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Forgotten Victory, by Tracy Derks, WWII

February 24, 1945, was a day of foundry-Iike heat, and the men of Company B, 27th regiment, were hunkered down on a bare, sun-drenched hillside, fighting for the scrap of dirt stretching above them. The ground in front of the Americans spouted fountains of turf as bullets from machine guns chewed away at the GIs. Less than a mile from the gravel road they were fighting for, these men of the 1st Battalion had walked into a whipsaw of Japanese resistance. Mopping up the remnants of Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita's 14th Area Army in its Northern Luzon mountain bastion bad turned deadly for the soldiers of the Tropic Lightning Division. 

The sharp slope bristled with the enemy's defenses, concentrated around a series of foxholes manned with light and heavy machine guns. These Nipponese strong points commanded the grassy hillsides along the eastern edges of Route 5, while to the west of the two-lane "highway," the wooded slopes were laced with intricate defenses. The Japanese plan was to contest every step of the 25th Division's march up Route 5 to Balete Pass, the gateway to the Cagayan Valley and the rear of the Japanese Army. 

The GIs of the 27th Regiment, veterans of Guadalcanal, held no illusions about the cost of taking this high ground. Looking through the sheets of enervating heat to the flashes of enemy gunfire, these soldiers accepted that they were in a meatgrinder, slugging away in a forgotten tropical Hell just to keep alive, and to keep their buddies alive. As Private Ace Barton of Company B recalled, " ... you feared not keeping up your end of things worse than you feared death .... " Barton related that " ... there was always some guy that would have the guts to get up and go and you felt compelled to follow him!" 

Staff Sergeant Raymond H. Cooley of Company B was such a man. With his squad pinned down under that curtain of machine gun fire, Cooley crawled forward of the American lines and eliminated a machine gun nest with a well-timed grenade. He then continued his solitary advance, pawing his way toward a second automatic weapon that was laying down a vicious fire. He dropped grenades down "spider holes" he came across, easing the pounding his unit was taking with each Japanese he killed. 

Spurred by Cooley's attack, men from his platoon charged forward to help as the sergeant neared the remaining machine gun nest. Cooley readied another grenade, waiting to whip it into the enemy's location at the last possible moment. Yet before he could throw the grenade, six Japanese soldiers scrambled from undetected lairs to attack his squad. 

Cooley had no time to find a new target. His men, locked in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy, were all around him. He could not get rid of the grenade without blasting them. With mere seconds before the explosion Cooley brought the grenade close to his body and maneuvered away from the fight. 

The grenade slammed chunks of searing metal into Cooley's belly, while the initial explosion ripped off his right hand. His exposed bowels poured out of the wounds in his stomach as blood ran from his destroyed wrist. But his sacrifice saved the squad. Not one of Cooley's men was killed in the melee that cost the sergeant so dearly. 

The men of Company B exploited the hole Cooley had punched through the Japanese lines, his squad rolling up the hill and cracking through the enemy's resistance in the vicinity. Medics moving forward with the battalion saved Cooley despite the ghastliness of his wounds. Six months later Cooley received the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

The strong point that Sergeant Cooley helped to reduce was situated north and west of Lumboy, a barrio straddling Route 5, the major North - South artery for Northern Luzon. Route 5 was a gravel road winding over and through the razorback ridges, the jungle-choked ravines, and the craggy summits of the Caraballo Mountains. In late February of '45, Route 5 took on strategic importance when General Krueger, U.S. 6th Army commander, began his push against the largest concentration of Japanese remaining on Luzon, the Shobu Group holing up in the Caraballos. This campaign, vital to victory in the Philippines, has been largely overlooked, though some of the bloodiest fighting on the islands took place in the mountains of Luzon. 

After the 6th Army's landings on Lingayen Gulf beaches in January, the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita had withdrawn the bulk of his 14th Area Army, a force of over 150,000 men, into the island's northern mountains. Yamashita, one of the greatest minds in the Japanese military, was willing to concede the Central Plains, and the city of Manila, in favor of more defensible positions in the mountains. Yamashita was a realist. His plans revolved, not around defeating his enemy, but instead, on the idea of hobbling U.S. forces in the Philippines, thereby buying time for the preparation of defenses on his island homeland. 

Yamashita decided the disposition of his army after he had determined that the American forces would concentrate their main attack on Route 5, which ran from the south, over the jagged mountain range, through a tight defile called Balete Pass, directly into the rear of his army. To counter this anticipated move the General deployed his 10th Division in defensive strong points along the mountain-jungle road. 

Yamashita would ultimately be proved prophetic in his vision of American designs, but only after the 6th Army had exhausted its other options. General Krueger had only the 33rd, 32nd, and 25th divisions with which to reduce Yamashita's stronghold. Krueger had envisioned sending the 33rd into the western region of the mountains, aiming at Yamashita's army Headquarters at Baguio. That plan was soon reduced to a holding action as the terrain and the enemy's embedded defenses kept the 33rd Division from achieving decisive results. 

Next, the Americans shifted their attention southeast of the Baguio front, attempting to strike directly from the central plain over the tortuous Villa Verde trail to the crossroads town of Santa Fe. Seizure of Santa Fe would secure the head of the Cagayan Valley, cutting Yamashita off from his supply source. However, the battle along the Villa Verde devolved into a series of bloody frontal assaults up hillsides honeycombed with Japanese emplacements, a sanguinary exercise in mountain warfare. Though Krueger never gave up on the gallant 32nd, he needed faster results, so he turned to the 25th Division. 

Krueger, on February 21, ordered General Love Mullins, commander of the 25th, to begin thrusting up Route 5. The mission; clear an eleven mile stretch of road from San Jose (the division's jumping off point at the base of the mountains) to a barrio named Digdig. Krueger hoped the pressure from the 25th would distract the Japanese from their defense of the Villa Verde, where the 6th Army commander still expected the 32nd to breakthrough and take Santa Fe. 

Positioned along the northern rim of the Central Plains, the division was stretched on a line running along the foot of the Caraballos from Northwest to Southeast. The 161st Regiment was ordered to secure the division's left flank -- a duty that entailed the GIs slugging over endless Japanese infested mountains to the west of Route 5. The 27th RCT was to apply pressure along the center of the division's line, directly up 5, tying down any Nipponese in the area. And the maneuvering force of the division was to be the 35th regiment, sweeping east and north in a flanking move along the division's right. 

After a bloody battle for the Lumboy hill mass, Colonel Dalton, commander of the 161st, had his men in position to start the push. The battle had included one of the first contacts with the Japanese defensive cave; tunnel networks dug into the mountainsides that permitted enemy forces to strike from protected positions. In the battle for the hill mass Dalton's troops flushed out one such cave with the use of a flamethrower. 

The flamethrower operator angled his way up to the cave, then poured in his synthetic hell. Twenty-six soldiers came bolting from the entrance. Waiting riflemen picked them off. A twenty-seventh Japanese attempted to escape by a back exit, but the flamethrower operator, though out of juice, used his weapon as a club, clouting the would-be escapee to death. 

The 27th, in the center, had the unenviable job of engaging the enemy, keeping him busy, but not pushing so hard as to frighten him out of the trap the flanking 35th was attempting to spring. The rifle companies butted their heads against fixed positions while members of the I & R platoon, like Eugene "Buddy" Parsons, penetrated behind enemy lines to discover Japanese strength. Men like Parsons were ordered to journey into the jungles along Route 5, to search out enemy emplacements and personnel, and then return to friendly lines with the information. 

It was early in the mountain campaign that Parsons was returning from a mission when GIs from his own regiment opened up on the reconnaissance squad. Parsons had radioed in their position before attempting to cross the 27th line, but someone had dropped the ball, the line was not notified, and Parsons watched as his best friend went down, killed by American bullets. 

Troopers from the 27th faced the Japanese straddling the mountain road, while on the right, Colonel Stanley (I Swede" Larsen sent his men dashing up a jungle path called Route 100 to take a series of barrios; Pantabangan, Conversion, and Carranglan. The regiment was to then head west and pounce on Digdig from behind, trapping the force the 27th had pinned down on the road. 

The 35th captured Carranglan, and held it despite a harrowing nighttime attack by the Japanese on February 26. On the afternoon of March 2, Larsen ordered Companies B, K, and L to attack Digdig. Despite stubborn resistance the Americans had secured Digdig by the next morning. 

The first portion of the battle for Balete Pass had come off without a hitch. Things had gone so well for the division that on March 2, the day MacArthur returned to Corregidor and declared the Philippines operation complete except for "mopping up, II General Krueger "reshuffled" the Division's zone of operations to include Putlan, a barrio 11,000 yards north of Digdig. 

Confronting the 25th Division was a force led by General Konuma, the hand-picked choice of Yamashita. Konuma was not du1y alarmed by his enemy's quick stab into the heart of his defenses. He had the Shobu Group's 10th Division well dug in north of Digdig, and he had taken the precaution of reinforcing it with remnants of the 26th Division. His web of defenses were well thought-out and positioned for optimum strength. The general had issued orders that read: "Positions will not be yielded to the enemy even though you die. Our only path is victory or death; therefore, defend to the last man. Those who retreat without orders will be decapitated. 

Colonel Larsen's 35th was again to be the Division's hammer, arcing up the Old Spanish Trail (a continuation of Route 100), and slamming into the Japanese left flank, destroying it against the 27th and 161st regiments. The 35th jumped off on March 6th. On March 7th, elements of the 1st Battalion reached the outskirts of Putlan and made ready to take the bridge there. 

Larsen had been ordered by Mullins to seize the Putlan bridge " ... at all costs." The Japanese commanded the crossing from a ridge on the northern edge of the battlefield. As the 1 st battalion made its grab for the structure across flat open terrain the enemy poured down grenades and small arms fire. Troopers who made it to the bridge were pinned downed by a mortar barrage. 

Nineteen-year-old machine-gunner Paul Baehr found himself under the bridge when the mortars started thudding in on his position. Along with his ammunition carrier, Baehr had set up his gun to provide covering fire for the men in his company. The Japanese defenders had realized the importance of Baehr's position and began zeroing in to silence him. 

The shells came closer, and finally the ammunition carrier yelled that the two of them needed to get out of there. Baehr hoisted his weapon over his shoulder and dashed for a crater already full of GIs. His ammunition carrier was right behind him. The two GIs' frantic run for cover attracted the attention of Japanese snipers. Baehr dove head first into the makeshift foxhole as bullets whizzed around him. A second later his partner was at the rim of the foxhole, but he hesitated before jumping in, and was hit in the spine by a Japanese bullet. The ammunition carrier died two days later. 

The battalion commander sent back a succinct evaluation of the fighting around the bridge; "Rough." The 35th had lost thirty men in the assault and they still did not have the bridge. That night the Japanese blew it up. 

The bridge blown, Putlan was soon cleared. The division quickly achieved its other objectives, though the 35th's push up the Old Spanish Trail was halted due to stiffening resistance. Tropic Lightning had again exceeded General Krueger's expectations, and he rewarded them by extending their objectives to include vital Balete Pass. 

Twice the 25th had out-maneuvered entrenched positions. The American command expected more easy victories along Route 5. Accordingly, General Mullins kept the regimental assignments similar to the duties the three combat groups had already performed. Again, Colonel Dalton's 161st would attack along the ridges west of Route 5, while the 27th remained close to the road, and the 35th tried an end run around the Myoko Ridge. 

The 25th proceeded through a series of preliminary actions for much of the remainder of March. Actions that would lead to a push for Kapitalan, the last barrio on 5 the Division could use as a jumping off point for the Pass. These attacks against the Japanese positions met stiffening resistance. The GIs would seize an area after artillery barrage, move equipment and personnel forward and then discover that the area was still infested with Japanese. As Major Frank Reutlinger observed, "there were no front lines in that campaign." 

In the middle of March, north of Putlan, the assault squad of I Company of the 27th was sweeping one of the innumerable draws in the area when they came across the bodies of an American officer, a bazooka man, and a third trooper. Sergeant Ernie Lucas recalled "Their bodies had turned black. They were men from the 35th, which had already been through the area." 

Lucas was told by his lieutenant that the Japanese had two machine guns set up in the draw and were shooting anyone who set foot around the next bend. Lucas was told to prepare a satchel charge while the rest of the assault squad inched forward. Jesse Delgado of the squad was the first up the draw. He was hit immediately. The lieutenant ran up to rescue him and the wounded soldier said, "Don't move me. I feel good. Just let me roll." Then he died. Lucas and his squad took out the machine guns and cleared the draw. They were then ordered to flush out another draw a few hundred feet north of their just-won position. 

The most fiercely contested position in the middle reaches of the Carraballos was Norton's Knob. The hill, named after the first American soldier killed there, had to be taken so the 161st RCT could stay in step with the rest of the Division. The 1st battalion surprised the Japanese on the hill by flanking them on a secondary ridge. The Japanese appreciated the importance of Norton's Knob and counter-attacked the hill and the secondary ridge repeatedly on the night of 21-22 March. C Company and L Company managed to beat them off each time. The tired troopers christened the area "Banzai Ridge." 

One reason the Japanese had been able to hang on so tenaciously to their positions had been a lack of American artillery support. The division looked to the 90th FA and the 89th FA for help, but the Americans' big guns could do little to root out the well dug-in enemy. General Mullins sent his G 4 scourging for some innovation to assist his division in its push. Major Reutlinger discovered two idle 90-mm. anti-aircraft guns on the central plains. Reutlinger commandeered them, and the 25th found itself with weapons that devastated Japanese pillboxes. The flat trajectory of the 90 mm.s could punch out the enemy at ranges of 5,000 yards. 

The Division maneuverings eventually led to the capture of Kapintalan on April 21. Now Mullins and his regimental commanders could use the information from captured Japanese maps to plan effective means to clear out the remaining enemy and take Balete Pass. There would be no more wide sweeps around the enemy. The order of the day was head-on, chin-down fighting. 

Gains were measured in feet, and lives. The 25th suffered from jungle diseases, and bone weariness. The men of the Tropic Lightning Division had been on the line since January 10th, and morale was suffering. B.L. Metz, an artillery man, veteran of Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal, could take the night time assaults, the Banzai attacks, and the constant sniper fire, but the accuracy of the Japanese artillery wore him down. During one barrage he landed in a foxhole with a dead man. Fearing for his safety he pulled the body on top of him for protection. It was only after the barrage lifted that Metz realized the man was not dead but only mocked unconscious. The men of the 25th were doing their duty, but their duty came at a high price. 

To cash in on the sacrifices made by his men, Mullins had the 27th regiment launch a series of attacks along Myoko Ridge, a hill mass that dominated the entire area south of Balete Pass. These assaults, across dismal spots such as the "Wart," and the "Pimple, II presented Mullins with the opportunity of pounding to the pass from the east. With his goal a tantalizing few miles away Mullins brought up tanks from the 775th Tank Regiment. These tanks were forced to move along ridges so narrow that portions of their tread hung over the edges of the heights. The psychological damage these tanks did to the enemy was incalculable -- the Japanese were devastated by the appearance of tanks where they weren't suppose to be. While the Japanese, without the benefit of anti-tank weapons, attempted to cope with the presence of American tanks along Myoko Ridge, the commander of the 27th, Colonel Linderman, sent a platoon from G company to seize ground advantageous to launching an attack on Lone Tree Hill, the last major land feature before Balete Pass. The move was a daring one, for Lone Tree Hill lay 2,000 yards northwest of the Division's farthest penetration. The platoon captured the ground at the base of the hill without being detected. Linderman poured in the rest of G company to exploit the movement. 

On April 25, the entire second battalion launched an assault on Lone Tree. The enemy was taken by surprise, dying in their spiderholes after offering only scattered resistance. Now the 27th consolidated its gains by clearing the ground between Lone Tree Hill and Myoko Ridge to provide supply and evacuation routes for the battalion. 

Despite these maneuvers along the high ground the Japanese never halted their night-time attacks. Solitary foraging parties, like one that infiltrated the 27th HQ, and full-scale attacks, like a midnight Banzai push along Lone Tree Ridge, kept the men of the 25th edgy during the tropical darkness. Buddy Parsons recalled the scene at the 27th Headquarters when one of Yamashita's scrounging soldiers was cornered in the dark hours of early morning. Parsons and others of the HQ staff surrounded the hungry soldier, who fired wildly as the Americans closed in. A regimental interpreter, a big Hawaiian, was summoned. Parsons watched as the interpreter crawled toward the desperate soldier. The interpreter called out several times and actually had the frightened Japanese calmed down, but, when the interpreter went too far too fast, the Japanese fired on him. The interpreter, who was prone behind what he thought was cover, was wounded in the butt. Parsons and the other Americans opened up on the starving soldier, ending the Japanese's desperate gamble. 

Far more dangerous than hungry, dispirited solitary raiders were nighttime Banzai attacks like one that Ernie Lucas, of the 27th's I Company, experienced during the fighting •on Lone Tree Ridge. One moonless night in May, the men of I Company could "feel" an attack coming, and they had prepared themselves for it by digging in, and then laying out their weapons of choice. "It was close to midnight," Lucas said, when the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand up. He could hear the pink-pink sound of pebbles falling around his foxhole -- the Japanese were tossing pebbles at the American positions in an effort to get the GIs to reveal themselves. 

"Then I heard a Jap yell, 'Banzai,' and all hell broke loose." recalls Lucas. The Americans used their rifles and shrapnel grenades to hold them off. When the men of I Company ran out of shrapnel grenades they switched to phosphorous grenades, frying their foes as they charged the American positions. Even after the fight petered out none of the men of I Company slept. Occasionally they would roll a phosphorous grenade down the hill -- just to make sure. The next morning dead Japanese were spotted no more than six feet from some American foxholes. 

As the GIs of the 27th were securing Lone Tree Ridge, the 161st, under their new commander, Vince Johnson, launched an attack on the Kembu Plateau, a Japanese stronghold on the westside of Route 5. The Plateau was easily defended high ground that Colonel Jolmson was ordered to take to secure the Division's left flank. This prominence was so laced with Japanese strongpoints, supported by effective artillery fire, that it took the 161st four days to clean out the enemy. 

With the securing of Lone Tree Ridge only the long slope of Wolfhound Ridge lay between the 27th and Balete Pass. While the troopers of the 161st were sealing Japanese tunnels on the Kembu Plateau, and the 35th was busy slugging it out directly up Route 5, Ernie Lucas and the men of the 27th were doggedly grinding toward the Pass. It was a patrol from I Company, 27th Regiment, that first reached the Pass on May 9. However, the Pass was not secured until elements of the 35th cleared a nearby draw of the last of the Japanese resistance at the Pass. 

Two days after the Pass had been declared secure Lucas and his squad were pinned down by sniper fire as they traversed the reverse slope of one of the countless ridges in the area. The squad fell to the ground, seeking shelter where they could. Lucas saw that one of his men was crying, so the sergeant began moving over to help his man. As he pushed up Lucas felt a stinging sensation in his chest. The J apanese bullet had struck him just below the throat, and exited out his back, millimeters from his spine. He would not recover from this wound until months after the war had ended. 

The taking ofBalete Pass opened the Cayagan Valley to the Americans, The 25th Division soon took Santa Fe, which had been the Corp. objective since February. Yamashita was out-flanked, with his food supplies out of reach. The boys of Tropic Lightning had cut through the Caraballo Mountains against the best that remained of the Japanese Army in the Philippines. As they were pulled out of the line to prepare to go in as part of the first wave to Japan, the 25th could take pride that their victory broke the back of the Japanese resistance on Luzon. 

The sacrifice and heroism of the 25th rarely gets more than a footnote in Pacific War accounts, their accomplishment hidden under the veil of MacArthur's pronouncement that the Philippines had been secured as early as March. The 25th had a victory, in a war that trumpeted victories, and yet their dead and wounded remain forgotten to this day.

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