Operation Battle for the Recapture of Bataan

The 'Battle for the Recapture of Bataan' was fought between US and Japanese forces, each supported by different Filipino factions, for the Bataan peninsula within the series of 'Mike' undertakings by the Allied forces to retake Luzon island (31 January/21 February 1945).

Bataan is a peninsula on the northern side of the mouth of Manila Bay, and is about 40 miles (64 km) long and between 18 and 25 miles (29 to 40 km) wide. An army which controls this peninsula controls access to Manilka Bay. The peninsula is mountainous, being dominated by the 4,222-ft (1287-m) Mt Natib in the north and the 4.700-ft (1433-m) Mt Bataan in the south. Both mountains are actually clusters of rugged peaks. with numerous ravines. The area between the two peaks is a low, swampy valley. More than three-quarters of the peninsula’s area of 420 sq miles (1090 km˛) was covered by dense jungle, with only two adequate roads, in 1941 this made it ideal terrain for defence, and as a result US pre-war contingency plans called for the US forces in the Philippines to retreat into the Bataan peninsula in the event of war and prepare to withstand a siege. The peninsula is one of the worst malarial regions in the world, however, and the same terrain that favoured defence also made malaria control impractical.

As the US forces started to retake the Philippine islands group from a time in October 1944, it was clear that the Bataan peninsula would have to be retaken in order to secure the western shore of Manila Bay and thus make the bay usable by US shipping fore the opening of new supply lines for the US troops engaged in the crucial battle for the liberation of Manila. The Bataan peninsula’s recapture was also necessary for its psychological significance in helping to avenge the surrender of the defunct US Armed Forces in the Far East to invading Japanese forces on 9 April 1942 and the subsequent 'Bataan Death March'.

The rapid advance of US forces toward Manila after the 'Mike I' amphibious landings in Lingayen Gulf on 9 January 1945 had strained almost to breaking point the capability of their supply lines via Lingayen Gulf, which had supplemented the US push to the south in the direction of the Filipino capital. While the capture of Manila was significant for both military and psychological reasons, the seizure of Manila Bay was thus crucial for logistical reasons: Manila Bay and its facilities would remain useless to the US forces until the Bataan peninsula and the island of Corregidor in the west of the bay had been secured.

General Douglas MacArthur allocated to Lieutenant General Walter C. Krueger’s 6th Army the task of retaking the Bataan peninsula and later Corregidor island, whose Japanese artillery positions could sweep Manila Bay. Major General Charles P. Hall’s US XI Corps, fresh from the 'King II' campaign to retake Leyte island farther to the south, augmented the 6th Army. Comprising Major General Henry L. C. Jones’s 38th Division and Colonel Aubrey S. Newman’s 34th Infantry of the 24th Division, the XI Corps was to land on the Zambales coast some 25 miles (40 km) to the north-west of Bataan in 'Mike VII', drive rapidly to the east across the base of the peninsula, and then sweep to the south, clearing the entirety of the Bataan peninsula including its eastern coast.

US intelligence seriously overestimated the Japanese strength on the Bataan peninsula, believing that the Japanese had a full division deployed on the peninsula. Meanwhile, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, commander of the 14th Area Army that controlled all the Japanese forces in the Philippine islands group, had decided that the defence of Manila Bay lay well beyond the capabilities of his forces, so only some 4,000 men of Major General Rikichi Tsukada’s 'Kembu' Group, which had been dispersed to now-captured Mindoro island, Corregidor island and the southern part of Luzon island, were left to oppose the XI Corps. The principal unit was Colonel Sanonebu Nagayoshi’s 'Nagayoshi' Detachment.

On 29 January 1945, the 38th Division was landed in the San Narciso area of the southern province of Zambales and met no opposition. The division quickly swept forward to the San Marcelino airstrip but found that Filipino guerrillas under the command of Captain Ramon Magsaysay had secured the airfield three days earlier. The port facilities at Olongapo were captured by the 34th Regimental Combat Team on 30 January as too was Grande island in Subic Bay after an amphibious landing. Elsewhere, surprise was complete: there was only one US casualty, a man gored by an angry bull. By the end of January, Zambales province had been liberated.

The 38th Division’s 151st Infantry secured the entrance to Subic Bay from the south and was then ordered into XI Corps reserve. Meanwhile, the 152nd Infantry was ordered to pass through positions held by the 34th Regimental Combat Team and drive to the east along an irregular and unimproved Route 7 about 20 miles (30 km) to Dinalupihan, while the 149th Infantry was ordered to move to the east, north of and parallel with the 152nd Infantry, to link with Major General Oscar W. Griswold’s XIV Corps from the 'Mike I' landing, then turn to the south and west along Route 7 to link with the 152nd Infantry. Hall, the commander of the XI Corps, believed that Route 7 could be taken in less than one week.

Nagayoshi had decided to make a stand in the rugged Zambales mountains at the northern base of the Bataan peninsula, which the US forces nicknamed 'Zig-Zag Pass'. The Japanese were well prepared for a long battle as they possessed abundant supplies and ammunition, but their main defensive lines were stretched thin, at 2,000 yards (1830 m), which left their position vulnerable to flanking manoeuvres. Nonetheless, Nagayoshi and his 39th Regiment intended to hold out indefinitely. 'Zig-Zag Pass' was described as a 'few pieces of ground combined to the same degree to roughness and dense jungle. The main road, Route 7 twists violently through the pass, following a line of least terrain resistance that wild pigs must originally have established. The jungle flora in the region is so thick that one can step five yards off the highway and not be able to see the road. The Japanese had honey-combed every hill and knoll at the Zig-Zag with foxholes linked by tunnels or trenches; at particularly advantageous Points they had constructed strong points centered on log or dirt pillboxes. All the defenses were well camouflaged, for rich, jungle foliage covered most positions, indicating that many had been prepared with great care and had been constructed well.'

This meant, in effect, that a small force could in theory hold off an entire army from this position almost indefinitely.

On 31 January, driving to the west of Olongapo, the 38th Division advanced to the east on the intricate maze of Japanese fortifications in 'Zig-Zag Pass', at the same time trying to find both Japanese flanks. But on the morning of 1 February, after about 3 miles (4.8 km) of steady progress, the 152nd Infantry met Japanese strongpoints at 'Horseshoe Bend', the first known major 'Zig-Zag Pass' obstacles. In two days of heavy fighting, resulting in high casualties for the regiment, all eastward progress had been stopped. The unfavourable and tortuous terrain, communications difficulties in the thick jungle, and relocation of battalions to try to find the Japanese main line of resistance, along with a determined Japanese defence, all contributed to the 152nd Infantry’s difficulty in correctly identifying and establishing the location of its subordinate unit. Extending from north-west to south-east, the line of Japanese defences, definitively unknown at the time, also contributed to the confusion. With his offensive effectively stalled, Jones relieved the 152nd Infantry’s commanding officer.

The 34th Regimental Combat Team was then instructed to resume the 152nd Infantry’s unsuccessful eastward offensive on 'Zig-Zag Pass'. After six days of severe fighting, and despite the availability and use of heavy supporting artillery barrages and napalm bombing runs by the US Army Air Forces, the 34th Regimental Combat Team had suffered heavy losses and its offensive bogged down, effectively preventing any further progress. Jones then directed the 152nd Infantry to resume the attack on the Japanese to the north of Route 7, while on 6 February, the 151st Infantry rejoined the battle to relieve the disengaging 34th Regimental Combat Team. More confusion and frustration on the pass reigned, however, and at the end of the day Hall relieved Jones of command and replaced him with Brigadier General William C. Chase.

On the day Chase assumed command, the 149th Infantry completed its eastward march to the north of Route 7 and linked with the XIV Corps. The regiment then turned to the west astride Route 7 to link with the rest of the 38th Division. In tandem, the 151st Infantry and 152nd Infantry began to make progress to the east through the pass. The Japanese were slowly but steadily driven back and were eventually overrun on 8 February. Three days later, on 11 February, the 151st Infantry was withdrawn for another mission. The 152nd Infantry continued the offensive, and by 14 February the 149th Infantry and 152nd Infantry finally met.

After mopping-up operations against scattered small pockets of resistance, the 'Zig-Zag Pass' was securely in the hands of the 38th Division. The ferocity of the struggle is attested by the fact that the XI Corps killed about 2,400 of the 2,800-man Japanese force, and took only 25 prisoners.

By 15 February, two 38th Division task forces under XI Corps command were employed for amphibious landings in the southern part of the Bataan peninsula. The South Force, commanded personally by Chase, comprised the 151st Infantry reinforced by one battalion of the 34th Regimental Combat Team, the 139th Field Artillery Battalion, and other elements. The East Force comprised the reinforced 1st Infantry of the 6th Division, was attached to the 38th Division for the mission, which was led by Brigadier General William Spence, the 38th Division’s artillery commander.

On 11 February, the South Force sailed south off the western coast north of Bataan, spent the night of 14 February at sea, and went ashore at 10.00 on 15 February at Mariveles Harbor. LVTs from the 727th Amphibian Tractor Battalion carried the 151st Infantry ashore from LSTs holding station nearly 5 miles (8 km) offshore, then provided covering fire with their heavy and medium machine guns as they landed at Mariveles. From Mariveles the force divided, one part moving up the western coast toward Bagac, and the other part moving up the eastern coast toward Pilar.

Meanwhile, the East Force moved on 12 February from Dinalupihan south toward Pilar. It was soon augmented by elements of the 149th Infantry. At Pilar the force divided, one part continuing to the south past the town, and and the other part turning to the west astride Route 111. On 18 February the two forces met near Bagac. There was a last major engagement during the night of 15/16 February, and mopping up operations continued throughout the peninsula for about another week. Finally, on 21 February, after three years, Bataan was again secure in US and Filipino hands.

The Japanese lost heavily in their defence of the 'Zig-Zag Pass', with more than 2,400 killed and 75 wounded. Nagayoshi escaped with about 300 men and joined other defenders farther to the south in the peninsula, holding out until the middle of February. The 38th Infantry lost 270 men and had 420 wounded, while the 34th Regiment suffered 68 dead and 268 wounded.

Except for the 38th Division’s brutal struggle at the 'Zig-Zag Pass', the swift and easy recapture of the province of Zambales and the Bataan peninsula opened Manila Bay and its magnificent deep-water port to full US use. This development subsequently allowed the easy reinforcement and resupply of the US forces retaking Manila.