Terror & Triumph at Lingayen Gulf

By James M. Scott

To block MacArthur, Japan had unleashed its infernal new weapon, kamikazes—a monsoon of metal and flesh that rained down daily on U.S. forces. The threat from suicide planes had crystallized four days earlier when a twin-engine bomber crashed through the wooden flight deck of the escort carrier Ommaney Bay (CVE-79). “A tremendous explosion shook the ship so violently it seemed as if a gigantic pile driver had hit us,” recalled Chaplain Robert Anderson. 1

The carrier’s hangar deck, filled with racks of torpedoes and armed planes fueled to capacity, erupted in an inferno. Machine-gun rounds exploded, ricocheting off bulkheads. The skipper had no choice but to order his ship abandoned just 38 minutes after the attack. Survivors watched from the water as exploding torpedoes caused part of the flight deck to collapse, a horror captured in the ship’s war damage report: “Intensity of fire remained such as to insure [sic] that the ship was practically gutted in the next hour.” 2

The destruction of the Ommaney Bay foreshadowed MacArthur’s troubles. Two days later, Japanese planes tore into 15 ships, including the bridge of the 32,000-ton battlewagon New Mexico (BB-40). The fiery crash killed the skipper along with British Lieutenant General Herbert Lumsden—Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s liaison—and Time magazine correspondent Bill Chickering, all of whom were later wrapped in canvas, weighted down with 5-inch projectiles, and buried at sea after sunset.

“The action was so fast and so continuous that it is hard to sort out the images of what happened,” Chickering had written to his wife only hours before his death. “They came in from all sides.”3 The ferocious kamikazes, which would ultimately injure or kill more than 2,100 sailors, sink two dozen ships, and damage another 67, signaled the strategic and symbolic importance of the coming invasion. This was far more than just the capture of another island in the United States’ push across the Pacific.

MacArthur was coming home.

“If the Lord will let me land this one,” the general had announced to his aides the morning before over breakfast, “I’ll never ask so much of [H]im again.” 4

 

Prelude to Landing

 

MacArthur had selected Lingayen Gulf as the front door for his return to Manila for its geographical advantages, including more than 20 miles of wide beaches that would allow for the easy offloading of thousands of vehicles, fuel drums, and crates of canned food; ammunition; and even carrier pigeons—a backup communication system in the event of wire failure. Furthermore, Lingayen offered easy access to major highways and railways that would allow troops to speed across the 110 miles that stood between MacArthur and his home. Radio Tokyo had promised the general the “hottest reception in the history of warfare,” but MacArthur was optimistic his superior firepower would overwhelm the enemy, a feeling shared by his aides. 5

The gray morning light illuminated the shores of the crescent-shaped gulf around 0645. Lingayen resembled a parking lot as the last of the warships maneuvered into position, all part of the pending fight’s intricate choreography. “You could almost step from ship to ship,” one sailor recalled. 6

The Navy in recent days had finalized preparations for the invasion, despite constant attacks by kamikazes. Sixty-five minesweepers had scoured the dark waters of the gulf on 6 January. Intelligence reports had indicated five minefields, but six weeks earlier Filipino guerrillas had cut the mines free, towed them ashore, and pilfered the explosives, leaving only a handful of floaters for the Navy gunners to destroy. The following day underwater demolition teams combed the surf for barbed wire that might snare troops. “As I swam into shore, the ships were firing over our heads—you could hear the shells hit the sand dunes, palm trees, and small native houses,” Chief Carpenter’s Mate Joseph Moretti wrote in his diary. “One house near my beach caught fire and burned to the ground.” 7

A lack of charts had handicapped war planners, forcing them to consult a 1903 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey report to determine beach gradients. To supplement that dated information, hydrographic ships had taken depth readings and marked shoals that might strand landing craft, while reconnaissance flights snapped more than 18,000 photos. U.S. warships meanwhile pounded the beaches, firing a staggering 16,795 armor-piercing and high-capacity rounds. Navy fighters and bombers joined the fight, flying 788 sorties, aided by guerrilla fighters’ drawings of nearby arms and fuel depots. Gone now were any coastal defense guns, pillboxes, or even buildings that might offer mortar teams or snipers a place to hide.

 

Exchanging Blows

 

At 0700 on 9 January, the massive guns opened fire again, in what the U.S. Sixth Army’s report described as “a naval bombardment previously unequalled in southwest Pacific warfare.” 8 Across the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, the guns barked one after the other, a rising crescendo in this symphony of destruction. In sickbays, chaplains plugged the ears of convalescing kamikaze victims with cotton to guard against the thunder. The violent shudder of the ships filled the air with tiny particles of glass wool insulation that normally coated the bulkheads but now irritated the eyes, noses, and throats of fighting sailors. “At the height of the din,” recalled Radarman Third Class James Patric, a sight-setter on the high-speed transport George E. Badger (APD-33), “all that was visible shoreward was a huge cloud of smoke and dust, in which it seems impossible any living creature could have survived.” 9

The kamikazes that had menaced MacArthur’s forces for days once again pounced. A twin-engine bomber clipped the foremast and radio antennas of the destroyer escort Hodges (DE-231). Another dove at 0745 on the light cruiser Columbia (CL-56). Boxed in by landing craft, she was unable to make evasive maneuvers. The cruiser’s 20-mm and 40-mm guns opened up—19 total—throwing up a thousand rounds. The USS Boise (CL-47), moored nearby with MacArthur on board, fired another 1,500. None proved able to stop the suicidal pilot, who plummeted down at 400 knots and crashed into the Columbia’s port side. The third such hit to her in as many days killed 24 men and injured 97.

Chaplain Arthur Anderson, who had survived the sinking of the Ommaney Bay five days earlier, rushed to the Columbia’s wardroom to find one officer’s hand gone. He spied another sailor whose arm was nearly severed above the elbow. “Most of the wounded were bleeding profusely, and I used every rag, handkerchief, and piece of tubing I could find to make tourniquets,” the chaplain recalled. “Another man had many chest wounds from which blood spurted. He was out of his head and thrashed about wildly. I pinned him down to the deck with all my weight and endeavored to plug the wounds with gauze until the doctor could take care of him.” 10

 

Troops Ashore

 

The few desperate attacks, however, could not stop the invasion. “Now hear this,” loudspeakers crackled. “First wave man your boats!” 11

Assault troops climbed down nets into the bobbing craft even as the bombardment continued, a scene recalled by infantryman Larry Buckland: “It sounded like railroad trains going over your head.” 12

Tensions ran high. “This will be the last day on earth for a lot of them,” Seaman First Class James Fahey, a gunner in the light cruiser Montpelier (CL-57), wrote in his diary. “They are so young and healthy now and in a few hours many of them will be dead or wounded or crippled for life. Some will not even reach the beach.” 13

At 0910, landing craft opened fire with rockets at the beaches. Navy fighters buzzed overhead, strafing the shores in advance of the landing. “Shells whirred and whispered steadily overhead,” wrote Sergeant Ozzie St. George, a reporter with Yank magazine. “The concussions slapped at our faces. Even the tops of the hills were disappearing behind the smoke.” 14

The minutes ticked past as the boats sliced through the waves. “Gun fire on beach very heavy,” noted the Luzon attack commander’s log at 0925. “All ships firing; rockets keeping up steady stream of fire.” 15

Air observers overhead dropped white flares when the first assault wave closed to within 800 yards of the beaches. “The bombardment ceased at zero hour,” recalled Patric. “The silence was uncanny.” 16

The commanders anxiously awaited word of the reception on shore, news that arrived first from a USS Colorado (BB-45) floatplane. “Boys are on the beach,” the radio announced. “No opposition.” 17 The flagship Wasatch (AGC-9), which carried senior naval commander Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid along with Sixth Army commander General Walter Krueger, broadcast the news. “The first wave has landed!” 18

Troops charged ashore on the beaches near the town of San Fabian at 0930, followed three minutes later by the arrival of soldiers at Lingayen. The massive naval guns began firing again, aiming at the flanks of the invasion beaches and inland targets. Similar reports of a lack of enemy troops poured in from the other beaches. “No apparent opposition,” one said. 19

“There is no encounter of enemy fire,” parroted another. 20

“No enemy movement on the roads leading to the beaches.” 21

All the leading assault troops stood on dry land by 0940. “Our prayers were answered more surely than we had hoped,” Army Chaplain Russell Stroup wrote in a letter. “The trial by fire did not come.” 22

By 1100, the first vehicles and cargo had landed. A little more than an hour later, soldiers captured San Fabian. The beaches that many feared would be soaked with blood bustled as troops filled sandbags to make piers. Others rolled barrels of oil up dunes and formed human trains, passing crates of rations and ammunition hand to hand. Amphibious bulldozers motored along the shore, helping to push stranded landing craft off sandbars and tow jeeps and trucks from the surf. I Corps lost only one tank during the invasion, not to enemy fire but to the eight feet of surf that swamped it.

Kamikazes returned at 1303, zooming low and giving gunners little time to react. One plane crashed into the port side of the battleship Mississippi (BB-41), killing 26 sailors and wounding 70 others. Seconds later another sheared the top of the funnel off the Australian heavy cruiser Australia. The ship’s fifth such hit in recent days seemed to confirm what one battleship division commander wrote in his war diary after a previous attack: “The Australia appears to be a marked ship.” 23

 

‘A Complete Success’

 

A little more than four hours after the first troops slogged ashore, MacArthur climbed into a landing craft to join them, dressed in a khaki uniform and wearing his trademark Ray-Ban sunglasses. The boat aimed for the beach where the bow ramp dropped, disgorging the general and his staff into the ankle-deep surf in front of the cameras.

Once on shore, MacArthur surveyed the crush of landing craft, tanks, trucks, and personnel carriers. “All of these vehicles and more were about the sands of Lingayen Gulf in the pulsing fever of a successful beachhead,” he recalled. “Now and then a Zero would whine down over the beach, but this time we had the wherewithal to handle them. Almost a solid wall of fire would go up, and swarms of American fighters from the carriers offshore would dive in to take care of the intruder. It warmed my heart to finally see the weight on our side.” 24

Newspaper correspondents encircled MacArthur, observing that he clutched a new corncob pipe and appeared tanned and well rested despite the constant kamikaze attacks. “I slept well last night,” he quipped, “in spite of some little disturbance created by the Japanese during the night.” 25

The reporters asked about the progress of the landings.

“The Jap was apparently taken completely by surprise,” MacArthur declared. “He apparently expected us from the south, and when we came in behind him he was caught off base. The entire operation so far has been a complete success.” 26

CBS reporter Bill Dunn watched as MacArthur trotted down the beach. “Unlike the Leyte landing,” he recalled, “there were no signs of the enemy, no bodies to inspect, no Jap unit insignia to be identified. There just wasn’t any enemy to be found.” 27 In his first radio report, Dunn elaborated on the invasion’s ease. “I’ve taken part in four major amphibious landings out here in the Pacific during the past year but yesterday’s assault on the beaches of Lingayen Gulf was, at once, the dullest and the most thrilling of my experience.” 28

As troops hurried to unload cargo, planes dropped thousands of leaflets over the Philippines, carrying a message from President Sergio Osmeña:

In a series of brilliantly conceived blows, General Mac-Arthur’s forces of liberation have successfully, in but a short span of time, destroyed the enemy army defending Leyte, seized firm control of Mindoro, and now stand defiantly on the soil of Luzon at the very threshold to our capital city. Thus are answered our prayers of many long months. 29

MacArthur climbed back on board the Boise at 1723, pleased with the day’s success. The cruiser weighed anchor and moved five miles off Lingayen. By the time the sun dropped below the horizon at 1842, MacArthur counted 65,000 troops ashore, including the commanding generals of all four of his assault divisions. In addition to Lingayen and San Fabian, his forces had captured Dagupan. MacArthur couldn’t resist taking a swipe at his rival General Tomoyuki Yamashita in the communiqué his headquarters released that day. “His back door is closed,” he declared. “The decisive battle for the liberation of the Philippines and control of the Southwest Pacific is at hand.” 30



1. Clifford M. Drury, The History of the Chaplain Corps, U.S. Navy, vol. 2. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950), 196.

2. Howard L. Young to Chief of the Bureau of Ships, “War Damage Report of U.S.S. Ommaney Bay (CVE-79),” 3 February 1945, National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter NARA), College Park, MD.

3. William Chickering to Audry Chickering, 5 January 1945, copy courtesy of Doral Chenoweth.

4. Bonner Fellers letter to Dorothy Fellers, 8 January 1945, MacArthur Memorial Archive and Library (hereafter MMAL), Norfolk, VA.

5. Walter Krueger, From Down Under to Nippon: The Story of Sixth Army in World War II (Washington, DC: Zenger, 1979), 224.

6. Louis C. Langone, The Star in the Window: Select Stories of World War II Veterans (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2011), 128.

7. Entry for 7 January 1945, Joseph Moretti diary, in James H. Patric, To War in a Tin Can: A Memoir of World War II Aboard a Destroyer (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004), 150.

8. Sixth U.S. Army, Report of the Luzon Campaign, 9 January–30 June 1945, 1:17.

9. Patric, To War in a Tin Can, 151–52.

10. Drury, History of Chaplain Corps, 2:197.

11. Frank F. Mathias, GI Jive: An Army Bandsman in World War II (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1982), 111.

12. Robert J. Conrad, “Regiment Played Big Role During Invasion of Luzon,” Hartford Courant, 8 January 1995.

13. James J. Fahey, Pacific War Diary, 1942–1945: The Secret Diary of an American Sailor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 264.

14. Ozzie St. George, “Return to Luzon,” Yank, 16 February 1945, 4.

15. Thomas C. Kinkaid to Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, “Action Report—Luzon Attack Force, Lingayen Gulf—Musketeer Mike One Operation,” 15 May 1945, NARA.

16. Patric, To War in a Tin Can, 152.

17. Walter S. Macaulay to Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, “Action Report, Lingayen Gulf Operation, Luzon Island, Philippine Islands, 1 January 1945 to 18 January 1945, Inclusive,” USS Colorado, 2 February 1945, NARA.

18. Macaulay, “Action Report, Lingayen Gulf Operation.”

19. Spencer Davis, “Luzon Invasion Step by Step During First Hour Described,” Joplin (Missouri) News Herald, 10 January 1945, 1.

20. Davis, “Luzon Invasion.”

21. Davis.

22. Letter dated 13 January 1945, in Russell Cartwright Stroup, Letters from the Pacific: A Combat Chaplain in World War II, Richard Cartwright Austin, ed. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 180.

23. Ingram C. Sowell to Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, “War Diary for the Month of January 1945,” Battleship Division Four, 7 February 1945, NARA.

24. Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 241.

25. William C. Dickinson, “On Fifteen-Mile Beachhead,” New York Times, 10 January 1945.

26. Dickinson, “One Fifteen-Mile Beachhead.”

27. William Dunn, Pacific Microphone (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988), 277.

28. William Dunn broadcast transcript, 10 January 1945, MMAL.

29. MacArthur, Reminiscences, 241.

30. “‘We Are Now at the Japs’ Rear; Back Door Shut,’” Chicago Daily Tribune, 10 January 1945, 1.

 

Mr. Scott is the author of Target Tokyo (W. W. Norton, 2015), which was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for history. His other works include The War Below (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and The Attack on the Liberty (Simon & Schuster, 2009), which was named one of 20 Notable Naval Books of 2009 by Proceedings and won the RADM Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Excellence in Naval Literature. His latest book, from which this article is adapted, is Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila (W. W. Norton, 2018).
 

 
 

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