Trek to Battle from Bagac to Abucay: The 45th Infantry Regiment (PS) at the Abucay Line, Part 1

Shortly after the Fil-Am forces arrived in Bataan, Imperial Japanese forces launched their first attacks against the Main Line of Resistance (MLR). In the Fil-Am II Corps sector on the east side of Bataan, enemy forces of the reinforced Imperial Japanese Army 65th Brigade under Lieutenant General Akira Nara began attacking on 9 January 1942.

Finding strong resistance from the 57th Infantry Regiment (Philippine Scout), the Japanese gradually shifted their attack westward, trying to find a weaker place in the MLR. By 12 January, they found such a point in the 51st Infantry Division’s part of the line, on the west end of II Corps’s MLR. By 14 January the 51st withdrew to the South of the MLR under heavy pressure.

The II Corps line, called the Abucay line, extended from Mabatang on Manila Bay to the northeast slopes of Mt. Natib.  (Courtesy US Army)

The II Corps line, called the Abucay line, extended from Mabatang on Manila Bay to the northeast slopes of Mt. Natib. (Courtesy US Army)

By this point II Corps realized its Abucay Line was in danger of being flanked by the enemy, and alerted reserve forces to prepare to counter this threat. The Philippine Division, commanded by Brigadier General Maxon S. Lough, was ordered to prepare to join the fight with its two as yet uncommitted infantry regiments, the American 31st Infantry, commanded by Colonel Charles L. Steel, (in II Corps Reserve) and the Philippine Scout 45th Infantry, commanded by Col Thomas W. Doyle (in I Corps reserve on the western side of Bataan at Bagac).

Commanding Officer of the US Army's Philippine Division, Brig. Gen. Maxon S. Lough, left, with Col. Harrison C. Browne (Chief of Staff, Phil Div) and Capt. Joseph B. Sallee (ADC), near the front lines. (Courtesy US Army)

Commanding Officer of the US Army’s Philippine Division, Brig. Gen. Maxon S. Lough, left, with Col. Harrison C. Browne (Chief of Staff, Phil Div)
and Capt. Joseph B. Sallee (ADC), near the front lines. (Courtesy US Army)

On 15 January, as the 51st Infantry Division (Philippine Army) committed its reserves to hold, the 45th Infantry Regiment (PS) received orders to move up from Bagac to Bani. At 1900 hours that day, in order to preserve the element of surprise and to avoid the risk of aerial attack, the regiment set out from Bagac by bus, truck and foot to KP 149 on the Bagac-Pilar Road. The unit then moved north on the back road to Bani, arriving into bivouac on the morning of 16 January.

Coat of Arms of the 45th Infantry Regiment (Philippine Scouts).  (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Coat of Arms of the 45th Infantry Regiment (Philippine Scouts), whose motto is “Strong to Endure.” (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The rest of the day, elements reconnoitered to the northwest in anticipation of movement further north to the battle area. It would not be a long wait, as on this day, the hard-pressed 51st Division essentially collapsed, while the 41st Infantry Division (PA) immediately to the east did its best to stabilize the MLR even as it was in danger of being outflanked.

Rugged Mt. Natib dominates the north central part of the Bataan Peninsula.  (Courtesy pinoymountaineer.com)

Rugged Mt. Natib, with highest elevation at over 4,000 feet, dominates the north central part of the Bataan Peninsula. (Courtesy pinoymountaineer.com)

This area of Bataan south of Mt. Natib which the 45th Infantry approached was rugged. In fact for a stretch of about 9,000 meters the MLR between I Corps and the west and II Corps in the east was not manned but patrolled. Deep gorges covered by dense jungle impeded efficient movement, and it took two days to cross this area. The left flank of the 51st Infantry Division reached into this rugged terrain, some 5,000 meters west of the Abucay Hacienda, and the challenging terrain aided enemy efforts to infiltrate and exploit gaps in the line.

Around 1700 hours on 16 January, the regiment in bivouac at Bani received orders from II Corps “to proceed to the area Southwest of the Labangan River (Balantay River, actually) and Northwest of the Capitangan Valley to be in reserve behind the 31st Infantry (U.S.).” Leaving shortly after dark, again, to preserve secrecy, the regiment traveled north on a road which soon turned into a track on a night with no moon or stars to help find the way. Worse, there were no signs, and no road in places.

By 2300 hours, lead elements followed the track as it turned sharply east and quickly became lost in a maze of small tracks before it. “It was a horror of hardship in canyon-cut terrain,” recalled by Major Adrianus J. Van Oosten. The column halted and tried to figure out the way. An American artillery officer appeared out of the dark and told of a track that headed north. In the distance, booming heavy artillery signaled the nearness of the battlefield. “That night was like something out of a movie,” remembered Lieutenant Anthony Ulrich, a platoon leader. “The sky to our front was splashed with red from the burning sugar cane fields while the big artillery guns punctuated the silence. Occasionally the sputter of machine guns and small arms fire could be heard.”

The 45th moved slowly through the dark, and by daylight it was clear that the 1st Battalion had become separated from the regiment and was lost somewhere Northwest of Bani in the Capitangan Valley. The rest of the regiment there in the Capitangan Valley went into a “widely dispersed bivouac” on the morning of 17 January. Visibility was poor, with seven feet tall Cogon grass and some tall Mango trees in the area.

At this point, it appeared that the unit still had to cover some 6,000 yard to reach its designated position. It was rough country and lacked any kinds of roads to help in lateral mobility. The 31st Infantry was to the Northwest, and needed help after launching a counter-attack that morning. The 3rd Battalion, 45th Infantry, commanded by Major Dudley G. Strickler, moved North at 1200 on a 353-degree Magnetic Azimuth with the three rifle companies led by the battalion commander, and slower moving heavy weapons company and medical detachment following at best speed. The 2nd Battalion was about a half mile to the east of the 3rd, and the 1st Battalion was still missing somewhere to the West. The night movement through unfamiliar terrain with little to no directions had disrupted the approach of the regiment, but time was critical and the unit began to commit itself to the area as best it could.

At about 1530, the Regimental Commander, Col. Doyle, and the 2nd Battalion commander joined up the 3rd Battalion column as it crossed the southern side of the Capitangan Valley, approaching it unescorted from the Southeast. At 1600 the slower part of the battalion joined up with the rifle companies, which were waiting at a native trail that paralleled the East-West oriented ridgeline between the Capitangan and Santa Cruz rivers.

From there the 3rd Battalion moved West along the native trail and at 1730 reached the “deep, wide and steep-sided gorge of the Capitangan River,” crossing in single file and gathering in a Mango grove on the northern side. An officer remembered this march: cross country on foot, dragging machine guns, mortars and a 37mm gun for miles through jungle, up and down ravines up to 30 feet deep using ropes and vines.” It was an arduous experience.

Darkness fell as the last man crossed about 1930 hours and the column started marching westward. An hour later they encountered an unmarked fork in the trail. At this point, the weary soldiers were ordered to rest along the trail, and reconnaissance teams went out to try and find out which way the battalion should proceed. For a second night the soldiers heard the booming of heavy artillery.

By 0200 on 18 January, guides reached the 3rd Battalion, and senior officers with the Regimental Commander went ahead to the Command Post of the 41st Infantry Division and a staff conference which included the commander of the 31st Infantry. The 31st commander requested the 45th to bring up its two battalions as soon as possible, to mount an attack to the right of the 31st Infantry. However, the map used in the conference was a simple engineer blueprint with no coordinates or details, and even the position of the 41st CP and 31st Infantry could not be plotted on the map. Nonetheless, the 3rd Battalion commander left at 0400 to lead his troops forward.

Daylight revealed a trail marker of sorts: ten yards along the North fork was a piece of toilet tissue marking the way to a position just behind the 31st Infantry, some 1,000 yards east of the Abucay Hacienda. The trail climbed along a ridgeline curving to the Northeast and into the thick vegetation of the lower slopes of Mt. Natib. It took some four hours to make this part of the journey. As the lead rifle companies reached the area, the exhausted Scouts rested in a sugar cane patch, eating the sugar cane, waiting for the heavy weapons and medical section to cross the Santa Cruz River and catch up. With only general directions and distances to go by on the poorly mapped terrain, the tired and hungry battalion had actually traveled beyond the regiment’s intended assembly area, and would now go on to attack the enemy on the exposed left flank of the 31st Infantry, instead of the originally planned right flank. With the battle raging there was no time to lose in attacking the enemy.

After three and a half grueling days, the 45th Infantry (PS) had finally reached the Abucay Line. With the 31st Infantry already engaged in a tough counter-attack, the Philippine Scouts of the 3rd Battalion would soon be in action in one of the most significant battles of the Bataan Campaign. The 2nd Battalion would join in as well, in the originally intended location, and even the 1st Battalion would find the way to join the 2nd Battalion as the 45th Infantry Regiment (PS) made its bid to help hold the Abucay Line.

References

45th Infantry Regiment (United States), page on Wikipedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/45th_Infantry_Regiment_%28United_States%29

Besbeck, Louis B., “The Operations of the 3rd Battalion, 45th Infantry (Philippine Scouts) at the Hacienda at Mt. Natib, Luzon, 16 – 25 January 1942 (Bataan Campaign) (Personal Experience of a Battalion Executive Officer).”  The Infantry School, Ft. Benning, GA, Advanced Officers Course, 1946-1947, at:  http://rodhall.filipinaslibrary.org.ph/PDF/MS%20RH%206_Besbeck_005806-The%20Operations%20of%20the%203rd%20Battalion%2045th%20Infantry%20%28Ph.pdf

Morton, Louis, “The Fall of the Philippines,” Chapter XVI, The First Battle of Bataan, at: http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/5-2/5-2_16.htm

Picture of Mt. Natib at: http://www.pinoymountaineer.com/2008/05/mt-natib-1287.html

Whitman, John W. “Bataan – Our Last Ditch.” Hippocrene Books, Inc., NY, 1990

Whitman, John W., “US Army Doctrinal Effectiveness on Bataan, 1942: The First Battle,” US Army Command and General Staff College Thesis Paper, Ft. Leavenworth, KS, 1984, at: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a147751.pdf

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