Robert Ross Smith



Iwabuchi Entrapped

Although patently determined at the end of January to defend Manila to the last, Admiral Iwabuchi apparently wavered in his resolution during the week or so following the arrival of the first American troops in the city.1 On the morning of 9 February, two days after the 37th Division began crossing the Pasig, the admiral decided that his position in the Manila area had deteriorated so rapidly and completely that he should devote some attention to evacuating his remaining forces. Accordingly, he moved his headquarters to Fort McKinley, evidently planning to direct a withdrawal from that relatively safe vantage point. This transfer precipitated a series of incidents that vividly illustrates the anomalies of the Japanese command structure in the metropolitan area.

About the same time that Iwabuchi moved to Fort McKinley, the first definite information about the course of the battle in Manila reached General Yokoyama's Shimbu Group headquarters. The Shimbu commander immediately began planning a counterattack, the multiple aims and complicated preparation of which suggest that Yokoyama had so little information that he could not make up his mind quite what he wanted to, or could, accomplish.

Estimating the strength of the Americans in the Manila area at little more than a regiment, General Yokoyama apparently felt that he had a good opportunity to cut off and isolate the Allied force. Conversely, he was also interested in getting the Manila Naval Defense Force out of the city quickly, either by opening a line of retreat or by having Iwabuchi co-ordinate a breakthrough effort with a Shimbu Group counterattack, scheduled for the night of 16-17 February. Not knowing how far the situation in Manila had deteriorated--communications were faulty and Admiral Iwabuchi had supplied Yokoyama with little information--Yokoyama at first directed the Manila Naval Defense Force to hold fast. The question of a general withdrawal, he told Iwabuchi, would be held in abeyance pending the outcome of the counterattack.

There is no indication that the Shimbu Group commander intended to reinforce or retake Manila. Rather, his primary interest was to gain time for the Shimbu Group to strengthen its defenses north and northeast of the city and to move more supplies out of the city to its mountain strongholds, simultaneously creating a good opportunity for the Manila Naval Defense Force to withdraw intact.

Such was the state of communications between Iwabuchi and Yokoyama that Iwabuchi had decided to return to Manila before he received any word of the counterattack plans. When Admiral Iwabuchi left Manila he had placed Colonel Noguchi, the Northern Force commander, in control of all troops remaining within the city limits. Noguchi found it impossible to exercise effective control over the naval elements of his command and asked that a senior naval officer return to the city. Iwabuchi, who now feared that Fort McKinley might fall to the Americans before the defenses within the city, himself felt compelled to return, a step he took on the morning of 11 February.

On or about 13 February, General Yokoyama, having received more information, decided that the situation in Manila was beyond repair, and directed Iwabuchi to return to Fort McKinley and start withdrawing his troops immediately, without awaiting the Shimbu Group counterattack. Two days later General Yamashita, from his Baguio command post 125 miles to the north, stepped into the picture. Censuring General Yokoyama, the 14th Area Army commander first demanded to know why Admiral Iwabuchi had been permitted to return to the city and second directed Yokoyama to get all troops out of Manila immediately.

Not until the morning of 17 February did Iwabuchi receive Yokoyama's directive of the 13th and Yamashita's orders of the 15th. By those dates XIV Corps had cut all Japanese routes of withdrawal, a fact that was readily apparent to Admiral Iwabuchi. As a result, he made no attempt to get any troops out of the city under the cover of the Shimbu Group's counterattack, which was just as well, since that effort was unsuccessful.

Yokoyama had planned to counterattack with two columns. On the north, a force composed of two battalions of the 31st Infantry, 8th Division, and two provisional infantry battalions from the105th Division was to strike across the Marikina River from the center of the Shimbu Group's defenses, aiming at Novaliches Dam and Route 3 north of Manila.2 The southern prong, consisting of three provisional infantry battalions of the Kobayashi Force--formerly the Army's Manila Defense Force--were to drive across the Marikina toward the Balara Water Filters and establish contact with the northern wing in the vicinity of Grace Park.

The 112th Cavalry RCT, which had replaced the 12th Cavalry along the 1st Cavalry Division's line of communications, broke up the northern wing's counterattack between 15 and 18 February. In the Novaliches-Novaliches Dam area, and in a series of skirmishes further west and northwest, the 112th Cavalry RCT dispatched some 300 Japanese, losing only 2 men killed and 32 wounded. Un-co-ordinated from the start, the northern counterattack turned into a shambles, and the northern attack force withdrew in a disorganized manner before it accomplished anything.

The Kobayashi Force's effort was turned back on the morning of the 16th, when American artillery caught this southern wing as it attempted to cross the Marikina River. During the next three days all Japanese attacks were piecemeal in nature and were thrown back with little difficulty by the 7th and 8th Cavalry Regiments, operating east and northeast of Manila. By 19 February, when the southern counterattack force also withdrew, the 2d Cavalry Brigade and support artillery had killed about 650 Japanese in the area west of the Marikina from Novaliches Dam south to the Pasig. The brigade lost about 15 men killed and 50 wounded.

The fact that the counterattack was completely unsuccessful in either cutting the XIV Corps lines of communications or opening a route of withdrawal for the Manila Naval Defense Force does not seem to have greatly concerned or surprised General Yokoyama. He did not have much hope of success from the beginning, and, indeed, his ardor for the venture was undoubtedly dampened by Admiral Iwabuchi's adamant attitude about making any further attempt to withdraw from the city, an attitude the admiral made amply clear on the morning of the 17th, the very day that the counterattack was to have reached its peak of penetration.

That morning Iwabuchi, truthfully enough, informed Yokoyama that withdrawal of the bulk of his forces from Manila was no longer possible. He went on to say that he still considered the defense of Manila to be of utmost importance and that he could not continue organized operations in the city should he attempt to move his headquarters or any other portion of his forces out. Again on 19 and 21 February Yokoyama directed Iwabuchi to withdraw. Iwabuchi was unmoved, replying that withdrawal would result in quick annihilation of the forces making the attempt, whereas continued resistance within the city would result in heavy losses to the attacking American forces. General Yokoyama suggested that Iwabuchi undertake night withdrawals by infiltrating small groups of men through the American lines. Past experience throughout the Pacific war, the Shimbu Group commander went on, had proven the feasibility of such undertakings. There was no recorded answer to this message, and on 23 February all communication between the Shimbu Group and the Manila Naval Defense Force ceased. Admiral Iwabuchi had made his bed, and he was to die in it.

Meanwhile, the fighting within Manila had raged unabated as XIV Corps compressed the Japanese into an ever decreasing area. Outside, the 11th Airborne Division had cut off the Southern Force's Abe Battalion on high ground at Mabato Point, on the northwest shore of Laguna de Bay. There, between 14 and 18 February, a battalion-sized guerrilla force under Maj. John D. Vanderpool, a special agent sent to Luzon by GHQ SWPA in October 1944, contained the Japanese unit.3 From 18 through 23 February an 11th Airborne Division task force, composed of three infantry battalions closely supported by artillery, tank destroyers, and Marine Corps SBD's, besieged the Abe Battalion. In this final action the Japanese unit lost about 750 men killed; the 11th Airborne Division lost less than 10 men killed and 50 wounded--the burden of the attack had been borne principally by the artillery and air support elements. The Abe Battalion's final stand made no tactical sense, and at least until 14 February the unit could have escaped northeastward practically unmolested.4

The 4th Naval Battalion, cut off at Fort McKinley when the 5th and 12th Cavalry Regiments pushed to Manila Bay, played the game a bit more shrewdly. From 13 through 19 February elements of the 11th Airborne Division, coming northeast from the Nichols Field area, and troops of the 1st Cavalry Brigade, moving east along the south bank of the Pasig River, cleared all the approaches to Fort McKinley in a series of patrol actions. When, on the 19th, troops of the 11th Airborne and elements of the 1st Cavalry Division completed the occupation of the Fort McKinley area, they found that the bulk of the Japanese had fled. Whether by Iwabuchi's authority or not, the 4th Naval Battalion, together with remnants of the 3d Naval Battalion from Nichols Field, had withdrawn eastward toward the Shimbu Group's main defenses during the night of 17-18 February. Some 300 survivors of the 3d Naval Battalion thus escaped, while the4th probably managed to evacuate about 1,000 men of its original strength of nearly 1,400.5

Inside the city, as of 12 February, Admiral Iwabuchi still had under his control his Central Force (1st and 2d Naval Battalions), the Headquarters Sector Unit, the 5th Naval Battalion, theNorthern Force's 3d Provisional Infantry Battalion and service units, remnants of Colonel Noguchi's 2d Provisional Infantry Battalion, and, finally, the many miscellaneous naval "attached units." The 37th Division had decimated the 1st Naval Battalion at Provisor Island and during the fighting through Paco and Pandacan Districts; the 2d Provisional Infantry Battalion had lost heavily in action against the 1st Cavalry and 37th Divisions north of the Pasig; the 2d Naval Battalion, originally holding the extreme southern section of the city, had lost considerable strength to the 1st Cavalry Brigade and the 11th Airborne Division; all the rest of the Japanese units had suffered losses from American artillery and mortar fire. The total strength now available to Iwabuchi within Manila probably numbered no more than 6,000 troops.

Perhaps more serious, from Iwabuchi's point of view, were the Japanese heavy weapons losses. By 12 February XIV Corps had destroyed almost all his artillery. Carefully laid American artillery and mortar fire was rapidly knocking out his remaining mortars as well as all machine guns except for those emplaced well within fortified buildings. Soon Iwabuchi's men would be reduced to fighting principally with light machine guns, rifles, and hand grenades. Even so, they were to demonstrate that they were capable of conducting a most tenacious and fanatic defense.