Operation Te (iii)

This was a Japanese airborne assault on a number of US-held airfields on Leyte island in the Philippine archipelago (6/18 December 1944).

After seeing small-scale but comparatively widespread service during the Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies early in 1942, the Imperial Japanese army’s parachute arm was withdrawn to the Japanese home islands for rest and rehabilitation, and also for expansion. The 1st Training Raiding Regiment and 2nd Training Raiding Regiment were both disbanded and their personnel assigned to new 3rd Raiding Regiment and 4th Raiding Regiment in the course of August 1944, and the 5th Raiding Regiment was absorbed into the new 1st Glider Infantry Regiment and 2nd Glider Infantry Regiment. The 2nd Raiding Brigade was activated on 6 November 1944 under the command of Colonel Kenji Tokunaga.

The US ‘King II’ landings on Leyte island of the Philippines archipelago on 20 October 1944 had meanwhile brought the paratroop arm back into active service: on 25 October, the Imperial General Headquarters ordered the 2nd Raiding Brigade, still in the process of formation, to deploy to the Philippine islands group. Major Tsuneharu Shirai’s 3rd Raiding Regiment departed Japan on board the aircraft carrier Junyo on 30 October, avoiding interception by US submarines and aircraft to reach Manila, on Luzon island, during 11 November, and the headquarters of the 2nd Raiding Brigade arrived by air on the same day. Major Chisaku Saida’s 4th Raiding Regiment departed Japan on board the transport vessel Akagisan Maru on 3 November, and reached San Fernando on Luzon island during 30 November. The 2nd Raiding Brigade then assembled at Clark Field, to the north of Manila, but their 1st Raiding Flying Regiment and 2nd Raiding Flying Regiment remained on Formosa for forward deployment only as and when required.

By this time the Japanese were willing to make major sacrifices to drive the forces of Lieutenant General Walter C. Krueger’s US 6th Army from Leyte and, despite the failure of the ‘Gi’ (iii) raid by the ‘Kaoru’ Airborne Raiding Detachment, were not deterred from another attempt to inflict major damage on airfields now in US hands. This new effort was to a more substantial and better co-ordinated endeavour as part of a continuing air offensive, and its planning by General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 14th Area Army on Luzon and Lieutenant General Kyoji Tominaga’s 4th Air Army had started even before the ‘Gi’ (iii) operation had been attempted as an interim measure.

The object of the new operation was to provide material support for the Japanese forces on Leyte, under the command of Lieutenant General Sosaku Suzuki’s 35th Army, by severely reducing the level of tactical air support with which the US forces could aid their ground forces. Within this concept, the paratroopers and Lieutenant General Shiro Makino’s 16th Division were to occupy the three Burauen airfields (Burauen North, Burauen South and the smaller San Pablo), where they were then to be reinforced by the arrival of Lieutenant General Tsuyuo Yamagata’s 26th Division from Ormoc on the west coast across the island’s central mountains. The airborne operation was ‘Te’ (iii), and the ground operation ‘Wa’ (ii). Airborne attacks against the Dulag and Tacloban airfields were later added to the basic plan at the request of the commander of the 3rd Raiding Regiment. For ‘Te’ (iii) the 3rd Raiding Regiment and part of the 4th Raiding Regiment were allocated and divided into three echelons, and the detachment aimed at each airfield sometimes included men of both units. Nakajima Ki-49 ‘Helen’ twin-engined medium (by Japanese standard heavy) bombers were to crash-land on the airfields, and the airborne troops in each of these were to deplane speedily to attack the parked aircraft and supply dumps, which were the operation’s highest-priority targets, with demolition charges. Other paratroopers were to jump from Mitsubishi Ki-57 ‘Topsy’ twin-engined transport aircraft to engage the defending US ground forces and attack anti-aircraft gun positions and any other facilities they found.

Burauen South airfield, known to the Japanese as Buri airfield, was the target of some 204 to 260 men of the 3rd Raiding Regiment and 4th Raiding Regiment delivered in 17 Ki-57 aircraft; Burauen North airfield, known to the Japanese as Bayug airfield, was to be attacked by 72 men of the 3rd Raiding Regiment delivered in six Ki-57 aircraft; San Pablo airstrip was to be attacked by 24 to 36 men of the 4th Raiding Regiment delivered in three Ki-57 aircraft; Dulag airfield was to be attacked by 84 men of the 4th Raiding Regiment delivered in seven Ki-57 aircraft and 20 men of the 3rd Raiding Regiment delivered in two Ki-49 aircraft; and Tacloban airfield was to be attacked by 44 men of the 4th Raiding Regiment delivered in two Ki-57 and two Ki-49 aircraft.

The second echelon comprised the 3rd Company and the Heavy Weapons Company of the 3rd Raiding Regiment, together with the signals unit; and the third echelon comprised the remaining 80 men.

The start of ‘Wa’ (ii) was initially scheduled for 5 December despite the unreadiness of the 16th Division and 26th Division, which in fact began their attacks on the night of 5/6 December as they had to been informed of a change of plan delaying the ‘Te’ (iii) airborne element until the following night as a result of adverse weather.

On 5 December the transport aircraft reached Clark Field from Formosa, and were immediately camouflaged to avoid US air raids.

At 15.40 on 6 December, 35 Ki-57 transports and four Ki-49 bombers lifted off from Clark Field. As soon as the formation arrived over Leyte, anti-aircraft fire began to detonate around them. The transports bound for Burauen reached their target area, but because the US fire confused the pilots most of the paratroopers were dropped over San Pablo airstrip, with only Shirai and about 60 men jumping on Buri. The transports heading toward Dulag and Tacloban were all shot down.
Only 17 of the 35 transports returned to Lipa airfield, most of them damaged. On the following day the second echelon’s eight transports and two bombers took off, but bad weather over Leyte caused them to abort. Because of the US advance on Ormoc by Major General Verne D. Mudge’s 1st Cavalry Division and Major General Andrew D. Bruce’s 77th Division, further flights to Burauen were cancelled.

Defending the Burauen area was Major General Joseph M. Swing’s 11th Airborne Division, which had landed from the sea on 18 November as a reinforcement for Major General John R. Hodge’s XXIV Corps. The division’s elements were deployed widely in the area’s rugged hills, and relied on the 35 Piper L-4 single-engined liaison aircraft at Bayug to deliver vital supplies by airdrop. Elements of the 127th Engineer Battalion, 408th Quartermaster Company and 511th Signal Company were located beside Bayug, and the headquarters of the division and the divisional artillery were sited near San Pablo. The 1/187th Glider Infantry was at Buri, and anti-aircraft units to the west.

The Japanese transports appeared at 18.00 on 6 December, and parachutes opened over the airfields. Some 300 men of the 16th Division had also managed to fight their way down from the hills and had entrenched themselves in a wooded area on the northern side of Buri. Some paratroopers were shot as they landed, but many others managed to reach the packed lines of liaison aircraft at Bayug and began to hurl grenades at them. Fuel and supply dumps were set on fire, and the raiders seized and used abandoned US weapons. They called out to the Americans to surrender on the grounds that resistance was pointless, but some 60 US supply men and ground crews dug themselves in on the southern side of the Bayug airstrip and held out all night. Men of the divisional headquarters secured the San Pablo airstrip, while the 127th Engineers counterattacked, fighting as infantry.

At the break of day on 7 December, the 674th Glider Field Artillery Battalion, swiftly reorganised as infantry, arrived from the beach and joined the 127th Engineers. By the fall of night on 7 December the engineers and gunners had secured much of the area and were entrenched to the north of the airfields, and serviceable liaison aircraft took off to resume the delivery of supplies to front-line units. The 1/187th Glider Infantry, with the aid of the 1/149th Infantry of Major General Henry L. L. Jones’s 38th Division and the 767th Tank Battalion, continued to mop up until 11 December, and no raiders were taken prisoner.

The Japanese had counted on the shock effect of raiders parachuting from the sky, but this was lost on the men of the 11th Airborne Division, who saw this as entirely natural. After losing about half of his men, Shirai withdrew from Buri with the survivors and on 8 December reached Bayug, where they found no survivors. The Japanese returned to Buri, but after the second echelon did not arrive marched to the west, linking with a unit of the 26th Division on 18 December.

Because many elements of different US units were committed on a piecemeal basis, it is unclear how many US casualties there were. The loss of 11 liaison aircraft and some degree of damage to most of the others hampered the resupply of front-line units until the aircraft were replaced some days later.