Leyte 1944:
First Cavalry Division

The U.S. Army entered the Second World War with only a handful of divisions ready for combat. John Herr, chief of the Cavalry Branch, had prepared the 1st Cavalry Division for war, but Chief of Staff George C. Marshall saw no place for mounted troops on the modern battlefield. The cavalry would spend the first year of the war at Fort Bliss, Texas, deploying to patrol the Rio Grande.

The division participated in the 1942 summer maneuvers in Louisiana, and provided a cadre of officers and men to form the 91st Infantry Division. But Marshall and his staff remained reluctant to ship thousands of horses across the Atlantic, and then a steady supply of remounts to follow. The cavalry division had no role in war plans, except as a reaction force against fanciful notions of a German landing in Brazil.

That changed in February 1943. Denied the additional infantry divisions he sought, Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted the 1st Cavalry Division for service in the South-West Pacific, provided that it arrive dismounted and fight as infantry. The cavalry regiments held ceremonies to hand in their horses, and reorganization began.

The 7th Cavalry Regiment outside of Fort Bliss, before the war.

The division would keep its basic structure of two brigades, each of two regiments, each in turn of two battalion-sized squadrons. The squadrons, however, saw a major change, moving from three to four company-sized troops, with the new troop handling heavy weapons – machine guns and mortars. That matched the structure of a standard infantry battalion. The troops now followed the structure of an infantry company, with three rifle platoons and one weapons platoon. Farriers, sadlers and other specialists in horse care now found their companies converted into supply units.

That meant some changes in armament; the cavalrymen had to give up most of the M2 .50-caliber heavy machine guns that had equipped their heavy weapons platoons, switching to the standard .30-caliber medium machine guns wielded by the infantry. On the other hand, they received more 81mm mortars under the new tables, as well as the less-useful 60mm light mortars.

Not a horse in sight as the 1st Cavalry Division parades through Brisbane, 1943.

In October 1943 the division artillery expanded from three battalions to the standard four; initially two of the battalions had 75mm pack howitzers and two had the ubiquitous 105mm piece; by the time the division landed in the Philippines all four battalions had 105mm howitzers (and none with the 155mm medium howitzer; an independent 155mm battalion would be attached later). The four cavalry regiments also lacked the cannon companies of a standard infantry division (which in the Philippines had M8 Scott assault guns with 75mm short-barreled howitzers rather than the “short” M3 version of the 105mm that infantry divisions fielded in Europe).

The division continued to use cavalry terminology for its units and soldiers (‘troopers”), helping to build cohesion and morale. A detachment of six Lakota Sioux “code talkers” joined the recon squadron as well, often helping support the 7th Cavalry Regiment destroyed by their grandfathers.

After three months of reorganization and familiarization, the division moved to San Francisco for shipment to the Pacific front lines. More training followed in Australia, and the division moved to New Guinea in January for practice with landing craft operations before assaulting Los Negros in the Admiralty Islands on the last day of February. Los Negros controlled a strategic anchorage north of New Guinea, and while the Japanese intended to defend it, they had misjudged the American landing zone. That allowed the cavalry to initially get ashore, but hard fighting followed until May 1944.

American cavalrymen come ashore on Los Negros. 29 February 1944.

The cavalry fought well in the Admiralties, as one might expect for a division with such an extended training period. They suffered just under 1,300 casualties, or about 10 percent of the undersized division. The division camped in the Admiralties for the next five months, absorbing replacements and training for their next operation, the assault landings on Leyte in the Philippines.

During that five-month lull, the Army chose not to re-organize its lone cavalry division, leaving its understrength order of battle (eight infantry battalions rather than the usual nine) intact. One cavalry regiment would be detached during the Leyte campaign to land on Samar, with the Texas National Guard’s 112th Cavalry Regiment attached to the 1st Cavalry Division to bring it back up to strength.

On 19 October 1944, newly-promoted division commander Verne D. Mudge’s cavalry landed on the northern end of the American assault beaches on Leyte, with the objective of the nearby city of Tacloban. They fought among the jungle-covered mountains for the next four months, with no meaningful break before they boarded landing craft for the assault in Lingayen Gulf on the northern end of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines.

Japanese strength in the Philippines had been broken on Leyte, and the cavalry made much better progress in this campaign. Landing on 27 January, by 3 February they had reached the outskirts of Manila and liberated 4,000 civilian prisoners from the camp at Santo Tomas. Troopers from the 1st Cavalry Division also secured both the “Philippine White House,” Malacanang Palace, and the San Miguel Brewery before Japanese demolition teams could blow them up.

1st Cavalry Division troopers on Leyte, 1944.

That was the easy part. Tomoyuki Yamashita, commanding Japanese troops in the Philippines, ordered his troops to withdraw from the city. But Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi, commanding the naval troops in the city, ignored Yamashita and undertook a fanatic defense of every street, every building and every separate room. When not fighting the Americans, Iwabuchi’s troops rampaged through the city raping and murdering Filipino civilians. At least 100,000 civilians died as a result, on top of those killed due to the fighting. Iwabuchi committed suicide just before the city fell; Yamashita would be hanged after the war chiefly for Iwabuchi’s ghastly crimes.

With Manila declared secured on 3 March, a month after the Americans arrived, the fighting shifted south of the city and 1st Cavalry Division continued its advance. Combat on Luzon finally ended on 30 June 1945, and after a brief rest the 1st Cavalry Division began amphibious training for Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu in the Japanese home islands. The cavalry would have been in the first wave, and were expected to suffer enormous casualties. But the use of atomic weapons on Japanese cities convinced Emperor Hirohito to surrender, and the division landed in Japan as occupation troops rather than invaders.

Soon afterwards, the division re-organized again, a tacit admission that sentimentality rather than practicality had kept its unusual two-brigade, four-regiment organization intact. The 12th Cavalry Regiment was resolved, and the remaining three regiments formed into standard three-battalion infantry regiments. The cavalry regiments kept their names and heritage, but all units below them reverted to the usual Army jargon – battalions and companies.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his new puppy. He will never forget his dog, Leopold.

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