World War II: The U.S. 32nd Infantry Division Battle to Control the Villa Verde Trail

6/12/2006 • Battle of Manila, World War II

The U.S. Sixth Army commander, General Walter Krueger, was notorious for cracking down on subordinates whose attacks fizzled during the fight to reclaim the Philippines. It was expected, then, that he would land solidly on the back of the 32nd Division’s Major General William H. Gill. The division was bogged down on northern Luzon on a mountain track called the Villa Verde Trail, taking more casualties than ground.

General Gill sought to deflect his superior’s wrath during the spring of 1945 by expressing his own doubts about the division’s ability to secure the trail. Gill complained that the division was battle-weary and understrength because there were no replacements. The trail was heavily fortified by elite troops of the Japanese Fourteenth Area Army. There was no room for maneuver in the rugged Caraballo Mountains through which the trail wound. It was all bloody head-on assaults.

Surprisingly, Krueger agreed and told the division commander, “I’m fully satisfied that your division has done and is doing all that is humanly possible under the incredibly difficult terrain conditions and resistance facing it.” Krueger then instructed Gill to continue the attack with what he had. Gill could expect no replacements—Krueger had none to give. The bitter campaigns raging in the mountains were low priority to General Douglas MacArthur, commander of all Allied forces in the Philippines. MacArthur had originally allotted only five divisions to Krueger’s northern forces—five divisions to tackle the bulk of the Japanese army on Luzon. Yet after the fall of Manila in March 1945, MacArthur depleted even that force, pulling two divisions out of the north to aid the Eighth Army’s operations in the rest of the Philippines. As Captain Robert Maynard of the 128th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division, related, “MacArthur took Manila…then he didn’t care about the dying in the mountains.”

The 32nd Division’s history is filled with stand-up fights in which the unit had little or no support. MacArthur’s first offensive move in the southwestern Pacific had been to throw the 32nd into New Guinea—without jungle training or artillery and with barely sufficient supplies. Two years later, also in New Guinea, the division had been stranded along the Driniumor River for a short time. The unit had landed on Luzon almost three months earlier than Krueger’s mid-April visit with Gill, and at that time its ranks were already depleted from months of jungle fighting on Leyte. The men had received only three weeks’ rest between the two islands. The men of the 32nd—who wore the Red Arrow patch signifying that the division had pierced every line it had encountered—knew about fighting without support. They expected to crack this line as well. But they were unaware of the high price they would pay in materiel, morale and men.

The 32nd was part of the I Corps, the Sixth Army’s left flank. Since landing at Lingayen Gulf in January 1945, the I Corps’ task had been to provide a screen for the XIV Corps, on the right flank, as it raced toward Manila. The I Corps was guarding against a possible avalanche of 150,000 Japanese poised to slide down from the Caraballo Mountains onto the central plains.

MacArthur’s raid on the I Corps left Krueger holding a defensive line with only three divisions. The 33rd was in the west, guarding Lingayen Gulf and battering the mountain approaches to Baguio, Japan’s headquarters on the island. In the I Corps’ center, the 32nd plugged the mouths of several river valleys and the southern terminus of the Villa Verde Trail. The right flank was anchored by the 25th Division, located near Highway 5.

In late February, Krueger changed the I Corps’ mission. With the Manila Bay area under control, it was no longer necessary to muzzle the I Corps’ offensive capabilities. Krueger believed that delaying the campaign in the north would allow the Japanese troops time to strengthen their mountain redoubts. Accordingly, Krueger ordered Maj. Gen. Innis P. Swift, the I Corps commander, to assault the Japanese in their defensive lairs.

Krueger and Swift knew that the Japanese positions on northern Luzon were located on a triangular perimeter encompassing the most treacherous reaches of the Caraballo Mountains, which protected the Cagayen Valley, a breadbasket for the Japanese. Krueger instructed Swift that his corps’ first objective was to pry open the door to the valley, thereby cutting off the Japanese supplies at the source. Swift chose the 32nd to make the breakthrough.

Swift’s plans for the 32nd involved herculean tasks. The Red Arrow men were to attack from the plains into the mountains by way of three river valleys and the Villa Verde Trail. The movement into the valleys, on the western edge of the division’s zone of action, was an operation in support of the 33rd’s thrust to take Baguio. The valleys were north–south waterways thought to be viable avenues for flanking General Tomoyuki Yamashita, Fourteenth Area Army commander, in Baguio. While the 33rd pushed at the town from the south and west, it was believed that elements of the 32nd could stab at the enemy from the east.

The 126th Infantry Regiment was picked to make the push up the valleys. A battalion jumped off on February 25, probing up the Ambayabang River. The inhospitable valley made it necessary for the battalion to move in small units, never more than a company maneuvering together. Along the steep banks of the Ambayabang the men of the 32nd encountered a series of caves used by the Japanese as defensive positions, where each enemy position was protected by a similar cave farther down the valley. Reducing one target exposed men of the 126th to a withering fire from the second position. Grim necessity forced the battalion to rely on its intelligence and reconnaissance men to penetrate the Japanese lines and locate the caves.

One such patrol found Sergeant Joe Skiba and his men heading back toward their regiment after a stint behind Japanese lines. To reach the safety of the American positions, the patrol had to cross an open stretch of land. Skiba had his men advance single file and spread out. Despite that precaution, the Japanese opened up on them, knocking out their lead scout with a gaping head wound. The squad was pinned down in the coarse cogon grass. Skiba remembered: “I can recall one of the men not having a good hiding spot. Attempting to find a more secure position, he ran through that open area. As he ran, the [Japanese] machine gun opened up on him. They sprayed at him but did not hit him. As he ran to the safer position…he yelled, ‘Somebody get that SOB.’” After dark, the survivors escaped. The man who had sprinted across the clearing counted four bullet holes in his uniform, but he was unscathed.

The 126th was tied down in the river valleys west of the Villa Verde Trail until the first week in April. Probing for a way into Baguio, the regiment suffered casualties but did not materially contribute to the capture of the Japanese stronghold. Relieved by elements of the 33rd Division, it was sent eastward to join the rest of the 32nd, which needed more manpower.

The drive up the trail was the 32nd’s main goal. General Gill’s men were to crack the mountain bastion by forcing the trail. Capturing the Villa Verde Trail would open the way to Santa Fe, a crossroads town on the Japanese supply line. Guarding the trail were contingents of the Japanese 10th Division and the 2nd Tank Division. The men were led by Maj. Gen. Haruo Konuma, commander of the Bambang Branch, Fourteenth Area Army, who layered his defenses by burrowing into the mountainsides and embedding artillery along what came to be known as Yamashita Ridge. The ridge was a prominence north of the trail commanding long stretches of the American lines. From these positions the defenders could rain down harassing fire, blast apart attacks and rend supply lines. Close to the trail, Japanese spider holes harbored soldiers skilled at sniping and infiltration. These positions were Yamashita’s brainchild. The commander of Japanese forces on Luzon knew he could not defeat the Americans, but could only bleed units needed for the invasion of Japan.

On February 24 the men of the 127th Infantry Regiment tackled the trail. The nearly perpendicular slopes, bald razorback ridges and jungle valleys in the region surrounding the trail forced the regiment to use a battalion to attack up the trail while another struck the Japanese right flank. Simultaneously, the 127th’s remaining battalion managed to get behind the Japanese lines and set up a roadblock along the trail. These coordinated attacks broke the Japanese defenses.

Capitalizing on the crumbling Japanese resistance, the 127th Infantry closely pursued the retreating enemy. One battalion reached the western approaches of the two Salacsac passes on March 4, hot on the heels of the decimated Japanese force. The regiment was now in the doorway to the Cagayen Valley. Four miles across the twisting, narrow passes lay Imugan, a village marking the point where the Villa Verde Trail began its descent toward Santa Fe.

The rapid American advance stopped at the Salacsac passes. The regiment had encountered inhospitable terrain while moving up the Villa Verde. The trail hugged the sides of mountains 4,000 feet above sea level—mountains often shrouded in fog, drenched in downpours or wrapped in stifling heat. Now the trail was the front. The deep draws carving the landscape near the Villa Verde Trail were too precipitous for maneuvers. The surrounding mountains were a trackless wilderness with hidden Japanese caves. The trail itself aided the enemy, its serpentine ribbon promising another gun emplacement around each turn. The 32nd Division was faced with frontal assaults against a well-entrenched enemy commanding the high ground and familiar with the battlefield.

Supplies became a sore point; the trail was too narrow to support motorized traffic, and Filipino carriers sometimes proved untrustworthy under fire. The 32nd Division relied on the equipment and bravery of the 114th Engineer Battalion to make the Villa Verde a passable road. What the 114th accomplished under constant fire became known as “the little Burma Road.” Later, captured Japanese orders showed that the 114th was on their army’s “must destroy” list.

The trail often held surprises for the Americans. One morning a patrol led by 2nd Lt. Carl Patrinos of the 1st Platoon, G Company, 127th Infantry Regiment, stopped on the trail for a breather just as the fog draping the area burned off. The fog lifted so suddenly that the GIs were stunned to see Japanese soldiers sitting a short distance away. Americans and Japanese froze. Then both patrols scrambled in opposite directions, not bothering to shoot at one another.

Most encounters with the enemy were not so benign. Private first class Martin Narendorf of L Company spent four days on a knob that offered a fine view of the Japanese. Until the fourth day the Japanese had apparently been unaware of L Company’s position. But once General Konuma’s men discovered the Americans there on March 15, they zeroed in on the company with mortar shells. Narendorf recalled that their fire was pretty accurate, saying, “All you saw laying around you were pieces of meat.” The L Company commander ordered his men to withdraw. Narendorf and others supplied covering fire. As Narendorf began his escape, he noticed a wounded man a short distance away. He grabbed a shelter half (half of a pup tent) to use as a makeshift litter and headed for the casualty. Reaching the man, Narendorf saw that it was a company cook, Joe Sepp. Narendorf remembered: “His whole chest was blown out. You could see his heart pumping.” Sepp said to him, “Why don’t you just go ahead, I’m dying anyway.” More shells landed, and Narendorf dove for a foxhole. Before he found shelter, either shrapnel or splintered wood from a tree burst ripped into his back. Narendorf managed to struggle down the hill, but without Sepp, who was already dead.

The men fought for every yard, foot and sometimes inch. The Japanese were dug in so well that artillery had no effect on their spider holes. Camouflaged bunkers could only be detected with human bait—the shriek of a .25-caliber bullet overhead or the whir of the mortar cutting the air provided the only clues to the enemy’s whereabouts. A squad of GIs would then have to advance on the position, ramming a pole charge into the opening when they neared the cave. The explosion would seal the spider hole, though there was no assurance that the troops inside were dead or that there were not multiple openings to the cave.

Breaking the stalemate became the 32nd Division’s major concern. General Gill detached the 2nd Battalion from the 128th to add to the strength of those already engaged. Gill hoped to defy the jagged terrain by sending the battalion south of the trail, through the wilderness, to strike the Japanese rear. He planned to take Imugan, cutting the enemy supply line and ending the stalemate. The battalion jumped off on March 11.

The operation was a nightmare. Lack of supplies, faulty communications and intraregimental jealousy contributed to the breakdown of the maneuver. The battalion commander had requested 300 carriers on his supply route; he received 150. That number was insufficient to shuttle the food and ammunition the expedition needed. The atmospheric conditions in the mountains interfered with radio communications. Orders were delayed or lost. Moreover, the battalion commander was new to both his command and the division. At least some of his junior officers considered him a braggart, while he himself believed his regimental commander was plotting against him.

These factors, added to a crafty enemy and formidable terrain, doomed the operation. As the Americans struggled against the trail’s defenses, the borrowed battalion’s attack wilted. Realizing the futility of the assault, General Gill issued orders withdrawing the unit on March 22. The battalion commander was relieved of duty as they left the wilderness.

The Villa Verde Trail had taken its toll on the 127th. More than 100 men had been killed and 225 wounded since the regiment had started up the trail. Five hundred more had been hospitalized for illness, including a disproportionate number of combat fatigue cases. The regiment counted only 1,500 men as combat effectives by March 23. On that day Gill began relieving the 127th by inserting the 128th Infantry Regiment into the line.

Staff Sergeant Fred Johnson of the 128th’s medical detachment had spent two nights on the trail when the Japanese hit his position with artillery. Instead of seeking safety, Johnson risked his life to carry a wounded man from the aid station to a trench, where he would be safe. Johnson then bolted out into the rain of explosions and falling debris to retrieve more wounded. After bringing another GI to a secure area, Johnson set the man down and again headed for the disintegrating aid station. The sergeant pulled a third wounded man away from the barrage and carried him to the trenches.

Fifty shells had poured in on the American position before the enemy launched an infantry assault to dislodge the crippled unit. Two charges crashed into the lines, and twice that night the 1st Battalion, 128th, drove off the Japanese with heavy casualties.

Two days later, on the 27th, Colonel John Hettinger, commander of the 128th, was reconnoitering the front when the Japanese spotted his jeep. The vehicle was immediately caught in an artillery barrage. The colonel and his driver made it to a foxhole. Seconds later, however, the foxhole took a direct hit and Hettinger was killed.

The 128th now experienced the same kind of slugfest that had characterized the 127th’s fighting. The drive eastward continued as a series of frontal assaults on the hills of the Salacsac passes. Hill 503, bypassed by the 127th, was secured. The 114th Engineers were brought up to broaden the trail. Major Thomas Bell of E Company was behind a bulldozer when it tore into an embankment on the side of the trail. Four Japanese spilled out onto the road from their suddenly exposed cave. Bell’s men made short work of them. Before the end of March, Hills 504 and 505 were won.

General Konuma launched a counterattack on the night of March 31. The Japanese target was Hill 504, held by L Company. The American soldiers were caught in a desperate struggle. Under the relentless onslaught, Pfc William Shockley urged his squad to escape while he provided covering fire. He told his fellow GIs that he would “remain to the end.” He stopped the charge to his immediate front but was flanked by the enemy. As Shockley’s last avenue of escape was being cut off by a banzai attack, he remained at his post to buy the time his squad needed to escape. The 27-year-old GI continued firing until overwhelmed by his enemies. For his sacrifice, Shockley was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Despite the heroism of men like Shockley, L Company was pushed off the hill. The loss of that position meant the American foothold on the Salacsac passes was threatened. An entire U.S. battalion was committed to a dawn counterattack. Though it stemmed the westward flow of Japanese and prevented the loss of all ground east of Hill 502, portions of Hill 504 remained in enemy hands at the end of April 1.

The I Corps released the 126th Infantry Regiment at that point, bringing it up on the 128th’s left. Colonel Oliver Dixon, the commander of the 126th, targeted the high ground north of the trail. The plan was to tie down the defenders of Yamashita Ridge so that the 128th could push through the Salacsac passes without drawing harassing fire from the north. Together, the two regiments blasted their way through the entrance to the passes. Initially, the first pass was declared secured on April 10, but as pockets of Japanese continued to dig out from their sealed caves—emerging from the ground like corpses back from the dead—the first pass could not be considered secured until April 16.

It was at this time that Krueger assured Gill that the 32nd was doing all that was expected of it and told him not to expect any relief. Gill was reduced to the expedient of rotating his attacking regiments. He relieved the gutted 128th with the 127th. The 126th was to continue its push against Yamashita Ridge.

The fighting along the trail continued with brutal monotony as the Americans located, isolated and then destroyed individual strongpoints. On April 24, Lieutenant Patrinos’ G Company was moving in tandem with E Company to isolate just such a strongpoint when Patrinos realized that he had lost contact with the other company. Patrinos called back to his company commander to find out what he should do and was instructed to throw a phosphorous grenade, alerting E Company to his location.

Patrinos threw the grenade and moved his platoon after it. Then he heard a plane directly overhead. The American pilot had seen the smoke from the grenade, mistaken it for a marker of an enemy position and commenced his bomb run. Patrinos managed to make it to a burned-out Japanese hole, but most of his men were not so lucky. G Company took 25 casualties from the misplaced bomb—11 of the men could only be listed as missing in action since there were no remains to identify.

G and E companies had been approaching Hill 508, the backbone of the Japanese defenses in the Salacsac passes area, when they were blasted by their own air support. Battered G Company was pulled out of the attack. Five days later, E Company would take the summit of 508, only to find itself virtually surrounded by Japanese emerging from caves that honeycombed the hill.

For the first two weeks in May, the “Kongo Fortress,” as the GIs dubbed Hill 508, was a cauldron of death. The landscape itself suggested a vision of Hell—the trees blasted into stumps, the ground scorched from flamethrowers used to burn out spider holes. Soldiers of the 127th died in attacks, in foxholes and in secured rear areas. Men of the Red Arrow division who had suffered through Buna, survived Aitape and braved Leyte were killed or wounded on the steep slopes of the Kongo Fortress.

One of those wounded was Patrinos, pinned down against the side of the mutilated hill. His battalion commander hailed him on the radio and informed him that the company on his right was cut off. Patrinos replied that he would “see what kind of shape they’re in,” and scrambled toward the missing company’s position. Patrinos quickly determined that the wayward company was in better condition than his own unit. As he started to dash back to his own outfit, a bullet shattered his shoulder blade.

Meanwhile, on Yamashita Ridge, the 126th had been relieved by the 128th. Fred Johnson, the 1st Battalion medic, and his men were ordered forward when a squad was ambushed and several soldiers were wounded. Japanese machine guns continued to spray the fallen GIs, and Johnson could see puffs of dust from their fatigues as the bullets ripped into them. Johnson and his men managed to get the wounded off the hill but were then hit themselves, four of the eight stretcher-bearers going down in a split second. The Americans were finally pushing the Japanese off the Villa Verde Trail, but they were paying dearly for each patch of ground.

To support the reduction of the Kongo Fortress, Captain Maynard of the 128th was ordered to accomplish the impossible. In the late hours of May 3, Maynard led a reinforced company in darkness through the trackless mountains and deployed to launch a dawn attack on the enemy’s supply line. Maynard had pounded into the men the need for silence on the approach, and it paid off when his unit took up its position undetected by the Japanese. American .50-caliber machine guns cut loose on the enemy at dawn. Maynard remembered, “At the end of the machine-gun fire we jumped off…and ran into a bunch of [Japanese] that were on the trail, and above the trail….”

Maynard’s men were locked in a firefight that grew into a 30-minute engagement. The Japanese fought fiercely, knowing that loss of the trail would doom their compatriots on Hill 508. Maynard’s men fought with equal ferocity. They were behind enemy lines, with no hope of immediate relief. Finally, the Japanese broke. Maynard established a roadblock, and despite numerous enemy counterattacks, held the position until relieved days later.

The roadblock stopped the flow of supplies to the Kongo Fortress forces and enabled the Americans to sweep the enemy from the area. Now remnants of Japanese units pitched into the American lines in useless suicide attacks or were buried alive in their caves. The Americans seized the high ground, leveling anti-aircraft cannons at the dug-in enemy positions before Imugan. The artillery slaughtered Konuma’s men. On May 28, the men of the Red Arrow division captured the village.

General Gill’s soldiers had cracked Yamashita’s mountain fortress. Along with the 25th Division, which had seized Santa Fe from the south, the 32nd had shattered all organized resistance in the Caraballo Mountains. From the seizure of Imugan until his surrender on September 2, 1945, Yamashita would simply be running from the U.S. Army.

After the war, General Gill was asked if the price paid by the 32nd Division for that goat path in the clouds had been too high. Gill answered: “The Villa Verde Trail cost us too high in battle casualties for the value received. In other words…I believe the supreme commander [MacArthur] and…his staff violated one of the great principles of shopping….” Gill clarified that statement by explaining that MacArthur had paid too much for what he got. The 32nd had gained too little for the men it had lost.

This article was written by Tracy L. Derks and originally appeared in the February 2002 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!

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