LEYTE: INTO THE VALLEYS III

US armored car at Labiranan Head.

Tenth Corps had already secured the Tacloban area, Hill 522, Palo and the San Juanico Strait, all of which allowed the Americans access to the northern entrance of Leyte Valley. The final objective was to secure Carigara Bay, halting the increasing Japanese amphibious reinforcement of the Leyte garrison. This would also put X Corps in a position to continue south through Ormoc Valley and secure the other vital port at Ormoc. In order to achieve these goals, the Corps directed a two-pronged attack into Leyte Valley, each led by one of its divisions.

General Krueger had expected the Japanese to strongly defend Tacloban, with its airfields, and therefore expected the 1st Cavalry Division to face the bulk of the resistance. However, the Japanese had not acted as expected, and the 24th Infantry Division faced the most severe resistance upon landing on Leyte. As a result, General Krueger moved some of the Cavalry battalions to the 24th Infantry’s sector to aid them in clearing their zone. After the capture of Palo and Hills B and C, the 24th Infantry Division was to attack west while the 1st Cavalry Division protected its northern flank. Because the 24th Infantry Division had not received its third regiment back from the Panaon Strait assignment, the 1st Cavalry Brigade was to relieve all of its combat troops assigned to rear area or security duties to allow the full weight of the 24th Infantry to be available for the renewed drive west. The attack would be made along Highway 2, a one-lane all-weather road, which was twelve feet wide and made of crushed rock and gravel.

Lieutenant General Sosaku Suzuki, commanding the 35th Army, had originally planned that once the Americans had reached the entrances to Leyte Valley, he would withdraw his troops, along with sufficient supplies for six months, to the hills overlooking the valley. But the swift advance of the Americans had made this plan impossible to carry out. Instead, he directed his troops to assemble in the vicinity of Jaro at the southern edge of Leyte Valley. Here, he ordered the 41st Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division and the 169th Independent Infantry Battalion from the 102nd Infantry Division to prepare to stop the advancing Americans. Soon after, the 17th Independent Infantry Battalion, also of the 102nd Infantry Division, was ordered to join them. These units were all new to Leyte, having arrived through Carigara Bay by sea since the Americans landed on the island. For when the Japanese had changed their plans to make Leyte the decisive land battle, they had moved swiftly.

Within days of the American landings, the commander of the Southwest Area Fleet, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, ordered reinforcements to Leyte. Two nights later, October 25th, the first 2,550 Japanese reinforcements of the 41st Infantry Regiment landed at Ormoc, transported on high-speed naval transports from Mindanao. On their return, American naval planes flying off escort carriers protecting the Leyte beachheads, sank two escorting warships and one of the transports, which delayed two more regiments awaiting transport. Nevertheless, over the next four days, four more infantry battalions arrived at Ormoc, sent by the 35th Army. Initially these moves confused the American commanders, with some believing that the Japanese were with drawing from Leyte instead of reinforcing it. Radio intelligence and guerrilla reports soon cleared up the confusion as they reported additional reinforcements landing, not departing.

Still believing the claims of the Imperial Japanese Navy that the American fleet was severely damaged, the Japanese viewed the Sixth Army as trapped on Leyte, and a vital target waiting to be destroyed. All they had to do was to assemble sufficient ground troops to accomplish it. As a result, the 1st and 26th Infantry Divisions were ordered to Leyte. The 68th Independent Infantry Brigade was next. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s Southwest Area Fleet was strengthened to both protect and implement the passage of these reinforcements. Under the code name “TA” (many), the operation was also to be protected by significant additional air resources allocated to the Philippines from as far away as the Japanese Home Islands. Initially, this effort went better than expected. The 1st Infantry Division, an experienced and highly respected unit, was transferred all the way from Manchuria through Shanghai to Ormoc Bay without the Americans being aware of it. Neither the code breakers nor aerial reconnaissance spotted its convoy at any point during its long passage. The Japanese helped by creating a deception. The 1st Combined Signals Unit, based in Manila, sent out plain-language messages, supposedly from an American B-24 Reconnaissance aircraft, reporting a Japanese fleet steaming westerly towards Leyte. This report, which grew to include enemy battleships, cruisers and destroyers, attracted the attention of General Kenney’s sir forces to the extent that they completely missed the reinforcement convoys. Included in the real convoy were the 35th Army’s commander, General Suzuki, and his staff. It was not until the following morning that American planes discovered the Japanese shipping in Ormoc Bay and attacked it, but the damage had been done. General Krueger would later comment in his memoirs that “this unit, more than any other hostile unit on Leyte, was responsible for the extension of the Leyte Operation.”

Radio intercepts soon revealed the presence of General Suzuki on Leyte, which also resolved the question of whether the Japanese were reinforcing or retreating. With an army commander arriving on Leyte, the answer became obvious. Philippine guerrillas soon provided an identification of the 30th Infantry Division from ID tags taken from their most recent victims around Ormoc. Finally, reports that the 1st Infantry Division had reached Leyte also reached Sixth Army Headquarters. It was now, on November 2nd, clear to both General MacArthur and General Krueger that the Japanese intended to make a major fight for the island.

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The flow of intelligence information on the Japanese reinforcements was valuable to Sixth Army, but caused significant concerns as well. The Sixth Army now feared being outnumbered, with dwindling air support due to miserable weather conditions, and without a strong fleet immediately behind it. The weather ruined the roads, impeding supplies headed for the front. The army soon realized that it was short several thousand riflemen, replacements for casualties, which would not be made up. And Japanese intentions were still unclear. An enemy landing behind Sixth Army’s lines, at Carigara Bay, was considered a possibility. With limited air and naval resources, such an attempt had a good chance of success. This landing could result in the Japanese outflanking American troops via Ormoc Valley, splitting the Sixth Army in two. These concerns, as we shall see, influenced General Krueger’s conduct of the battle.

Meanwhile, the fighting continued. Tenth Corps now began its fight for the northern Leyte Valley with the 24th Infantry Division leading down Highway 2. Colonel Pearsall led his 34th Infantry forward on October 26th, the same date the first Japanese reinforcements landed, against slight resistance. Supported by the 3rd Engineer Combat Battalion, the 34th Infantry progressed smoothly over several streams. By dinner time the entire regiment was in Sante Fe. The next day, Lt. Colonel Thomas E. Clifford, Jr., the 1st Battalion commander, had established his unit along the Mudburon River.

As daylight broke in Leyte on October 28th, Colonel Clifford ordered his battalion to move in a column of companies along Highway 2 to the town of Alangalang, a little over a mile to the northwest. The advance went as planned and continued on another mile to the Mainit River. Here the remnants of the 33rd Infantry Regiment made a brief stand at a bridge over the river but was easily pushed aside. As they retreated, however, units of the newly arrived 41st Infantry Regiment took over the defense of the area and halted the Americans. The 34th Infantry then sent both the 1st and 2nd Battalions against the defenses in a pouring rain. Supported by tanks and the 63rd Field Artillery Battalion, the advance, despite significant opposition, went through the enemy defenses. These consisted of covered emplacements six feet deep and connected by tunnels. The Japanese used periscopes to watch the Americans while not revealing themselves. Yet, so quick was the American advance that the Japanese had no chance to blow up the steel bridge which brought Highway 2 over the river, even though they had previously prepared it for demolition.

One of the reasons this advance near Alangalang went so well was the actions of Private First Class Teddy Szymanski of Company F, 34th Infantry. A runner for his company commander, Szymanski was instrumental in keeping the company commander in communication with the assault platoons as they advanced over an open area some 500 yards wide. But he went further than simply passing on orders. He pointed out to the assault platoons enemy spider holes and aided in their destruction. When the left flank assault platoon was stopped by enemy fire, Szymanski rushed forward in the face of heavy small-arms fire and single-handedly destroyed three enemy emplacements dug deeply into the ground, using a sub-machine gun and grenades. Spotting an enemy mortar firing on his company, the Indiana soldier again ran forward alone under rifle and automatic weapons fire and destroyed the enemy position. For his single-handed efforts to advance his company, Private First Class Teddy Szymanski received a Distinguished Service Cross.

To the south, the 19th Infantry Regiment sent Major Elmer C. Howard’s 3rd Battalion towards Castilla. Arriving there, Howard learned from local Filipinos that there were no Japanese between Castilla and Pastrana, the next objective. He requested permission of Lt. Colonel George H. Chapman, Jr., to advance and seize Pastrana. After some adjustments in orders, Major Howard was authorized to seize Pastrana. Proceeding over a trail so narrow it could not accommodate vehicles, Company I soon reached the edge of the town. Here they came under heavy enemy fire. Major Howard pulled Company I back and organized an attack with Companies I and K, which soon ran into a star-shaped fort that halted the advance. Protected by pillboxes and trenches, the fort defeated two attempts by the 19th Infantry to destroy it. Colonel Chapman, seeing his casualties increase dramatically, ordered a halt to operations for the day.

Battery C, 11th Field Artillery Battalion, took the position under fire, but after forty-two rounds reported that its guns were out of action because they were sinking into the mud. Battery A of the 14th Field Artillery Battalion, and the 13th Field Artillery Battalion took over the mission. This bombardment went on all night, and the next morning was reinforced by 4.2-inch chemical mortars and 81mm mortars. When, on the morning of October 27, Company K resumed its attack, the Japanese had gone, pushed out by the heavy weight of the American bombardment. The 19th Infantry moved in and secured the area.

With the 24th Infantry Division moving on Carigara, the 19th Infantry advance was next directed on Jaro, the town designated for the assembly of the 35th Army. Intelligence had reported this to Sixth Army, and General Krueger wanted to capture the area to upset Japanese plans. The advance went well with Japanese resistance at a minimum. On October 30th, Company C, 19th Infantry, encountered a strong force near Rizal, but after a strong artillery barrage, the enemy retreated, opening the way for the Americans to advance on Jaro. But the Japanese had another defense line at the Mainit River. As the Americans approached the river, passing quiet, abandoned villages and moving unopposed along the road, they were suddenly ambushed by a prepared Japanese defense. Several men in the leading column fell dead or wounded on the road, under direct enemy fire. The enemy’s position on the other side of the river could not be seen.

Those Japanese were well dug in with earthen pillboxes covered with grass, and narrow firing ports invisible from just a few feet away. But soon the very cleverness of their defenses gave them away. As the Japanese guns continued to fire, they set the dry grass around their pillboxes afire, revealing them to the Americans. Two assault companies attacked on either side of the Mainit River Bridge. They reached the river bank but were soon pinned down by enemy machine-gun fire. To cross the open water was certain death. A withdrawal was ordered but the leading elements could not move. They could neither go forward nor backward. Tanks were brought up and these opened fire on the now revealed enemy positions. But some machine guns, now joined by snipers, maintained their fire and kept the American infantry pinned to the ground. A Cannon Company platoon came up and expended its ammunition, knocking out more, but not all, of the Japanese guns.

Meanwhile, scouts had continued along the river bank, seeking a ford. To the rear, Corporal Albert Nichols of Oklahoma was waiting for the order to move up, and in the meantime searching for souvenirs. As he did so, he noticed figures crouching in the underbrush. At first thinking they were natives, he wondered why they were trying to conceal themselves. Then he realized they were Japanese soldiers, a raiding party which was about to attack a field artillery battery supporting the attack at the Mainit River Bridge. He opened fire, and despite return grenade and rifle fire, he dispersed the raiders, protecting the vital artillery. In the interim the scouts had found a ford.

The ford required a trek through thick jungle to the river, a twenty-foot drop down the bank, a river crossing and then an attack on the flank of the Japanese Mainit River Line. Colonel Newman led a battalion over the river and hit the vulnerable Japanese flank by mid-afternoon. While the flank attack was getting into position, the assault battalion facing the line kept up the pressure, preventing the Japanese from learning too soon that they were about to be flanked. By the time the Japanese realized that they were being attacked from behind, it was too late. Led by Captain Austin’s Company F, with fixed bayonets, the 2nd Battalion, 34th Infantry charged the enemy defenders, clearing the river line.

Even then, the battle remained fierce. Sergeant Ernest Reckman, from Valley Stream, New York, was leading his squad forward. As his men passed some brush, he noticed that there were concealed spider holes in the area. He called his squad back and led them in a charge on the holes. Further along he discovered an enemy mortar, well-concealed, firing on his men. He charged the position singlehandedly and knocked it out with a grenade. Private First Class William Thomas of Fort Wayne, Indiana, was right behind his squad leader when he was cut down by machine-gun fire. Private First Class Edward R. Thomas dragged the wounded man to safety and then alone charged the machine gun position and knocked it out. Private First Class Thomas of Trappist, Kentucky, was then fired on by an enemy machine gun as he crossed the river. After climbing the high bank he attacked and knocked out the enemy gun. Discovering three other machine guns firing on his buddies, he took them under rifle fire and kept them pinned down until help arrived and the guns were destroyed.

Both regiments crossed the Mainit River and moved on Jaro, supported by the tanks of the 603rd Tank Company. Company L, 34th Infantry, leading the advance, moved unopposed until reaching the village of Galotan, where a small force of Japanese dug into the shacks and had to be rooted out with rifles, mortars, grenades and bayonets. By 1700 Hours on October 29th Jaro had been secured. To the east, the 19th Infantry had maintained contact and secured the eastern flank.

One column of this advance was accompanied by the assistant division commander, Brigadier General Kenneth F. Cramer of Wethersfield, Connecticut. As he consulted maps with the leading platoon commander, an enemy sniper opened fire. This happened several times; each time the general removed his helmet to wipe his bald head in the hot, humid climate. Finally, the lieutenant realized what was happening. “By God, Sir,” he said, “your pate is the target.” From that moment, General Cramer kept his helmet on, and the sniper was soon firing at other, less obvious, targets.

General Sibert, commanding X Corps, remained anxious about Carigara Bay. He wanted to secure that area to prevent enemy reinforcements from using it to arrive and also to prevent a concentration of Japanese forces there for any counterattack. He ordered the 1st Cavalry Division to take over the zone of responsibility of the 24th Infantry Division. The latter unit was then to continue the attack as fast as possible and secure Carigara Bay. General Suzuki, on the other side of the battle lines, had been caught unprepared for the rapid American advance. Much of his earlier planning had now been negated. The town of Jaro could no longer be used to assemble his 35th Army for a counterattack. Instead, he now ordered his troops to Carigara as an assembly point for future operations. Even as he did so, Colonel Newman was ordering his troops forward.

The 1st Cavalry Division was following closely behind the 24th Infantry Division, protecting the flanks and rear of the advance. General Hoffman had also ordered his troopers to advance, sending the 2nd Cavalry Brigade towards Carigara. Both the 7th and 8th Cavalry Regiments moved forward, sending patrols in advance. One of these patrols, led by First Lieutenant Tower W. Greenbowe of Troop C, 7th Cavalry, actually reached the outskirts of Carigara, only to be pushed away by strong enemy resistance. General Sibert, estimating some 5,000 enemy troops defending Carigara, ordered a two-division assault. The 24th Infantry Division would attack from Jaro while the 2nd Cavalry Brigade would advance from Barugo.

General Suzuki’s planning took another blow when on October 29th, just as the Americans were advancing on Carigara, he learned that the great naval victory at Leyte Gulf had been won not by the Japanese, but by the American navy. This put further difficulties in the way of accomplishing his plans for Leyte. Indeed, the only good news came from 14th Area Army Headquarters, which relieved him of responsibility for the island of Samar so he could concentrate on the defense of Leyte. Undeterred, General Suzuki ordered his 102nd Infantry Division to Leyte from Panay. The 1st Infantry and 26th Infantry Divisions were already under orders for Leyte from Manila. With the enemy too close to Carigara for comfort, these additional reinforcements would use Ormoc Bay as their arrival point. Once there, they would march up Highway 2 through Ormoc Valley to Carigara Bay. From that point General Suzuki would launch his grand counterattack to sweep the Americans off Leyte Island. Only the 68th Brigade was still destined to land at Carigara Bay, since General Suzuki was unaware of Colonel Newman’s coming advance.

By October 28th General Suzuki had the 41st Infantry Regiment, the 169th Independent Infantry Battalion33 and a battalion from the 57th Independent Mixed Brigade34 under control on Leyte. These units, except for elements of the 41st Infantry Regiment, which had inadvertently run into the 24th Infantry Division near Jaro, moved into the hills above Carigara to prepare defenses and assemble for the grand counterattack. The Americans were, for the moment, ignoring these mountain defenses. The reason was that General Krueger, well informed on Japanese reinforcements, was concerned about an enemy buildup at Carigara. As he later recorded, “As it appeared that the Japanese would probably put up a determined defense at Carigara, General Sibert [CG, X Corps], who had assumed command on the 21st of his troops on shore, held up any further advance of his cavalry units until the 24th Division was up and he could launch a coordinated attack.”

Colonel Newman launched his attack on October 30th with the 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry in the lead. Using tanks and artillery to clear a path, the battalion advanced down the Jaro-Carigara highway. But the Japanese resisted fiercely and attacked the tanks with antitank assault teams who struck at the tank treads, periscopes and observation ports. Mines were placed under the tanks as they moved slowly up the road. “Molotov cocktails” were tossed at and on them as well. Others jumped on the tank and tried to find openings through which they would throw grenades. Smoke grenades blinded the tanks, making them more vulnerable to attack. Suicide attackers strapped mines to their bodies and lay down on tanks, then set off the mine. Only close infantry protection kept the tanks able to continue with the attack. While the tanks needed the infantry to protect them, the infantry needed the tanks to make any forward progress.

Many wounded lay exposed and without medical treatment along the road and in the brush nearby. These men had to be evacuated and treated for their wounds. But enemy fire prevented any vehicles from approaching the area. Undeterred, Sergeant Robert Bowman of Massachusetts, and Sergeant Louis H. Hansel of Mount Vernon, Kentucky, brought forward their self-propelled howitzers. Remaining outside the vehicles to guard them from Japanese antitank teams, they guided them forward, knocking out Japanese positions as they went. When it came time to withdraw, they moved slowly back, picking up the wounded as they went. Both men survived but Sergeant Hansel was later killed in action.

When Company L was stopped by hidden Japanese who could not be rooted out by tanks or artillery, Colonel Newman came forward and asked, “What’s the holdup here?” Told the reason was heavy enemy fire, and advised by the leading platoon’s lieutenant to take cover, Newman declared, “I’ll get the men going okay.” With the regimental commander leading them, the infantrymen moved forward into increasing enemy artillery and mortars. An enemy shell fell on the road and Colonel Newman fell with wounds to his stomach. Badly wounded, he remained calm, and as the aid man worked quickly over his wounds, he continued to issue orders for the advance. He ordered that he be left while the infantry placed mortar fire on the now disclosed enemy positions. Colonel Newman was later dragged to safety by his orderly and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

With Colonel Newman out of action, Lt. Colonel Chester A. Dahlen, the Regimental Executive Officer, assumed command. He ordered a renewal of the attack after the leading elements had withdrawn. Lt. Colonel Postleth-wait’s 3rd Battalion attacked again into heavy artillery, machine gun and mortar fire. Supported by the 2nd Battalion’s flanking attack, they were still unable to progress. That night the 11th, 52nd, and 63rd Field Artillery Battalions pounded the front, supported by Corps Artillery. Colonel Dahlen launched another attack the next day, October 31st, which resulted in a daylong battle moving from one hill to the next. Using tanks, self-propelled guns and flanking maneuvers, the 34th Infantry fought to overcome the 41st Infantry Regiment. When night came the battle still raged, but under cover of darkness, the Japanese withdrew.

The division commander, General Irving, ordered a resumption of the attack the next day, November 1st. As he and a staff officer, Colonel William J. Verbeck, were reviewing a map just behind the lines, a Japanese soldier suddenly came out of the brush brandishing a grenade and a dagger, and charged the two American officers. All General Irving had was a pair of dividers he was using on the map. Colonel Verbeck pulled his automatic .45 caliber pistol and fired. He missed, and then proceeded to miss with the next six rounds, with the Japanese soldier getting closer each second. Finally, with his last bullet, Colonel Verbeck hit his target and the threat vanished.

With the 19th Infantry covering flanks and rear, the 34th Infantry went forward again. This time the advance moved rapidly, the 41st Infantry Regiment having withdrawn into the mountains. By nightfall, the 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry established a perimeter well along the road to Carigara. Guerrilla reports estimated the enemy defenders there as numbering between 2,000 to 5,000 troops, well armed and well equipped. Unknown to the Americans, however, was that General Suzuki that very same night had ordered a withdrawal from Carigara to an assembly point in the nearby mountains. The Japanese would not fight for Carigara as feared by the Americans.

American artillery fire bombarded the area of Carigara throughout the night of November 1. General Sibert now had his units in position for the two-pronged assault on the town as planned. Leading was the 34th Infantry, which reached the outskirts of Carigara at 0900 Hours on the morning of November 2nd. Patrols reported no enemy contact within the town. Contact was made with Troop E, 5th Cavalry, at 1100 Hours and the cavalrymen entered the town shortly thereafter. The 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry, then continued on to Capoocan. After crossing the Carigara River, the battalion was halted by enemy fire near Balud. Behind them, the rest of the regiment set up defensive positions protecting Carigara. The advance had cost the 24th Infantry Division 210 killed, 859 wounded and 6 missing in action. An estimated 2,970 Japanese had been killed, along with 13 prisoners taken during the advance on Carigara.

General Krueger had now completed the second phase of his operation. Panaon and San Juanico Straits had been secured, Sixth Army had reached the west coast of the island, and the entire force was in place for a drive on the Ormoc Valley, which was believed to be the last Japanese stronghold. All the airfields had been seized, as well as most of the ports and Leyte Valley. Things were looking good for U.S. Sixth Army. But in fact, the Japanese were just beginning their battle for Leyte.

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