18 January 1942 was a Sunday, and the day the 45th Infantry Regiment (Philippine Scout) joined the battle to restore the broken Abucay Line on Bataan. The regiment’s arduous movement from bivouac on the west coast of Bataan was discussed in a recent posting. Suffice it to say the unit arrived weary and hungry. But the desperate battle situation did not allow for much of any down time for recovery from that trek. With the US 31st Infantry Regiment (the Polar Bears) already counterattacking and finding its hands full, it was time to move into action.
Going into the attack, the 45th Infantry (PS) had little information as to the disposition or intentions of the enemy forces in the area. The objective set for them was restoration of the positions on the Main Line of Resistance (MLR) formerly occupied by the 51st Infantry Division (PA).
And so it was at high noon, the Scouts of the 3rd Battalion went into action on the left flank of the Abucay Line, and they attacked on the left flank of the Polar Bears (31st Infantry).
By 1600 hours that day, the 1st Battalion, with the 2nd Battalion behind in support, advanced to destroy any enemy forces on the right flank of the 31st (the Japanese left), in between it and the 41st Infantry Division’s (Philippine Army) 43rd Infantry Regiment.
The right flank attack had little opposition, either because the enemy did not have enough troops to apply against the length of the MLR in this area or because that sector was not important to them. In any event, the Scouts were able to advance with relatively few casualties.
On the western flank, the end of the line, the experience of the Scouts of the 3rd Battalion was much different. But before any discussion of what they encountered, first a look at what this Scout Battalion had in terms of men and equipment to bring to the fight. And before that a reminder, that the 45th Infantry Regiment (Philippine Scout) was a regular U.S. Army regiment comprised of Philippine professional soldiers and American officers. The tables of organization and allowances followed that of similar unit in the US Army in that time, even though in some cases the materiel to fill out the authorized allowances was lacking, as will be seen.
In January, 1942, the 3rd Battalion was composed of nearly 600 Scouts and Officers. The unit included a Battalion Headquarters, Battalion Medical Detachment, three rifle companies of 139 men each (Company I, K and L) and a heavy weapons company (Company M) of 151 men.
Leadership in the 3rd Battalion, from the recollection by Major Louis B. Besbeck composed after the war, included the following officers:
Battalion Commander, Major Dudley G. Strickler
Battalion Executive Officer, Captain Louis B. Besbeck
Battalion S-4, Captain Bethard
Company I Commander, Captain Clifford Croom
Company K Commander, Lieutenant McCarty
Company L Commander, Captain Henry Pierce
Platoon Leader, Lieutenant George Moore
Platoon Leader, Anthony Ulrich
Battalion Surgeon, Captain Ralph Berkelhamer
Battalion Surgeon, Lieutenant De Backer
All of the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO’s) and Enlisted men were Philippine Scouts who had from six months to twenty years’ time in the service. In L Company, the average length of service for the Scouts was seven and a half years. Most of the Scouts were high school graduates and all were fluent in English.
Weapons of the Scouts included the outstanding M1 Garand rifle, M1918 Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR’s) and M1911 .45 caliber automatic pistols. Heavier weapons included late-model light machine guns (though mounts had not yet arrived for the guns before the war broke out), 18 .30-caliber Browning heavy machine guns, one 81-millimeter mortar, without ammunition (though use of old 3-inch Stokes mortar shells was improvised) and one .50-caliber Browning air cooled heavy machine gun.
Each of the rifle companies had a weapons platoon composed of a mortar section authorized three 60-mm mortars (though no compatible ammunition ever reached the unit, so the mortars were left behind) and light machine gun section with two guns. Unlimited quantities of .30-caliber ammunition were available for the regiment.
The men wore fine leather shoes made in the US with the woolen olive drab clothing and the steel helmet of the First World War. Other gear included the latest web gear equipment and gas masks, compasses, field glasses (binoculars), clinometers, bed rolls.
Morale in the Third Battalion was excellent. Before the war began, the unit was known as a singing battalion, and the men liked to sing Filipino rice-planting songs as they marched. But by now, weighed down with all their gear at about 140 pounds weight, some soldiers carrying up to eighty pounds of machine gun ammunition as well, they saved their strength for moving.
Exacerbating matters was the fact that they were already on half-rations since 11 January, and hadn’t had a meal even of that for over two days. The emergency rations the men carried were already consumed on the march up to the Abucay Line. But on this Sunday it was time for these Philippine Scouts to fight, and not to eat.
With the left flank of the 31st Infantry Polar Bears some 500 yards east of the Abucay Hacienda and 150 yards north of the main road, the 3rd Battalion moved out at 1200 hours, heading west in an approach march along the main road and towards sugar cane which extended several hundred yards east and north of the hacienda – to the north ran the bare nose of a low ridge which showed above the sugar cane field about a thousand yards short of the tree-lined bank of the Balantay River. From this vulnerable flank area the 31st Infantry had received automatic and small arms fire.
With the enemy pressure on this flank, it was perhaps fortuitous that the 3rd Battalion had arrived on the west flank of the 31st Infantry. Although the original plan was for the entire 45th Infantry to attack along the right flank of the 31st Infantry, the Commanding Officer of the 31st adapted to the situation and decided to send the 3rd Battalion into action on this left flank, rather than to order them back to his right flank to join the rest of the 45th Infantry.
A squad from L Company formed the point for the battalion supported by two squads in the advance party with the rest of the company in support. But as the point had proceeded about 300 yards towards the Abucay Hacienda, a single short was fired which hit the leading Scout right between the eyes, killing him. The point men deployed and a flanking patrol went out. The point then advanced on into the seven building Hacienda complex and occupied it without resistance.
Subsequently, the point advanced 50 yards further and ran across what appeared to be an abandoned 51st Infantry Regiment (PA) Command Post with a large quantity of ammunition. Continuing west, the Scouts were pinned down by very heavy automatic weapons fire from an undetermined direction. Part of the difficulty in locating the exact location of the fire was due to Japanese use of firecrackers that served to cover the actual source of fire.
As the rifle companies arrived just south of the Hacienda area behind the advance guard, they turned to the north, with L Company to the west, I Company in the center and K Company on the right. From the battalion heavy weapons company, one platoon of four .30-caliber heavy machine guns was attached to each of the rifle companies. The 81-mm mortar and .50-caliber heavy machine gun set up at the line of departure to support the attack, and constituted the only battalion reserve.
At 1300 hours and in position, some 550 Philippine Scouts moved through the Hacienda and attacked to the north along a 360 degree azimuth, covered by the fire of 18 machine guns. Their objective was to reach a 1,400 yard stretch of the old MLR of the 51st, a “prepared” position to their front along the Balantay River. There was no reconnaissance of the area in advance of the attack – the battalion HQ only had one “highly inaccurate map” for reference.
K Company Scouts quickly found they were “climbing the backs” of the adjacent 31st Infantry soldiers who were not immediately visible ahead of them in the tall sugar cane field which limited visibility to a few feet.
On the left flank, L Company advanced about 250 yards beyond the line of departure into the cane field before being fired upon by an enemy machine gun firing from beneath a recently abandoned 45th Infantry 1.5 ton supply truck some 500 yards to the left front, holding up the advance of the left platoon. The cane field in this area was partly burned off which made their advance visible to the enemy. A request went back to the battalion CP for mortar fire on the enemy machine gun; a few rounds were fired in the general direction but using the inaccurate map it proved impossible to fire precisely.
After this flank threat was destroyed by rifle fire, L Company advanced on a front of some 350 yards and enemy fire picked up. The unit exited the cane field as it approached a ravine parallel to the line of advance, covered in heavy undergrowth with existing trails zeroed in by Japanese mortars. The Scouts made it through the ravine and continued to advance in the sugar cane on the north side of it, but about 50 feet belong the north lip of the ravine they came out of the cane field onto a road and were thus visible to the enemy, at which location they came under heavy fire and took heavy casualties until their own machine guns suppressed the enemy. The Scouts continued through cane for another 25 yards until they came out of it and saw a line of fox-holes 100 yards to their front. Up to this time they had encountered no opposition from their front, and had suffered 30 casualties from the flanking fire.
At this point, chaos descended when the L Company commander was informed by the battalion adjutant that the attack was called off and he was ordered to return to the line of departure. So L Company retraced its steps, unfortunately suffering additional casualties from flanking fire.
On returning to the line of departure, Capt. Pierce went to the battalion CP just north of the hacienda buildings where he found an upset Maj. Strickler, who had apparently received the withdrawal order from the 45th Infantry Regiment commander, Lt. Col. Doyle. No reason was given, and just then the II Corps HQ contacted the 3rd Battalion to ask if the objective had been taken. Imagine the battlefield confusion inflicted upon the men of the 3rd Battalion, with no clear chain of command and receiving orders from its own regiment, the 31st Infantry, the Philippine Division and the II Corps – and that is not even factoring in enemy forces!
HQ II Corps quickly asserted its authority and ordered the battalion to gain the originally assigned objective. Maj. Strickler realigned his rifle companies at this point, placing K Company of the left flank, L Company in the middle and I Company on the right. The battalion attacked again across the cane field, ravine, road and open field and by 1630 hours had seized the objective.
In the process or recrossing the battlefield, K Company suffered heavy casualties just as L Company had before from heavy flanking fire. This company had already suffered some casualties on the right flank, from Japanese snipers hidden in a grove of Mango trees to their front. Machine gun fire eventually eliminated this threat as the Scouts learned a painful lesson on the need to look into any trees on the battlefield.
Subsequent to reaching the objective, a communication wire was established between Company I on the right flank and the battalion CP. After dark, efforts were made to bring a hot meal up to the men on the MLR. Carrying parties appear to have made it up to the front line to deliver the first meal in 36 hours and started their return at 2330 hours, but never made it back to the battalion CP – Japanese troops infiltrated on the flank and ambushed them along a trail through the ravine.
For the Scouts on the MLR it would be a rough night, with heavy enemy fire coming from the left flank and from the direct rear too. The Japanese used a “large number of firecrackers packed with whistling shot” in efforts to confuse the Scouts and appear to be in larger numbers than they were.
K Company’s left flank was directly attacked and received heavy casualties in the refused flank, which stretched from the MLR to the southwest. L Company sent a squad to help hold this vulnerable western flank of the Abucay line.
Due to the enemy infiltration of the ravine and the loss of communication with the rifle companies on the MLR, the men wounded on the front line could not be immediately evacuated. “The screams of these wounded men, easily heard over the small arms fire, was hard on the morale of the troops,” recalled L Company commander Capt. Pierce. Even some of the men wounded were still in the cane field where they were hit, and even though the battalion commander wished to burn the cane field obscuring the center of the battalion’s area to deny the enemy that means of unobserved infiltration, he did not because of the unlocated wounded scouts. By the end of the day some 45 men had been treated at the battalion aid station, and more still in the field who were lucky if they received any first aid.
The 3rd Battalion requested artillery support against the nearby enemy overnight, but it was refused as the artillerymen did not know exactly where the men of the 3rd Battalion were located at on the Abucay battlefield.
At this point, the Philippine Scouts in the rifle companies of the 3rd Battalion, 45th Infantry Regiment (PS) were truly on their own on the restive left flank, literally on the end of the Abucay Line. But being the trusty Scouts that they were, they stoutly held their position as ordered as the battle continued.
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
Pierce, Henry, J., “The Operations of Company L, 45th Infantry (P.S.) (Philippine division) on the Abucay Hacienda Line, Bataan, P.I., 15 – 25 January 1942 (Philippine Islands Campaign) (Personal Experience of the Company Commander).” The Infantry School, Ft. Benning, GA, Advanced Officers Course, 1949-1950, at: http://www.benning.army.mil/library/content/Virtual/Donovanpapers/wwii/STUP2/PierceHenryJ%20MAJ.pdf
Whitman, John W. “Bataan – Our Last Ditch.” Hippocrene Books, Inc., NY, 1990
World War 2 Airsoft Association website, Fil-Am reenactors page at: http://ww2aa.proboards.com/thread/3709/ww2-airsoft-hong-kong-style