Scout's honor: The last horsemen of Bataan

Paolo Vergara, ANC-X

Posted at Apr 09 2018 04:13 PM

A monument to honor the first major USAFFE battle in defense of Bataan, January 6, 1942, which took place in Layac Junction, Dinalupihan. Marnie Giron, ANC-X

MANILA -- There was a time when much prestige was given to being part of a cavalry. A quick glance at classic literature from poems such as "The Charge of the Light Brigade" to novels like "War and Peace" reveals the esteem and images of glory brought about by horsemen charging into the thick of battle.

In World War 2, when machine guns, aircraft, and tanks were already in use, it’s surprising that the cavalry could still play an essential part in the opening stages of the conflict. As ill-equipped and hastily trained American and Filipino soldiers were dispersed by a fierce Japanese air and land assault, the 26th Cavalry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts would eventually be deployed as one of Allied commander General Douglas MacArthur’s trump cards.

The action the Scouts saw steered the reins for the rest of the Allies to stabilize the defense of Bataan as the rest of the American and Filipino forces retreated from North Luzon and Manila. Ultimately, the Filipino contribution to the war effort would go beyond national borders, diverting essential enemy resources and delaying the Japanese timetable to occupy the Pacific.

The 26th Cavalry enters the fray

The 26th Cavalry was one of the last formed Philippine Scouts units. It was a hybrid group composed of elements of an infantry and artillery division. They were essentially Filipino soldiers led by a mix of American and Filipino officers. Their rigorous drilling and genuine esprit de corps kept the unit together at the most trying moments.

Japanese war planners estimated that the Philippines would fall within a month after landing troops. Spies living in the country reported on Philippine-American defenses as the Imperial Army deployed from bases in Taiwan. In the first half of the war, Japanese Mitsubishi fighters had better firepower and mobility than British and American counterparts.

The infamous attack on Pearl Harbor was synchronized with the attacks on American, British, Dutch, and Filipino airfields and naval bases around the Pacific, catching most off-guard and demolishing these military facilities in the process. As the Japanese landed on our shores, Filipino soldiers stationed at northern Luzon provinces deserted en masse, whole units crumbled, and on Christmas Eve, 1941, MacArthur sounded the retreat to Bataan.

Despite these setbacks, the American and Filipino defense lasted for a total of five months.

First blood

Due to Japanese air and naval superiority, the Allied strategy shifted to a fighting retreat from its initial holdout in Luzon. What commenced was a race to hold Bataan and Corregidor while awaiting reinforcements from the States.

The 26th Cavalry Regiment moving towards Pozorrubio. Wikipedia photo

In the northern towns of Damortis and Binalonan, the 26th Cavalry engaged mechanized Japanese infantry and tank squadrons, outflanking tanks, lobbing grenades and improvised explosives at armored weak spots. They did all this while on horseback and dismounted when necessary to snipe pockets of entrenched infantry.

Another group of Scouts with elements of the 26th even raided a Japanese airfield in Tuguegarao, destroying enemy aircraft, despite being cut off from the rest of the Americans and Filipinos following the retreat.

Finally in Bataan, after a brief interlude, the 26th was sent to counteract Japanese forces racing to take the town of Morong before the allies could. The town’s strategic location in the mountain ranges of the province was valuable to whichever side could hold it.

The cavalry intercepted Japanese infantry about to cross the Batalan River. Getting into formation and rushing onward at the call of the brass bugle, the horsemen deployed a tactic unused in half a century: a full-on cavalry charge. Miraculously, only three on their side were wounded after having routed the shocked Japanese.

Unbroken hearts

All these efforts came at a cost, however, as more than half of the regiment was decimated by the Allied surrender in 1942. The 26th was temporarily pulled out of combat at the last weeks of January the same year just as the Americans and Filipinos fortified the Bataan peninsula, stopping Japanese landing attempts at the southwest, forging a stalemate, and reclaiming lost ground.

A monument to honor the first major USAFFE battle in defense of Bataan, January 6, 1942, which took place in Layac Junction, Dinalupihan. Marnie Giron, ANC-X

It was at this point that the 26th suffered a real blow: with the Americans and Filipinos ravaged by malnutrition and starvation, they had to surrender their horses to be butchered for food.

The cold weeks would drag on as the Japanese rested and resupplied behind their lines and halted major operations.

Unfortunately, even as the 26th returned to active duty, this time on armored cars, American reinforcements never arrived—the top brass decided to shift focus to the European theater of war.

Meanwhile, fresh Japanese troops poured into the Philippines and Allied gains made in early 1942 were lost. These actions lead up to Corregidor’s capture in May.

Ragtag groups from the 26th, however, continued the fight, organizing what would become some of the major guerilla units in Luzon following the Japanese Occupation in true cavalier spirit.