Operation Battle of Legazpi

The 'Battle of Legazpi' was the third of the series of Japanese minor landing associated with the 'M' (ii) invasion of Luzon island in the Philippine islands group (12 December 1941).

The task of the landing was to secure Japanese control of the local airstrips, which could then be used as forward bases by fighter aircraft in support of larger Japanese operations in the central part of Luzon. Control of Legazpi was an important point in the Japanese strategy, as it would also give them control of the San Bernardino Strait, between the islands of Luzon and Samar, which would prevent the Americans from bringing in reinforcements from the south.

Legazpi is the capital of Albay province, in far southern Luzon at the southern end of the Bicol peninsula, and in 1941 was an important sea port, and the southern terminus of the Manila railway.

The area of Legazpi was in theory defended by Brigadier General George M. Parker’s South Luzon Force of two infantry divisions, Brigadier General Vicente Lim’s 41st Division in the west and the 51st Division in the east, together with the 2nd Provisional Artillery Group of two batteries of the US 86th Field Artillery (Philippine Scouts). With these two divisions, Parker was expected to cover a very large geographical area with five large bays suitable for amphibious operations, and more than 250 miles (400 km) of a coast suitable for landings. Moreover, both divisions were undermanned, poorly trained and suffering from a serious shortage of equipment. In addition, the situation was complicated further inasmuch as the enlisted men spoke only the local Bicol languages, whereas the officers spoke only Tagalog and English.

On the Japanese side, Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma’s 14th Army had created a detachment of 2,500 men of the 16th Division as the 'Kimura' Detachment under the command of Major General Naoki Kimura with the infantry group headquarters of the 33rd Regiment and one of the 22nd Field Artillery Regiment. Kimura also had under him a 575-man detachment of the 1st Kure Special Naval Landing Force. The 'Kimura' Detachment assembled in the Palau islands group, which was transported and supported by Rear Admiral Kyuji Kubo’s 4th Surprise Attack Force, an element of the 2nd Fleet under the operational control of the 3rd Fleet, with the light cruiser Nagara, the destroyers Yamakaze, Suzukaze, Kawakaze, Umikaze, Yukikaze and Tokitsukaze, the seaplane tenders Mizuho and Chitose, two minesweepers, two patrol vessels and seven transport vessels.

Distant cover was provided by Vice Admiral Ibō Takahashi with the light aircraft carrier Ryujo, the heavy cruisers Haguro, Myoko and Nachi, and the destroyer Shiokaze. In addition, the covering fleet was accompanied by Destroyer Squadron 2 with the light cruiser Jintsu and the destroyers Amatsukaze, Hayashio, Kuroshio, Hatsukaze, Natsushio and Oyashio for minelaying operations in the San Bernardino Strait.

The 'Kimura' Detachment landed at Legazpi on the morning of 12 December without opposition, as the nearest US and Filipino forces were more than 150 miles (240 km) distant. By 09.00 the Japanese were in control of both the airfield and the railway, and on the following day the Japanese naval covering force was withdrawn tp the Palau islands group.

The Philippine 51st Division sent an engineering battalion southward into the Bicol peninsula to destroy bridges and to prevent railway equipment from falling into the hands of the Japanese. The first US counterattack was a strafing attack on 12 December by two fighters of Major General Lewis H. Brereton’s Far East Air Force on the newly captured airstrip at Legazpi, and this killed three Japanese. This was followed by an attack by three Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engined heavy bombers, which destroyed nine Japanese aircraft on the runway at Legazpi, but only one of the B-17 warplanes returned to its base at Del Monte Airfield.

Once Legazpi had been secured, Kimura sent his forces to the north on Highway 1 to capture Naga, the capital of Camarines Sur province on 18 December. Continuing northward from Naga and repairing bridges as they advanced, the Japanese reached Sipocot on 19 December and Daet, capital of Camarines Norte province, on 21 December. Parker ordered two companies of the 52nd Infantry to make a stand to the north of Sipocot, as the Bicol peninsula is very narrow in that area, enabling a small force to considerably delay the Japanese advance. In the early morning of 22 December, one company of the 'Kimura' Detachment engaged the small US force, which had a good geographic position, and was able to push the Japanese 6 miles (10 km) to the south.

On 23 December, though, the Japanese made a landing at Atimonan, the capital of Quezon province to the north of the US positions. Although thus encircled, part of the 52nd Infantry managed to make its way back to the US lines.

In retrospect, the advance landings by the Japanese in southern Luzon, including at Legazpi, largely accomplished its strategic objective of finalising the encirclement of the US-led major forces in central Luzon, preventing both escape and reinforcement. Tactically, the airfields which the Japanese seized were small, and with the rapid advance of the Japanese into both central and southern Luzon, were soon found to be unnecessary for further operations.