. . . 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 at Titcomb Field, Malabang,
Mindanao, joyfully greet the Marine pilots who came to their aid.
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
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
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
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,
. . . 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.