Friday, May 20, 2016

51) The 9th on the move to Leyte, Philippines---Background and Context

Battle of Leyte Gulf (Oct. 23- Oct. 26, 1944)

  • In terms of total tonnage of ships involved, this was the largest naval battle in history. The Allied forces plan was to liberate the Philippines from the Japanese by first invading the island of Leyte. 
  • Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Commander of the SW Pacific Area, had been ordered to leave the Philippines in 1942 when the Japanese forces had taken hold of much of the country. He famously vowed that he would return. 
  • This battle was a key strategic move for the Allies because the Philippines was an important source of oil for Japan and also because the air forces that Japan had amassed there posed a significant threat to the Allies across the Pacific. 
  • The Japanese were tremendously defeated, losing 3 battleships, 4 carriers, 10 cruisers, 11 destroyers and 500 carrier and land based aircraft. It was during this battle that the Japanese first unleashed their new form of attack, the "kamikaze" (suicide pilot). These planes, loaded with explosives and fuel, would crash into Allied warships in an attempt to severely damage or destroy their target.
Link to video of MacArthur's vow to return
Link to Battle of Leyte Gulf Video
Link to Newsreel showing MacArthur's return to the Philippines  

General MacArthur coming on to Red Beach near Palo, just south of Tacloban, Philippines, October 1944

9th FS Unit History-October 1944  

(The following account is From Ken Clark’s Unit History posted on, with some additional annotations by M. Davy)

On 13 October LST No. 610, which our squadron was to use for the move, arrived safely at Bosnek (Bosnek Beach, Southern edge of Biak Island). All during the nights of 14 and 15 October our ship cruised up and down off Biak Island, as the deep water prevented anchoring. During the day, 5 more LST's joined the convoy of 3 ships carrying the 49th Fighter Group, making a total of eight. At 1700 we got underway to Hollandia where the big convoy was to form. While floating offshore, we were electrified to hear that our pilots had once more engaged the enemy at Balikpapen and had shot down 11 enemy planes as well as probably destroying 3 more, with all of our planes and pilots returning intact. By this feat the 9th passed the rival 80th Fighter Squadron that had taken the lead in the SWPA, and once more the 9th was champion.

Balikpapen was Located on the southeast coast of Borneo.  On October 10, 1944
 B-24s struck oil refineries and an airfield in the Balikpapan area; the B-24s and escorting P-47s and P-38s claimed 30+ Japanese fighters downed. 
Link to painting and description of this operation: Balikpapan, Borneo- 10/10/1944

Early on October 18 our convoy, by now over 75 ships, left Hollandia bound for the Philippine Islands. After we were a couple of days out, Troop Commander Capt. Knight informed the 9th Squadron and the 49th Group Headquarters (also on board) that our destination was Tacloban, principal city of Leyte, one of the Visayan group in the Philippines.

"D" day was set for 20 October, and our squadron was scheduled to debark on D plus 4 (Oct. 24th), to work out of Tacloban Airdrome. Capt. J. Spence, 9th Intelligence Officer, gave a security and general orientation lecture immediately following. Four days from our destination it was announced over the radio that the landing had taken place successfully on schedule and that General Douglas MacArthur had arrived to assume command. Two days later came the welcome news that both the city of Tacloban and the airfield had been captured by our forces.

The 24th of October was one never to be forgotten by personnel of the 9th. Before dawn star shells were seen dead ahead, lighting up the Jap positions. At 0800 our convoy reached San Pedro Bay and all seemed serene and peaceful. A native canoe raced alongside containing happy Filipinos, laughing and gesticulating. The harbor was filled with ships, a most impressive display of allied might. About 0830, 'battle stations' was sounded and things began to happen. We realized then the thought provoking fact that this was not a peaceful trip into hostile shores. Just ahead of LST 610 (which was, by the way, the flagship of the convoy - most fitting for the leading fighter squadron) a Jap fighter plane was seen falling in flames. Out of a large cumulus cloud came a Jap Betty bomber, also burning. It dived straight down and crashed into the bay.
Mitsubishi G3M bomber- "Betty Bomber"
Over the hills ahead of our ship a large formation of enemy planes was being engaged by our Navy fighters. In the space of a few seconds, four Jap bombers came plunging down in flames in rapid succession. One hit the side of the hill,exploded, and rolled down the hillside, a spectacular ball of fire. During this time the men aboard were shouting and cheering, giving little thought to personal danger.

A Sally bomber soon brought grim realization of the fact that LST 610 was also a target. One could hardly refrain from recalling that the colloquial nickname of 'Long Slow Target' was peculiarly apt. The Sally commenced its bombing run toward our ship. The anti-aircraft barrage was terrific, and the Sally was forced to veer to the right. It burst into flames and crashed into the side of a converted gun boat (LCI), which began to burn furiously. This was our first experience of seeing the famous Jap suicide dive.
Mitsubishi Ki-21 "Sally Bomber"
Our LST reached shore safely at 0900, but could not get close enough for unloading purposes. It was necessary to construct a jetty in order to unload the vessel. With the help of a bull-dozer and some native made sand bags a very credible job was done, making it possible for unloading to begin at 1600. During this time there was a continuous red alert and several bombing runs by solitary Jap planes were seen. 

Bulldozers created causeways from the beach to each LST so that supplies could be unloaded.
First on the program upon arrival at our new campsite at about 1630 October 24, was digging slit trenches and erecting tents. It was well that the trenches were available, as there were several raids that night with the airdrome and harbor receiving most of the attention. 

During the day enemy planes came over regularly, surprisingly tenacious in their attempts to destroy shipping. In the night there were constant red alerts and bombings. A gasoline dump on the beach was hit making a most spectacular fire that lasted for hours, thoroughly illuminating several targets. For some reason the Japs took no advantage of this. 

Our 155mm howitzers shelled Jap positions during the nights of October 25-26, and this, combined with air raids made sleep impossible. 

The following day, 26 October, we were raided 20 separate times by enemy formations of various sizes. The Commanding General ordered the Tacloban strip laid with steel matting, to be completed within three days. To do this, 32 enlisted men and several officers from the 9th were drafted to assist. They worked feverishly and the work progressed excellently. 

Steel matting used to construct a landing strip at Tacloban
The P-38's of the 9th Fighter Squadron arrived October 27 in a blaze of glory. Cheers echoed throughout the area when the first land-based planes to return to the Philippines soared majestically overhead. Among the welcoming party were Generals MacArthur and Kenney, who congratulated the Group Commander upon arrival. The 9th squadron was refueled and at once went on patrol. Before the day ended, six enemy planes were definitely destroyed and one probably destroyed. Major Gerald Johnson shot down two enemy planes and Major Bong, Col. R. Morrissey (flying with the 9th), Lts. A. Hufford and B. Krankowitz destroyed one each. Lt. Krankowitz also got a probable.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning-THE aircraft of the 9th squadron.

Link to a video about the P-38

During the night there were countless raids and alerts, making it impossible to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. 

October 28th the unit had several patrols and 2 dive-bombing missions over Ormoc (city on the west side of the island). During the night and early the next morning there were only 3 raids, so everyone was able to have the most restful night to date.

Three Zekes made a surprise raid at 0745 on our strip. Although a red alert was on, the crew chiefs remained loyally with their planes, getting them ready for flight. Despite the alert the raid was a complete surprise, as the enemy evidently sneaked in low over the hills. S/Sgt. J. Hedgepath, one of our oldest and most highly regarded men, was fatally wounded while at the side of his plane. Seven of our planes were damaged by the strafers. 

Mitsubishi A6M "Zero" was a long-range fighter aircraft.  The official Allied reporting name was "Zeke."
The main road from the strip to camp was washed out, and it was necessary to use Cancabato Bay by LCM or take the long road by the beach and down towards Palo to reach our strip. There were snipers active at sporadic intervals on the road, but no casualties were suffered. To add to the confusion caused by communication problems we were warned by the Navy that a 50-knot wind was expected. A fierce wind did blow all night, and several tents in camp blew down.

30 October was the quietest day to date, with no raids during the day. It is thought that the typhoon was as much to the enemy's disadvantages as to our own.

31 October made up the excitement missing the day before. To start the day wrong, they shot down a P-38 from the 7th squadron while it was landing. There was a strafing raid in progress, but that was a scant excuse for the tragic incident. Just at dusk that night, 3 Vals made a surprise strafing and bombing raid hitting our strip with four bombs. Shrapnel from one blast struck 9th C.O. Major R. McComsey, who was in a nearby jeep, seriously wounding him and causing his subsequent evacuation. 

Archie D3A- Allied reporting name "Val" was a carrier-borne dive bomber used by the Japanese Navy.
There was no warning whatsoever of the presence of enemy planes, and the Major had no time to take cover. None of the Vals escaped as the "ack ack" (anti-aircraft fire) destroyed one, and two of our newer pilots each got one - their first kills. The destruction of the enemy was little consolation for the loss of our commander, from whom the squadron had expected big things. His leaving the scene will be a definite loss to the unit.

P-38 after a Japanese raid on the Tacloban airstrip
It seems in order to summarize the situation and physical features of this move into the Philippines. Everyone felt it was an honor to be the first unit based there. Filipinos made the "V" for Victory sign and shouted 'Victory' whenever one passed. Being in a community with vestiges of civilization was a relief after the jungles of New Guinea and the barrenness of Biak Island. Seeing and hearing the voices of children and the crowing of roosters brought touches of nostalgia to men who had been away from home over 34 months.

Our campsite was about 4 miles from the strip, Tacloban Airdrome, on Cataisan Point, a narrow strip of land shielding Tacloban township from San Pedro Bay. To reach the camp one headed toward the town along the shore of Cancabato Bay - formed by Cataisan Point. Our camp was located in a coconut grove, and several Filipino families lived nearby. The mosquitoes were a distinct annoyance, but one consoling fact was the comparative absence of malaria, there being a low incidence of the disease here. Leyte Island is approximately 115 miles long by 15 miles wide at its narrowest point, with an average width of 40 miles.

The town of Tacloban is the capital of Leyte Province and the only sizable port; it is about 30,000 population. A good all-weather road runs along the east coast, but the road from the strip to our camp soon became impassable, making the use of LCMs necessary to cross Cancabato Bay. Before the month ended the squadron was settled as comfortably as could be expected in what was intended to be a temporary encampment. We hoped the coming month would see us permanently settled in our new area.

Back to the letters in the next blog post.