The advance of the Americans off their invasion beaches caused General Makino, commanding the 16th Infantry Division, to reconsider his plans for the defense of Leyte. His division had been divided into the Northern and Southern Leyte Defense Forces. The Northern Defense Force, which defended the Catmon Hill area and faced the 96th Infantry Division consisted of the 9th Infantry Regiment and the 22nd Field Artillery Regiment. The Southern Defense Force faced the 7th Infantry Division and included the 20th Infantry Regiment less one battalion, the 2nd Battalion, 33rd Infantry Regiment, the 7th Independent Tank Company and two platoons of the 16th Engineer Regiment. This latter force was to concentrate around the area of San Pablo and the Calbasag River where they would defend against an American advance while making night raids against American positions, all in order to delay the American advance. Some 600 men of the 98th Airfield Battalion and the 54th Airfield Company were to defend the high ground around Burauen and at Buri Airfield. A small naval force was defending a supply dump east of Dagami, where the headquarters of the 16th Infantry Division was now located.
These dispositions were in place when the 7th Infantry Division attacked. While the 17th Infantry Regiment fought for the airfields, Burauen and Dagami, the 32nd Infantry, under Colonel Marc J. Logie, would guard the right flank, protecting and supporting that advance while maintaining contact with the 96th Infantry Division. Moving alongside, but somewhat behind, the 17th Infantry, the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry, also experienced the terrible heat, stifling vegetation and difficult terrain. Julita and San Pablo were quickly secured, as was San Pablo Airfield. The regiment settled down for the night protecting the division’s right flank. Later it was learned that the commanding officer of the 20th Infantry Regiment had been killed during the day’s advance.
The following day, October 24th, the 32nd Infantry moved on Buri Airstrip. That morning Colonel Logie was transferred to Division Headquarters. Lieutenant Colonel John M. Finn, now commanding the 32nd Infantry, ordered the 1st Battalion to advance on Buri Airstrip. Here the Japanese had constructed pillboxes hidden in the tall grass and brush. Machine guns with interlocking fire covered the approach routes. Extensive trench systems and field fortifications also protected approaches to the field. Manning these impressive fortifications were members of the 20th Infantry Regiment, 98th Airfield Battalion and 54th Airfield Company. One hundred-pound aerial bombs had been buried as land mines along the runways and dispersal areas. Some could be electrically detonated from a safe distance by the defenders.
The 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry encountered no opposition on their approach to Buri Airfield. Shortly after midday they ran into the enemy defenses at the airstrip. Attacking with Company A on the right and Company C on the left, they opened with rifle, machine gun and mortar fire on the Japanese positions, which slowly were overcome. Company C encountered the main opposition, which held it up for a while. Major Leigh H. Mathias, the battalion commander, soon lost contact with Company A, which had moved ahead while Company C fought to reduce the main enemy defenses. As he searched for Company A, he was wounded by enemy fire. Major Robert C. Foulston, Jr., the battalion executive officer, took command.
Captain Rollin T. Jones, commanding Company A, had his own problems. When the attack signal was given, half the company moved forward while the other half were occupied with a group of Japanese who were digging additional defensive positions. Since these were in front of Company C, not Company A, Captain Jones ordered his men forward. Soon they were 500 yards ahead of any of the other units in the battalion. Unknown to the Americans, the Japanese commander was organizing a counterattack while the Americans remained divided and confused. As he sought to locate his battalion commander for instructions, Captain Jones was killed in action. The situation deteriorated further when Captain Robert J. Kretzer, a veteran of two previous campaigns and commanding Company C, saw that his men needed to reorganize. Pulling his platoons back, his orders failed to reach all the men of the company. Men were already fighting hand-to-hand in some places. Others had no idea of where they were or who was nearby. Five men, included one wounded, went the wrong way and wound up nearly a mile behind Japanese lines before they realized their mistake. Most of the company pulled back in good order. Technical Sergeant Johnny H. Bosworth found a trench which he used as a defensive line to cover the withdrawal, gathering men as they passed him. This group was instrumental in delaying and turning the oncoming Japanese counterattack.
On Company C’s flank, Major Mathias had placed one platoon of Company B as flank security. This platoon did not get the withdrawal order. First Lieutenant Marshall J. Hamilton only learned of the withdrawal when First Lieutenant Marvin Watkins and some of his Company C men joined the Company B platoon. They held their positions and helped repel the Japanese counterattack. When Company C reunited after the fight, they counted twenty-two men killed and another thirty wounded. Colonel Finn ordered his 3rd Battalion to move to the 1st Battalion’s left in support, but swamps and dense undergrowth slowed this movement until the best the 3rd Battalion could achieve before dark was to get within 600 yards of its sister battalion. Colonel Finn came forward and observed the situation, determining that the 1st Battalion should withdraw to San Pablo Airstrip covered by the 3rd Battalion. There, joined by the 2nd Battalion released from division reserve, the regiment formed a night perimeter.
About the only bright spot for the 32nd Infantry on October 24th was information from a prisoner captured by the 2nd Battalion who reported that he was a member of the 7th Independent Tank Company. He reported that eight of the tanks had been destroyed at Julita and the remaining three were out of action due to mechanical failures. In any case, the tanks were obsolete and had been used to help level the runways of the various airfields.
The 32nd Infantry returned to the attack the next day, October 25th. Offshore on this day, Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet was heading north to engage forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid was heading south with his Seventh Fleet for the same purpose, leaving Leyte Gulf only protected by small forces of escort carriers and destroyers. At the airfield, the 49th Field Artillery Battalion fired a half-hour bombardment to the front of the 32nd Infantry. Moving off with the fresh 2nd Battalion in the lead, Colonel Finn had the 3rd Battalion on their right. Again, there was no opposition on the approach, but once the field was reached scouts were hit by strong fire from enemy bunkers on the edge of the airfield. Company F tried to determine an approach to the enemy defenses but the bunkers were invulnerable to anything but a tank, which because of the terrain could not reach the field. An antitank gun was dragged forward but had no effect on the strong enemy bunkers. After four men had been killed and fourteen wounded, Colonel Nelson pulled his battalion back for the night. Without heavier supporting weapons the Japanese positions could not be overcome.
However, the 3rd Battalion continued ahead. Not having hit the main enemy defenses, Lieutenant Colonel Charles A. Whitcomb’s battalion was ordered to continue its attack to seize the airfield. As they came to the corner of the field, machine gun fire stopped the advance. Although anxious to press the attack, Colonel Whitcomb knew night was now approaching and the terrain was unfavorable for defense. With four men killed and eleven wounded, the battalion set up a night perimeter just east of the airstrip. As they did so, a company of Japanese came yelling and shouting at them from across the airfield. Aiming for a gap between the two assault battalions, they focused on Company K. Having ample warning from the enemy’s shouts and calls, Company K immediately deployed and opened fire. When it was all over, seventy-five Japanese lay dead on the field against not a single casualty in Company K.
Colonel Finn was determined that the field would fall to his regiment on October 26th. He managed to get a platoon of medium tanks attached to each battalion and further attached a platoon to each from the regimental Cannon Company. All three battalions would attack together, each targeted on a different portion of the objective. The 1st Battalion replaced the 3rd Battalion and attacked, despite the fact that the long roundabout route delayed the tanks which did not join up in time. The attack moved slowly against strong resistance until Company A found itself out of the jungle and at the airstrip itself. To the right was the end of the Japanese trenches facing the rest of the battalion. They immediately opened fire on the enemy within the trench and eliminated them. Return fire from unseen enemy positions pinned the company down.
Company B, under Captain Rudolph Hagen, ran into one of the main pillboxes protected by at least three machine guns. The platoon, under First Lieutenant Salvatore A. Toste, tried to flank the pillbox but two men were killed immediately. Lieutenant Toste took a squad around the other flank but one of the machine guns opened fire, killing the lieutenant and three of his men while wounding ten others. Company B was effectively pinned down. Captain Hagen now called for the tanks, which had been further delayed when appropriated by the 2nd Battalion. Using the time to evacuate his wounded, he had them all off the field when the tanks came up. One tank quickly knocked out the pillboxes one by one. Protected by a rifle platoon each, the tanks ran over each pillbox and each trench. Within half an hour the enemy defenses had been reduced and forty-seven dead were counted. The destruction of these positions also freed up Company A, who had been pinned down by their fire. By late afternoon, both Companies A and B were positioned four hundred yards down the airstrip. Finding no enemy opposition, they remained for the night. Buri Airfield was now secured.
Along the highway, the 17th Infantry still faced the ridge from which the Japanese had launched the counterattack on the night of October 24th. Colonel Pachler and General Arnold had conferred that evening and determined that a large enemy force held the hill and could not be left along a main supply route. In addition, the enemy force was between the 17th Infantry and 32nd Infantry Regiments, presenting another threat. Briefly considering bypassing the enemy on the ridge, General Arnold and Colonel Pachler quickly agreed that it had to be destroyed before the advance on Dagami continued.
The mission was given to Colonel Bjork’s 2nd Battalion, 17th Infantry. Companies E and F moved out in a skirmish line opposed initially only by scattered rifle fire. By early afternoon, the ridge had been secured. Either the enemy had been wiped out by his own counterattacks and the American artillery, or he had withdrawn. To ensure the enemy’s absence, a patrol from the 1st Battalion was sent towards Buri Airfield. First Lieutenant Daniel E. Blue led his 3rd Platoon of Company C and five Medium tanks of the 767th Tank Battalion toward the field along a road that had little clearance on either side. Coming to a destroyed bridge, the Japanese sprung an ambush on the American column. Heavy fire broke out and individual Japanese soldiers ran towards the tanks with satchel charges, mines and cans of gasoline. The tanks, in attempting to maneuver had become bogged down in swampy ground and stalled. Protected by the infantry, the tanks pulled each other out of the bog in turn. It took most of the day, and by late afternoon the tanks were free, but five of Lieutenant Blue’s men, including the lieutenant, had been wounded. Deciding that the enemy was too strong to continue, Lieutenant Blue ordered a withdrawal. He reported in to Colonel Pachler shortly before darkness.
Colonel Pachler now ordered a resumption of his advance on Dagami. Because the terrain prevented a broad-front advance, he ordered an advance in column of battalions with two companies on either side of the road to a depth of one hundred yards. Companies A and C would lead the regimental advance, and they moved out on October 26th. During the day, the 2nd Battalion, 17th Infantry reverted to its parent regiment and relieved the 2nd Battalion, 184th Infantry, which went into division reserve. Because of the difficult terrain, the tank support was restricted to a platoon of tanks while the rest waited in reserve.
The infantry led the way forward. Passing the village of Buri, which was unoccupied, they cautiously searched every building, high grass spot, and any potential obstacle. As two scouts of Company C were searching a patch of high grass, they suddenly found themselves in the middle of an extensive enemy trench system. The defenders were taken completely by surprise and eliminated by the attacking Americans. Encounters with enemy groups continued without hindering the advance. By late afternoon the advance had reached some high ground where Colonel Pachler ordered a night defensive position to be established.
After a quiet night, Colonel Pachler sent the 3rd Battalion in the lead and continued towards Dagami. Lieutenant Colonel Lew Wallace placed Captain Charles T. Frazee’s Company K in the lead with troops covering both sides of the road. Coming to the village of Guinarona, a cluster of twenty to thirty native shacks along a stream, they were hit by heavy enemy fire as they attempted to cross the stream. Two machine guns supported by a platoon of infantry were hiding in the village. Captain Frazee ordered a three-minute artillery, mortar and machine-gun barrage which destroyed the machine guns and scattered the infantry. On the flank, the 3rd platoon came under fire from two additional machine guns. Private First Class Clive McPeek placed his first bazooka shell directly into the schoolhouse where one of the guns was located. The second gun was knocked out by a direct hit from an 81mm mortar. First Lieutenant Lester O. Lingren brought up two of his self-propelled guns from the Regimental Cannon Company and eliminated the remaining Japanese infantry.
The battalion moved on and for the rest of the day no serious opposition was encountered. By nightfall, Colonel Wallace settled his battalion in for the night less than two miles south of Dagami. Just north of the position was a destroyed stone bridge in a causeway over which the main road crossed a wide swamp. Enemy machine-gun fire came out of the swamp as Company K settled in for the night and Captain Frazee had his 60mm mortars respond. Enemy fire soon ceased, with only some enemy air activity seen that night. Overall it was quiet. On the next day Lt. Colonel William B. Moore’s 2nd Battalion would take the lead into Dagami.
The road ahead of the 2nd Battalion led into a swamp at least 100 yards wide. The road crossed the swamp on a causeway with the destroyed stone bridge in the middle of that causeway. On the north was a huge coconut grove which ran 100 yards east of the road in a long arc which ran west and south, forming in effect a semicircle. West of the grove the marsh resumed. Prisoners captured during the advance had revealed that Lieutenant Colonel Kakuda, commander of the Central Area Unit of the 20th Infantry Regiment, had ordered that the regiment take a position west of Dagami and annihilate the Americans before they reached the town. Besides elements of his own regiment, Colonel Kakuda had under his command the 2nd Battalion, 33rd Infantry Regiment, and elements of the 16th Engineer Regiment and 9th Infantry Regiment. All were considerably understrength, but nevertheless this was a formidable defensive force. Estimates gave Colonel Kakuda between 1,500 and 2,500 troops under command outside of Dagami.
Colonel Pachler decided to attack in column of battalions, in the order 2nd, 1st and 3rd. The tanks and other supporting arms were attached to the 2nd Battalion. As Colonel Moore’s battalion moved forward early the next morning, with Company F on the left and Company G on the right, it was hit with intense rifle, machine gun and mortar fire from Japanese hidden in the grove and swamp. Wading through waist-deep swamp water, the footing became so difficult that it was soon realized that the battalion could not continue. Colonel Moore recalled his leading companies and sent them forward along the causeway, normally not a proper military course of action. Instead of being cut to pieces, however, the leading companies crossed the causeway against limited opposition. Apparently the Japanese wanted to let them move into a bottleneck from which they could not escape. Engineers of the 13th Engineer Combat Battalion followed closely and began to fill the gap at the stone bridge with debris. This allowed three 767th Tank Battalion tanks to cross as well, something the Japanese had not planned. Unfortunately, the three tanks moved swiftly forward and lost contact with the infantry for the rest of the morning.
Once across the causeway, Captain Adams moved Company F forward. It was now that the Japanese revealed the full extent of their defenses. Small-arms fire pinned the leading platoon to the ground. Although initially well hidden, the Japanese soon began to move about, revealing their positions. Private First Class Decidero Codena, wielding a Browning Automatic Rifle, spotted one Japanese and rose up after him. The enemy replied with a grenade which severely wounded Codena, but his action had lifted his platoon from the ground. Staff Sergeant Herman Judd grabbed the BAR and killed the enemy soldier. He then moved to an enemy trench where he dispatched fifteen more enemy troops before running out of ammunition. First Lieutenant Jerrel F. Wilson brought up the rest of the platoon and led them in attacking the remaining enemy positions. Company F’s other platoon faced a series of bunkers and fortified positions. Following the 3rd Platoon into the swamp, they charged the enemy defenses. Led by Private First Class Leonard C. Brostram, the leading scout, the platoon engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Hit early in the fight by three enemy bullets, the native of Preston, Idaho continued to lead the platoon into the enemy positions. Realizing that a key enemy pillbox in the center of the strong point would have to be knocked out if his platoon was to survive and advance, Private First Class Brostrom decided on his own to attack the pillbox. Already wounded, he charged forward with grenades. As he did so, he was the prime target for every Japanese weapon in sight. He miraculously reached the rear of the pillbox and tossed his grenades into the position. Six enemy soldiers rose from a nearby trench and charged the Idaho soldier with bayonets. Private First Class Brostrom killed one and drove off the others with rifle fire. He then threw more grenades at other enemy defenses from a completely exposed position. Suffering intense pain from his wounds and weakening from blood loss, he continued to toss grenades at the enemy pillboxes. Finally, he collapsed. Just as he did so, however, the Japanese broke and ran, many being killed by members of Company F as they fled. Medics carried Private First Class Brostrom from the field but he died while being carried to safety. For his self-sacrifice on October 28, 1944, Private First Class Leonard C. Brostrom was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.
Staff Sergeant Paul Doty now came up and finished off the remaining enemy within the pillbox. Assisted by Privates First Class Howard J. Evans and Eldridge V. Sorenson, they proceeded to move into the center of the enemy defenses, which consisted of dozens of trenches and spider holes. While Private First Class Evans knocked the covers off the holes, Private First Class Sorenson provided cover. Meanwhile, Private First Class William Schmid took a bullet in the arm but knocked off another nearby pillbox. Behind them Captain Adams had requested more support. Tanks were unavailable due to the terrain, but Lieutenant Colonel Edward Smith, the 17th Regiment’s Executive Officer, gave Colonel Moore Company C of the 1st Battalion. Moving across the causeway in mid-morning, they moved to secure the left flank of Company F. Immediately taking enemy fire, Company C also plunged into the swamp. Soon both Companies F and C were deeply involved in their individual firefights with different groups of the enemy.
Shortly after Company C entered the swamp, the three light tanks that had disappeared up the road at the beginning of the fight suddenly reappeared. Sergeant Leland A. Larson ran out under fire and grabbed the exterior phone on one of the tanks and halted them on the road. Captain Adams stopped another by risking his life climbing on top of the tank and blocking its vision with a hand over its periscope. The third tank, never seeing the infantry, continued down the road and disappeared. With two tanks now under his control, Captain Adams organized a new attack against the main enemy positions. A squad under Sergeant Everett C. Mann would advance protecting the tanks, while 1st Platoon under Technical Sergeant James M. Madison followed mopping up behind the advance. Reaching the northern edge of the swamp and having cleared his area, Captain Adams turned the tanks over to G Company. Then Captain Adams lined up his company shoulder to shoulder and covered his area again, determined not to bypass any enemy soldiers.
The tanks and Company C knocked out fourteen enemy strongpoints while clearing their zone. The west side of the Dagami-Burauen highway was now cleared. Company B attempted to clear a strong position at the bend in the coconut grove but they were turned back by strong enemy fire and barbed wire strung within the swamp through which they had to wade to reach the enemy. Meanwhile, on the east side of the highway, First Lieutenant William J. Schade’s Company G faced the same kind of opposition that Company F had met. Just deploying off the highway had cost the company four men killed and seven wounded. Lieutenant Schade ordered his men to continue forward, but after an advance of about thirty yards they stalled. Supporting fires were impossible because the trees would cause premature bursts and might injure Americans. Colonel Moore, keeping in touch, decided to send Company E around the swamp to the right, hoping to outflank the enemy. This took time, but soon began to have an effect. More and more enemy troops abandoned their positions as Company E closed in from their rear and flank. Finally, medium tanks reported to Lieutenant Schade who now launched a frontal and flanking attack.
The flanking attack was the platoon under First Lieutenant George B. Rodman, which moved through Company E and hit the enemy’s flank. They soon came up against a heavily fortified enemy position consisting of pillboxes and trenches. A BAR man from Armstrong, Iowa led the attack. Private First Class John F. Thorson volunteered to take the lead and entered an enemy trench, killing its occupants despite intense fire directed at him. As he cleared the trench, he was wounded and fell barely six yards from the enemy. His platoon immediately came up to assist him, and as the remaining twenty men arrived an enemy grenade landed in their midst. Shouting a warning and making a final effort, Private First Class Thorson rolled over onto the grenade, absorbing the blast with his body. Killed instantly, he had saved the lives of his fellow platoon members. For his leadership and self-sacrifice, Private First Class Thorson was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.
The action of Lieutenant Rodman’s platoon ended the battle except for the remaining enemy pocket in front of Company B. Colonel Pachler now attached a platoon of Cannon Company self-propelled guns to Captain Davis and ordered him to eliminate this last opposition to the advance on Dagami. Moving out the next morning, the combined force passed through the areas cleared by C, F and G Companies into the remaining enemy defenses. The Cannon Company guns knocked out six pillboxes while the infantry cleared out dozens of spider holes and trenches. Company B spent the day thoroughly combing the area to ensure that no Japanese remained to oppose their advance. Estimates later stated that two companies of Japanese had been defending these positions. Few escaped to Dagami.
The 17th Infantry finished clearing the swamp around the stone bridge and then moved further along the road to Dagami for some 300 yards before establishing a night defensive perimeter. Enemy machine gun and mortar fire harassed the perimeter all night, and several stray Japanese soldiers stumbled into the protecting barbed wire, where they were eliminated by grenades during the night.
Since the 2nd Battalion, 17th Infantry had carried the burden the day before, the other two battalions would lead the attack on October 29th. Company B, with support from a platoon of Cannon Company self-propelled guns, would clean out the remaining pocket of enemy at the edge of the swamp which flanked the regimental line of advance. Platoons under Staff Sergeant Tim E. Lopez and Technical Sergeant Frank J. Gonzales fought from pillbox to pillbox by attacking from the flanks and rear of each enemy position until it was overrun. The self-propelled howitzers used time-burst fire to keep the Japanese pinned down while the infantry moved in with rifles, machine guns and grenades. By 1600 Hours, Company B had cleared the area and was firing at several Japanese who had thrown down their arms as they attempted to escape towards Dagami. More than 120 enemy dead were counted in this area after the battle.
Meanwhile, the 3rd Battalion led off on the right and the 1st Battalion on the left against no serious opposition. By 1400 Hours, they were both on the outskirts of Dagami. Warned that upwards of 400 enemy troops were expected to garrison the town, they advanced cautiously. As the 3rd Battalion approached a cemetery overgrown with weeds, one company entered the grounds while the others bypassed it. The leading platoons of Company L climbed over the stone wall surrounding the cemetery and moved through it without a shot being fired. As the 1st Platoon, in reserve, entered the cemetery, a headstone tilted back, and from the open grave Japanese opened fire using a captured Browning Automatic Rifle. The platoon leader, First Lieutenant Aldo J. Freppoli, and two men were killed, three others wounded. One American scout who watched the whole process was too surprised to fire a shot, as was most of the platoon. After firing off one magazine, the Japanese pulled the headstone back into place and disappeared into the grave.
Because Colonel Pachler wanted to secure Dagami immediately, Company L was ordered to continue forward while the reserve company, Company K under Captain Frazee, was ordered to clear the cemetery. Small-arms fire had no effect on this position, and a flamethrower was brought forward. But it swiftly became clear the Japanese had fortified the cemetery by emptying the graves and drilling holes through the stones, converting the crypts into individual foxholes. Because other Americans were on all sides of the cemetery, Company K had difficulty employing support weapons. As they regrouped, a Japanese captain jumped out of one of the graves and charged Staff Sergeant Jack T. Lewis, firing his pistol. A nearby BAR man, Private First Class Harold R. Peckman, tried to shoot Staff Sergeant Lewis’ attacker, but his weapon jammed. Hearing the click of the BAR, the Japanese captain turned his attention to Private Peckman, wounding him. He turned back to Sergeant Lewis, but this time the Japanese weapon jammed. The captain pulled his sword and charged Sergeant Lewis, cutting him severely across the arm. Private First Class Harry Trahan, hearing the noise, raced to the scene and killed the attacking officer. The cemetery was cleared after this incident by men like Private First Class Odell Clark, who with his flamethrower and a squad of riflemen, moved cautiously from grave to grave and burned the Japanese out of their holes. When asked if his company was being counterattacked, Captain Frazee replied, “Hell no, we’re just fighting for a bivouacarea.”
The clearance of the cemetery and the entrance of the 17th Infantry into Dagami on October 30th accomplished a major objective for the 7th Infantry Division. Patrols soon made contact with the 24th Infantry Division of X Corps north of Dagami and with the 382nd Infantry of the 96th Infantry Division to the east. The main limits of the final beachhead line had been reached and secured. To protect the new main line of resistance, the 7th Reconnaissance Troop and the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Infantry moved down the road to Abuyog, a potential route for Japanese reinforcements. No resistance was encountered, and on November 2nd a patrol from Company G seized the village of Baybay, across the island from Abuyog. Further south, the detached 21st Infantry Regiment had been protecting the Panaon Strait area. Orders soon sent the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Infantry to relieve the 21st Infantry, which in turn left to rejoin its parent unit, the 24th Infantry Division.
By November 2nd, General Hodge’s XXIV Corps had accomplished its initial missions on Leyte. The southern part of the Leyte Valley had been securely captured along with its airfields, roads and base sites. The Corps had pushed across to the west coast and stood ready on army orders to advance towards Ormoc, which was the next phase of the Sixth Army plan. Up north, the X Corps had been busy securing the northern entrance to Leyte Valley.