When the Japanese invaded the Philippine Islands on December 22, 1941, the untrained Philippine Army troops assigned to beach defense collapsed. After U.S. General Douglas MacArthur had withdrawn his army down the island of Luzon’s central plain into the Bataan Peninsula, one last line existed before the Japanese invaders reached the main line of resistance. The Americans would slow the Japanese entry into Bataan by fighting a delaying action at Layac, thus gaining time and deceiving the enemy as to the location of the main defensive positions. For the first time in World War II, American troops faced Japanese soldiers on the ground.
Brigadier General Clyde A. Selleck commanded the Philippine Army’s 71st Division and was responsible for establishing the Layac line. Born in 1888, ‘Pappy’ Selleck was an artilleryman, a West Pointer and a graduate of the Command and General Staff School and the War College. Although the plan for defending Layac was seemingly known to all senior officers in the Philippines, it was not known to Selleck. His short time in the islands—he had arrived on October 23—the few briefings made on war plans, and a lack of information about the position itself resulted in one of the least knowledgeable officers on Luzon commanding the Layac line.
Selleck had four regiments—the American 31st Infantry, the Philippine Scout 26th Cavalry and two Philippine Army infantry regiments. The backbone of Selleck’s force was Colonel Charles L. Steel’s 1,600-man 31st Infantry. It occupied the center of the covering force’s position and commanded the enemy’s most likely avenue of approach. Although morale was high and this action would be the regiment’s first fight, its strength was already low. Many of the most experienced men had been pulled from their units in late 1941 and sent to instruct or command the new Philippine formations.
Selleck’s divisional artillery, the understrength 71st Artillery Regiment, consisted of two four-gun 75mm batteries and one four-gun 2.95-inch pack howitzer battery. The Philippine Scout 1st Battalion, 23rd Artillery, supported Steel’s infantrymen with two batteries of 75s. Two 75mm batteries from the Scout 1st Battalion, 88th Artillery, were in general support of Selleck’s line.
For some reason, possibly an oversight, no one gave Selleck any long-range 155mm support. The fault seems to lie with the II Philippine Corps. Some of the corps’ 155s could have been positioned to cope with either enemy artillery or infantry. With a range of more than 14 kilometers, the 155s were the only guns capable of firing far enough to reach Japanese 150mm guns. A major concern about attaching 155s to Selleck’s force must have been the severe mobility restrictions facing the towed pieces. The guns were hauled by big prime movers, 10-ton caterpillar tractors, that had been in service since World War I and were now in poor mechanical shape. Whatever the reason, the absence of the big guns would prove a major error.
The U.S. Provisional Tank Group was also in support with 80 light tanks, 42 halftracks and 15 Bren gun carriers. But in a serious failure, no one had made arrangements to allow Selleck to give the tankers orders. Nor did the tank group receive orders to support the Layac position or to cover a withdrawal. Further, Selleck never asked the tank group for armored support. The tanks were there, but they were responsible solely to their own commanders. Two battalions of 75mm self-propelled artillery covered avenues of approach for Japanese tanks. They could, in a pinch, act as anti-tank artillery as well as normal field artillery, but their usefulness to Selleck, like the tanks, was limited by their instructions.
MacArthur’s headquarters believed that the Layac position was a strong line held by a fair-sized force. The II Corps commander was also comfortable with the area’s terrain and fields of fire. From Selleck’s much more intimate position, however, and especially from his firsthand knowledge of the weaknesses of his division, the Layac position did not look strong. The low, rolling hills were hardly more than bumps in the generally flat ground. The tiny Culis River did not provide much of an obstacle, and even the larger Culo River was fordable by dismounted troops. The best Selleck could organize was a series of mutually supporting strong points entrenched and wired as much as time and materiel would permit.
Selleck’s superiors did not help much during his preparation. The II Corps was still organizing itself, having expanded from a force of about one division to a four-division corps. Its priority was to build a main defensive line farther south on Bataan, not to bother with a division-level delay at Bataan’s entrance. The II Corps’ failure to provide Selleck with 155mm artillery, and MacArthur’s failure to establish a useful command relationship between Selleck and the Provisional Tank Group, showed all too well that Selleck’s bosses were attending to other matters.
Both the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 31st Infantry put two rifle companies on line. The reserve 3rd Battalion spent its time digging into reverse slope positions. On the left flank of the regiment, Sergeant Earl F. Walk set his .50-caliber machine gun next to a trail under a clump of bushes and put his two mortars on a hill. The ground was so hard it was like digging in rock. Mighty swings of a pick only broke the earth into pieces of reddish clay no larger than a man’s thumb. A few men poured water from canteens and even urinated on the ground in attempts to soften it. The Americans worked through the hot afternoon and into the evening, chipping shallow foxholes and gun positions out of the unyielding ground.
Although most Americans worked hard, there were exceptions. The 1st Battalion’s B Company, on the right of the regiment’s line, did a poor job. “It was like a picnic,” remembered Private Paul Kerchum. “No barbed wire and very few foxholes. Tools were there but nobody enforced digging. There was a definite lack of leadership.” Two Filipinos carried San Miguel beer nestled in a washtub of ice through the lines and sold the beer for one peso per bottle.
The line was almost fully occupied when the sun rose on January 6, 1942. Unfortunately, Selleck did not have any information about the enemy. All contact with the Japanese had been lost the previous evening. As far as Selleck knew, there might be a regiment heading for him, or maybe two divisions. Although MacArthur’s intelligence had estimated the Japanese Lingayen beach invasion force at 45,000 men, this information did not reach Selleck. His observation posts collected only meager information, and patrols found forward areas eerily empty.
American forward observers in camouflaged positions spotted the Japanese at 10 a.m. Coming down the road was a regiment of infantry soldiers with puttee-wrapped legs carrying long, 10-pound bolt-action Model 38 Arisaka 6.5mm rifles. Spaced through the columns were men toting 20-pound Model 99 light machine guns. These soldiers were part of Colonel Hifumi Imai’s Imai Detachment, which was built around the 1st Formosa Infantry, a company of the 7th Tank Regiment, two battalions of 75mm guns from the 48th Mountain Artillery and eight 150mm howitzers from the 1st Field Heavy Artillery Regiment. The Americans and Japanese were each hauling 24 cannons into the fight, but the Japanese held an advantage in size and range.
Two batteries of 75mm guns from the Philippine Scout 23rd Artillery opened the action at 10:30 a.m., followed by eight 75mm guns of the Scout 88th Artillery. The first rounds squarely hit the road, an admirable reflection of Scout training. The guns immediately changed to rapid volley fire, walked bursting projectiles up and down the road and scattered several Japanese horse-drawn mountain guns with attendant animals, caissons and gear. This was the first time the Japanese had experienced the effects of Scout artillery, and they had obviously been unprepared for it.
The officers in B Battery, 23rd Artillery, yelled fire commands to the five gunners on each piece; the gunners themselves urged each other on in their native dialects. “We got hoarse from hollering at those guys,” recalled Lieutenant William Miller, “and we would take turns shouting at them.” The two officers stood between the Nos. 2 and 3 guns—each gun 50 yards apart—made corrections in elevation and deflection and kept the shells on target. The B Battery commander was perched in a tree and saw his shells fall. He telephoned his officers and reported the destruction of the lead enemy artillery. “I saw the wheels go up,” he yelled as pieces of Japanese guns went flying. The Philippine 71st Artillery joined in, and Selleck’s 24 cannons forced the Japanese to deploy about 2 1/3 miles north of the Layac line. Selleck’s guns fired without any Japanese reply for just under 30 minutes.
Japanese artillery not caught in the initial rain of shells hustled forward and rolled into action. Drivers angled off roads, bounced over small earthen dikes and swung onto hard, flat rice paddies. Gunners unhitched their cannons, observers climbed trees, and crewmen laid their guns. Looking southwest, the Japanese saw the slight rise marking American positions. Japanese 75mm and 150mm shells, the gunners’ fire corrected by aerial spotters who dropped as low as 2,000 feet in their search for targets, fell near the defending artillery. Japanese pilots peered from their circling aircraft and easily pinpointed Selleck’s artillery and infantry works.
American anti-aircraft guns, which had earlier covered this area, had moved farther south, and enemy aircraft were not bothered by groundfire. Little escaped the aerial observers’ attention, and Japanese artillery grew more and more accurate. Because the Japanese Model-4 150mm howitzers, which fired 10,500 yards, outranged the Filipinos’ 75s, they were untouched by Filipino counterbattery fire. The II Corps’ failure to place any 155s near Layac for counterbattery action proved to be the most significant mistake made by American artillery in the entire Philippine campaign.
Shells hit Selleck’s command post, wounded some men, caused others to run into the hills, scared away an American crew operating a radio truck, destroyed several vehicles and badly disrupted communications. Filipino artillery was severely shelled and took several direct hits. Every gun in the 71st Artillery had been hit at least once by midafternoon, and four were damaged beyond repair and abandoned. Changes in gun positions made little difference because of Japanese aerial observation. No sooner were the guns in a new location than they once again came under fire. Concealment was scarce and cover nonexistent, and the old artillery maxim “A battery seen is a battery lost” held true. The Filipinos from the 1st Battalion, 71st Artillery, abandoned their guns under galling fire but carried away the firing pins and keys to the prime movers. The guns were later rescued and pulled to safety.
Equally relentlessly, the Japanese concentrated their fire on the Scout 23rd Artillery. These guns were in defilade behind a hill, but Japanese planes spotted them. When the first shells exploded nearby, Lieutenant Miller, having come on active duty only seven days earlier, was shocked. “Those sons of bitches are trying to kill us!” he exclaimed. One shell burst directly on a Scout emplacement, put the gun out of action and severely wounded four gunners. The Scout soldiers knew their jobs, were intensely loyal and obeyed orders from their American officers without question. Despite the severe losses and the alarming sight of a lone American infantryman in full flight, the Scouts steadfastly serviced their guns.
Miller remembered the American deserter “falling flat on the ground and crying out ‘the Japs are coming.’ He was in a pure funk. We barely had time to look at him but told him to get out of our way, and he ran off to the rear.” Nearby, American medics treated the wounded Scout artillerymen and watched enemy fire fall around the Scouts. “They were exchanging shell for shell with the Japanese,” remembered John G. Lally, then an 18-year-old Kansan medic. “It was the bravest thing I ever saw.”
Bamboo thickets that surrounded the cannons of the 23rd Artillery caught fire and threatened the guns more than the enemy shelling did. Poor planning now ensured the destruction of B Battery’s guns. The prime movers had been collected the evening before at battalion headquarters, where it was thought they would be safe. Because telephone lines were now cut, B Battery could not tell battalion headquarters to send the vehicles forward, and as the fire approached the guns, there was no way to move the pieces out of danger. When the fire leaped into the pits with the gunners, the men jumped out and the guns were lost.
Because the 1st Battalion, 88th Artillery, was shooting from more protective terrain than the 23rd, it did not suffer as badly. Even so, the ammunition train was hit, several prime movers were disabled, and personnel losses were heavy. Japanese fire drove the crew of an A Battery gun to cover, dragging their wounded with them. Jose Calugas, a mess sergeant from another battery, ran across shell-swept ground to the idle piece, organized a pick-up crew and put the gun back into action despite continued enemy shelling.
Japanese artillery now reached the American infantrymen. ‘The shelling was deadly accurate,’ remembered Private William J. Garleb from H Company. He was crouching in his foxhole when a round burst only six inches from the edge, sending fragments up and out, and leaving him unhurt. This was the first time the Americans had heard enemy artillery explode, and it was disconcertingly loud. Sergeant Walk’s H Company machine-gunners burrowed desperately into their 18-inch-deep holes. All Walk could see for five minutes was dust, and he was sure he had lost everybody. But when the fire stopped, Walk found that no one was hurt. Each man, however, was furiously working to deepen his foxhole.
G Company also took a pounding but lost only a few wounded. Captain John I. Pray crouched in his foxhole and peered at a little red bird five feet away. The bird was singing its heart out as howitzer shells crashed all around. Pray crawled along his line during lulls and encouraged his men. Seeing him disappear in shell bursts and smoke, Pray’s men reported him killed three times. Japanese fire was heaviest in the 1st Battalion area. Twenty-seven-year-old Private James C. Spencer spent most of the day in a deep foxhole listening to shells explode and the whirring of fragments. Spencer raised his head from time to time and saw two young Americans running from the front lines until a captain, waving a revolver, ordered them back into line. Those two men were probably from Lieutenant Lloyd G. Murphy’s B Company.
At 2 p.m., the Japanese had put several infantry units across the small Culo River. Their patrols probed the junction between the 31st Infantry and the 71st Division two hours later. In so doing, they bumped into B Company. ‘I looked out over the front,’ remembers Private Harold J. Garrett, “and it seemed that whole field got up and moved.” Garrett aimed his rifle and fired.
Corporal Milton G. Alexander and two members of his squad raked the enemy with their air-cooled .30-caliber machine gun. Two Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs) joined Alexander’s gun and momentarily slowed the Japanese fire. Then enemy bullets washed over B Company’s line. “It seemed like a bunch of bees hit our position,” recalled one soldier, a four-year Army veteran, “the snap, crackle, and pop of small arms and machine-gun fire. Five minutes later, B Company panicked. The whole company took off up the hill towards our artillery.”
The Americans finally stopped 800 yards behind the main line, but their flight could not be tolerated if they were to delay the Japanese. C Company held firm to the left of B Company’s now abandoned foxholes. Private George Uzelac watched the enemy approaching with fixed bayonets that seemed small when they were 500 yards away but looked huge as they got closer. Uzelac, dirty, hungry and convinced he was too young to die, was shaking badly until he started firing his BAR. Then he calmed down and helped stop the Japanese. The 1st Battalion commander ordered his reserve company to counterattack and restore the line. When A Company failed to close the hole, Colonel Steel called on his reserve 3rd Battalion to plug the gap.
Lieutenant Donald G. Thompson of L Company and Captain Ray Stroud of I Company received orders a little after 4 p.m. to report to their battalion commander. Lieutenant Colonel Jasper E. Brady told his officers: “I and L companies will immediately move forward from their present positions to the front-line sector formerly occupied by B Company. Report by runner to me as soon as you have your companies in position. K Company will remain in reserve prepared to move up into the lines on my order.”
Thompson told his 1st Platoon to follow the left flank of the 71st Division and use a concealed route along a dry streambed. The other two platoons fixed bayonets and formed into platoons abreast. Two I Company squads were attached to Thompson and served as his reserve. The 3rd Platoon with attached machine guns moved to the right, and the 2nd Platoon worked its way forward with orders to re-establish the line to the right of C Company, which was still in place on the main line.
A battery of Japanese guns tracked Thompson’s progress. The enemy artillery fired each time the platoons crossed a ridge. The Americans lay down when they heard the guns fire, ran forward after the shells landed, then re-formed in the gullies and started out again. The advance was rapid and the company well under control as they covered the one kilometer toward their objective. The enemy artillery fire consistently passed over the Americans or fell short, and some shells that were on target failed to detonate.
Japanese artillery was more effective against Captain Stroud’s I Company. Bursting shells badly shook the men as they prepared for the counterattack. “In the distance we could hear a salvo of four guns,” recalls Private Grant E. Workman, “then another and still another. After the shells started landing on our outfit, it was havoc. Soldiers were hit, bushes and hard clay flying all over the place.” Like B Company, I Company broke, more from disorganization and shock than from actual casualties. Some scurried from one shell hole to the next, figuring the Japanese gunners would correct after each shot and aim at another spot. Movement was all to the rear.
When lead elements of L Company entered a big cane field, Japanese infantrymen noticed and fired upon them. Thompson’s point squad and attached BARs returned fire and dispersed the enemy. L Company advanced through the brutally hot cane field and into the positions lost by B Company. Two of M Company’s water-cooled machine guns, positioned in defilade and well to Thompson’s rear, lofted streams of bullets into the Japanese occupying papaya trees off to Thompson’s right. The fire knocked the first victim, a Japanese motorcycle messenger, off the road. Thompson’s men found two heavy machine guns when they took their objective, as well as several BARs abandoned by their former American owners. They used them to support the advance.
Thompson’s men distinguished themselves by their quick action, confidence and aggressive movement. “There wasn’t any doubt in our minds that we could whip the Japs,” recalled Private Wilburn L. Snyder, then an 18-year-old in L Company. Colonel Brady now sent Captain Coral M. Talbott’s K Company up to support Thompson. “We advanced 300 yards through fierce shelling, dashing 30 or 40 paces, going down, then running again,” remembered Private Mondell White, who was 22 years old at the time.
Although the 31st Infantry had restored its line, the situation still looked bad. The Japanese had bombed the town of Hermosa, exploded an ammunition dump there, set the town afire and blocked the only road with rubble. Most of Selleck’s artillery was out of action. Enemy planes left him without concealment, and all of his infantry reserves were committed. If the Japanese broke through the 71st Division, they would cut the only road leading south and trap the entire Layac force. Light firing continued along the American regiment’s front into the early evening. Still more Japanese were seen arriving at Layac, and Japanese movements forward of the 71st Division were increasing.
Selleck was forced to assume that the bulk of General Masaharu Homma’s Fourteenth Army faced him, for he had no accurate information on enemy strength or dispositions. Selleck’s mission was to defend the position until a coordinated attack forced a withdrawal, not to fight a pitched battle. He had already lost the two-battery 23rd Artillery and the 1st Battalion, 71st Artillery. Two American rifle companies had run and were out of the fight. Selleck’s reserve battalion was committed, and the Filipinos along the 71st Division’s front–even though they had not been seriously pressed—were shaky and ready to bolt.
Colonel Steel explained his situation to Selleck at 8 p.m., but Selleck refused permission to withdraw. Steel sent in a second report and stressed the possibility of a disastrous daylight withdrawal if the men did not get out that night. This time Selleck agreed and asked II Corps for permission to withdraw. At 10 p.m., II Corps reluctantly ordered Selleck to conduct a night withdrawal.
Colonel Steel informed his battalions of the nighttime withdrawal, and everyone was ready shortly after midnight. Kitchen and supply vehicles rolled south. Guides waited at creek beds and trails to keep the main body of infantry on course. The 31st Infantry positioned three rifle companies as a covering force and pulled the bulk of the regiment out at 1:30 a.m. E Company covered the 2nd Battalion as F and G companies pulled south. Light from a half-moon filtered through a slight overcast and helped the soldiers pick their way along trails and roads.
Then at 2:30 a.m., at the moment the covering force itself started to pull out, the Japanese launched a night attack. Intense small-arms fire erupted, and Captain Robert S. Sauer’s E Company was destroyed as a tactical entity. Survivors wandered into friendly lines for the next four days. F Company halted, deployed and repulsed the enemy.
Despite local confusion, the withdrawal succeeded, and Selleck’s force broke contact with the Japanese. All things considered, the delaying force was lucky. The Japanese failed to pursue, and the defenders once again traded space for time. But the delaying action proved costly, especially since more had been expected of Selleck’s men than a single day. Although Selleck’s guns did land the first blows, his artillery regiments lost 11 of 24 guns. There was a lack of determination in several 31st Infantry units. Two company commanders, B Company’s Lieutenant Murphy and I Company’s Captain Stroud, were relieved of command. The 31st Infantry reported only three killed, 18 wounded and 100 missing, with most of the missing from E Company. Those casualties indicate a feeble fight, especially when the Japanese were able to work their way into the main line and scatter two companies. The severity of the Japanese bombardment shook officers and troops alike.
All things considered, the kudos must go to the Japanese invasion force. The battle was a nice example of a numerically inferior, better-trained force evicting a larger, less-well-trained force. The Japanese would display similar tactical skill during the rest of the Bataan campaign.
This written by John W. Whitman and article originally appeared in the October 2001 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!