A Forgotten Battlefield
A reader wrote to ask whether the highland city of Baguio in the Philippines had to be destroyed by the McArthur's 5th Air Force in 1945 as part of its operations against the General Yamshita's army in mountainous Northern Luzon. "Where should one go for material outside of the official US Army history written by Robert Ross Smith, Triumph in the Philippines? The controversial part has to do with the carpet bombing by the 5th AF of the city center, which seems to have been unjustified by the tactical situation. The air force was much less restrained in Baguio than it had been in Manila, where MacArthur and Krueger had limited bombardment purely to artillery. Any thoughts?" My answer got longer and longer and it is reproduced below. As I worked through the problem I realized that I was looking at one of the major forgotten campaigns of the Second World War.
General Tomoyuki Yamashita is probably best remembered as the man who captured British Malaya in ten weeks. In 1944 he braced himself to repel the inevitable assault of Douglas McArthur. Realizing that he could not fight the US Army on the plains of Luzon, he withdrew the bulk of his army to the subtropical Cordillera mountain range whose peaks soared to 10,000 foot altitudes. Here, he hoped to bleed McArthur's forces dry. Luzon was to become the scene of a gigantic clash of arms. Yet today it is largely forgotten.
"Did Baguio have to be destroyed? You should consult the 33d Division's historical website. This unit was principally engaged in taking Baguio, advancing as the hammer from the southwest while 37th division came up from the northwest. It's incomplete, but there's a reference to a book published in 1948 detailing the campaign. There's also a map which indicates the 33d's general plan to take Baguio. In general, the 33d and the Japanese were fighting for the ridges, along which the Americans had to advance to move on Baguio, itself the confluence of a series of ridges, as can easily be seen from a map. Once you are at Baguio City, any place away is down until you get to the larger massifs to the north.
The outer defenses of Baguio consisted of a bunch of hill and ridgetop positions designed to keep the 33d from reaching the Pugo river, from which they would begin their final climb to the inner ring of Baguio's defenses (Mirador and Observatory Hills). Pugo's defense depended on the retention of Hill 3000. If you read 33d's history, the main tactical problem facing the division was displacing artillery. The mountainous terrain and poor road network meant the axis of advance was extremely restricted. So the entire division essentially advanced along a battalion front. The 33d's commanders moved forward by creating an artillery fan and pushing a battalion along it's axis. Whenever Japanese resistance materialized, they would stop and clear the resistance with a combined artillery/infantry attack. Behind the US advance, the engineers struggled to widen the road and the US hired thousands of Igorot porters (mostly women) to carry up supplies, probably Class 1 (food etc) for the troops.
The Japanese, for their part, had long since hauled the artillery up into the Cordilleras and had existing dumps, so they did not have to drag their supply train along. It was already to hand. Their defensive tactics involved channeling US advances along the ridges, halt them with machinegun nests and from the vantage of high ground, direct Japanese artillery and mortar fire on them. Hence, the 33d would aim to take the highest terrain features using the infantry/artillery combo already mentioned. Practically every ridge and hilltop along the way was hammered with every artillery asset 33rd could obtain, the constraint being ammunition. This map illustrates how this battle for high ground developed.
Baguio's curse was that it was topographically no different from any other ridge top. The essential advantage of using 5th AF was that it could haul its own ammo. I doubt the 5th AF bombardment did much tactical good. The CEP of that era was probably about 200 meters and the only targets the pilots could realistically aim for were buildings along Session Road, but the infantry of that era used whatever it could get. Baguio itself was simply one strong point of what was simply one the largest defensive positions ever seen in the Pacific and possibly in the world.
This map shows the strategic disposition of Yamashita's force. He concentrated his force in central ridge of the Cordilleras, the meta ridge of ridges. Baguio was the lock which kept the Americans from climbing the southern end of the ridge towards his lofty positions. Yamashita probably hoped Krueger would be stupid enough to work his way north along the ridge on a one batt front. They would still have been fighting in 1948. However, 32d (Red Arrow) was assigned to to swing behind Yamashita on the east. Its divisional history is remarkably uninformative. But in general, 32d division's brief was to push into the gap between the Carballos and the Cordilleras, entering the Cagayan valley and by moving north along the valley deny Yamashita food from that source and use it as a highway to flank Yamashita's force. You can move faster on the valley floor than along those damned ridges; which is what 32d did. It moved laterally on the valley floor then went up it into the hills to cut Yamashita's metaridgeline position in several places. Yamashita could not move quickly enough along his own ridge position (remember he had displace men, munitions and ordnance to shadow the lowland movements of Red Arrow) and his strength was used against him. Pretty piece of work that.
Did Baguio actually have to be reduced to serve the purpose? As a pure map exercise involving maneuver forces, the answer is probably 'yes'. Krueger's idea would be to draw Yamashita south via the Baguio campaign, string him out along his own ridge then hit him with a flank attack from the Cagayan Valley. The alternative strategy would have been to simply besiege Yamashita in the Cordilleras and do nothing. Unfortunately, McArthur was already thinking of Coronet and Olympic (the invasion of Japan) and he needed the Northern Luzon US Army units for that operation (33d was actually deployed after the Baguio campaign for the assault on Japan). So siege was not an option for Krueger. All in all, Krueger did very well against a first class Japanese commander. Yamashita lost nearly a quarter of a million men on Luzon, 152,000 of them in the North, a number equal to half of von Paulus's entire loss at Stalingrad (300K). The Japanese lost 15 divisions in the Cordilleras. US KIA on Luzon were over 10,000 men, which is huge by today's standards but his kill ratio was absolutely phenomenal compared to Okinawa or even Vietnam two decades later."
One final question remains left over from this whole campaign: the fabled Treasure of Yamashita. US News and World report describes what has become a legend in its own right.
There are many versions of the tale, but the main elements are pretty standard. Beginning in the late 1930s in Manchuria and China, Japanese teams pillaged the countries they colonized, stripping them of the most precious metals and jewels. Ultimately, this hoard was loaded onto a Japanese ship, which sailed for the Philippines. The ship made land in the Philippines, the story goes, and Yamashita hid the riches on the island of Luzon ... The legend ignores several facts. Yamashita was never a favorite of the military clique running the war. He was cashiered by Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. In 1944, after Tojo was removed, Yamashita was dispatched to the Philippines. From December 1944 until he handed over his sword in September 1945, Yamashita had to relocate his headquarters at least six times, driven ever deeper into the mountains and the jungles by devastating U.S. air, land, and sea power. It's hard to see when he would have had time to hide all that gold.
Whatever historical spotlight remains on that old highland campaign has been usurped by this lurid tale, which is probably fiction. The astounding feats of American advance and Japanese resistance have themselves been forgotten.