Remembering the first Filipino military victory in World War II
On the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Bessang Pass, we honor its real heroes – the nameless farmers, soldiers, bolomen, haulers who supplied the fighters with ammunition, food and other war materials, and the brave Igorot volunteers who fought tooth and nail the fascist Japanese forces who entrenched themselves in the northern highlands.
By Arturo P. Garcia
As we commemorate the 107th Philippine Independence Day on June 12, we must also remember that on June 14, Filipino World War II veterans, especially those who fought in Northern Luzon, will commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the first Filipino military victory at the Battle of Bessang Pass (1945).
The event is particularly significant for the Filipinos who three years earlier witnessed the surrender of Bataan and Corregidor and the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese Imperial Forces in 1942.
The Battle of Bessang Pass was thus a sweet revenge for the Filipinos and Americans who participated in the three long years of war of resistance against the Japanese occupation forces.
A place in history
Bessang Pass is located in Cervantes, Ilocos Sur, a province more than 260 kms north of Manila. The area serves as a gateway to the Cordillera mountains and the city of Baguio.
Bessang Pass was the last stronghold of the Japanese imperial forces under Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, known as the “Tiger of Malaya” and conqueror of Singapore. It was part of the triangular defense of General Yamashita in the north, namely the Balete Pass, Villaverde Trail and Bessang Pass, guarding the Ifugao-Benguet-Vizcaya borders.
Its fall on the hands of the United States Armed Forces in the Philippines (USIFP-NL) on June 14, 1945 paved the way to the entrapment of Yamashita’s forces in the Cordillera until the general’s surrender in September 1945.
The USIFP-NL was of composed of five infantry regiments and a field artillery battalion of 20,000 officers who were all Filipinos except for five American officers. The latter included Col. Russell Volckman, its commanding officer. The troops bore the brunt of the fighting, sustaining over 2,000 casualties, including 600 men killed.
The units of the USFIP-NL that fought at the battle were the 121st, 15th , 66th and the Provisional infantry regiments. During the three long years of Japanese occupation, almost all of the forces of this command served as guerillas. Most of them also fought in Bataan and Corregidor. For them, this battle was a payback for all the dishonor they suffered during the surrender of the Philippines and for the atrocities the Japanese implicated on them.
They faced the crack 73rd Tora (Tiger) Division, the 79th brigade and the 357th Battalion led by Lt. General Yoshibaru Osaki. The Japanese forces fortified the hills and the ridges to stop any American offensive on their way to Baguio City and the Cordillera stronghold of Yamashita.
The Japanese forces withdrew from Manila and other areas of Luzon after sacking and destroying Manila with a pogrom of atrocities. The stay-behind-force of Japanese marines and Korean conscripts massacred more than 300,000 residents of south Manila and destroyed the city. Manila became the most devastated city after Warsaw gaining the moniker “The Warsaw of Asia.”
The initial fighting started in February 1945 around the town of Cervantes. At the same time, the 121st Infantry was driving out the Japanese in Tagudin, Ilocos Sur on the western lowlands of the Pass, the other guerilla forces were clearing Ilocos Norte, the rest of Ilocos and Abra around the Tangadan area. By March, the harder part of the battle commenced.
After liberating San Fernando, La Union, on March 29, the USFIP-NL forces started the all-out assault for Bessang Pass. Their advance was steady, gradual and costly. Without air support at first, they attacked persistently armed only with rifles, submachine guns and their sheer guts until the first week of April when air and artillery support became available.
On June 14, the units of 121st launched a final assault on Buccual Ridge and planted a symbolic flag made from a dirty green face towel.
The battle was the crowning glory of the battle exploits of the all-Filipino USFI-NL forces. The battle lasted for four months of protracted, fierce, relentless blood hand to hand combat with suicidal enemy.
On the real heroes of Bessang Pass
In 1982, when the brouhaha over the Japanese revision of the history of World War II exploded, dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in a rare press conference stated that “he was the real hero of the Battle of Bessang Pass.”