Operation Victor I

This was the US and Filipino reconquest of Panay island and the Negros Occidental region of Negros in the Visaya islands group of the Philippine archipelago by Major General Rapp Brush’s 40th Division, with the 503rd Parachute Infantry as reserve, of Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger’s 8th Army (18 March/12 June 1945).

Panay is one of the Visayan islands of the central part of the Philippine islands group and, lying to the north-west of Negros, is the sixth largest of the Philippine islands, measuring some 75 miles (120 km) in width and 95 miles (155 km) in length with an area of 4,448 sq miles (11520 km²). The island is approximately triangular in shape, with its apex aligned toward the south-west, and has a central valley through which runs the Jalauo river, flanked by mountains to the west and hills to the east. The western chain reaches to a height of 6,946 ft (2117 m) at Mt Madiaas. In the period of World War II, the island possessed a coastal road, and a another road and railway extended along the central valley. The principal town was Iloilo on the south-east coast.

Negros is another of the Visayan islands of the central part of the Philippine islands group, and is located between Cebu to the east and Panay to the west, separated from the latter by the Guimaras Strait, which is between 10 and 12 miles (15 and 18.5 km) wide. It is the fourth largest island in the archipelago, 140 miles (225 km) long and 22 miles (35 km) wide with an area of 5,155 sq miles (13351 km²). The southern half of the island is mountainous, with some peaks exceeding 4,000 ft (1220 m). A mountain chain runs up the island’s northern half, reaching a maximum height of 8,087 ft (2465 m) at Canlaon Peak, and there is a coastal plain to the west. Canlaon Peak is an active volcano and the highest point in the Visayan islands group.

Negros was almost completely undeveloped in 1941, but did possess a good coastal road around most of the island except in the south-western area. There were also a number of narrow-gauge rail spurs serving the numerous sugar plantations on the north-western coastal plain. Most of this sugar was exported through the port of Bacolod on the north-west coast. There was an airstrip at Dumaguete.

The Japanese occupied the island at a time late in May 1942 and later built seven airfields on the north-western coastal plain. However, a strong Allied guerrilla force continued to hold out in the central and southern mountains.

At the time of the ‘M’ (ii) operation, in which the Japanese seized the Philippine islands group from 8 December 1941, Panay was defended by 7,000 men of Brigadier General Bradford G. Chynoweth’s Filipino 61st Division (63rd, 64th and 65th Infantry) plus a number of Philippine Constabulary units under the command of Colonel Albert F. Christie. Major General Saburo Kawamura’s ‘Kawamura’ Detachment (based on the 41st Regiment of the 9th Brigade) landed unopposed at Iloilo and Capiz, at each end of the cross-island road, on 16 April 1942. On 18 April another small force landed at San Jose de Buenavista on the lower portion of the west coast. After several engagements the Filipino forces fell back largely intact to the mountains and were well prepared to conduct a guerrilla war, but the Japanese controlled the roads and key towns, and declared the island secure on 20 April. The pre-war governor of Panay, Tomás Confesor, eventually joined the guerrillas and established a civil government. In January 1943 Tomas rejected an invitation to join the puppet government of Jose Laurel, and also refused all demands that he surrender.

At the time of the start of ‘Victor I’, Panay was held by some 2,500 Japanese troops subordinated to Lieutenant Colonel Ryoichi Titsuka’s 170th Independent Battalion of the 77th Brigade, based at Iloilo on the lower south-eastern coast. Among the Japanese personnel were more than 1,000 airfield service troops and 400 civilians. Half of the garrison had been sent to Leyte island in October 1944 following the 'King II' landings on that island. The Japanese operated three airfields in Panay’s southern portion at San Fernando, Santa Barbara and Mandurriao, and also Loctugan on the northern coast. During December General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 14th Area Army, responsible for the whole of the Philippine islands group, seriously considered the withdrawal of Panay’s garrison to Negros Occidental island, but US air interdiction and lack of shipping made this an impractical proposition. Instead, the Japanese defence plan for the island realistically called for a limited defence of Iloilo followed by a withdrawal into the western mountains to fight a guerrilla war in the fashion which mirrored that adopted by the US and Filipino forces almost three years earlier. A series of strongpoints was established in the Bolo area of the foothills and delaying positions were created on the approaches in the Jalauo river valley. A detached company defended San Jose de Buenavista on the lower part of the west coast.

After operations to take Masbate and Burias islands farther to the north with landings on 3 March, the 40th Division’s 185th Infantry was landed by the 9th Amphibious Group (Panay Attack Group, Rear Admiral Arthur D. Struble’s Task Group 74.3 with the US Coast Guard cutter Ingham as its headquarters ship) some 12 miles (19 km) from Iloilo on 18 March. The troops were landed from 16 tank landing ships, 20 medium landing ships, 13 infantry landing craft and eight support infantry landing craft. The way was cleared by a group of motor minesweepers and the Australian sloop Warrego, escort provided by the destroyers Charles Ausburne, Thatcher, Claxton, Converse and Dyson (Destroyer Division 23), and gunfire support was provided by Rear Admiral Riggs’s TG74.2 with the light cruiser Cleveland and the destroyers Conway, Stevens and Eaton (Destroyer Division 44).

As they landed, the US forces were met by Filipino guerrillas, part of a force of 23,000 such men who had, under the command of Colonel Macario Peralta, already secured most of Panay. Well equipped and disciplined, the guerrillas confirmed US estimates that the Japanese defence comprised some 2,500 men, most of them covering the approaches to Iloilo. The Americans seized the airfield at Santa Barbara and that in the nearby Mandurriao district, and then with the Filipino guerrillas advanced on Iloilo, which the Japanese burned and abandoned on 19 March as they took to the hills in the centre of the island. Here a battalion of the 160th Infantry and Filipino guerrillas harried them for the rest of the war, when the last 1,560 men surrendered. The Americans had lost about 20 men killed and 50 wounded in the fighting on Panay, and the Japanese had lost almost 1,000 men killed.

The 40th Division next turned its attention to Negros, the major island lying immediately to the south-east of Panay.

At the time of their invasion of the Philippine islands group, the Japanese had made no effort against Negros island, which was held by some 3,000 US and Filipino troops, preferring to clear it only after the main part of ‘M’ (ii) had been completed. In the event Major General Kameichiro Nagano’s ‘Nagano’ Detachment (based on the 62nd Regiment of the 21st Division) took control of Negros, as well as Bohol, Leyte and Samar islands, between 20 and 25 May 1942. Negros surrendered only on 3 June, and then just 1,200 or so US and Filipino troops had actually turned themselves in by 9 June, the others disappearing into the interior to wage a guerrilla war.

The western and northern parts of Negros are known as Negros Occidental, and this was the part of the island attacked by the US forces in ‘Victor I’, while the eastern and southern portions of the island are known as Negros Oriental, and were attacked in ‘Victor II’.

Negros Occidental was defended by Major General Takeshi Kono’s 77th Brigade of Lieutenant General Shinpei Fukue’s 102nd Division, but three of the brigade’s five infantry battalions were detached to defend other islands, though the two battalions left on Negros Occidental were supplemented by extemporised combat units created with the manpower of service and support elements. Negros Occidental had been a major airfield complex for Lieutenant General Seiichi Terada’s 2nd Air Division, and there were thus seven airfields operated by the 6th Air Sector Unit on the upper western and northern ends of the island at Silay, Manalpa, Bacolod, Tanzaa, Talisay, Fabrica and Salavia, while the Japanese navy had one airfield at Binalbagan to supplement its facility at Dumaguete near the southern end. In all there were almost 12,000 Japanese troops on Negros, but only about two-thirds of these were armed, and stocks of supplies and ammunition were low. This latter was notably different from the situation found on most other islands defended by the Japanese, which were initially well stocked.

The Japanese left rearguard detachments on the northern and upper western coasts to blow bridges and delay the US advance, and moved as much as possible of the available equipment and supplies into a northern mountain stronghold area. Before ‘Victor I’, Filipino guerrillas already controlled most of the southern and central portions of the island.

The 40th Division (less the 108th Infantry left on Panay) departed Iloilo on 28 March in the ships of TG78.3. The first landing was made by a reinforced platoon of the 185th Infantry just ahead of the main landing scheduled to come ashore near Bacalod on the island’s western side opposite Guimaras island. The platoon seized the 650-ft (200-m) bridge over the Bago river, which separated Pandan Point and the city itself, and was thus a vital link in supporting the timely movement of heavy weapons and equipment. The Japanese guard force was taken totally by surprise, and the bridge was secured for several hours before reinforcements arrived. The sudden seizure of Bago bridge easily allowed the 185th Infantry to land at Pulupandan unopposed, with the 160th Infantry following, and then to advance rapidly, seizing seven more bridges, and finally to approach Bacolod on 30 March. Bacolod was defended by most of Kono’s 13,000 Japanese troops on the island, and by 5 June the Americans had secured Bacolod and the area surrounding it, including the airfield.

Elements of the two regiments soon advanced to the north and east. The US attack had been so swift that none of the bridges had been blown by the Japanese, and by 8 April the Japanese rearguards had withdrawn to the mountain stronghold even as Filipino guerrillas harried Japanese detachments in the area south-west of the stronghold. The 503rd Parachute Infantry, which had been prepared to conduct a parachute reinforcement, in fact arrived by sea after garrisoning Corregidor island on 7 April and was attached to the 40th Division.

A week later, on 9 April, all three regiments under the control of the 40th Division pushed east into the island’s mountainous interior. The Japanese resisted stubbornly, aided by booby-trapped terrain, defended their fortified positions by day, and conducting harassing attacks by night. The 40th Division soon started to make use of small infiltrating units to creep past tank traps and minefields, then scrambled uphill across open fields of fire to attack Japanese positions. By 4 June the Japanese had started a general withdrawal, retreating farther into the unexplored mountains of Negros. Eight weeks later, the 40th Division overcame these final defences and scattered the rest of the Japanese troops into the jungle-covered mountains after having tied down what was in effect a full infantry division for almost two months.

While the fighting was taking place in the northern mountains, the divisional reconnaissance troop followed the eastern coastal road almost to Dumaguete near the island’s south-eastern end, and there met the leading elements of the 164th Infantry after its 26 April landing in ‘Victor II’. The 40th Division returned to Panay late in June, while the 503d Parachute Infantry remained to garrison Negros Occidental and mop up until the end of the war. Some 4,000 Japanese had been killed by 9 June, and another 3,350 were killed during the mopping-up actions by the US and Filipino forces, and also of disease and starvation. About 250 Japanese were taken prisoner, and at the end of the war the 6,150 surviving Japanese surrendered. The US losses had been 370 killed and 1,025 wounded, most of the losses being incurred during the reduction of the Japanese mountain stronghold area in April and May.