The Blood and Mud in the Philippines: Anti-Guerrilla Warfare on Panay Island
Continuation of Chapter 7
7.3 General Attack of Guerrillas on Iloilo City
In early November 1944, Hôjin males under 45 years old were conscripted by the order of Manila headquarters to form a unit. I started training the troops gathered in Iloilo.
We did not have information about the movements of the US forces; but by around December 12, we received an emergency telegram informing us that a great transport fleet was moving west through the Surigao Strait under guard of a powerful task force of the US Navy. If they were to land on Panay, it was expected to be at around dawn of December 14.
Since we were led to believe that the battle in Leyte was still going on, no preparations had yet been made in Panay. Guerrillas had completely cordoned off Iloilo City and any urgent troop movement was impossible. Toward dusk that day, information about the fleet movement stopped coming in. Colonel Tozuka, 1st Lieutenant Ishikawa and I consulted and concluded that we should fight to the last man. Forces inside the city were ordered to get prepared. We could do nothing with only 2,000 aerial bombs. We all waited without sleep.
At around 2 p.m. on December 14, a kamikaze pilot made an emergency landing in Panay due to problems with his aircraft. He had seen the US fleet of several dozen ships going north along northwestern Panay. Given our forces at that time, if the enemy had landed on Panay, we had no other fate but to perish. On December 16, we heard on the radio from Japan that the US Forces had landed on Mindoro the previous day.
On Christmas Eve, the Lopez family invited Sergeant Matsuzaki and me. It must have been the worst Christmas for them. Knowing the obvious fate of the Japanese Army, I felt grateful for their kindness. On New Year’s Day of 1945, the Intendance Department gave one piece of rice cake (mochi) to everyone to celebrate the New Year. Actually, there was, no time to celebrate because of the guerrilla attacks. Around January 10, we learned from an American radio broadcast that US forces had landed at Lingayen Gulf in Luzon. The radio from Japan spoke of the good defense put up by the Japanese Army throughout Luzon, though their broadcast did not last long. We all felt worried and gloomy in the face of a rapidly deteriorating war situation.
With their attack on the Cabatuan airfield on February 1, the guerrillas started fierce attacks on other different places. On February 9, they launched a general attack on Iloilo City. At that time, a number of US officers were in command of the fighting of the guerrillas as military advisers.
The attacks happened at Molo, followed by those at the northern part of the city, behind the Japanese Army Hospital in La The Noda Company of the Tanabe unit at the Jaro garrison became isolated in this siege.
We quickly decided to form three companies, consisting of the Saitô weapons unit, two squads of the communications unit, the Labor Platoon, the Cadet unit of NCOs, and the Suzuki Transport Company. Captain Saitô commanded and Lieutenant lshikawa joined as instructor.
Towards the evening, after a fierce battle, the guerrillas withdrew. The brave charge that the NCO cadet platoon made through the bullets surprised the guerrillas and local residents. I learned this from the Lopezes when Sergeant Matsuzaki and I were invited to see them a few days later.
The guerrilla attacks were fierce on our positions at Molo, Jaro and La Paz. However, after February 9, they gave up trying to regain control of Iloilo City by themselves, and decided to wait for the US landing. Nevertheless, the Japanese garrisons continued to come under ferocious attacks. US air bombings and bombardment by the guerrillas became more relentless throughout Iloilo City.
Gradually, residents were evacuating to other places away from the city. Mr. Fernando Lopez repeatedly asked the permission of Colonel Tozuka to leave Iloilo City through Sergeant Matsuzaki. Finally, Lopez personally came over to headquarters to ask. Still, the Commander did not approve. Eventually the family disappeared; I felt it was better because their presence no longer made a difference to the whole situation, and I prayed for their safety.
At this time, the guerrillas had moved the 6th Military District : headquarters to Pototan, 34 kilometers northeast of Iloilo City. They constructed an airfield in Dumarao in Capiz Province and completed repairs on the railway between Dumarao and Pototan. They also strengthened the facilities of the harbor at Estancia on the northeastern tip of the island that had received ample supplies of weaponry and ammunition from the US Army. Their forces consisted of 1,544 officers, 21,144 NCOs and soldiers, and were organized into six combat regiments and an artillery regiment.
The Japanese Army consisted of the Tozuka unit, some remaining forces of the 102nd Division, and the forces related to airfields. Overall, there were around 2,500 men including the patients at the Army Hospital. The active officers and men were scattered across the garrisons at Iloilo City, the Cabatuan and San Jose airfields, and the positions at Tigbauan town and Cordova, and Buenavista at the island of Guimaras. The guerrillas surrounded all of these points.
The Panay guerrillas have left a detailed record of the battles against the Japanese Army in February 1945, regarding the period as the climax of general attacks by the guerrilla forces. Their records indicate that during that month, on the Japanese Army side, there were 723 dead, 269 injured, and 24 were captured as POWs. On the other hand, casualties on the guerrilla side were 8 officers, 71 NCOs and soldiers killed; of the injured, 10 officers and 147 NCOs and soldiers. Their records also mention the cooperation of local residents and that, even in the middle of the bloody combat, men, women and children heroically worked for the transport of the dead and injured as well as the evacuation and supply of food for the guerrillas.
Meanwhile, Governor Confesor of the civil government was constantly moving all over Panay to evade a guerrilla hunt. Guerrilla forces had captured some of his comrades, Deputy Governors and other officials. Some of them had even been meted the death penalty and were executed by a military court. Learning about this situation, General MacArthur’s headquarters in Leyte asked Confesor to come over. MacArthur served as the mediator between Governor Confesor and Colonel Peralta. Eventually, they reached reconciliation for the release of civil government VIPs.
7.4 Joint Operation Plans of US and Guerrilla Forces
Prior to the US landing on Panay, Colonel Tozuka, 1st Lietutenant Ishikawa and I had reexamined our plans and agreed on the following policy. The Japanese forces in Iloilo City should all dash through the guerrilla siege lines and go to the village of Bocari in Leon – situated south of Mt. Inaman, in the mountainous region in the west-central part of Panay Island – where they could continue fighting for as long as possible. Bocari, where Governor Confesor used to have his base, was an excellent haven in terms of both geographical strategy and food supply. The problem was distance. It was 22 kilometers on a straight line from Iloilo City to the town of Alimodian at the foot of Bocari. The difficulty lay in how to break through the siege lines of the US and Filipino armies.
This was an unwritten policy and kept secret among the three of us. To deceive the enemy, we made superficial preparations for a last stand in the city. With these preparations, we hoped that the guerrilla spies here would believe that we would stay. To deceive both enemy and friendly troops, I ordered the construction of pillboxes, bases for heavy machine guns and trenches along the road for about a kilometer between the Iloilo City Hall and the Molo position.
The Japanese Army had difficulties under the guerrilla blockade. While under siege, there was a complete lack of fresh vegetables in the city. The soldiers were suffering from malnutrition since they only had rice, unrefined sugar, and small amounts of dried vegetable. The remaining Filipino residents also looked pale. Apparently, they did not have enough food and faced difficulty surviving. They anticipated the arrival of the Americans and cast cold glares at any Japanese on the street. Previously friendly exchanges with acquaintances were now more reserved. Some even avoided conversing with us.
In efforts to secure food for the Japanese Army and the Hôjin, we placed combatants in positions on both sides of the road between Iloilo and Zarraga to keep the road open. Behind them were the remaining soldiers, Hôjin elders and women who reaped rice grains in nearby fields. All the while, the guerrillas were attacking the front line positions from various angles. All within a week, the Japanese worked under a rain of bullets to harvest about half a year’s food supply from rice fields measuring three kilometers across.
In mid-February 1945, staff officer Colonel Watanabe came to Iloilo City. Showing a map, he informed us of the order given by Brigade Commander KGno: ‘Based on American operations thus far, we estimate the US landings on Panay and Negros by around the middle of March. Upon the landing of US forces on Panay, proceed to the plateau 10 kilometers west of Alimodian, set the position there to fight against them.’ Ishikawa and I immediately disagreed with the plan; the plateau would be an easy target of the tanks and artillery guns. Critical and oblivious to our opinions, Lieutenant Colonel Watanabe repeated the order, saying, ‘All you think of is just how to flee.’ I was silent, quietly considering that once the US forces had landed, it would be impossible to get relief from brigade headquarters in Bacolod City. Therefore, it was unimportant whether we obeyed their order.
Eventually, I said, ‘We will follow your order. However, once the Americans land, it would be very difficult to rush through the 30-kilometer distance from Iloilo City through the blockade of US and Philippine forces. At this time, there are 250 elderly, women and children, 300 patients in serious condition in the Army Hospital and wards of each unit in the Iloilo City. I am not sure of any success in dashing through enemy forces with the 600 non-combatants. I would like the Brigade headquarters to take responsibility for either the Hôjin group or the patients.’ Watanabe replied, ‘We will take care of the Hôjin while you get ready to accept the seriously injured from Leyte Island.’ Immediately, Consul Shigeo lmai left for Negros with a dozen of healthy elders among the Hôjin to build the refugee shelters for Hôjin inside Japanese positions.
On March 1, Colonel Peralta made arrangements with MacArthur’s headquarters in Leyte regarding operations at the time of the US forces’ planned landing on Panay. The 6th Military District units fell under the command of Lieutenant General Eichelberger of the US 8th Army.
Upon returning to Panay on March 4, Colonel Peralta issued an order to all officers and men:
In the event of an American landing, the mission of this Command is to prevent any Japs from escaping into the hills. Each regimental commander will therefore take appropriate steps to ensure that his area is covered so as to prevent the enemy from breaking thru and giving us another headache. We have already succeeded in fixing him to isolated areas and we shall continue to do so.
Until an American landing, it is our mission to give the enemy no rest. He must be worn down physically and morally. We will continue harassing him to the extent that our resources will permit. Where possible, we shall attack with a view to killing as many Japs as possible.
From early March, a US Martin flying boat appeared over Iloilo City twice a day, obviously reconnoitering in preparation for the landing. By March 15, the promise of staff officer Hidemi Watanabe about taking charge of the Hôjin was not realized. Attacks by the guerrillas in Jaro became fiercer such that the tracer bullets in the night sky over Iloilo City looked like a fireworks festival. The sheer amount of the bullets first surprised the Japanese Army. However, on the night of March 17, the shooting mysteriously ended. (Next, Chapter 8)