Trek to Kiangan and Back
The cool, charming community of Kiangan, established 200 years ago by Spanish settlers searching for gold, is located in the lower half of the Cordillera mountain range in the northernmost region of the Philippine main island of Luzon. Its residents number 15,000. It was here, 160 miles north of liberated Manila and during the waning summer months of 1945, where battered remnants of the retreating Japanese Imperial Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, made their last stand.
Kiangan (pronounced “key-YOUNG-ahn”) is home to a little known gem, seldom seen and yet too exquisite to be kept from public view. The meticulously maintained KIANGAN WAR MEMORIAL SHRINE sits quietly a scant 10 minutes from the busy, boisterous palenque (town market). The shrine’s unique allure comes from its simple elegance, pristine beauty and tranquil surrounding that seem to whisper into every visitor’s ear the timeless message of peace, freedom and vigilance.
Completed in 1974, the shrine commemorates the September 2, 1945 surrender of Yamashita, the legendary conqueror of Singapore and brilliant tactician, to representatives of U.S. and Philippine forces (on the way to the shrine one is treated to what many Filipinos call “one of the eight wonders of the ancient world” – the Banaue, pronounced “ba-NA-weh,” Rice Terraces, a phenomenal 2,000-year old engineering feat. At 5,000 feet above sea level, the popular tourist destination covers a land area of 4,000 square miles of mountainside).
By the middle of August 1945 (Manila, as did Bataan and Corregidor, fell to U.S. forces in February), less than 50,000 Japanese soldiers, many slowly dying of starvation, remained of the 350,000 that belonged to the once mighty Japanese 14th Area Army. Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger’s U.S. Sixth Army had cleared all of Luzon, an island the size of Ireland and Belgium combined, except for the almost impenetrable Caraballo Mountains in the north, portions of the Cordillera range to the west and the great Sierra Madre chain along the eastern coast of the Pacific Ocean. The three mountain ranges formed Yamashita’s formidable triangle of defense with Kiangan perched at the northern apex.
To reach Kiangan, U.S. Army and Filipino guerrilla units, with air support from both the U.S. 5th Army Air Force and U.S. Navy carriers,* had to push through Caraballo’s difficult 3,000-foot Balete Pass, gateway to the fertile Cagayan Valley and defended by 12,000 men of the crack Japanese 10th infantry division.
The Japanese honeycombed the mountainside with hundreds of lethal caves. They had effectively slowed down the advancing allies, who were now devising ways to shut down the deadly obstacles. U.S. Army Sherman medium tanks stealthily rambled up the thickly wooded ridges, trudging up the crests of narrow roads carved by armored bulldozers. Their 75-mm guns pointed at enemy-held pillboxes, much to the dismay of the Japanese, who were unprepared to defend against tanks in such impassable terrain. U.S. infantry men discovered that 90-mm anti-aircraft gun, with its high muzzle velocity and flat trajectory, made an excellent cave-closing weapon. “In twelve days, two guns closed over 100 caves; one cave later yielded 23 Japanese, dead of suffocation” – Time, May 14, 1945.
After the U.S. 25th division’s breakthrough at Balete Pass on May 13, Filipino-American forces slogged their way northward toward Bagabag. The crucial town lies at the junction of Highways 4 and 5 (see map), protecting the enemy’s communications and supply lines. The seizure of Bagabag would open the way for the final drive in July-August by the U.S. 33d, 37th, 6th and 32d infantry divisions to press forward from the west and southwest. The activated USAFIP (NL) Filipino guerrilla force division led by Col. Russell Volckmann, the U.S. 11th airborne division and the U.S. Army Rangers would simultaneously engage the enemy from north-south and east of Kiangan, alongside the 120-mile-long Cagayan Valley.
By the time Yamashita had surrendered, combat losses in the Luzon campaign counted 205,000 enemy dead at a cost of 8,300 Americans and 1,100 Filipino guerrillas dying in its course.** Although it took longer to liberate northern Luzon (some have criticized Gen. Douglas MacArthur for not adding more troops to the Sixth Army), the slower approach actually saved many lives in a situation where haste and direct assault would have resulted in greater, unnecessary casualties. Realizing the Philippines could no longer be saved by the time he arrived in late 1944, Yamashita had planned a delaying action, aimed at bleeding as many Americans and Filipinos as possible. His task was to buy as much time as possible for Tokyo to prepare for the onslaught of the impending Allied invasion of the homeland. Yet MacArthur did not take the bait. He would let Krueger gradually advance and envelope Yamashita while cutting off the enemy’s communications and supply lines. The less heralded Battle of Luzon would ultimately involve 10 U.S. divisions and five independent regiments, making it one of the two largest campaigns in the Pacific War. ***
Our own drive to Kiangan visited various World War II landmarks in the towns of Munoz, San Jose, Santa Fe, Bayombong, Bagabag and Banaue. Three days before the trip, I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting former Philippine President (1992-1998) and General (retired), Philippine Army, Fidel V. Ramos, popular Korean War hero and West Point graduate, class of 1950. The meeting was arranged through family friends, Drs. Vicente and wife Leticia Limcaoco, and Vicente’s sister, Remedios Limcaoco, longtime friends of the President and First Lady Amelita Ramos. My brother, Dr. Arturo Ludan, assisted in the overall undertaking. The three-day 320-mile “Trek to Kiangan and Back” begins in the Manila suburb of Quezon City.
*A Mexican fighter squadron, Escuadron 201, saw action in the liberation of Luzon, targeting enemy positions, especially in Cagayan Valley. Escuadron 201 consisted of 300 volunteers from Mexico. 30 were trained pilots who flew 25 P-47D Thunderbolts. Some were descendants of Filipino sailors who had settled in Mexico during the Manila-Mexico Spanish Galleon Trade (1565-1815). The squadron was attached to the U.S. 58th Fighter Group based at the bucolic town of Porac, central Luzon. Mercene, Manila Men …; U.S. Air Force http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet_print.asp?fsID=16395
** “When General Yamashita finally surrendered, he made the initial surrender overtures not to MacArthur, but to Volckmann.” Guardia, The Forgotten Heroics of Russell W. Volckmann.
*** Given the scale of the fighting, the number of casualties was actually moderate. Japan lost 350,000 troops in the Philippines, making it far and away the most crushing defeat Japan would sustain in the Pacific. On Okinawa, by comparison, 7,000 U.S. troops would be killed fighting an enemy force less than a third the size of Japan’s Philippine garrison. “Had MacArthur assaulted Yamashita in the headlong central Pacific style his losses might well have been similar.” O’Neill, Oxford – The Essential Guide to World War II.
- Griffith, Jr. Thomas E. MacArthur’s Airman Gen. George C. Kenney. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1998.
- Guardia, Mike. American Guerrilla: The Forgotten Heroics of Russell W.Volckmann. Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers (U.S.), 2010.
- Hunt, Frazier. The Untold Story of Douglas MacArthur. New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1954.
- MacArthur, Douglas. Reminiscences (MacArthur Memorial Foundation Edition #A964). New York: McGraw-Hill Company, 1964.
- Mercene, Floro L. Manila Men in the New World. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2007.
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Liberation of the Philippines. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1959.
- O’Neill, William L. The Oxford Essential Guide to World War II. New York: Berkley/Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Pollard, Justin. Wonders of the Ancient World. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 2011.
- Steinberg, Rafael. Return to the Philippines. New York: Time-Life Books, 1980.
- TIME, May 14, 1945 and June 25, 1945 issues.
- Veterans of Foreign Wars. The War in the Pacific. Volume 2: VFW Historical Book Services, 1951.
Technical and remote support provided by Ed Rossal, PC New Horizons, Mt. Vernon, WA 98273, USA
Accommodation c/o Juancho de Leon at Highlander Hotel and Resort, Solano, Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines