THE COAST GUARD AND THE PHILIPPINE LANDINGS
by Dr. Robert M. Browning, Jr.
"We weren't more than two hundred yards offshore when the first shell fire splashed in front of us. The soldiers dropped to a crouch as one man. There was another splash to our right and then another to our left. All you could see across the straight line of twelve boats were the tips of brown helmets and erect figures of twelve coxswains standing erect behind their wheels. Then, over the deafening roar of the bombardment behind us, we heard the singing whine of a mortar shell. It came within a few feet of our hands. We could see the geyser shoot up just behind us. Seconds later the barge jarred its flat nose, up on the sandy beach. In seconds more the ramps were down and the soldiers were running out, crouched low, their rifles ready. The invasion had begun."
This is how a war corespondent described the initial landings on the island of Leyte on the Philippines. The Philippines Islands lay as the final major obstacle between the Allies and Japan. The landings here culminated from two separate campaigns--Admiral Chester Nimitz's Central Pacific Campaign and General Douglas MacArthur's South Pacific Campaign. Both had driven the Japanese across the Pacific and had met at the base of the Philippine Islands. General MacArthur, who commanded the Philippine operation, would now be able to fulfill his dream of a triumphant return.
The Philippine Islands consist of ten major islands and over 7,000 smaller islands. The Allies chose to invade Leyte Island first because it had the best landing beaches in the Pacific. In Allied hands they could then build it into an air and logistical base to attack the island of Luzon and other Japanese strong points. Leyte is the eighth largest of the islands and sustained a native population of over a million. The island is roughly about 90 miles long and 30 miles wide.
The drives toward Japan had progressed more quickly than the planners had expected and they moved up the date for the landings in Leyte from December to October. Code named "King-Two", the operation would comprise 738 vessels. This included 157 combat ships, 420 amphibious vessels, 84 minsweeping, patrol and hydrographic ships, and 73 service ships. The landing force included over 193,000 troops. Converging from many bases in the Pacific they formed off the islands. In this tremendous fleet were thirty-five Coast Guard vessels and seven others with partial Coast Guard crews. The Coast Guard ships included five large transports, two attack cargo vessels, ten frigates, and twelve LSTs.
On the night of 19 October, the invasion flotilla approached Leyte Gulf in the darkness. Once inside the gulf they steamed to their assigned areas at two landing sites. The Northern Force landed at two beaches near San Ricardo and the Southern Force went ashore on two beaches off Dulag. At dawn the naval ships on either sides of the beaches, began laying down an intense and deafening bombardment against enemy positions.
The crew of Leonard Wood (APA-12), flagship Commander Transport Division 20, went to General Quarters at 0700. Just over an hour later the Wood reached the transport area. At 0816 the men lowered boats and the nearly 2,500 troops on board began debarking at 0915. The other Coast Guard transports, veterans of many campaigns, performed as efficiently as always and had their men in the water in a timely fashion. The Aquarius (AKA-16), put a LCVP over the side for an advanced beach party. These four Coast Guardsmen were the first men to land on Leyte after the bombardment.
The Japanese did not vigorously contest the landing as thought. Some mortar fire came close to the Coast Guard ships but did not damage them. Air opposition did not develop until later but when it did it was in the form of the "Divine Wind" or"Kamikazes."
During the landings the Japanese made one final and desperate naval effort to break up the American forces attacking the islands. Between October 23-25 three separate engagements were fought between the Japanese and Allied naval forces and the Japanese were decisively defeated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The Japanese lost three battleships, four aircraft carriers, ten cruisers, and nine destroyers. The remnants of the Japanese fleet withdrew back to Japan, never to be a real threat to future operations.
The fierce naval engagements did not deter the Allies resolve to continue the operation. The Coast Guard manned LSTs sailed with both Northern and Southern Forces. Among the first ships to hit the beach they unloaded their cargoes of vehicles, troops, and critical supplies by pontoon causeways fitted to the vessels. Once unloaded these ships plied back and forth from the staging areas to the invasion beaches to keep the troops supplied.
In November, on one of these trips, the LST-66, was attacked by a Japanese suicide plane. The LST-66 beached on Dulag Beach on 12 November and began unloading vehicles and cargo. At 1718 an enemy aircraft crash-dived into the after starboard 40mm and 20 mm gun mounts. The plane's fuselage passed through the splinter shield of the 40mm gun mount and disintegrated. Unbelievably the plane did not explode but did shower the entire length of the vessel with gasoline and thousands of aircraft parts. No serious fire started but the plane killed eight and wounded fourteen men of the Coast Guard and Army. Coast Guard Pharmacists Mate 2c, even though badly burned, earned a Bronze Star for his heroics to treat the wounded.
The Coast Guard manned frigates also played an important role in the operations. Most performed screening, fire support and escort duty during the landings and resupply activities. The Bisbee and Gallup were both involved in landing troops of the 6th Ranger Battalion on Homonhon Island two days before the landings on Leyte. After a bombardment, the Rangers landed to destroy enemy installations that would potentially threaten the amphibious vessel's entrance into Leyte Gulf.
The frigate's role of escorting convoys from the staging areas to the invasion sites likewise was crucial. In late November, the Coronado and San Pedro left Humbolt Bay, New Guinea to steam the 1250 miles to escort a convoy of ships bringing supplies and men to Leyte. The voyage proceeded without incident until 5 December when enemy planes attacked the convoy. One Japanese torpedo plane attacked the SS Antoine Saurgrain from the port beam. The torpedo struck the freighter at the stern, exploded, and carried away its rudder. Fifteen minutes later another torpedo bomber approached the Saugrain and despite heavy gunfire, put a torpedo in the ship at the number two hold. This torpedo fatally wounded the vessel. The Saugrain had on board nearly 450 crew and Army troops. The Coronado and San Pedro steamed to the assistance of the freighter and saved all hands.
With Allied forces well-entrenched on Leyte, the next objective in the island chain was Luzon. Luzon is the largest of the islands in the Philippine group. The capture of this island would give the Allies the capital city of Manila and the best port in the Far East, Manila Bay. It would also deny the Japanese access to the South China Sea. The plan called for a landing along the beaches on the western side of the island in Lingayen Gulf.
The operation included 685 ships of the Seventh Fleet. The Coast Guard manned ships that participated were the Arthur Middleton, Aquarius, Cambria, Callaway, Leonard Wood, and LSTs 18, 22, 23, 24, 66, 68, 168, 170, 202, and 204. Seven other ships had partial Coast Guard crews.
The main Japanese effort to thwart the landings came in the form of Kamikaze attacks. As the fleet steamed to their assembly point off the beaches, Japanese aircraft began making their suicide runs against the ships. On January 4th, for two and a half hours, the kamikazes bolted from the sky and crash-dived into the ships. Aircraft carriers had to be brought up to neutralize this threat before the landings could begin.
On January 6th the task force entered Lingayen Gulf. The fire support ships moved into shore to bombard the beaches. The Japanese tried to foil this effort by sending wave after wave of suicide aircraft against the ships for over a day. During a twenty-five hour period the Japanese planes hit twenty-one ships. The situation became so critical that the fire support group had to withdraw--the only time during the war that a heavy bombardment force had to withdraw due to enemy resistance.
The Allies countered this move by calling up additional air power and bombing all the air fields in the area. The bombardment continued on the 8th. The amphibious ships, that had remained some distance away now began moving further into Lingayen Bay. The kamikaze attacks, however, were not over. On the 8th, the Callaway (APA-35) steamed with the task force toward the landing beaches. About thirty-five miles from shore, Japanese aircraft began attacking the convoy. The gunners on board Callaway shot down two planes before they could crash-dive into the ship, but a third flew through the hail of gunfire and plowed into the superstructure. Flames leapt up the starboard side engulfing men at their stations. Fire fighting parties quickly put the fire out, but the flames killed twenty-nine men and wounded twenty more. None of the troops on board were injured and the damage to the ship was only slight so the Callaway continued on course to the invasion beach.
At 0715 on 9 January, the transports began debarking troops in LVTs and other amphibious craft. The first waves of landing craft went in under the protection of a heavy bombardment, and reached the beach at 0930. The Cambria (APA-36) flagship of a transport group, landed men of the HQ Company, 108 Infantry Regiment and other units of the 40th Division. The Leonard Wood debarked over one thousand men and 457 tons of cargo. At the beach the transports met some mortar and artillery fire thirty minutes after arriving, but the fire support ships effectively silenced the enemy batteries. Supplies went to the beachhead in LVTs, DUWKs, and self-propelled pontoon barges.
The Kamikazes attacked most frequently during the morning and evening periods. Both at Leyte and Luzon the amphibious ships anchored close together during these dangerous periods. LCI smoke layers circled the vessels and lay down a thick cover of smoke and effectively obscured the vessels from the aircraft. At Luzon the Japanese became more desperate to thwart the Allies operations. They began using suicide boats loaded with 500 pounds of explosives. These boats endangered the vessels as they lay close together and their visibility limited due to the smoky cover. Altogether the suicide boats successfully attacked nine ships.
Despite the attacks the amphibious forces maintained an incredible schedule to get men and supplies to the beach. By the end of the first day of the invasion, the Allies had established a beachhead fifteen miles wide and four miles deep. They landed 68,000 troops with equipment and supplies that equaled an incredible seven tons per man.
Troops and supplies arrived daily as the Allies drove toward the capital of Manila. On January 31st the cutter Spencer acted as a flagship for a landing south of the entrance to Manila Bay. This group landed troops to flank Japanese positions. Explosive-laden Japanese suicide boats attempted to sink several of the ships in the fleet that night. Gunfire from destroyers effectively stopped most of these attacks.
The Allies continued their drive on Manila and captured the capital city on the 6th. At this time there were several strong points that remained in Japanese hands. One of these, the strongly fortified island of Corregidor, had to be taken. The Ingham served as flagship for the task force--the only Coast Guard vessel that participated. On February 16th the INGHAM stood in for San Jose Beach on the south side of Corregidor. The Ingham steamed to within 3,500 yards of the beach where the flag officer directed the landings. Within three days the troops had captured most of the important points on the island, returning the American flag to the fort on the island, the scene of the United States' 1942 capitulation. Japanese resistance, however, lasted until the end of February.
The conquest of the Philippines Islands would not be complete for some time. The Allies would make landings on Mindoro, Zamboanga, Basilan, Iloilo, and other islands. The Coast Guard 327 foot class ships played an important role in several of these landings, serving as amphibious force flagships. The complete capture of the islands would take months. Meanwhile the Allied planners had their eyes on striking closer to the Japanese main islands. The next target was Iwo Jima. The attack on this tiny island would allow the Coast Guard to once again play a crucial role in the amphibious operations in the Pacific.
The continuation of the large World War II campaigns took hundreds of ship loads of cargo and supplies to maintain the tremendous logistical appetite of the invasion forces. The Coast Guard performed this duty without fanfare and with little notice. The staging areas for the vast pacific operations lay well away from Japanese attacks. The island of Guadalcanal for instance served as a depot for supplies that would eventually be shipped to the front. During the war the Coast Guard manned over two hundred cargo vessels for the Army and Navy. During what was considered a fairly routine loading operation, the Coast Guard cargo ship Serpens suffered a violent explosion causing the Service's single greatest loss of life.
The Serpens (AK-97), spent nineteen months transporting supplies in the Pacific. On 29 January the ship lay anchored off Lunga Beach at the island of Guadalcanal. The 14,250 ton ship was loading depth charges when a shattering explosion occurred. After the great concussion, screeching shells filled the air and debris rained over the harbor. When the smoke cleared, only the bow of the vessel could be seen along with floating debris, dead fish, lumber, and torn life jackets floating in the water.
On board were 197 Coast Guardsmen, one man from the Public Health Service, and 57 Army stevedores. Only two men on board survived the blast. Both of these men had been in the boatswain's locker and walked out on the floating portion of the bow with only slight injuries. Other survivors included two officers and six men ashore at the time. The explosion of the ship has never been fully explained, but has been attributed to a mistake in handling the dangerous cargo on board.
The dead from Serpens were originally buried at Guadalcanal. In 1949 the remains were brought to the United States to be interned in Arlington National Cemetery. In November 1950, a monument was dedicated to these men. This grave site is the second largest mass grave in the Cemetery and is a stark reminder of the sacrifices that many men in the Coast Guard made during World War II.