Recapturing the “Rock,” 1945
Nothing characterized the “shock and awe” of the early months of World War II for the United States like the twin disasters of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the enemy’s conquest of the Philippines five months later. The latter Japanese victory likely had the greatest impact on the Americana public when the enemy’s Philippine conquest was sealed by the May 6, 1942 U.S. surrender of its last bastion of defense in Manila Bay – Corregidor Island fortress, the “Gibraltar of the East.”
Yet, three years later during the liberation of the Philippines by General Douglas MacArthur’s American and Filipino troops, Corregidor was recaptured from its Japanese occupiers in a daring February 1945 airborne drop-amphibious landing operation.
Corregidor Island lies at the mouth of expansive Manila Bay, the finest natural harbor in the Orient. Officially known by its U.S. military designation Fort Mills but commonly called the “Rock,” the 5-square mile, tadpole-shaped island guards the entrance to the bay from its location between the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula and the northern shoreline of Cavite province. From west to east, Corregidor is divided into four areas: “Topside,” features the island’s highest elevation, 590 feet, and is the location of the bulk of the fortress’s coast artillery gun and mortar batteries; “Middleside,” a small plateau with barracks and administrative buildings; “Bottomside,” the island’s lowest level, contains docks and the entrance to Malinta Tunnel; and “Tailside,” the narrow eastward-pointing end which has a small airfield and a navy seaplane base.
When World War II began for the United States in December 1941, the American harbor defenses of Manila Bay consisted of coastal artillery guns and mortars manned by nearly 5,000 artillerymen. These guns and mortars were positioned on: Corregidor Island (Fort Mills – eight 12-inch guns, ten 12-inch mortars, two 10-inch guns and two 6-inch guns); Caballo Island (Fort Hughes – two 14-inch guns and four 12-inch mortars): El Fraile Island (Fort Drum – four 14-inch and four 6-inch guns); and Carabao Island (Fort Frank – two 14-inch and eight 12-inch guns).
After the Japanese defeated American and Filipino defenders on Bataan Peninsula April 9, 1942, they turned their full attention to capturing America’s last Philippine bastion – fortress Corregidor. After pounding the island with artillery and air bombardments throughout the remainder of April and into early May, the Japanese launched their amphibious invasion of Corregidor on the night of May 5-6. The Japanese invaders established a beachhead and rapidly reinforced it with tanks and artillery. Corregidor’s defenders fell back to Fort Mills’ underground command and control center, the Malinta Tunnel complex, but the American commander, Lieutenant General Jonathan M. Wainwright, soon realized that further resistance was futile. Late on May 6 Wainwright asked Japanese commander, Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, for surrender terms. The fighting to capture Corregidor was short but deadly. It had cost the Japanese 900 killed and 1,200 wounded, while Wainwright’s defenders lost 800 killed, 1,000 wounded and the remainder of the garrison, 11,000, captured.
During the over three-year Japanese occupation of the Philippines, Corregidor served as an outpost for Japanese-held Manila Bay, but they did not integrate it into their overall Philippines defenses as a heavily fortified position. Some of the old U.S. gun positions were put back in operational status, but only for propaganda newsreels and for picture-taking excursions by Japanese soldiers on leave in the Manila Bay area. The old U.S. Coast Artillery guns and mortars were never re-armed or fired again.
Until August 1944, Japanese 14th Army had only garrisoned Corregidor with three companies of troops. Prior to that time, the Japanese had used American POWs to tidy up Corregidor’s shattered installations, collect scrap metal and munitions, and rebuild some barracks and quarters. However, the enemy had expended no effort to build up Corregidor’s defensive fortifications. Yet, the Japanese Navy was in charge of defending Manila Bay, and Navy Captain Akira Atagaki resolved to defend Corregidor.
RECONQUEST OF THE “ROCK”
In October 1944, MacArthur had fulfilled his “I shall return” promise by invading the Philippine island of Leyte. After his forces completed the reconquest of Leyte Island in December, MacArthur launched the amphibious invasion of the most important of the Philippines islands, Luzon, on January 9, 1945. By February 3, American forces supported by Filipino guerrillas were poised to begin the battle to liberate the Philippines’ capital, Manila.
As the brutal and destructive Battle for Manila was raging, MacArthur outlined a plan to his 6th Army Commander, General Walter Krueger, to re-take Bataan and recapture Corregidor. Krueger’s planned operation to recapture Corregidor was to begin with an airborne assault on Topside to seize key positions quickly supported by an amphibious invasion. The airborne assault would be made by about 2,000 paratroopers of 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) and the amphibious landing by several thousand infantrymen of 34th Infantry Regiment. Krueger considered the U.S. force of paratroopers and infantrymen sufficient to deal with the estimated 800-1,000 Japanese that American intelligence believed now defended Corregidor.
Krueger personally selected the drop zones (DZ) for the airborne landing, but Topside was a bad place for airborne DZs. The tiny areas designated for the landings were a parade field and an adjacent, sloping 9-hole golf course on Topside’s southeast corner. Altogether, both were less than 1,000 yards long and 450 yards wide — the smallest ever used for a U.S. combat jump. Pinpoint accuracy would be required or else the paratroopers would overshoot the DZ and land in the ocean, and only about 8 paratroopers per airplane per pass had time to jump and still hit the DZs. That meant multiple passes over the DZs, making surprise and enemy anti-aircraft fire suppression essential. While the parachute assault progressed, 3d Battalion (Reinforced) of 34th Infantry Regiment was to be ferried from southern Bataan to Corregidor’s South Dock on Bottomside. The Japanese were not expecting an airborne assault on the “Rock” so it was hoped that a highly visible amphibious assault would throw them off guard for an air attack.
Youthful Colonel George M. Jones, West Point class of 1935, commanded 503d PIR and equally youthful Lt. Colonel Edward M. Postlewait, West Point class of 1937, commanded 3d Battalion, 34th Infantry. However, both officers were seasoned Pacific War combat veterans. For the defending force’s fire support, the Japanese commander on Corregidor, Captain Atagaki, had two batteries of heavy anti-aircraft guns and four fortress batteries of 100-150mm guns under Navy Lieutenant Endo. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Corregidor, 3,124 tons of bombs dropped from B-24 heavy and A-20 medium bombers had pounded the island with more bombs per square yard than any other target in the Pacific. By the time of the U.S. assault, however, there were about 6,000 Japanese troops on the island — six times more than American intelligence sources had estimated.
On February 13, U.S. Navy ships started conducting mine sweeping operations in Manila Bay in preparation for the February 16 Corregidor invasion. At 8:32 a.m., February 16, the first C-47 troop transport planes were over Corregidor. Lt. Colonel John Erickson, commander of 3d Battalion, 503d PIR, was the first out the door. At about the same time, 3d Battalion, 34th Infantry began landing on South Dock. Captain Atagaki had gone with his command group to a position to observe this amphibious landing when a group of paratroopers that had overshot the DZ landed right on top of them. Atagaki, fully concentrating on the amphibious assault, did not see the airplanes and paratroopers until it was too late. In the ensuing firefight, Atagaki was killed leaving Lieutenant Endo in command of Corregidor’s defenses.
Third Battalion paratroopers took most of the morning to complete their drops. On their first run, the C-47s came in at 550 feet, much too high for the DZ conditions. Colonel Jones witnessed this from his command plane and ordered follow-on pilots to come in at 400 feet. This worked well and most of the other paratroopers hit the DZ. In the afternoon, 2d Battalion, 503d, commanded by Major Lawson Caskey, jumped and found the situation well in hand on Topside. The 3d Battalion had already established a security perimeter on Topside and the 75mm pack howitzers of Major Arlis Kline’s 462d Parachute Field Artillery Battalion were already firing.
Colonel Jones, who had jumped on the third pass of the lead plane, was so encouraged by the results on the ground that he cancelled the air drop of Major Robert Woods’s 1st Battalion, and it instead arrived by amphibious assault at South Dock without injuries. Of the 2,065 jumpers in each of the parachute battalions, 280 were killed or severely injured.
Third Battalion, 503d cleared Topside quickly and 3d Battalion, 34th Infantry, along with some M-4 Sherman tanks, cleared the South Dock landing beaches of enemy mines. That unit quickly occupied Bottomside’s Malinta Hill area. Yet, over the next several days there was heavy fighting all over Corregidor. Many of the Japanese had come out of their caves and tunnels to fight but others had to be blasted out. The paratroopers’ 1st Battalion attacked east from Topside into Middleside, while their 2d Battalion cleaned up Topside, and 3d Battalion which had landed at South Dock contained surviving Japanese holding out in the Malinta Tunnel complex. Meanwhile, 3d Battalion, 34th Infantry cleared the island’s east end along the “Rock’s” tail. During these clearing operations, Colonel Jones gave each battalion commander clear and concise orders: “Kill all enemy in your respective zones.” By February 25 over 3,700 Japanese had been counted killed.
Lieutenant Endo led a Banzai charge on February 18 with predictably suicidal results, and there were others along the length of the island. Some of the Japanese blew themselves up in Kamikaze fashion, taking some of the Americans with them. The worst such incident occurred at the old Naval Intercept Tunnel on the “Rock’s” tail, turning that positions ridge into a huge hole in the ground. That Kamikaze blast was a disaster for 1st Battalion, 503d, killing 52 paratroopers and wounding 197. Shortly thereafter, 1st Battalion’s commander, Major Robert Wood, was killed when an enemy shell landed directly in his command post crater. By March 2, Japanese dead totaled nearly 5,000 with only 21 taken prisoner. It was estimated that there were at least 500 more permanently sealed in caves and 200 others killed in the waters around Corregidor trying to escape. On January 1, 1946, months after the end of the war, 20 Japanese soldiers suddenly emerged from caves on Corregidor and surrendered. Total U.S. casualties were less than 1,000: 207 killed; 474 wounded; and 210 injured in parachute drops.
“HOIST THE COLORS”
In midmorning March 2, 1945 General MacArthur returned to Corregidor when he stepped from a PT boat onto Bottomside’s dock – the same spot from which he had departed the island by PT boat on March 12, 1942. Walking onto Corregidor, he viewed the still-smoking east entrance to Malinta Tunnel. Accompanied by Colonel Jones, MacArthur rode a jeep up to Topside where he visited the ruins of Topside Barracks and toured Battery Wheeler. Returning to the parade field where Jones’s paratroopers and Postlewait’s infantrymen were drawn up, he reviewed the troops, and decorated Jones with the Distinguished Service Cross.
Jones saluted MacArthur and said, “Sir, I present you the fortress of Corregidor.” MacArthur then made a short speech ending with, “I see that the old flagpole still stands. Have your troops hoist the colors to its peak, and let no enemy ever haul them down.”
Lt. Colonel (Retired) Thomas D. Morgan graduated from West Point and served in CONUS, Germany, Vietnam, Panama, and Belgium. After retirement, he worked in the Army’s Battle Command Training Program as a Field Artillery analyst for 15 years. He has Masters Degrees in Public Administration and Military History, and resides in Steilacoom, Washington.
Virtual Tour of the “Rock”: Visit historic Corregidor Island by reading Mo Ludan’s “Corregidor Virtual Tour” led by Carlos B. Reyes of Manila-based Sun Cruises Day Tours at armchairgeneral.com/Corregidor-virtual-tour.htm