Operation Battle for the Recapture of Corregidor

The 'Battle for the Recapture of Corregidor' was fought between US and Japanese forces for the island fortress of Corregidor in the mouth of the Bay of Manila in the Philippine islands group (16/26 February 1945).

The Japanese had captured the bastion from the forces of the US Army Forces toward the end of their 'M' conquest of the Philippine islands group early in 1942. The recapture of the island, officially named Fort Mills, along with the bloody 'Battle of Manila' and the earlier 'Battle of Bataan', marked the redemption of the US and Filipino surrender on 6 May 1942 and the subsequent fall of the Philippine islands group to the Japanese.

The surrender of Corregidor on 6 May 1942 and the subsequent fate of its 11,000 US and Filipino defenders led to a particular sense of moral purpose in General Douglas MacArthur whom as revealed in the subsequent campaigns for the liberation of the Philippine archipelago, showed no hesitation in committing the bulk of US and Filipino forces under his command. To the US soldier, Corregidor was more than a military objective, for long before the campaign to recapture it, 'the Rock' had become an important symbol in US history as the last Pacific outpost of any size to fall to the Japanese in the early stages of the Pacific War.

The Japanese had begun their attack on Corregidor with an aerial bombardment on 29 December 1941, several days after MacArthur moved his headquarters there, but the heaviest attacks throughout the siege were from artillery based at nearby Cavite and later Bataan. After the last US and Filipino troops on the peninsula surrendered on 9 April 1942, the Japanese were able to mass artillery for an all-out attack of 'the Rock' and its massive but antiquated batteries controlling access to the Bay of Manila. Including the Malinta Tunnel, the tunnel network that extended through the island’s hills afforded protection for the defending garrison, but much of the defence activity had to be carried out in the open. By 4 May, many of the US guns had been knocked out, the water supply was low, and casualties had mounted. Heavy artillery fire preceded the Japanese attempts to land on the island during the following night, and the Japanese later admitted their amazement at the determination of the resistance, which accounted for the sinking of two-thirds of their landing craft and losses of 900 men killed and 1,200 wounded, against US losses of 800 men killed and 1,000 wounded.

In 1945, to the Japanese Corregidor lacked the significance in their defensive strategy that it had previously held early in 1942 for the US forces. Even so, 'the Rock' remained a formidable guardian of the entrance to the Bay of Manila, and this US planners thought it merited a separate attack. MacArthur’s strategy was to make a combined amphibious and airborne assault, among the most difficult of all modern military manoeuvres, to retake the island. Although this particular operational tactic had been used to good effect during the Luzon landings, the airborne phase was risky. As small as it was, with an area of 2.12 sq miles (5.49 km˛) in a tadpole shape 4.04 miles (6.5 km) long and 1/24 miles (2 km) wide rising to a maximum elevation of 589 ft (179.5 m), the island was a difficult target for a parachute drop.

Complicating the strategy was the fact that the paratroopers were required to land on a hill known as 'Topside', the island’s foremost dominant terrain feature. MacArthur’s staff balked at the proposal, but there was little in the way of alternatives as from 'Topside' the Japanese could dominate all possible amphibious landing sites. The US premise was that the Japanese would certainly not expect an airborne landing on so unlikely a target.

The task of recapturing 'the Rock' was allocated to Lieutenant Colonel George M. Jones’s 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team and elements of Major General Roscoe B. Woodruff’s 24th Division, the same units which had undertaken the 'Victor V' capture of Mindoro island. The 503rd parachute Regimental Combat Team comprised the 503rd Parachute Infantry, Company C of the 161st Airborne Engineer Battalion and elements of the 462nd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion with 75-mm (2.95-in) pack howitzers, and was airlifted by Douglas C-47 Skytrain twin-engined aircraft of the 317th Troop Carrier Group. The amphibious assault was to be made by the reinforced 3/34th Infantry, carried by Landing Craft Mechanised of the 592nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment.

On 23 January 1945, the aerial bombing to soften Corregidor’s Japanese defences began. Daily attacks by heavy bombers of the US Army Air Forces continued until 16 February, and witnessed the delivery of 530 tons of bombs. Estimated figures for the bombing campaign between its start and 24 February indicated 2,028 effective sorties for the dropping of 2,825 tons of bombs.

On 13 February, the US Navy added to the bombardment, cruisers and destroyers shelling from close range range and braving sporadic Japanese artillery counterfire, and minesweepers operating around the island by the next day. The softening, or 'gloucesterizing' (so-called after an intense pre-invasion bombardment of Cape Gloucester in 'Backhander' during the previous December), of the island lasted for three more days.

On 14 February, while assisting minesweeping operations before the landings, the destroyer Fletcher was hit by a Japanese shell and set on fire. The minesweeper YMS-48 was also struck by shore fire and had to be scuttled. The destroyer Hopewell was also struck by shore fire and suffered casualties.

At sunrise on 16 February, attacks by Consolidated B-24 Liberators four-engined heavy bombers and an hour of low-altitude bombing and strafing runs by Douglas A-20 twin-engined attack aircraft preceded the landings.

At 08.33 on 16 February, barely three minutes after their intended time and facing 16/18-kt winds over the drop zones, the first of 1,000 men of the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team began dropping out of C-47 troop carriers of the US 5th Army Air Force’s 317th Troop Carrier Group to descend onto the Japanese defenders, remnants of Major General Rikichi Tsukada’s 'Kembu' Group at the two tiny planned areas of the western heights of 'Topside'. However, some paratroopers were blown back into Japanese-held territory. No troopers drowned, although some who were unable to climb the cliffs through hostile territory, or had fallen close to the rocks, had to be rescued near Wheeler Point.

Despite the weight of the air and naval bombardments, which had left the defenders dazed and scattered, they rallied and fierce fighting erupted almost immediately. At one point that same morning, the defenders threatened to drive a salient into the paratroopers' tenuous foothold on 'Topside'.

Paratroopers and infantrymen waged a tenacious battle with the Japanese, who were well dug-in and determined. The severest fighting in the battle for the US forces to regain Corregidor took place at Wheeler Point on the night and early morning of 18/19 February, when Companies D and F of the 2/503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team settled down in defensive positions near Battery Hearn and Cheney Trail. At 22.30 under a moonless night, 500 Japanese marines came out of the Battery Smith armoury and charged the US and Filipino positions. Company F halted the attacks by the Japanese trying to break through to the south. Aside from flares fired throughout the night by warships close offshore, the three-hour battle was decided by the weapons of the 50 paratroopers ranged against the Japanese marines. The savage encounter ended in failure with more than 250 Japanese dead on a 2000-yard (185-m) stretch of Cheney Trail. Company F suffered the loss of 14 men killed and 15 wounded. This was the first significant attack by the Japanese on Corregidor, and historians of the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team refer to Wheeler Point as 'Banzai Point'.

At the same time that the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team came down on 'Topside', the first wave of Lieutenant Colonel Edward M. Postlethwait’s 3/34th Infantry of the 24th Division waded ashore and established a beach-head at San Jose Point, or 'Back Beach', on the eastern end of Corregidor. The succeeding waves of Colonel Aubrey S. Newman’s 34th Infantry took the brunt of the hastily organised Japanese defence, and several landing craft and infantrymen fell victim to the detonation of landmines. The 3/34th Infantry battalion pushed inland against sporadic resistance, mostly from groups emerging from the island’s subterranean passages to waylay the advancing US troops.

Two of the 3/34th Infantry’s units, Companies K ands L under the command of Captains Frank Centanni and Lewis F. Stearns respectively, managed to secure the road and both the northern and southern entrances to Malinta Hill, while Captain Gilbert Heaberlin’s Company A stationed itself near the edge of the water. Company I, under the command of 1st Lieutenant Paul Cain, occupied the North Dock and guarded the harbour. They intended to keep the Japanese troops inside the tunnel as other units moved inland, accompanied by tanks and flamethrowers; which were the weapons that devastated pillboxes and tunnels in the surrounding areas held by the Japanese. For the eight days to 23 February, these units staved off a succession of banzai charges, mortar attacks and a suicide squad of soldiers with explosives strapped to their bodies. More trhan 300 Japanese were killed.

At 21.30 on 21 February, near Malinta Hill, a few dozen Japanese survivors were killed as they attacked US positions after a large explosion. Two nights later, a similar attack took place. US engineers then poured and ignited large quantities of patrol down the tunnels. The lack of Japanese activity after this implied that the Japanese garrison had been wiped out.

There were no more organised Japanese attacks for the rest of the campaign. Only isolated pockets of resistance continued to fight until 26 February, when Corregidor was declared secure.

Large numbers of Japanese troops drowned while attempting to swim away from 'the Rock'. Many of them, estimated in the thousands, sealed themselves in the island’s numerous subterranean passages. In compliance with the philosophy of Bushido, the defenders, hiding in caves and tunnels such as those under Malinta Hill, preferred to commit suicide rather than surrender. Corregidor reverberated with many underground explosions for days afterward.

Very few Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner. An M4 Sherman tank fired a shell into a sealed tunnel suspected of harbouring Japanese soldiers but which instead contained tons of stored ammunition. The subsequent explosion hurled tank several dozen feet, killing its crew and 48 US soldiers nearby, and wounded more than 100 others in the immediate area.

By 1 March Manila Bay was declared officially open to Allied shipping. On 7 March, MacArthur returned to the island fortress he had been forced to leave three years before.

The co-ordinated 'triphibious' American assault to recapture Corregidor island left the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team with 169 men dead and 531 wounded. The 34th Infantry suffered 38 men killed and 153 wounded. Of the 2,065 men of both lifts by the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team, three men suffered parachute malfunctions, and two men who collided with buildings also died. Eight men were killed either in the air or before they were able to free themselves from their parachutes, and a further 50 men were wounded in the air or upon landing. Several men were missing in action at the drop. The total injuries (not by wounding) for the drop were 210 men.

Japanese sources have estimated that there were about 6,700 Japanese on the island when the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team and 34th Infantry, of whom a mere 50 survived. Another 19 were taken prisoner, and 20 Japanese hold-outs surfaced after the war on 1 January 1946.