Aging veteran recalls Japanese bombing in Baguio on December 8,1941 that triggered WWII

MANILA -– Long before World War II broke out in the Philippines on December 8, 1941, Japan had already an elaborate preparation by posting an advance force of Fifth Columns embedded across the length of the archipelago. These Japanese spies disguised themselves as “traders” and “laborers” working hand-in-hand with unsuspecting Philippine society. It was a perfect cover which Japan had successfully used during their invasion of the Philippines.

While mingling with Filipinos from all walks of life, Japanese Fifth Columns developed friendship down to the grassroots that they even taught some of their Filipino friends martial arts, particularly judo which the Japanese are known for. These had enabled the Japanese to gather first-hand intelligence information such as the locations of US and Filipino troops, military installations, including vital communications networks. They sent this information back to Japan through coded messages.

When the actual invasion came, these “traders” and “laborers” turned out to be ranking officers of the Japanese Imperial Army who proudly wore their uniforms in public. The Japanese seized town after town with little resistance from the American and Filipino forces who were virtually caught off guarded similar to what happened to Pearl Harbor when Japanese planes mounted a sneak attack on the American naval airbase in Hawaii that prompted the United States to declare war with Japan.

But even before the Japanese invasion there had been endless and persistent reports that Japan was preparing to attack the Philippines. But the exact date was a 64-dollar question. Nevertheless, American forces stationed in the Philippines and the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines prepared a contingency plan by initiating a mobilization program across the archipelago.

One of those who volunteered for combat was Arnulfo Banez Jr., a 17 year-old first year college taking up Bachelor of Arts (AB-pre-medicine) at the University of the Philippines, Baguio. Now 92, Banez, a retired brigadier general of the Armed of the Philippines (AFP), wrote in his war memoirs how he and his guerrilla unit fought and survived the Japanese onslaught in the jungles of northern Luzon for over three years. He recalled the clandestine landing of weapons and ammunition shipped by a US submarine in the vast western coastlines of northern Luzon that greatly helped in crushing the last defense line held by Japanese forces of Gen. Yamashita in the final battle of Bessang Pass.

Like all other fresh college students, Banez was a cadet of the Reserve Officers Training Command (ROTC) when the war broke out. On that fateful day of December 8, 1941, he and his classmates were attending classes when they heard up in the sky a flickering sound of planes that became louder and louder. The familiar sound came from an aircraft since everyday they were used to hear the same sound from planes passing over the city.

“Thinking they were US warplanes conducting routine patrol after they took off from the nearby airbase, we abandoned our classes and went outside to view the planes. In fact, we cheered and jumped with joy as we waved our hands to the pilots,” Banez said.

“But suddenly we heard bomb explosions. For a moment we were stunned. I asked myself how come these planes, numbering five, drop bombs on us? Then a second bomb hit the gate of Camp John Hay, followed by another that hit one of the buildings inside.”

“This is it, this is war! The Japanese had invaded the Philippines!” Banez murmured. His heart was pounding fast. He looked around: “There was bedlam all over the place as people were hysterical and crying, running to various directions as they scampered to safety. Then the planes dropped two more bombs before winging southward. Sirens blared non-stop. I glanced at my watch it was 9:10 in the morning.”

As the planes vanished into the clouds, ambulances crisscrossed the streets bringing casualties to the hospitals. ”Fear still overwhelmed the faces of our countrymen as they craned their necks to see where the planes were. People went to their homes to pack their things as they prepared for evacuation deep into the rugged mountain forests of Baguio and Banawe.”

After making sure the Japanese warplanes were gone, Banez and his classmates regrouped as an ROTC unit. They went to the armory and took every gun that was available mostly Springfield rifles, some Garands and Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR), and .22 caliber revolvers. There were few grenades. “I was armed with a BAR and a bandolier of bullets with me. I also had a .22 caliber pistol and a grenade,” Banez said.

Dressed in black trousers with matching black polo shirts, they hastily formed as a ragtag fighting army. “Our first assignment was to secure the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) where there were some people inside, including PMA instructors and professors.”

“We were only a handful, but we went there as ordered by our superiors. We were all neophytes with no combat experience whatsoever except a short summer camp combat training. However, we were eager to fight for our country. Even those ROTC evaders joined our group. As I started to walk, many thoughts entered my mind such as would I survive the war? When would the war end? What would be my future? But I have to face reality and entrusted all my life to God. There was nothing I could do at that point.”

As Banez and his comrades accompanied the PMA personnel out of the school premises, “we saw thousands of teeming civilians, young and old – many of them crying – were also evacuating to Bontoc to the east where they would hide out of harm’s way, they thought. It was a back-breaking long journey with most of the evacuees walking. A few were riding aboard vehicles.”

“But also on Dec. 8, 1941, the Japanese had also made a beachhead landing in Cervantes and Vigan, all in Ilocos Sur. The regional headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary was located in Vigan, manned by a handful of soldiers, who put up a brief resistance. They were easily overrun by the Japanese. The small contingent of PC troopers were captured and brought to Formosa, making them the first Filipinos to become prisoners of war (POW) in World War II.”

“When the war broke out, Filipino troops were issued special expense booklet vouchers by the government which they could use to purchase food and other items. The government had vouched for the booklets which were good as cash. The expense booklet vouchers were similar to credit cards. We bought provisions in stores that we passed by along the way. Water was no problem. There were plenty of springs in the forests,” Banez said.

“As we continued our trek towards Bontoc, we saw troops from the Philippine Army blasting the road between Kiangan and Banawe to slowdown the advance of the Japanese. The long walk took us three days.”

“When we reached our destination we were dead tired. I found a grassy place where I placed my mat to sleep. I put my BAR and cartridges of 50 bullets beside me and slept soundly. But when I woke up the following morning, they were gone. Apparently my weapon, including the ammunition was carted away by our Igorot guide. The only weapon I had was a .22 caliber revolver.”

Destination Manila

After securing the safety of the PMA personnel, Banez planned to go to Manila to continue his studies at the University of the Philippines, Padre Faura, in Manila. “Manila at that time was already an open city under the Japanese occupation. I had the guts of enrolling at UP because I was not identified by the Japanese as a Filipino guerilla. I rode a truck and arrived in Manila on Dec. 27, 1941. The city was burning following a deadly battle between the Japanese and the combined American-Filipino forces. The Manila Cathedral was also ablazed. The whole city was in shambles as it was declared an open city.”

The 17-year old Banez proceeded to his uncle’s house in Paco in the heart of Manila, together with his friend Samuel Sarmiento (who later became the commanding general of the Philippine Air Force in the post war years with the rank of major general). After arriving at his uncle’s house, the two parted ways after saying good-bye to each other. They were uncertain if they would see each other again.

“As a ragtag fighting unit, the guerillas utterly lacked weapons, ammunition, two-way radios combat shoes and medicines. We have to take in stride the shortage of these badly needed armaments in fighting the well-equipped Japanese forces. Because we didn’t have radios, we could not communicate to other units, but we continued to fight and attack the enemy. Initially, the guerilla forces were not highly organized that in many occasions we launched our attack with little coordination. It was a situation we have to contend with at the start. Nevertheless, we survived somehow because of our determination to defeat the enemy. Despite our shortcomings we overran several Japanese detachments in La Union, Ilocos Sur and other areas surrounding Bessang Pass,” Gen. Banez said.

The guerillas were organized by provinces that speak the same dialects to avoid any miscommunication. Ilocano speaking guerillas grouped themselves and guerillas coming from Central Luzon and Manila and Southern Luzon who speak Tagalog have their own group.

“During the war, Tagalog, the Pilipino language, was not spoken in many parts of the country, but for us to understand each other we speak in English which can speak or at least understand,” he said.

“Our strategy was to launch an attack by squad. Some were armed with guns and some had bolos and we call them bolo men. They were mostly our runners, messengers and watchers in our outposts. But some of them acquired guns from Japanese who were slain in battle. Little by little many guerillas had their own firearms.”

Gen. Banez said that shortly after Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces landed in Leyte, the US submarines USS Gan 206 sneaked into the coast of San Fernando Bay in La Union on the western side of northern Luzon where they unloaded huge cache of weapons and ammunition for the guerillas. “All of us were jubilant. The arms landing boosted our firepower considerably. This also lifted our morale.”

The Liberation of La Union

Since the fall of Bataan on April 9, 1942, Filipino and American guerillas in northern Luzon had been fighting the Japanese in guerilla warfare though in a limited scale until the guerillas had acquired new weapons from the Americans in November1944.

With newly acquired weapons, the guerillas were emboldened to attack Japanese patrol and garrisons in La Union and other parts of northern Luzon. After the Americans landed in Leyte, Japanese forces retreated to the jungles but guerilla forces, supported by US warplanes, pursued relentlessly the enemy. The airstrikes boosted tremendously the guerillas firepower.

In his diary, Gen. Banez wrote that American warplanes bombed and strafed Japanese positions in many parts of northern Luzon, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy. La Union was heavily bombed. After the air bombardment, guerilla forces attacked Japanese positions with ferocity. But the Japanese stubbornly held their ground. The fight dragged on for several weeks.

“One of the classic battles was the attack on San Fernando Bay, Poro Point where the Japanese were well entrenched backed by three small tanks. The Japanese had occupied a strategic hill overlooking the San Fernando Bridge. The enemy tried to blow up the bridge to cut off or at least delay the advancing guerilla forces, but only one lane of the bridge was destroyed.”

“The fighting was unique in a sense that during the day, we (the guerillas) controlled the town because the Japanese had gone in hiding in a forested area. We tried to look for them but could not locate their clandestine hiding place,” Gen. Banez, then a corporal in the guerilla force, said.

“But as darkness fell, the Japanese with their three small tanks roamed the place and controlled the whole area. The tanks were armed with the deadly .37mm cannons each. They patrolled the whole town proper and its periphery looking for us. As soon we heard the rumblings of the tanks engines we ran for our lives. It was scary. Some of us were not so lucky. The tanks patrolled from dusk to dawn before returning to their enclave,” Gen. Banez said.

“Every time we tried to follow the tanks to find their hideout, we backed off once the Japanese fired their cannons. We had to be very careful not to be within the firing range. Nevertheless, we continued to pursue with utmost caution when finally we found their clandestine hideout which was near a water reservoir uphill north of the Carlatan Bridge. It was a strategic position overlooking the bridge and adjoining areas.”

“Destroying the tanks had been our obsession. That opportunity came when we captured a 37mm cannon left behind by the Japanese following a firefight. We positioned the captured cannon on the side of the road near the hideout of the tanks. Our plan was to open fire as soon as the tank popped out from their hideout. But our problem was the cannon had no steel mounting neither a sight. We have no choice but to use it as our only anti-tank weapon. As soon as the tanks were on sight we fired, then scampered before the Japs could retaliate. We did not hit any of the tanks.”

“Before we knew it, the tanks were chasing us. We scampered to different directions. This had been almost a daily routine for several weeks. It was virtually a cat-and-mouse game. But it was the only way to fight the heavily armed Japanese. The enemy who occupied a vantage point built pillboxes at their enclave which had a tunnel from uphill connecting to the ground. The exit was in the southern part of San Fernando leading to Bacsil district.”

“The fight had to be sustained. We had burned our bridges. One guerilla officer who led the offensive was Capt. Pio Escober, commanding officer of the Company “K”, 3rd Battalion of the 121st Regiment. “Capt. Escobar’s brand of leadership was very encouraging that we scored victory after victory against the Japanese who were on the retreat,” Gen. Banez said.

“I was the machine gunner of the unit. I was armed with a .30 caliber machine gun. But the machine gun had no tripod, and I had difficulty controlling it every time I fired. But it was enough for the enemy to know that we had some firepower.”

“The Japanese were strategically located uphill and were well-entrenched. We have to go up to fight them. During the firefight the Japanese just rolled their grenades at us as we were in crawling position on the slope of the mountain.”

At the height of the fighting, Banez hid behind a rock. “I placed the machine gun above it and fired blindly at the direction of the Japanese. Whether I hit them, I do not know. I could not stand and fire because I would expose myself to enemy gunfire. During the fighting we were supported by US warplanes and artillery fire.”

“The air strikes enabled us to advance as the Japanese were in disarray, leaving many of their weapons behind as they scampered to several directions. American pilots were so accurate in their bombing runs. Considering the intensity of the fighting, the Japanese were running out of bullets. US pilots were virtually unchallenged, unlike on Dec.8, 1941 when the Japanese destroyed almost all US planes on the ground at Clark Air Base in Pampanga like sitting ducks. . That horrible scenario was still fresh on my mind,” Banez said.

“But this time it was different. The situation was the reverse. We were winning and the Japanese being clobbered. At the height of the offensive, the Americans established an air control team in the town of San Fernando whose function was to guide US planes in their flying combat sorties.”

“The Americans asked us (guerillas) to track down the hiding place of the three Japanese tanks. We immediately carried out the order. Despite the present and imminent danger that we faced, we went to the town plaza to entice the Japanese to get us. It worked though it was very risky, but that was the only way to bait the Japanese. As soon as the Japanese tanks arrived at the plaza they fired their machine guns followed by a series of salvos from their .37mm guns. We also fired but once mini cannon before we broke out. We did not hit any of the tanks as they rumbled to get us. But we ran as fast as we could,” he said.

The intermittent battle went throughout the night until the wee hours in the morning the following day. By 4 a.m. the tanks rumbled down the road’s plaza as they returned to their enclave several kilometers away north of San Fernando.

“We secretly followed them and was able to pinpoint their exact location in an uphill area near the water reservoir. We reported our findings to the American air control team who thanked us profusely for the good intelligence information,” Gen. Banez related.

Early that morning, American planes took off from a US aircraft carrier patrolling off China Sea to attack the three Japanese tanks. “The weather was just perfect. We took our binoculars and scanned the clear blue sky in search for the first wave of US aircraft in the horizon. A few minutes later, we heard the sound of aircraft coming from the western flank. “We watched intently as the planes flew over the area. The pilots apparently were sizing up their target before they strike,” Gen. Banez said.

“The first plane dropped napalm bombs, followed by another. At the blink of an eye a wide area was ablaze. So deadly was the napalm bomb that the three Japanese tanks were destroyed and the six Japanese manning the tanks, two for each tank were burned alive.”

“After the smoke of battle was clear, we went to the area and discovered the charred remains of the six crew members underneath their tanks apparently in a last ditch effort to protect themselves from the air strike,” he said.

The guerillas proceeded to Poro Point where they found a half submerged Japanese’s transport ship. “We spotted a Japanese navy enlisted man all dressed in white uniform, but he was not carrying any weapon. He raised his hands in surrender. The area was used by the Japanese as their command post throughout the war.”

“From Poro Point, we proceeded inland where we saw mass graves on the roadside, but many of the corpses were not buried. Some of them were left rotting inside rows of houses emitting foul odor. Some of the battle casualties were women whose remains were already in the advanced state of decomposition, their long hair stuck in windows. It was a terrible sight,” Banez said.

The fighting in San Fernando was just one of the many battles the guerillas had scored against the retreating Japanese while pushing their way towards their main objective – Bessang Pass.

The series of victories had bolstered the self-confidence and determination of the once ragtag guerilla unit that had been transformed into a well-oiled fighting machine after receiving a shipment of new weapons and ammunition transported secretly by US submarines. Ben Cal/