The Battle of Colgan Woods: The fiercest battle of World War II in Bukidnon

FEATURE
May 2, 2021

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On 17 April 1945, the returning forces of the United States successfully landed in Parang, Cotabato for the final phase of the Battle for Mindanao dubbed Operation VICTOR V.

The second-largest island in the Philippines, Mindanao has a long and irregular coastline. Inland, the topography is rugged and mountainous. Most of the terrain is covered by rain forests and contains innumerable crocodile-infested rivers, except for those areas that are lake, swamp, or equally trying grassland.

Exacerbating the problem of movement on Mindanao was the existence of only a few roads worthy of the name. Two were operationally significant.

Cutting across the southern portion of the island, from just south of Parang on Illana Bay in the west to Digos on the Davao Gulf in the east and then north to Davao, was the generously named Highway No. 1.

At Kabacan, about midway between Illana Bay and Davao Gulf, the main north-south road, the Sayre Highway (also known as Highway No. 3), ran north through the mountains to Cagayan and Macajalar Bay on the northern coast.

The Japanese had long expected MacArthur to begin his reconquest of the Philippines with an invasion of eastern Mindanao. Believing that the American attack would come in the Davao Gulf area, they had built their defenses accordingly.

VICTOR V Operations

On 11 March General MacArthur formally ordered the Eighth Army to clear the rest of Mindanao in Operation VICTOR V. MacArthur expected that the campaign could take four months.

But Eight Army Commander Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger’s staff produced an operation plan to deal with the Japanese dispositions as efficiently as possible.

Instead of a frontal assault into the teeth of the Japanese defenses, the plan called for securing a beachhead at Illana Bay in the undefended west, then drive eastward more than one hundred miles 23 through jungle and mountains to strike the Japanese from the rear.

Eichelberger assigned ground operations to Maj. Gen. Franklin C. Sibert’s X Corps whose principal combat units were the 24th Infantry Division, under Maj. Gen. Roscoe B. Woodruff, and the 31st Infantry Division led by Maj. Gen. Clarence A. Martin.

The plan called for Task Group 78.2, now under Rear Adm. Albert G. Noble, to carry the 24th Division and the X Corps headquarters to the assault beaches near Malabang on 17 April to secure an advance airfield. Then, five days later the 31st Division would be transported twenty miles farther south to Parang, located near Highway 1, the route to Davao.

Major General Paul B. Wurtsmith's Thirteenth Air Force, reinforced by elements of the Fifth Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Command, and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing under Maj. Gen. Ralph J. Mitchell was designated "air assault force" for the Mindanao Operation. Its mission prescribed a continuing air offensive over the Southern and Central Philippines to neutralize Japanese air, ground, and naval forces, and to prevent Japanese reinforcements and supplies from reaching the objective area.

Displacement of the four scout bombing squadrons equipped with the SBD Dauntless patrol dive bomber from Luzon to Moret Field in Zamboanga (formerly San Roque Airfield) began on 24 March. VMSB's 236 (Black Panthers) and 142 (Wild Hares/Wild Horses) arrived at Moret on the 24th; followed by VMSB-341(Torpid Turtles) on the 25th and VMSB-243 (Flying Goldbricks) on the 26th.

As Task Group 78.2 moved toward Illana Bay, Colonel Fertig sent welcome word that his guerrillas owned Malabang and its airstrip but could not evict the Japanese.

Beginning on 3 April, Colonel Jerome’s Marine aviators from Dipolog landed at the airstrip, received targeting information from the guerrillas, and then bombed the Japanese positions. This broke the stalemate, and by 14 April the surviving Japanese had fled through the guerrilla lines.

With complete control of Malabang, Generals Sibert and Woodruff and Admiral Noble quickly changed their plans to take advantage of the new developments.

Although one battalion from the 21st Infantry would still land at Malabang, the bulk of the 24th Division was to come ashore at Parang, much closer to Highway No. 1, and thus speed up the entire operation.

The landing at Parang on 17 April went unopposed, and the division quickly headed inland along Highway 1.

Correctly perceiving that the Japanese would destroy the bridges along the highway, the planners decided to use the 533d Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, 3d Engineer Special Brigade, to exploit the Mindanao River (Rio Grande de Mindanao).

This waterway ran roughly parallel to Highway 1 and was navigable for thirty-five miles, some ten miles west of the crucial town of Kabacan and the north-south Sayre Highway.

On 21 April Lt. Col. Robert Amory led a small fleet of gunboats upriver and seized Kabacan and the junction of Highway 1 and the Sayre Highway the next day.

The Mindanao River soon became the main line of supply as troops and supplies were offloaded far upriver.

General Martin’s 31st Division began landing on 22 April, the same day that Marine Air Group 24 arrived at Malabang to provide air support for Mindanao ground operations.

With both divisions ashore and ahead of schedule, Sibert ordered them to undertake separate thrusts. General Woodruff’s 24th Division was to continue its advance along Highway 1 to Digos, then seize Davao City. General Martin’s 31st Division would follow to Kabacan and then attack north up the Sayre Highway toward Macajalar Bay.

The Japanese apparently blundered in allowing the Americans to seize the key road junction of Kabacan so easily; the 30th and 100th Japanese Divisions were hopelessly separated with the American advance while allowing X Corps to build up momentum and ultimately lead to their destruction.

With General Woodruff's 24th Division moving so rapidly, the Americans were almost on top of the Japanese around Davao before General Morozumi realized that the western landing was, in fact, not a diversion.

Upon reaching Digos on 27 April, the Americans quickly overwhelmed the defending Japanese, who were prepared only to repel an assault from the sea, not from their rear. The 24th Division immediately turned north and headed toward Davao City.

Highway 1 to Kibawe

Meanwhile, the 31st Division had forged ahead to the town of Kibawe on Highway 1, some 40 miles (64 km) away, since 27 April, with the 124th Infantry Regiment of Colonel Edward M. Starr at the point.

The 124th Infantry Regiment consisted of three battalions. Each battalion consisted of four companies, and each company had about 200 men at full strength.

“We arrived at Cotabato, Mindanao, on 23 April and debarked under peaceful conditions as the 24th Division had landed here a couple of weeks before and headed due East to Davao on the East coast,” wrote Maj. Thomas Deas, regimental surgeon of the 124th Medical Detachment in his post-war memoirs. “We were given the assignment to move by land and by boat to Fort Pikit and Kabacan. “

Getting to Kabacan involved a 50-mile trip in landing craft up the crocodile-infested Mindanao and Pulangi Rivers to Fort Pikit.

 The so-called highway, General Eichelberger later recalled, was soon “discovered to be something of a fraud.” A thirty-mile stretch had never been completed and dissolved into deep mud whenever it rained—and it rained virtually every day.

Japanese Disposition on Sayre Highway

In central Mindanao, where there were fewer troops to cover a far greater area, operational preparations of the 30th Division had been virtually stalemated because of other urgent requirements.

Due to an acute shortage of foodstuffs in the upper highlands along Highway 3 since August 1944, troops were used to forage for provisions, but Morozumi hastily stopped these foraging operations and proceeded with regrouping his available troops thus three widely dispersed elements were moving to the northern part of Central Mindanao by mid-April when an American landing in Cagayan became imminent.

The 3d Battalion, 41st Infantry, had recently arrived in the Ampayon area en route to Balingasag from Surigao. The main strength of the 11th Battalion, 74th Infantry, was ordered to suspend the foraging of supplies in the Dulawan area and was near Kabacan en route north to join the main strength of the regiment. Farther south, the 11th Battalion, 30th Field Artillery Regiment, was in Dulawan on its way north from Sarangani Bay. 

When the Sayre Highway operation began, Morozumi had about 8,200 men to defend it.

He had two field artillery companies, one howitzer company with 12 pieces altogether moved by manpower with 100 rounds per weapon concentrated at Malaybalay.

The infantrymen all had rifles with 240 rounds each supported by four light armored cars, which were used to tow artillery and patrol the roads but were never used in combat.

Kabacan to Kibawe

Departing Kabacan about 1800 on 27 April, Col. Starr’s 124th Infantry led the division’s advance up the primitive road.

At approximately 2200 about nine miles north of the Pulangi crossing during the first evening of the advance, the division vanguard—Lt. Col. Robert M. Fowler’s 2d Battalion with Battery B, 149th Field Artillery —ran into the 1st Battalion of the 74th Infantry Regiment, IJA 30th Panther Division with a strength of 350 under Major Kasuyoshi Hayashi that was moving north from Kabacan on its return to Malaybalay.

Fowler committed his force unit by unit into the fighting. Battery C, 149th Field Artillery, hurriedly unlimbered its 105-mm. howitzers and within twenty minutes delivered accurate support fire, as observers at the front adjusted range by the sounds of the exploding shells.

Before the skirmish was over at dawn on 28 April, the 124th Infantry had lost about 10 men killed and 25 wounded and had killed at least 50 Japanese. The Japanese battalion broke and disappeared from the Sayre Highway.

After 28 April the 124th Infantry drove on northward against very scattered opposition, delayed mainly by the poor condition of the highway.

Guerrilla demolitions, given the finishing touch by engineers of the Southern Sector Unit, had accounted for most of the bridges along the road north of Kabacan, and there were some seventy bridges, in varying states of ruin, from Kabacan north twenty-five miles to the Mulita River.

 “With the retreating Japs blowing up about 75 bridges, it made our advancing troops face many problems while crossing streams and ravines,” recalls M/Sgt. Aubrey (Paul) Tillery of the Service Co. who wrote a World War II History of the 124th Infantry after the war.

“Getting trucks through with supplies was extremely difficult, At points, we moved jeeps as well as supplies across these places on cables rigged for such purposes. At other times, the “Biscuit Bombers” (C-47 Skytrains) were used.”

Deep gorges and landslides induced by heavy rains added to the 31st Division's supply problems. At one point, the 124th Infantry and the 108th Engineer Battalion had to rig cables to get jeeps, quarter-ton trailers, three-quarter-ton weapons carriers, and 105-mm. howitzers across a pair of gorges.

It was not until 3 May, when engineer bulldozers completed fills, that the 124th could bring up heavier equipment. Obviously, the 31st Division would have to depend in large measure upon air supply to maintain its advance northward.

The 124th  reached Kibawe on 3 May after a 45-mile, five-day push up the Sayre Highway and set up roadblocks north of that barrio, and probed about a mile southeast along the trail that supposedly led to Talomo on Davao Gulf.

The advance from Kabacan to Kibawe had cost the 124th Infantry approximately 15 men killed and 50 wounded, while the Southern Sector Unit had lost over 175 men killed.

The Talomo Trail Recon in Force

Until the first week of May, the 31st Division had been able to employ only one RCT along Sayre Highway. When the 41st Division's 162d Infantry reached eastern Mindanao from Zamboanga, it took over responsibility for the protection of the X Corps rear areas from Parang to Fort Pikit and permitted the 31st Division to bring its 155th RCT forward. The 167th RCT, 31st Division, aided by guerrilla units, protected the supply lines from Fort Pikit to Kibawe.

Since two RCTs were now available along Sayre Highway, General Sibert directed the 31st Division to continue northward to clear the highway and to establish contact with the 108th RCT, 40th Division. General Eichelberger, the Eighth Army's commander, had decided to put the 108th ashore at Macajalar Bay both to speed the conquest of Mindanao and to open a new supply route to the 31st Division, the supply problems of which increased with every step its troops took northward.

The 31st Division's second job was to strike southeast along the Kibawe-Talomo trail. General Sibert's preoccupation with this maneuver reflects the state of mapping and of weather information the Army had concerning Mindanao.

Kibawe was the northern terminus of a supposed Japanese supply trail that twisted and turned south until it reached the ocean shore town of Talomo, a few miles west of Davao City.

Sibert soon learned from Colonel Fertig that much of the Kibawe-Talomo trail was a figment of the imagination. After making an aerial reconnaissance over the ground southeast from Kibawe, Eichelberger decided to forego a major effort southeast along the trail from Kibawe and directed Sibert to limit operations on the trail to a battalion-sized reconnaissance-in-force.

Since the 24th Division had the situation in Davao, Sibert directed the 31st Division to push one battalion southeast from Kibawe as far as the Pulangi River and with the rest of its available strength to resume the drive up Sayre Highway. A battalion of the 167th Infantry began moving down the Talomo trail on 11 May.

Eighteen days were required to reach the Pulangi River, some thirteen miles down the trail, and the sheer physical requirements of occupying the trail soon entailed committing the entire regiment to the operation.

Yet even with the assistance of Filipino guerrillas, it took the 167th Infantry until 30 June to move five miles beyond the Pulangi River and seize the Japanese trail-force headquarters at Pinamola Mountains in Kibawe. By that time the enemy was already retreating farther south, and the 167th let them go.

 Skirmishing along the trail cost the American regiment 80 men killed and 180 wounded while counting almost 400 Japanese dead.

Appalled by the speed of the 31st Division's advance as far as Kibawe, Morozumi directed his units to start assembling at Malaybalay immediately in preparation for retreat eastward to the Agusan Valley.

He ordered a battalion of infantry southward to delay the 31st Division in the vicinity of Maramag, fifteen miles north of Kibawe, until 10 May at least, by which date he hoped his main forces would have passed through Malaybalay. The Japanese battalion was hardly in position when the 124th Infantry, which had started north from Kibawe on 6 May, reached Maramag.

Into the woods

The 124th Infantry had resumed its progress up the Sayre Highway on 6 May and moved into its toughest fight of the Mindanao campaign, if not of the Pacific war itself.

The blown bridges, rain, and generally impassable terrain left the artillery battalions farther and farther behind the hard-pushing infantry so there was an initial lack of artillery support.

Morozumi had decided to consolidate his 30th Division around Malaybalay before undertaking a final withdrawal eastward into the Agusan Valley.

To buy time for this movement, Morozumi ordered Ouchi to engage the enemy while in the dense forest. The 2nd Battalion, 74th Regiment, under the command of Major Hotta, was ordered to Omanay as reinforcement.

With no heavy artillery in place, the regiment advanced with the support of a company of 4.2-inch mortars. After only a few hundred yards the regiment encountered the enemy in strength and began the hardest, bloodiest, most costly action during its entire service.

The Japanese troops had entrenched themselves in well-prepared and completely camouflaged spider-type pillboxes with connecting tunnels. These lined both sides of Sayre Highway, which was little more than a dirt road.

The advancing American soldiers could pass within a few feet of the pillboxes and not see them. The Japanese occupants would let the troops pass and then rise up and shoot the unsuspecting soldiers from behind. An entire morning’s fighting by the 1st Battalion gained 300 yards.

“The Japs were effectively dug in and determined to halt our advance at this point,” recalls M/Sgt. Paul Tillery. “Being well prepared for combat and with such strong positions they were able to inflict heavy losses upon our attacking troops. Our foot soldiers attacked these positions time and again, sustaining heavy casualties to no avail.”

Since artillery was not available and the supporting mortars were not sufficiently effective against Jap positions, Starr got support from a squadron of Marine SBD dive bombers. For the ensuing six days, they bombed the enemy positions each morning with demolition and firebombs. Each day the hard fighting men of the 1st and 2nd Battalions furiously and relentlessly attacked the positions, but each day [only] a few short yards were gained a ta terrific cost.

Describing the concentrated strikes in the Colgan Woods, one of the pilots, First Lieutenant Thurston P. Gilchrist, said:

“This was the most heavily bombed area of any in the whole Philippine campaign. The Japs were dug in underneath trees and in foxholes so well that we had to blow up the whole area before the Army could advance. Our Marine observers, who were with the ground liaison party in this area, said the damage was terrible and almost indescribable. Flight after flight of planes bombed and strafed this small area for days. When we began it was a heavily wooded area and when we finished there wasn't anything left but a few denuded trees. It was from these Marine observers that we pilots found out for about the first time how much damage we were doing to the Japanese troops.”

On 8 May, VMSB-241(Sons of Satan) and VMSB-133 (Flying Eggbeaters) flew what one squadron report termed "the closest support mission yet flown." The Japanese lines were only 200 yards from the infantrymen of the 31st Division, and the enemy was unyielding. Marked with smoke, the tiny target area was plastered with nearly five tons of bombs, and the Japanese position simply disintegrated.

However, the 124ths infantrymen on the ground did not share the Marines’ optimism on the efficacy of their bombing sorties.

“It would be days before the sorely missed artillery could get up in order to land their support. In the meantime, Marine dive bombers were called in and made raids for a few days but were not effective against these strong enemy positions,” M/Sgt. Tillery opined. “Our artillery finally arrived and began shelling and in just a few hours on 12  May 1945, our troops were able to move through this area. The remaining Japs retreated from this heavy artillery barrage.”

On the same day, the 3rd Battalion was ordered to bypass the bogged down 1st Battalion and secure the Maramag airstrip No. 1 less than two miles to the north. They were caught in the flank by a banzai attack which inflicted heavy casualties. Cries for medics could be heard and the corpsmen of the 124th Medical Detachment dashed into the woods to evacuate the wounded. They, too, were shot down.

“The 1st Battalion was stopped and so was the 2nd Battalion on the other side of the road. Many were wounded. The Japs would let us advance so far and then come out of their holes and shoot from behind,” Deas said.  “Their holes were not over two feet wide and were five to seven feet deep with connecting tunnels. It was a devious situation.”

“They had prepared these positions well in advance with the intention of wreaking severe damage to any American troops coming up this road. Thus, they were well prepared when our 124th Infantry foot soldiers arrived. Their pillboxes were connected with tunnels, some of which ran under tree roots. The positions were well covered and camouflaged rendering them most difficult to recognize. Troops would pass nearby and not even be aware of these fortifications. Considering these well-built defenses, it’s no wonder it took the artillery to drive them out,” Sgt Tillery noted.

Chicago Streetfighter

Fr. Thomas Aquinas Colgan, the 124th’s chaplain walked up to the battalion command post, calmly surveyed the situation and said to the command post personnel, "Those are my boys in there. They need me. I should be with them."

Staff Sgt. Charles Morgan, who often assisted the priest in his duties, said Father Colgan disregarded a warning from a senior officer that he should not attempt to go into the woods because of snipers.

"He just went down the road and walked right into the woods," Morgan recalled. "He must have known that he had little hope of coming out alive."

Father Colgan entered the woods amid the fighting. Spotting a wounded man, he began to make his way ducking automatic fire. Suddenly he was hit in the shoulder, but he still continued to crawl through the underbrush until he reached the wounded medic Robert Lee Evans lying in a shell hole. A moment later, a quick burst of machine-gun fire killed Chaplain Colgan instantly.

The cruel war

Banzai charges struck the 124th, fighting without supporting artillery, first on 7 May and then on the night of 14 May. The latter ended in a rout, as American automatic weapons stopped the attackers, killing 73 Japanese, marking the end of the battle.

The 149th Field Artillery managed to get within range on May 12 and after an intense barrage, the 2nd Battalion plus L Company finally pushed through the shrapnel-shredded woods.

The Americans named the side of the woods where Chaplain Colgan was killed as Colgan Woods, while the woods on the opposite side of the Sayre Highway they named  Berlin Woods.

The woods were finally taken after six days of mortar fire, dive-bombing by Marine SBD dive bombers dropping high explosive and firebombs, and daily infantry assaults.

In the fighting for Colgan Woods and Maramag, an area the size of a city block had cost the 124th Infantry Regiment 69 men killed and 177 wounded from 6 to 12 May.

In a post-war interrogation, General Morozumi admitted about half of the battalion defending the Colgan woods were killed in action, with the remnants retreating into the mountains to conduct guerrilla warfare. An IJA battalion typically has a complement of 1,100 men in  4 companies of 180 men each, along with other units commanded by a lieutenant colonel. American estimates placed the number of Japanese casualties from this action at 130.

The casualties could now be retrieved, and Father Colgan was found, his arms still embracing the man he had tried to save. He was identified by the marks on his uniform.

Filipino Guerrillas

Before landings, guerrillas harassed Japanese units, provided valuable intelligence about enemy dispositions and the relative suitability of landing beaches. And after each landing, the Filipinos fought alongside the Americans and pursued the Japanese through the island's interior.

But in the case of the Battle for Colgan Woods, American officers apparently did not give much weight to intel reports from the two battalions guerrillas in Bukidnon who had joined up with them in the course of their advance, perhaps resulting in more casualties than they should have.

“I told Colonel [Edward M.] Starr that a big force of Japanese had dug in around the lake, and advised him to strafe and bomb the area” before proceeding, said Franklin Labaon, in a personal interview conducted by author Ronald K. Edgerton on 29 April 1977 in Kibawe and published in the latter’s book “People of the Middle Ground, A Century of Conflict and Accommodation in Central Mindanao 1880s-1980s.”

1Lt Lieutenant Labaon was the commander of the guerrillas 2nd Battalion,117th Regiment, 109th Division under Lt. Col. James Grinstead. The 117th Regiment under Maj. Waldo McVickers had a personnel complement of 41 officers and 534 enlisted men with headquarters near Mailag.

Even though his troops had outdistanced their artillery support, Starr went ahead and sent one company to reconnoiter. They immediately came under heavy enemy fire.

In his article The Battle of Pinamaloy published in the April-June 2013 issue of The Army Troopers Newsmagazine, Brig. Gen. Restituto A. Aguilar (ret)., former head of the Veterans Memorial and Historical Division of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) and currently executive director of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), said the Americans ignored repeated warnings from the guerrillas about the well-entrenched Japanese and would have even suffered more casualties had not the Filipino guerrillas helped them destroy the well-sited Japanese fortifications.

“Many of them were barefooted that was why perhaps the Americans thought they were not knowledgeable in the art of fighting,” Gen. Aguilar noted. “They did not have decent uniforms, some were in tattered clothes or old khaki uniforms.”

Gen. Aguilar relates how he got first-hand accounts from two former guerrillas who witnessed the brutality of the fighting in the Colgan Woods when he was assigned to Cotabato in 2004.

One rued the complete lack of accounts about the battle, while another related how he cried upon seeing the gory scenes of dead Japanese. The terrible scenes of carnage were apparently the reason why many who witnessed the Battle of Colgan Woods were reluctant to talk about it, if at all. (With Marion Hess and Maj. Thomas Deas, MD)

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