Holding the Road to Bataan

On 30 December 1941 the Philippine Commonwealth reaffirmed its faith in the future with the inauguration of President-elect Manuel Quezon at a brief ceremony on the island fortress of Corregidor. Across the bay, the American and Filipino troops were making ready for their last stand before withdrawing to Bataan. Despite Quezon's brave inaugural words, the future of the nascent republic never appeared darker.1

Almost all of the troops on Luzon were now north of Manila. The North Luzon Force stood on the D-5 line, from Bamban to Arayat, in front of San Fernando and the road leading into Bataan. (Map 8) Fifteen to twenty miles long, this line was the shortest of the five defensive lines used by General Wainwright's forces. Guarded on the left (west) by the steep heights of the Zambales Mountains and on the right by the rugged 3,367-foot high Mt. Arayat and the twenty-mile-long Candaba Swamp, it was susceptible only to frontal attack by the Japanese force moving south from Tarlac along Route 3.

Ten miles south of Bamban, the west anchor of the D-5 line, an unimproved road, Route 74, branched off from Route 3 to the southwest to give access to Bataan. The main road into the peninsula, Route 7, began at San Fernando, ten miles farther south. Troops north and south of San Fernando would have to pass through that town to get to Bataan; only the left elements of the troops on the D-5 line would be able to use Route 74.

General Homma's main striking force was not aimed at the D-5 line, but at Manila. This force, which had broken through at Cabanatuan on the 30th, was moving rapidly down Route 5, east of the Candaba Swamp. Once it reached Plaridel, where a road led westward to Route 3, it would be only a short distance east of the two bridges at Calumpit. If the Japanese secured Plaridel and the bridges quickly enough, they would cut off the retreat of the troops still south of Calumpit and, by gaining a position west of the Pampanga River in the rear of the D-5 line, compromise the execution of the withdrawal into Bataan.

General MacArthur had foreseen this contingency as soon as the Japanese had broken through at Cabanatuan and had quickly sent reinforcements from the North and South Luzon Forces to hold Plaridel and the road to the north as far as Baliuag. Defending Plaridel was as essential to his plan for withdrawal to Bataan as holding the D-5 line. Possession of this barrio meant that the Calumpit bridges over which the forces east of the Pampanga must pass to get to San Fernando were safe. The task of the forces on Luzon was, then, twofold: to hold in the north along the D-5 line and on the east at Plaridel. Failure to


Map:  Holding the Road to Bataan, 31 December 1941-1 January 1942



Photo:  Mount Arayat, looking west

MOUNT ARAYAT, looking west.

hold long enough at either point spelled the doom of the entire plan.

The Defense of Calumpit

For the defense of the Calumpit bridges MacArthur placed every unit that could be spared east of the Pampanga. From the South Luzon Force came the 51st Infantry (less 1st Battalion) and the 75-mm. guns of Colonel Babcock's SPM provisional battalion, both stationed at Plaridel. The 194th Tank Battalion (less Company C) was posted at Apalit, on the west bank of the Pampanga two miles above Calumpit, in position "to insure the exit" of those forces east of the river. If necessary, the tank battalion was to move to Bocaue, between Manila and Plaridel, to reinforce Company C, part of the South Luzon Force, which was to hold that barrio "until the extrication of North and South Luzon Forces was insured."2 At least one company of the 192d Tank Battalion was in the Plaridel-Baliuag area.

The 91st Division, retreating down Route 5 from Cabanatuan, reached Baliuag at daybreak of the 31st. It was joined shortly by elements of the 71st Division- the 71st Field Artillery and the 71st and 72d Infantry-which had been ordered there the night before by General Wainwright. The 71st Division units took up positions north of Baliuag and the 91st Division went into reserve south of the town.


Before 1000 Wainwright's headquarters warned the two divisions that they would have to withdraw from Baliuag in time to clear the Calumpit bridges, nine miles away, by 0400 the next morning.3

At approximately 1000 that morning, General Sutherland, MacArthur's chief of staff, telephoned Jones, commander of the South Luzon Force, and placed him in command of all forces east of the Pampanga. In effect, this made Jones commander of the troops holding the Calumpit bridges. Sutherland ordered Jones to hold the bridges until the 1st Brigade (PC) had passed over and warned him that all troops would have to be west of the Pampanga River by 0600 of 1 January, for at that time the bridges would be blown. Apparently General Wainwright was not informed of the change in command.4

The Fight for Plaridel

The defense of the Baliuag-Plaridel area was of the greatest importance. Baliuag, a town of rambling houses and nipa huts scattered along Route 5 and the north bank of the Angat River, commands the approaches to Plaridel, six miles to the south. Plaridel is located at the intersection of Route 5 and several secondary roads, two of which extend along opposite banks of the Angat River to Route 3 and the Calumpit bridges, some eight miles to the northwest. The South Luzon Force and those elements of the North Luzon Force in the area would have to pass through Plaridel and along these secondary roads to cross the Calumpit bridges. South of Plaridel lay the invader's route to Manila.

General Tsuchibashi, 48th Division commander, was fully aware of the importance of Calumpit and the Baliuag-Plaridel area. On the 30th he had ordered two tank regiments and a battalion of infantry to advance from Cabanatuan to the Angat River and cut the route from Manila to San Fernando. This force, led by Col. Seinosuke Sonoda, commander of the 7th Tank Regiment, and assisted by a company of engineers to repair roads and bridges, was marching unopposed down Route 5 toward Plaridel on the night of the 30th.5

On the morning of 31 December an advance detachment of Colonel Sonoda's force reached the outskirts of Baliuag. The engineers, protected by tanks, attempted to repair the bridge across the stream north of the town, but were met by fire from the 71st Field Artillery. Shortly after, the enemy tanks were brought under fire by a platoon of Company C, 192d Tank Battalion, which lay in concealed positions below the stream. The Japanese broke off the action and withdrew to the east where they effected a crossing around noon. It was at this time that the 91st Division left its reserve position below Baliuag and started for Bataan, leaving the 71st Division elements alone in the town.6


By 1330 the Japanese tanks had reached the eastern outskirts of Baliuag and were awaiting infantry reinforcements before making an all out assault against the town. Meanwhile, the 71st Infantry prepared to pull out of Baliuag in accordance with orders. The two infantry regiments and the engineers left in buses around 1400, but the artillery regiment remained behind.7

At about this time General Wainwright arrived at Jones's command post in the Plaridel schoolhouse. The North Luzon Force commander, unaware of the fact that Jones now commanded all troops east of the Pampanga, ordered him to take up positions for a close-in, perimeter defense of the Calumpit bridge. Jones informed Wainwright of his orders from Sutherland and explained that he intended to hold the enemy at Baliuag rather than at the bridge. While Jones and Wainwright were talking, General Stevens, 91st Division commander, entered the command post, followed a short time later by a South Luzon Force staff officer who announced that the 71st Division had moved out of Baliuag. Jones then ordered Stevens to stop the 71st and put it in position west of Plaridel, along the road leading to Calumpit. Wainwright left soon after for his own command post.8

Stevens' efforts to halt the withdrawal of the 71st Division infantry elements proved futile. By 1500 the main body of Sonoda's mechanized force was standing in front of Baliuag and it was perfectly evident that the Japanese were massing for an attack. Deeply concerned over the effect of an attack on the untried 51st Infantry, Jones ordered two platoons of Company C, 192d Tank Battalion, to cross the river and attack the enemy concentration at the east end of Baliuag. The tanks were to be supported by about a half dozen of Colonel Babcock's 75-mm. SPM's which were to fire on Baliuag and its northern approaches when the tanks broke off the attack. After a hasty reconnaissance, Babcock placed his guns on the dry, baked fields a few thousand yards west of Baliuag arid sent a forward observer to a position 500 yards west of the town. For communications with the tanks Babcock had a radio-equipped scout car of Company C.

At about 1700 the tanks of Company C, led by Lt. William Gentry, moved out to the attack. As the two platoons approached the enemy, the covering artillery fire, presumably supplied by the 71st Field Artillery, lifted. A bitter fight ensued. The American armor made a shambles of that part of Baliuag in Japanese hands. The tanks rolled through the streets, firing into bahays, smashing through the nipa huts as if they were so many toy houses, and scattering hostile infantry right and left. A brief but wild tank-versus-tank action followed. In the fading daylight American and Japanese tanks chased each other up and down the narrow streets, while enemy foot soldiers, in a futile gesture, fired small arms at the tankers. The SPM's and artillery remained idle, unable to fire for fear of hitting their own tanks. When Company C finally broke off the action, it had knocked out eight Japanese tanks with little loss to itself. As the tanks pulled back, the SPM's and


artillery opened up on Baliuag and continued to fire until 2200 when Fowler and Babcock pulled their men back to Plaridel and then west across the Pampanga. The last of the tanks crossed the Calumpit bridge at about 0230 on 1 January.9

Holding the unimproved road from Plaridel to Calumpit was the untried 51st Infantry. When at 0300 the 1st Brigade (PC) cleared the Calumpit bridge General Jones sent his chief of staff to Plaridel with orders for the 51st to withdraw immediately. The retirement began at 0400, 1 January. Meanwhile, the Japanese had entered Baliuag and were pushing cautiously toward Plaridel. At 0400 they were close enough to hear the sound of motors as the 51st Infantry began to pull out, and immediately rushed forward to attack. Firing into the truck column the Japanese hit the rearmost vehicles but inflicted no damage. Lacking motor transportation they were unable to follow. Colonel Stewart pushed ahead rapidly and crossed the Pampanga with his 51st Infantry at about 0500 on the morning of the 1 st, the last unit to cross the Calumpit bridge.10

"Blow the Bridges"

What the Japanese could not accomplish on the ground they might have accomplished with their air force. On 31 December the highway and railroad bridges spanning the Pampanga at Calumpit presented to the Japanese air force the most inviting target since Clark Field. Heavily laden with dynamite charges for rapid demolition and protected by only two gun batteries of the 200th Coast Artillery (AA), the bridges were extremely vulnerable to air attack.11 Indeed, like marriage, in Shaw's classic definition, they combined the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity.

The Japanese failed to take advantage of this opportunity for a decisive blow from the air. The 48th Division urged that the Calumpit bridges be bombed and there were heated discussions over this question, but the view of Col. Monjiro Akiyama, 14th Army air officer, that the destruction of the bridges would prove of little value, prevailed. The 14th Army's order of the 30th, therefore, directed the 5th Air Group simply to attack the retreating enemy and to make an effort to destroy the bridges west of Lubao, just above the base of the Bataan peninsula.12

Even with this limited mission, the Japanese air forces made only a desultory effort. Col. Harry A. Skerry, the North Luzon


Photo:  Calumpit Bridges spanning the Pampanga River

CALUMPIT BRIDGES spanning the Pampanga River.

Force engineer and the man directly responsible for blowing the bridges, later wrote that he was "amazed" by the "weak air efforts" the Japanese made and "the few planes seen in the sky, despite the previous almost total destruction of our air force and the resulting enemy air superiority."13

At about 0500 on New Year's Day, as the 51st Infantry cleared the Calumpit bridge, General Wainwright asked Generals Jones, Stevens, and Weaver if all their units were safely across. He received affirmative replies from these three, but Colonel Skerry pointed out that a platoon of demolition engineers under Lt. Col. Narcisco L. Manzano (PS) was still on the road south of Calumpit. Nothing had been heard from Manzano since the previous noon, and Colonel Skerry requested that destruction of the bridges be delayed as long as the tactical situation permitted, to enable Manzano's group to escape. Wainwright assented, but all final preparations for demolition were made and orders were issued to fire the charges at 0600.

It was still dark. There was no Japanese air bombardment or artillery fire, but from the south came the sounds of rifle fire. The nervous Filipino troops fidgeted in their positions and stared apprehensively across the river. At 0545, when there was still no sign


of Manzano's detachment, Wainwright extended the time for blowing the bridges to 0615.

As dawn broke, the noise of enemy rifle fire from the south increased. General Wainwright, unaware that the main Japanese force was pushing toward Manila and that less than a regiment had been sent toward Calumpit, believed that this fire presaged a major Japanese effort to cross the Pampanga. Blowing the bridges would place the deep, unfordable river squarely in the path of the advancing enemy and give the Bataan forces time to prepare for defense. Wainwright then made his decision; Manzano and his men would have to reach Bataan by other routes. He turned to his engineer. "Skerry," he said, "we cannot wait any longer. Blow the bridges."

The covering force withdrew to a safe distance, the explosives were checked, and at 0615 the charges were detonated. The air was filled with a roar and a rushing noise, a flash lit up the sky, and the Calumpit bridges disappeared in a mass of falling debris. In front of the defenders flowed the deep Pampanga; to their rear lay San Fernando, where the road to Bataan began.

The D-5 Line: Bamban-Arayat

By the first day of the new year the bulk of the American and Filipino forces had escaped from the enemy pincer movement designed to trap them on the plain before Manila. Calumpit had been passed successfully and the troops from the south had side-stepped the Japanese and withdrawn in good order across the Pampanga. MacArthur's men no longer faced the main strength of Homma's 14th Army, which was pushing rapidly toward Manila.

San Fernando, nine miles north of Calumpit, was as vital to the successful completion of the plan of withdrawal as Plaridel. Not only did the South Luzon Force have to pass through it before turning southwest to Bataan, but almost the entire North Luzon Force would funnel through that town also.

Thirty-five miles northwest of Manila, and strategically second in importance only to the capital, San Fernando is an important road and rail junction. It is there that Route 7, the main road to Bataan, joins Route 3. The troops from Calumpit would have to travel northward along Route 3 to reach San Fernando; those on the D-5 line would withdraw south along this road and Route 10. At San Fernando both groups would pick up Route 7 for the final lap of their journey to Bataan.

The 21st Division on the west flank of the D-5 line was the only unit which could escape into Bataan without going through San Fernando. At Angeles, midway between Bamban and San Fernando, it would leave Route 3 and follow Route 74 to Bataan. All other units north and south of San Fernando would reach Bataan via San Fernando and Route 7.

Even if the enemy did not impede the march to Bataan, the roads over which the tired soldiers must travel to reach the peninsula would present many obstacles. From Calumpit north to San Fernando, and from there south to Bataan, the road was packed with a "solid stream of traffic," military and civilian.14 Vehicles of all types-cars, buses, trucks, artillery, and tanks-filled the center of the road. In some places, there were stretches of several miles


Photo:  San Fernando, looking northwest.  Route 3 from Calumpit runs diagonally through the photograph; Route 7 leading to Bataan is in upper left.  Zambales Mountains are visible in the background.

SAN FERNANDO, looking northwest. Route 3 from Calumpit runs diagonally through the photograph;
Route 7 leading to Bataan is in upper left. Zambales Mountains are visible in background.

where the vehicles were lined up almost bumper to bumper. On each side was an endless line of pedestrians, mostly civilians fleeing from the invading army.

The enemy air force could hardly be expected to overlook so obvious and inviting a target on their way to other, more important military missions. The primary objective of the thirty-two light bombers of the 5th Air Group that day was ammunition dumps, but the Japanese pilots reported that they also dive-bombed American vehicles and "motorized units."15 Colonel Collier noted that "hostile bombers, with the rising sun glistening on wing tips, flying at low and high altitudes, crossed and recrossed the road."16 But he saw no dive-bombing or strafing attacks. "Had the bombers struck the jammed columns with bombs and strafing," he wrote, "our withdrawal into Bataan would certainly have been seriously crippled."17

Since 30 December General Homma had been strengthening his forces in front of the D-5 line. By New Year's Eve he had on Route 3, in and around Tarlac, the entire 9th Infantry Regiment, the Kanno Detachment (3d Battalion, 2d Formosa), 8th Field Artillery (less one battalion), two batteries of the 22d Field Artillery, and a battalion of the 48th Mountain Artillery. The mis-


sion of this force was to drive south toward Bataan.18

Along the D-5 line stood two Philippine Army divisions, the 11th on the right and the 21st on the left. Between the high ground on each end of the line the terrain was flat, the vegetation consisting of cane fields and uncultivated grassland. As the troops reached this position they began to clear fields of fire and, when they could get the wire, erect barbed-wire entanglements.19

The 21st Division held the left (west) portion of the flatlands along the south bank of the Bamban River from the Magalang- Concepcion road to the Zambales Mountains/ On the right was the 22d Infantry; to its left was the 21st Infantry, with the 3d Battalion on the right and the 2d Battalion on the left. Along the front, between the two battalions, were two high multiple-span steel bridges (one railroad and one highway) fording the Bamban River. The engineers had destroyed both bridges, but the river, practically dry at this season of the year, presented no obstacle to advancing infantry and only a slight one to vehicles. To strengthen the river line, therefore, Company C, 23d Infantry, was posted on the high ground north of the Bamban River and west of Route 3, in position to dominate the road and railroad south of the town. The 21st Field Artillery was in general support.20

The wisdom of placing Company C in this position was soon confirmed. At about 0130 New Year's Day, a Japanese force mounted on bicycles and estimated as of company size was observed pedaling down the road from Bamban toward the destroyed bridge between the 2d and 3d Battalions, 21st Infantry. The enemy troops were part of the Kanno Detachment, which had been caught in the open by American tanks at Zaragoza two days earlier. Their reception at Bamban was no less warm. As the Japanese cyclists advanced along the short stretch of road paralleling the river east of the bridge, Company C delivered a punishing fire in their midst. After some minutes of confusion and milling about, the surprised and badly hit Japanese force retreated, having suffered thirty-five casualties. Company C gained an assortment of bicycles, swords, and miscellaneous equipment, as well as a wounded Japanese noncom. Since he spoke no English and no one present understood Japanese, he proved useless as a source of information). By the time he had been evacuated to the rear he had died of his wounds.21

By 0900 the remainder of the Kanno Detachment had reached Bamban. The infantry soon began an attack against the river line and Company C; the artillery joined in the action about noon. That afternoon the fighting was brisk, with heavy shelling on both sides and with Japanese aircraft participating in the action. But all efforts by the Japanese to cross the river met with failure and Company C was still in position late in the day.

At division headquarters reports of Japanese troop movements south from Tarlac


to Bamban had been received earlier in the day, one scout noting "that one of our own tanks was being driven around Tarlac to the hilarity of the enemy troops."22 These reports were accurate. The 9th Infantry and supporting troops were moving forward to reinforce the Kanno Detachment. As the Japanese came within artillery range they were brought under fire by guns of the 21st Field Artillery. Although suffering losses in personnel and equipment, the 9th Infantry by 1600 had joined the Kanno Detachment on the north bank of the river.

But the Japanese for some inexplicable reason failed to attempt a crossing. At nightfall the 21st Division began to move out, Company C wading the shallow Bamban to rejoin the division. The entire division withdrew down Route 3 to Angeles, then turned southwest along Route 74 to Porac. The enemy followed cautiously and it was not until 1130 of the 2d that the Kanno Detachment reached Angeles. The Japanese now had possession of the Clark Field area.

It was now the turn of the 11th Division to extricate itself and withdraw into Bataan. This division had recently been strengthened by the return from the Cagayan valley of about 1,000 of its men, drawn largely from the 12th and 13th Infantry Regiments. Its sector of the D-5 line extended from the Magalang-Concepcion road eastward to the Pampanga River. On the right (east) was the reorganized 12th Infantry, holding a front from Mt. Arayat to the Pampanga River and the town of Arayat. It was in position to guard against an unexpected Japanese advance toward San Fernando along Route 10, which connected Gapan on Route 5 with that town.

The western portion of the 11th Division line, from the Magalang road to Mt. Arayat, was held by the 11th Infantry under the command of Col. Glen R. Townsend, who had led the Cagayan valley force. At Magalang a north-south road from Concepcion branched off, one section leading to Angeles on Route 3 and another to Mexico, a few miles northeast of San Fernando. The 2d Battalion, 11th Infantry, was posted across the Magalang road, a few miles north of the town and directly in the path of a Japanese advance from Concepcion. The 3d Battalion extended the line east to the mountains, and the 1st Battalion, recovering from its hard fight at Zaragoza on the 30th, was in reserve.23

Early on 1 January General Brougher, the division commander, ordered Colonel Townsend to withdraw his 11th Infantry, starting at 2000 that day. The regiment was to retire along the Magalang road through Mexico and San Fernando to Guagua, about fifteen miles from Bataan.

While the 11th Infantry was preparing to move, an enemy force estimated as a reinforced battalion of infantry with artillery support was pushing south along the Magalang road from Concepcion. At 1630 this Japanese force attacked Townsend's line. Maj. Helmert J. Duisterhof's 2d Battalion, composed of Igorot troops, bore the brunt of the assault. Despite repeated attacks, the Igorots, supported by two 75-mm. SPM


guns, held firm, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. A Japanese attempt to outflank the 11th Infantry line by pushing elements through dense fields of sugar cane met with failure. At 2000, the appointed hour, the 11th Infantry broke contact and began its withdrawal, passing through the 194th Tank Battalion in position east of San Fernando. By 0200 of the 2d the regiment had reached Guagua. During the night it was joined by the 12th Infantry and remaining elements of the 13th Infantry.24 With the successful withdrawal of the 11th Division, the troops on the D-5 line had made good their escape through San Fernando. Meanwhile the remaining troops south of that town were doing the same.

Escape Through San Fernando

The blast that destroyed the Calumpit bridges in the early hours of 1 January signaled the end of the South Luzon Force. Its mission completed, the force moved on to Bataan where General Jones rejoined the 51st Division. At the same time General Stevens of the 91st Division and General Weaver, commander of the tank group, went on to San Fernando to join their units.25

When the debris had stopped falling at the Pampanga crossing, the covering force of 71st and 91st Division elements, originally organized by Stevens; returned to its positions along the river bank. A second force, the 3d Battalion of the 23d Infantry, with a battery of the 21st Field Artillery, moved into position near Apalit, about 4,000 yards to the north on the west bank of the Pampanga. The mission of this battalion, led by Maj. Charles A. McLaughlin, was to "assist in delaying the enemy advance on San Fernando," by preventing a hostile crossing before 2000. In support of both forces was the tank group, posted just below San Fernando.26

Late on the morning of 1 January the Japanese reached Calumpit. The Tanaka Detachment (2d Formosa, less 3d Battalion, and a battalion of the 48th Mountain Artillery) had moved cautiously from Plaridel during the night and now faced the covering force across the wide, unfordable Pampanga. The sight of the Japanese at such close proximity was extremely disconcerting to the poorly trained Filipino troops. Their nervousness was increased by the sight of the Japanese bombers which passed overhead that morning on their way to bomb installations on Bataan.

During the day the Japanese made numerous attempts to push a force across the swiftly flowing Pampanga, but to no avail.27 The covering force on the river line pulled out for San Fernando during the afternoon, followed that evening by McLaughlin's battalion. The remnants of the 71st and 91st Divisions which constituted the first of these forces were "so badly disorganized and in need of equipment" that they were sent directly to Bataan. McLaughlin's battalion


rejoined the 21st Division at Porac on the morning of 2 January. The last elements to pass through San Fernando were the tanks. Reaching the town at 0200 on the 2d, after all the others had left, they found it to be "truly a ghost town." The tankers gave the order to blow the bridge across the San Fernando River and in the darkness moved down Route 7 toward Guagua and the American line being formed there.28

The Japanese did not cross the Pampanga until the afternoon of 2 January when at 1600 the Tanaka Detachment finally got its artillery over the swiftly flowing river. Once across, Colonel Tanaka moved forward rapidly and by 1830 had reached San Fernando. There he made contact with the Kanno Detachment which had pushed down Route 3 from Angeles.29

In the few days from 30 December 1941 to 2 January 1942 the North and South Luzon Forces had completed successfully the most complicated and difficult maneuver of the campaign thus far. They had held at Plaridel and along the D-5 line. A part of the force had crossed the Calumpit bridge, marched through San Fernando, and down Route 7 toward Bataan. Another part had withdrawn from the D-5 line, along the flat grassland west of Mt. Arayat to Mexico and San Fernando to join the others retreating down Route 7. The remainder had moved down Route 3 to Angeles and then along Route 74 to Porac. Everywhere the enemy had been held and the route of escape kept open until the last unit was on its way into Bataan.







Return to Table of Contents

Return to Chapter XI


Search CMH Online
Last updated 1 June 2006
Map:  Holding the Road to Bataan, 31 December 1941-1 January 1942