Operation Victor III

This was the US and Filipino reconquest of Palawan, Busuanga and Balabac islands in the south-eastern part of the Philippine islands group by units of Major General Jens A. Doe’s 41st Division of Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger’s 8th Army (28 February/22 April 1945).

Palawan is a large island in the south-western part of the Philippine islands group and to the north-east of Borneo, some 270 miles (430 km) long and 15 to 30 miles (25 to 50 km) wide with an area of about 4,706 sq miles (12189 km²) and a coast 841 miles (1353 km) long. Long and narrow, the island is mountainous and covered largely with jungle, and possesses a central mountain chain reaching a maximum height of 6,841 ft (2085 m) at Mt Mantalingajan. The island takes the full weight of the wet monsoon between June and September, and this brings heavy rain to the northern and western portions of the island. The east coast is in the rain shadow of the central mountains and experiences a dry season. Palawan was largely undeveloped in 1941, with the primary exception of Puerto Princesa, but the anchorage at Malampaya Sound was occasionally used by seaplane tenders of the US Navy. The island possessed no improved roads, and the majority of the population lived in the area to the north of Puerto Princesa.

Early in 1942, the island was occupied by the Japanese, who constructed two airstrips near Puerto Princesa. The west coast has numerous small anchorages, and these provided shelter for Japanese merchant ships making the run from Borneo to the Philippine islands group.

The object of 'Victor III' was to provide suitable bases for the support of the Australian ‘Oboe’ operations in Borneo and to open the Sulu Sea to Allied shipping (especially tankers) after the completion of the Australian offensive.

As the formations of Lieutenant General Walter C. Krueger’s US 6th Army advanced on Manila, the capital of the Philippine islands group on Luzon, General Douglas MacArthur had ordered the launch of the ‘Victor’ series of operations to recapture the entire southern part of the Philippine archipelago. With Mindoro island already in the hands of the Allies since 16 December 1944 as a result of ‘Love III’ and the ‘Mike I’ campaign for the recapture of Luzon already in full swing, the Americans wanted to establish another theatre of operations in the Philippine islands to reduce the threat of Japanese troop movements from the larger islands of the south, and also to cut the line of communications by which the Japanese forces in the Philippine islands group could possibly be reinforced from Japanese-occupied Indo-China on the mainland of eastern Asia via the South China Sea and the south-western part of the Sulu Sea. The 8th Army was thus instructed to seize Puerto Princesa, and then proceed to the Zamboanga peninsula on the western tip of Mindanao island and also to parts of the Sulu islands archipelago between Mindanao and Borneo.

Within the overall task of the undertaking, the primary objectives were the completion of the Allied isolation of the central Philippine islands of Panay, Negros, Cebu and Bohol, and to expand the range of Allied air operations. Aircraft based at Palawan could undertake interdiction missions over a range extending as far as Indo-China, and cut the Japanese maritime lines of communication in the South China Sea, while aircraft based at Zamboanga and the islands of the Sulu archipelago could attack the Japanese oil installations on Borneo.

The Japanese had two airstrips and a seaplane base at Puerto Princesa on the southern side of Honda Bay on the central part of the island’s east coast. These airstrips were little more than way stations for aircraft and small transport vessels moving between Borneo and the Philippine islands and, as noted above, the island’s long coast also provided hidden anchorages for a sheltered passage between Borneo and the Philippines.

The Puerto Princesa area was defended only by two companies detached from the 174th Independent Battalion of the 78th Brigade in the southern part of Negros island, and also the 131st Airfield Battalion. The infantry battalion commander, Captain Chokichi Kojima, was the senior officer on Palawan. Detachments of these companies garrisoned Dumaran island off the north-eastern end of Palawan, and Conon and Pandanan islands off its south-western end. About 1,200 of the 1,750 Japanese army and navy personnel on Palawan, which included 900 army air service troops and 250 sailors, were concentrated at Puerto Princesa. During February most of the Japanese strength was relocated to the 4,220-ft (1285-m) Thumb Peak some 10 miles (16 km) to the north-west of Puerto Princesa and also into prepared defences.

Eichelberger selected the 41st Division to undertake the Palawan, Zamboanga and Sulu operations of ‘Victor III’. Like most of the Philippine islands, Palawan presented major difficulties for any invasion force. Long and narrow, the island is surrounded by numerous reefs and sand banks, and its coast includes much mangrove swamp. This limited the number of landing sites from which the Americans could chose, and farther inland the narrow coastal plain gave way to heavily forested mountains, these latter offering the Japanese considerable scope for defensive operations.

Reinforced to a strength of 8,150 men, the 186th Regimental Combat Team of Brigadier General Harold H. Haney, the assistant commander of the 41st Division, was the primary combat unit tasked by Doe with the invasion of Palawan. A cruiser and destroyer task force of Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet, entrusted with naval support of the US forces fighting in the Philippine islands group under MacArthur’s overall command, was to deliver the landing force and also to provide gunfire support as needed. The troops and their equipment and supplies would be delivered by Vice Admiral Daniel E. Barbey’s 7th Amphibious Force, and the Palawan landings would be the responsibility of Rear Admiral William M. Fechteler’s 8th Amphibious Group. The headquarters ship was the US Coast Guard cutter Spencer, and the assault force was landed from four troop-carrying destroyer conversions, the dock landing ship Rushmore, 19 tank landing ships, 20 medium landing ships, 10 infantry landing ships and 14 support infantry landing craft, one patrol vessel and three submarine chasers, with escort provided by the destroyers Flusser, Conyngham, Smith, Drayton and Shaw (Destroyer Squadron 5), and clearance of the approach waters by four motor minesweepers.

The preparatory gunfire bombardment and support were provided by Rear Admiral Ralph S. Riggs’s TG74.2 with the light cruisers Denver, Montpelier and Cleveland, and destroyers Fletcher, O’Bannon, Jenkins and Abbot (Destroyer Squadron 21). Air escort and support were furnished by Major General Ennis C. Whitehead’s 5th AAF and Major General Paul B. Wurtsmith’s 13th AAF.

‘Victor III’ was in fact the first of the ‘Victor’ series of operations to be launched, and after two days of attacks by the aircraft of Wurtsmith’s 13th AAF and bombardment by warships of Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet, the first assault wave of the 186th Regimental Combat Team began to come ashore at Puerto Princesa on the morning of 28 February after transport from Mindoro in the ships of the Palawan Attack Group (Task Group 78.2). The lack of a good landing area slowed an unloading operation which, fortunately for the Americans, was largely unopposed, but the entire process was nonetheless facilitated by the capability of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade, whose units supervised and managed the movement of troops and supplies at the beach landings.

The men of the 186th Regimental Combat Team then fanned out from the landing area, two battalions advancing to the north along the eastern side of Puerto Princesa’s harbour and the third battalion crossing the bay at its central position and then driving to the north. As the first day of the operation continued, however, it became clear to the Americans that the Japanese garrison, part of Lieutenant General Sosaku Suzuki’s 35th Army tasked with the defence of the southern area of the Philippine islands group, was not planning to contest the issue at Puerto Princesa and had already started to pull back into the hills to the north-west of the provincial capital. The Americans at this time learned of the massacre of some 150 US prisoners of war during the previous December: the passage of an Allied convoy had led the Japanese to believe that an invasion was imminent, and they had herded their prisoners into air-raid shelters, which they then set on fire before shooting any of the prisoners who tried to escape. Three men nonetheless escaped and were sheltered by Filipinos until the US landing, when they revealed what had happened.

The 186th Regimental Combat Team met little opposition until 3 March, the third day of the operation, when fierce fighting erupted as the US troops entered the hills lying some 10 miles (16 km) to the north of the harbour: it required five days of savage combat to destroy the pockets of Japanese resistance. On 1 March the first supply convoy arrived with 19 tank landing ships and an escort comprising the destroyers Waller, Sigourney and McCalla. A base for PT Squadrons 20 and 23 was also established by the PT-boat depot ship Willoughby.

In the following weeks Eichelberger ordered units of the 186th Regimental Combat Team to seize the small islands off the northern and southern parts of Palawan. On 9 March a reconnaissance unit of the 186th Regimental Combat Team landed on Dumaran island to the north-east of Palawan in the Calamian islands group and found it unoccupied. Then on 9 April a company of the 186th Regimental Combat Team landed on Busuanga island, killed 10 Japanese, and reported the island secured. The 186th Regimental Combat Team later took part in the US occupation of the nearby Culion and Coron islands. To the south, parties of the 186th Regimental Combat Team’s second battalion landed on Balabac island during 16 April and on Pandanan island six days later. Both landings were unopposed.

Though small, this campaign set the casualty pattern for those later undertaken in other islands of the southern part of the Philippine islands group. The US Army lost 12 men killed and 56 men wounded, while Japanese losses totalled almost 900 men killed and another 140 wounded, these comprising about half of the Palawan garrison. Mopping up activities on Palawan itself lasted until a time late in April, when the remaining Japanese simply withdrew farther into the trackless mountain jungles of Palawan, another pattern which became typical of all the major operations in the southern part of the Philippine islands group. In the mountains the Japanese remnants were stalked and many were killed by US troops and Filipino guerrillas.

Meanwhile, airfield construction began almost immediately on Palawan. Although the marshy nature of the land impeded the efforts of the US Army’s engineers, US fighter aircraft were using the airstrip at Puerto Princesa by a time late in March. However, the completion of an all-weather runway for heavy bombers came too late to support Eichelberger’s next operation, but the airfield subsequently was used to interdict Japanese supply lines in the South China Sea and support the ‘Oboe’ operations in Borneo from May 1945.