Scenario Preview, Part Four
The American liberation of the Philippines would be accomplished almost exclusively by U.S. Army troops. Neither the Marines nor the Australians wanted their divisions commanded by Douglas MacArthur.
While the U.S. Army had plenty of troops available for the operation, and the Navy could provide the sealift for them and their supplies, the campaign revealed a number of problems. Where the Marines and Australians had learned a healthy respect for their Japanese opponents and sought answers in the form of heavier infantry firepower, the Army lagged behind. Several Army units displayed serious command problems that could no longer be excused after three years of war. The roster of Medals of Honor and other awards for bravery, shot through with stories of insane courage, shows that the U.S. Army had no shortage of brave men. On Leyte they were too often ill-served by the upper command echelons.
The Japanese higher command helped assure that those mistakes would not prove fatal. Japanese operational decision-making was for the most part based on magical thinking and deliberate self-delusion. On the ground the troops fought well, and won a surprising number of tactical victories. Those weren’t enough to prevent the total destruction of Japan’s 35th Army.
Let’s take a look at some more of those battles, as portrayed in Panzer Grenadier: Leyte 1944.
A Green Division
The 96th Infantry Division, an Army Reserve outfit from Washington and Oregon, had been activated in August 1942 but had yet to see action. The assistant division commander, Claudius M. Easley, placed an emphasis on marksmanship training and the unit became known as the Deadeye Division; excellence on the firing range did not, initially, translate into battlefield success and the 96th Infantry Division turned in a mediocre performance on Leyte.
That would change in the division’s second and final campaign. The division staff apparently took the lessons learned on Leyte to heart and spent the months after the campaign ended bringing their division to a higher standard. Easley would be killed in action on Okinawa and four men would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
22 October 1944
By landing just north of Dulag in the midst of swamps, the 96th Infantry Division avoided Japanese defenses and came ashore virtually without opposition. The Japanese had dug in just to the north, in and around the ridges known as Labiranan Head, and the Americans had to turn and deal with them. The first attempt failed, and after a hefty bombardment by airplanes and naval guns, they came on again a day later.
Supported by massive artillery barrages, the Americans made slow progress through the Japanese positions. They finally reached the crest of the hill but could not eject all of the Japanese from their entrenchments. But operations on the landward flank assured that the Japanese could not remain on Labiranan Head, and they withdrew before they could be isolated there.
There aren’t a lot of Japanese, but they hold the high ground and have well-fortified positions. This close to the beaches, the Americans have overwhelming artillery support and they aren’t afraid to use it.
25 October 1944
Aslum, a small but dense village - a barangay to Filipinos - lay on the road to Tabontabon, one of 96th Infantry Division’s objectives. The Americans had to slog their way through swamps to even reach the road and the barangay, only to find that the Japanese had fortified its handful of buildings and added concrete positions around it. With tank assistance, the green American infantry went forward.
Tank support made the difference, as the green infantry gladly went forward when accompanied by armor. The Shermans did the heavy lifting, knocking out at least five concrete emplacements to allow the infantry to surge into the village and drive out the defenders.
The Americans have impressive numbers, but they also have an impressively high bar to victory. The Japanese are well-protected with caves and entrenchments, so the Americans are going to need all of those troops and tanks.
San Vicente Hill
26 October 1944
With the 96th Infantry Division held up by strong resistance in the Catmon Hills, its 383rd Infantry Regiment tried to outflank those defenses by taking San Vicente Hill at the north-western end of the rise. After a brief and ineffective artillery bombardment, Lt. Col. James McCray sent a single reinforced company from his 2nd Battalion up the slopes.
McCray joined the company command post as the attack began; his troops advanced as the Japanese rained down mortar, machine gun and rifle fire and men began to fall. The wounded cried for help, and Japanese soldiers ventured out of their hidden fighting positions to bayonet them. Unnerved by the screams of the murdered wounded, McCray left the command post under heavy sniper fire to drag them out of harm’s way. At some point he was shot and killed, but in his absence the directionless attack had fallen apart. The battalion had hundreds of brave men who could have rescued the wounded, but only one who could command it.
This is just a small scenario, and the Americans have a very tough task, having to seize a hilltop from a Japanese force or more or less equal size (keep in mind that American firepower gives them an edge even when the odds are “even”). Col. McCray violated an ancient military maxim, and paid for it with his own life and likely those of others.
Crossroads of Death
27 October 1944
Four roads came together at the town of Tabontabon, prompting the Japanese to establish a supply depot there. Filipino guerillas reported the buildup, as well as the troops gathering to defend it and the fortifications that housed them. Despite good intelligence, the depth of the Japanese defenses appears to have surprised the American division and regimental staffs.
The American assault failed to capture the town on this first attempt; the assault guns of the regimental Cannon Company could not locate many the Japanese positions camouflaged in the tall grasses and the troops suffered in the heat. An ill-considered Japanese nighttime counter-attack made no headway at the cost of heavy casualties, and those losses helped the Americans capture the town on the following morning.
A lot of troops get jammed into a very small place, with the M8 “Scott” assault guns that equipped the Cannon Companies of regiments on Leyte taking the lead for the American assault. The Japanese defense is tough enough that they won the actual historical engagement, at least in game terms.
The Kiling Zone
27 October 1944
Turning inland after driving slowly up the coast to link up with scouts from XXIV Corps, the 96th Infantry Division’s 381 Infantry Regiment marched on the town of Kiling. Kiling blocked the way to the crossroads at Dagami, whose fall would endanger the troops facing 7th Infantry Division to the south-west. And so the Japanese mounted a determined defense of Kiling, while the Americans committed special weapons of their own.
American firepower accounted for most of the Japanese prepared positions on the road to Kiling, but was not enough to actually capture the town. The Japanese held out for three more days, when the 7th Infantry Division’s capture of Dagami threatened to isolate them between the two American divisions. The Japanese 9th Infantry Regiment hurriedly withdrew from Kiling to join the defense of the mountain line to the west.
This was another Japanese victory in game terms; the 96th Infantry Division had a very difficult baptism of fire on Leyte. The Americans have the numbers and they have armor, but they left their artillery on the other side of the swamp. They’re going to have to dig the Japanese out of their positions the hard way.
3 November 1944
With 7th Infantry Division shifting south to press its way over the mountains to Baybay on Leyte’s west coast, 96th Infantry Division took over some of the positions it had won during the October fighting. West of Dagami, the 382nd Infantry Regiment relieved 17th Infantry, and came under fire from a Japanese-occupied height quickly labeled “Bloody Ridge.” The regiment set out to relieve this problem by capturing the ridge.
The attack turned into a disaster as the American infantrymen became mired in the rice paddies where the Japanese killed them at their leisure. “Men threw away their packs, machine guns, radios and even rifles,” the division history admitted. “Some of the wounded gave up the struggle to keep their heads above the water and drowned in the grasping swamp.”
The U.S. Army had expanded very quickly to fight this war. American soldiers spoke of “eight-ball divisions,” outfits that seemed cursed but, as the troops knew, lacked the necessary leadership or training or both. This action was likewise hard on the Deadeye Division. They can actually approach the Japanese positions without wading through the rice paddies - as was true in the actual operation - but there aren’t many such routes and of course the Japanese know exactly where they are and will have positioned their heavy weapons accordingly.
And that’s Chapter Four. Next up, Chapter Five.
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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 eleventy-million books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, his dog Leopold and Egbert the pet turkey.