South to Bataan
On 10 December, Japanese assault troops began landing at Vigna and Aparri in preparation for the main assault force, with 160 aircraft attacking both Nichols Field and Manila Bay and daily bombings becoming routine. On 22 December, Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma’s 14th Army landed at Lingayen Gulf. Immediately, the decision was made to pull all forces – 80,000 US and Filipino troops – south to the Bataan peninsula, and Batteries B, C, F and G of the 515th were ordered to move and guard both ends of the Calumpit bridges over the Pampanga River – the main road into Bataan. As troops defended the island and pulled back from each of the 4 defensive lines across Luzon toward the south, the Japanese continued to drive down the island. A second assault force landed in the south of Luzon on 23 December and began pushing north.
On Christmas Day, the 200th left Clark Field to make the same journey down to Bataan, with Battery H of the 515th ordered to evacuate from Nichols. First Lieutenant Russell Hutchinson ordered his men to salvage whatever they could before leaving. “Graef and Foy looted the quartermaster supplies and loaded our trucks like Ringling Brothers Circus. They put up bamboo poles, wrapped rope around them, and piled up so much stuff that we didn’t have to draw rations till February.” After traveling a few miles down the road, the men decided to bivouac for the night. Behind them, engineers blew up what remained of Nichols Field.
General Jonathan Wainwright, the senior field commander of American and Filipino forces, had been ordered to hold Bataan while reinforcements of men and material could be sent to the Philippines. Unknown to him was that President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill had agreed on a “Europe First” strategy to the war, leaving the men in the Philippines hoping for – and expecting – reinforcements that would never come. Sergeant David Johns would state that “The Voice of Freedom (radio broadcast) kept telling us, ‘Hold out for two more days, help is on the way.’ We could have taken the truth. But they lied to us.”
For the next four months, the men on Bataan would run out of ammunition, food, medicine – but never hope. They had to survive. Regular infiltration by Japanese troops was normally quickly repulsed, but increased as Homma brought more troops to bear against the American and Filipino force. By February, the Japanese 20th Infantry Regiment had sent over 1000 men in to infiltrate, with only 377 making it back to Japanese lines. The entire regiment of 2881 men had only 650 remaining by mid-February due to the war-fighting capabilities of the Americans and Filipinos. The men fought tenaciously and persistently. In one instance, on moving toward a beach, First Lieutenant Edward Lingo saw General Wainwright, “with his M-1 and a bandolier of shells, leading the troops in the landing area as the Japs came ashore. If we didn’t repulse them, we’d be cut off without any way to get back. We had no food, no maps, no compass, and a one-way road.” Above the beach, Sergeant Stephen Alex set up his weapon, “We’d come down into a clearing and fire almost flat level with the beach line, then pull up on a knoll in the daytime and spot planes. The Japs saw a lot more activity than there was. We only had two .50’s and two .37’s. The first plane we hit came in low, and we hit him in the gas tank. He went into the drink right by us. They doubled and tripled and we did a lot of firing. We learned later they thought us ten times our strength.”
The ability of the men in Bataan to hold the lines forced General Homma into a stark realization – his plans for the Philippines were not going as expected. Of all Imperial Japanese Army commanders under General Hideki Tojo, Homma was the only one who had been stopped by fierce resistance. He requested additional troops and withdrew from Bataan to develop further plans to destroy the US-Filipino resistance in the peninsula; this came to be known as the “quiet time” to the men on Bataan. During this period, the men reinforced their positions as best they could, and deployed what guns they had on the two airfields which had been created on Bataan. Though infantry assaults were noticeably absent, Japanese bombers and fighters regularly hit American positions — as did mortars. A routine settled in on Bataan as men scrounged for food, trying to eat twice a day and bathe as often as they could.
Soon, however, the lack of food and supplies became critical. Private John West recalled, “If an animal eats a plant, humans can too. And anything that’s bitter is generally poison, too. A lot of those jungle plants were good. The inside of the male palm tree is like cabbage. We ate elephant ears, and caught little fresh-water shrimp in the creeks – and you can get a lot of fish with a hand grenade. We got to killing all the carabaos [water buffaloes]. We ate wild hogs til we found out they were eating out of the slit trenches. And mangoes – I’ve seen guys in mango trees, with the Japs strafing and bombing – and they’d just stay up there gathering mangoes.”
By March, however, malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, scurvy, beriberi, dehydration. and starvation had begun to take a serious toll on the men, who by this point understood that they had been “written off.”
Captain Jack Boyer recalled that, “January, February, and March saw our position deteriorate from bad to worse to serious. We were trapped on Bataan still waiting for reinforcements, but soon realized that none would come. The war in Europe was more important. Still, our morale was high. We were determined to make the Japs pay a high price to defeat us.”
Journalist Frank Hewett, of Deming, had penned a few lines which quickly spread through the men and became the unofficial motto of the New Mexicans:
We’re the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam;
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces;
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.
And nobody gives a damn.
Nobody gives a damn.
Regardless, they reinforced what positions they could and still engaged the Japanese when possible on the lines across the north of Bataan and the coast on the west side of the peninsula.
A few aircraft at this time were still managing to fly missions against the Japanese from fields on Bataan. On 03 April, the main Japanese attack came, resulting in chaos and confusion throughout the north part of Bataan as those who had managed to hold the line began to retreat back toward Mariveles. The New Mexicans destroyed their big guns, broke “everything we could break with big hammers,” and burned the unit colors. The “Old Two Hon’erd” would now fight as infantrymen and began to make their way north to engage the Japanese, marching against the retreating tide. Eventually they, too, would be forced south. They had been credited with 86 confirmed hits on Japanese aircraft, had been the first to fire upon the Japanese in the Philippines, guarded the Calumpit bridges which allowed US and Filipino forces the ability to move south, and had kept open strategic points during the fighting. In addition, they slowed Japanese progress and forced them to use men and material needed for other battles.