon. He had flown down from Mindoro, borrowed an SBD at Moret, and took off to meet the guerrillas. The events that followed brought him an award of a Silver Star Medal by the Army. The citation read in part:

For gallantry in action against the enemy . . . . He arrived at the airfield five days prior to the landings of American forces. During the ensuing five days, from positions within close range of enemy machine gun and mortar fire and with utter disregard for his own safety, he reported the situation to the landing force afloat, briefed pilots and supervised the direction of air strikes . . .

Then, flying back to Zamboanga, McCutcheon got in a small boat, put to sea, and intercepted the Mindanao invasion convoy. His citation continued:

. . . His accurate information transmitted to the task force commander afloat enabled the formulation of amended plans and resulted in an unopposed landing on the Malabang area [i.e., nearby Parang] . . . .

Thus the landing took place at Parang 17 miles south of Malabang on 17 April. AWS-3 was the first Marine unit ashore and shortly became the 77th Fighter Control Center. With its two radar search sets and eight radio channels, it provided a valuable resource for increasing the number and efficiency of air strikes.

Of course, this Army landing was covered by Marine planes flying from their strips on the other side of Mindanao. One of that day's missions was by VMB-611, and one of its pilots later described what his flight encountered:

What happened in the next few minutes was a maelstrom of bullets, shells, and bombs. A Japanese 90 millimeter cannon began peppering away at us from its hiding place in the mouth of a large cave. Events moved too quickly to give an accurate accounting. What was supposed to be a single pass or two, turned into a wild melee. We all lost track of the number of passes.

Finally, a 7.7 machine gun bullet whined through our open cockpit window and out the windshield, and convinced me the Japanese had the range. It was time to abandon the area. Luckily, all planes escaped, although each was badly holed.

Once the strip at Malabang was available, the Marines poured in the dive bombers of MAG-24, which arrived on 20 April from Luzon. One of the first actions taken was to name the strip Titcomb Field in honor of Captain John A. Titcomb, killed while serving in an ALP on Luzon. Operations from there used new procedures. The Army's X Corps had 12 forward air control teams directing strikes for two different divisions (24th and 31st). More-over, there was a pattern of having a constant air alert overhead for the infantry. Working with the 24th Division, for instance, MAG-24 had a flight report in to the support air party every hour on the hour from 0800 to 1600 each day.

Describing the concentrated strikes in central Mindanao, one of the pilots, First Lieutenant Thurston P. Gilchrist, said:

. . . This was the most heavily bombed area of any in the whole Philippine campaign. The Japs were dug in underneath trees and in foxholes so well that we had to blow up the whole area before the Army could advance. Our Marine observers, who were with the ground liaison party in this area, said the damage was terrible and almost indescribable. Flight after flight of planes bombed and strafed this small area for days. When we began it was a heavily wooded area and when we finished there wasn't . . . anything left but a few denuded trees . . . .

The operations numbers for the F4Us told the same story of relentless attack; during February, March, and April the Corsairs of MAG-12 and -14 flew 29,836 hours on 11,642 sorties and destroyed 31 planes of the vanishing Japanese air strength.

For one of their squadrons, VMF-218, this marked a final phase in a diverse range of missions since it had first arrived in the Philippines. Beginning back in December, the squadron had patrolled the air over shipping in Leyte Gulf and Ormoc Bay; had flown cover over American convoys in various Philippine waters; had escorted South Pacific Combat Air Transport (SCAT) planes over Ormoc where they had dropped supplies to ground troops; had flown cover for Army ground forces on Mindoro and Cebu Islands; had covered the landing by Army troops at Zamboanga; had chalked up a number of close support missions on Mindanao; had escorted rescue planes; had escorted transport planes to Mindanao; had provided air cover for SBD strikes; and had regularly been on combat air patrols.

In addition, it had made many close-in strikes on southern Luzon, strafing enemy targets and destroying parked planes, railroad rolling stock, ammunition dumps, and oil storage tanks.

MAG-14 received a tribute from Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger, Commanding General, Eighth Army, in which he noted its "outstanding performance . . . against the enemy at Leyte, Samar, Palawan, Panay, Cebu, and Negros, Philippine Islands." He added, "The enthusiasm of commanders and pilots, their interest in the ground situation and their eagerness to try any method which might increase the effectiveness of close air support, were responsible in a large measure for keeping casualties at a minimum among ground combat troops."

Douglas R4D Skytrain
The Douglas R4D Skytrain — known in its civilian guise as the DC-3 — was the work horse for a wide variety of missions while being flown by MAG-25, the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command (SCAT). Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 108687

On 30 April, Marine planes used napalm bombs for the first time on Mindanao. Hitting a hill near the major town of Davao, the fire was terrifyingly effective. The X Corps reported:

From this time on, fire from the air was available, with strikes as large as thirty-two 165-gallon tanks being dropped on a target. In several instances, entire enemy platoons were burned in their positions and in other cases, flaming Japanese fled from positions, only to encounter machine gun fire from ground troops.

As the two Army divisions slugged their way across Mindanao, the PBJs of VMB-611 helped the 31st crack a tough nut. It was a strike near the Malita River that paid off handsomely. The Japanese were holed up in a town that controlled a road. When the Marine fighter planes would come over, the Japanese would dive into a deep gorge that ran alongside the town. When the fighters left, the Japanese would resume their defensive positions. Then someone suggested a coordinated attack with both the fighters and the PBJs. One of the pilots later remembered:

We were loaded with eight 250-pound bombs. The attack was to be low level . . . . The ravine had a big bend in it near the road. The key was to get as many bombs in it as possible, dropping in train. The fighters chased the Japs into the ravine as we came in low, bomb bay doors open.

When the fighters had passed over, the enemy reemerged — only to find the Marine medium bombers boring in on them. The PBJ pilot continued:

. . . our observer, yelled "Purrfect!" It seems the first bomb hit a small knoll and skipped into the ravine, and the rest of the load "walked" right up the ravine. It was a lucky drop. All the others got their loads in the ravine as well. Results? The entire Japanese force was either killed or so severely shocked from the concussions they were unable to defend the town.

On 8 May, VMSBs-241 and -133 flew what one squadron report termed "the closest support mission yet flown." The Japanese lines were only 200 yards from the infantrymen of the 31st Division, and the enemy was unyielding. Marked with smoke, the tiny target area was plastered with nearly five tons of bombs, and the Japanese position simply disintegrated.

As the end of the Mindanao campaign loomed in May, there were many changes for the Marine aviators. VMSB-244 said farewell to the venerable SBD and was re equipped with the new SB2C Curtis Helldiver. It was 20 knots faster, more heavily armed, and equipped with rockets. (When the SBD was officially retired on 16 July after its long and productive career, VMSB-244 became the only squadron of MAG-24 to remain active.)

The month of May also brought the new F4U-4 to the fighter squadrons, and with it came 41 more miles per hour of top speed (446 mph).

On 15 May, operations ended for MAG-14 on Samar. During its short four months stay there, it had amassed a total of 22,671 combat hours, 7,396 sorties, and destroyed 28 Japanese planes on the ground. On 7 June it flew off to join the battle then raging on Okinawa.

That month also saw the last serious operations and the most massive strike yet. On 21 June, the 31st Division was facing the threat of a major Japanese troop build up, so 148 dive bombers and fighter bombers were called in to drop 75 tons of bombs during a four-hour span. Reports afterward estimated 500 enemy killed.

With this kind of help, it is not surprising that Major General Clarence A. Martin, commander of the 31st, made an official report about the "invaluable assistance" of MAGs-12, -24, and -32.

The other division that fought its way across Mindanao, the 24th Infantry, had identical feelings about its Marine air support. Its commander, Major General Rosco B. Woodruff, also issued a lengthy tribute, applauding sorties "flying over enemy territory in the face of enemy anti-aircraft fire . . . flown with determination and courage in spite of losses from enemy fire. Many missions were flown at great risk because of unfavorable weather conditions . . ."

Amidst this pattern of intensive close air support, a sad, and exceedingly rare, tragedy occurred on one mission in support of the 24th Division. The Marine air coordinator used a system to direct the strike, "Bomb on my bomb!" That day, however, the flight leaders mistook Japanese artillery bursts for the signal bomb and 32 men of the division were killed and wounded. When Jerome went to see Woodruff to express the Marines' sorrow at the accident, the Army general agreed that it was most unfortunate, but nevertheless he would continue to rely on MAGSZAM for close air support.

On 30 June, Eichelberger declared the Mindanao campaign completed (although 2,235 Japanese would be killed in the ensuing six weeks). The total operational figures for all Marine aviation squadrons on the island were formidable: more than 20,000 sorties in 10,406 combat missions for the X Corps, with 4,800 tons of bombs dropped, accompanied by nearly 1,300 5-inch rockets.

The final recognition of the remarkable Marine performance throughout all the Philippine Islands came from the top. Eichelberger said, "The value of close support for ground troops as provided by these Marine flyers cannot be measured in words and there is not enough that can be said for their aerial barrages that have cut a path for the infantry. From all quarters, commanders down to the men with the bayonets, I have heard nothing but high tribute."

The last mission for MAGSZAM came in covering one more landing (at Sarangani Bay) of their friends, the 24th Division, on 12 July. On 1 August, MAG-24 was dismembered with the decommissioning of VMSBs-133, -236, and -241.

There was one final extraordinary episode which took place in a strike by VMB-611 on 9 August. A Japanese lieutenant, who had surrendered, went in one of its PBJs and guided them to their exact target.

The surrender of Japan on 15 August was preceded (on 4 August) by an order from the AAF for the 1st MAW to move up from Bougainville to Zamboanga. It was ironic that Mitchell and Jerome, the two men who had been so crucial in the Philippine assignment were now gone — back in the United States for a well-earned leave. Simultaneously, veteran squadron flyers were going home, and new commanding officers were taking over units that remained on active duty.

On 30 August, MAGSZAM was dissolved (but MAGs-12, -24, and -32 would live on to see duty in China after the war). The 1st MAW would move after the battle to China.

Next Page Document Cover Next Page
MARINES The Few. The Proud.
Back to Top
Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division