Operations of the 2nd Battalion, 306th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division during the attack on Camp Downs, Leyte, Phillppine Island, December 8, 1944. Personal Experience of a Battalions Officer
Capt Charles T.Caprino
This archive covers the operations of the 2nd Battalion, 306th Infantry Regiment (77th Infantry Division) in the Attack on Camp Downs, Leyte, Philippine Island on Dec 8, 1944. Prior to a discussion of this action, the reader will be oriented on the major events leading up to the attack by the Battalion. Gen Walter Krueger’s 6-A made the initial landings in the Philippines on Oct 20, 1944. The Island of Leyte was chosen as a target for the opening stages of Gen Douglas McArthur’s return to the Philippines.
The 6-A Army with the X and XXIV Corps landing abreast, the X Corps on the north, made successful landings and moved in rapidly to their initial objectives. The 77-ID, 6-A’s Reserve for the Leyte Operation, had just completed their operations in the Battle of Guam. The initial Operation on Leyte being very successful, the 77-ID was ordered to move from Guam to a rest area on the Island of New Caledonia. Meanwhile, the Japanese were reinforcing the Island of Leyte with several more Divisions. They were determined to make an all-out effort to eject the 6-A from Leyte. This required the 6-A to commit all US divisions present on Leyte. Gen Krueger then ordered the 77-ID to proceed to Leyte without delay. This message was received by the 77-ID aboard ship just off the coast of New Caledonia. The Division arrived at Leyte on Nov 23. Various elements of the 77-ID were immediately committed ‘piece-meal’. On Dec 1, the Division received a warning order requiring it to assemble and prepare for a shore to shore landing on the west coast of Leyte in the vicinity of Ormoc.
Report, Leyte Operation – Oct 17, 1944 – Dec 25, 1944.
The Japanese too had managed to keep a flow of reinforcements moving into Leyte. After seven enemy freighters were sighted off the western coast of Leyte on the morning of Nov 28, aircraft of the 5-AAF succeeded in sinking four of these vessels off Palompon, but the remaining three freighters of the convoy apparently unloaded their troops. On the night of Nov 28/29, another hostile convoy of 15 ships arrived in the Ormoc Bay approximately one-half of the troops aboard these vessels debarked before an airstrike by the 5-AAF either sunk or damaged all of the enemy ships. Destroyers of the Seventh Fleet sunk one enemy destroyer in a hostile convoy of unknown composition that arrived in the Ormoc Bay during the night of Dec 23. Despite the heavy losses caused by the motor torpedo boats of the Seventh Fleet, the Japanese continued to infiltrate into Leyte by barge and small craft from Mindanao and the islands of the Visayan Group.
As a measure to halt the flow of enemy reinforcements into Leyte, a unit of four destroyers remained in alert status in the Surigao Strait area in readiness to move into the Camotes Sea during the hours of darkness. These destroyers, operating only at night because they lacked sufficient air cover for daylight operations, nevertheless incurred damages from hostile air attacks; in fact, constant enemy aerial attacks on the night of Dec 23, resulted in the sinking; of the USS Reid (DD-369) in the Camotes Sea.
The concentration of the 7-ID on the West coast of Leyte served to disrupt the enemy’s overall plan. Instead of concentrating for a drive eastward across the central mountain range, the Japanese 26th Division was compelled to move a portion of its forces south from Ormoc to meet and counter the threat from the 7-ID. In addition, available enemy reserves were drawn away from the area, and a condition highly favorable to the subsequent landing of the 77-ID was created.
The propitious moment for directing a landing at Ormoc arrived. The shortage of amphibious shipping which once had prevented this landing existed no longer, for, as has been previously stated, additional shipping became available as a result of the postponement of the Mindoro Operation. Moreover, the prospects improved for more effective direct air support from land-based aircraft when five Marine fighter squadrons began operations from the Leyte airfields on Dec 4. On this date, the CG 6-A directed that the XXIV Corps, beginning on Dec 5, make its main effort with its left to defeat the enemy in the Ormoc area, reinforcing its left for the purpose of landing one division with naval and air support in the Ipil – Binoljo area approximately three miles south of Ormoc on Dec 7. In order to support the effort of the XXIV Corps, the X Corps would make its main effort on its right, beginning on Dec 5, by advancing vigorously south astride Highway 2.
In the zone of action of the X Corps, the 31-ID, with the 126-IR and the 127-IR abreast, attacked south on Dec 5, encountering strong hostile opposition on the high ground south of the Leyte River bridge. At this time the 12-CAV of the 1st Cavalry Division eliminated the remaining Japanese on Hill 2348 and effected a pincer movement in the Mount Cabungaan area. Other elements of the 1st Cavalry Division uncovered enemy defenses in the vicinity of Cananga, Bagatoon, and Dolores. On Samar, the 8-CAV launched its long-awaited attack toward Wright on Dec 5. The attachment of the 34-ID to the 32-ID was terminated on Dec 2, and this unit, reverting to the control of the CG 24-ID initiated a movement to Calubian and thence overwater to the Pinamopoan – Capoocan area, where the regiment was to defend the beaches and protect the lines of communication. The remainder of the 24-ID (less the 19-RCT), operating in a zone on the left flank of the 1st Cavalry Division, made only scattered enemy contacts west of Jaro.
On Dec 5, the 7-ID, launching its attack north from Damulaan against moderate hostile resistance, succeeded in crossing the Palanas River. As the other arm of a pincer movement against the Japanese 26th Division, the 11-A/B attacked west through the central mountain range.
The 96-ID, although vigorously patrolling and conducting extensive reconnaissance, made only limited enemy contacts. As this remained the pattern of activities of the 96-ID throughout the remainder of the operation, further reference to this Division will not be made. On Dec 6, the 38-ID, under the direct control of GHQ, arrived on Leyte to stage for a subsequent operation.
Enemy Airborne Attack
During the evening of Dec 6, large numbers of enemy aircraft were reported over Leyte by various agencies. At 1840, a formation of transports supported by bombers and fighters dropped an estimated 250 paratroops at the northeastern end of the San Pablo strip in the Burauen area, and other hostile paratroops dropped in scattered localities. During this attack antiaircraft fire shot down 49 enemy aircraft over the island. Counter-measures were immediately taken, and the CG 11-A/B, was given the responsibility of clearing the Japanese from the Burauen area.
From captured orders and prisoners of war statements, it was learned that the XXXV Japanese Army (Corps), the highest enemy tactical command on Leyte, had planned to attack on a major scale in coordination with the airborne operations of the 1st Japanese Parachute Training Regiment, which made the landings. The enemy forces on the eastern side of the mountain range, however, were so decimated and so disorganized that their offensive efforts were negligible.
The CG 6-A, Gen Walter Krueger, requested that GHQ release elements of the 38-ID for employment against enemy airborne troops. In accordance with this request, GHQ released the 149-IR and the 1/152-IR to the 6-A control; two battalions of the 149-IR were in turn released on Dec 6, to the control of the CG XXIV Corps for employment against the hostile parachutists in the Burauen area. The remaining battalion of the 149-IR was alerted for movement in the Burauen area on 24-hour notice; the 1/152-IR, prepared to relieve elements of the 77-ID on southeastern Samar.
On Dec 6, the 6-A had secured the eastern half of Leyte. All the US Army divisions except the 77-ID were heavily engaged with the Japanese forces. The Japanese soldier’s morale was high at this point because of the large number of reinforcements they were receiving through Ormoc. The Japanese had succeeded in making any progress of the US forces slow and costly. Gen Krueger ordered the 77-ID to attack the Japanese main base and nerve center Ormoc. The 6-A’s plan included an all-out attack by the 7-ID. On the third anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 77-ID surprised the Japanese forces by landing on a lightly defended beach a few miles south of Ormoc. The initial wave landed at 0707 and moved inland against negligible opposition. The division, less two battalions, HQs 306-IR and part of the division artillery, landed and secured a beachhead in 2½ hrs. The balance of the division was due to arrive on D+2. The 2/306-IR was attached to the 307-IR, and the disposition of the troops along the beach headline was as follows: 307-IR on the left (north) portion of the beachhead perimeter; 2/306-IR in the center, and the 305-IR on the right (south)
The 77-ID’s plan was to hold this beachhead until the balance of the division and additional supplies arrived on D+2. However, Gen A. D. Bruce (CG 77-ID), after observing the complete success of the landing decided to order the 307-IR to make an immediate attack to the north and capture Ipil. This attack was to be followed the next morning by an all-out attack against Ormoc. Gen Bruce sent the following message to XXIV Corps and 6-A Headquarters: Come Seven, Come Eleven, Double Seven Has Landed, indicating that the 7-ID from the south and the 11-A/B from the east could now move as a result of the 77-ID offensive action. The contents of this message was disseminated to all troops of the division. The significance message bolstered morale and contributed greatly to release tension caused by the D-day landing.
The Island of Leyte is divided by a very high mountain range running from north to south. These mountains are covered with dense jungles and rough terrain. The east coast consisted of two valleys. The eastern valley was held by US Forces and the western by Japanese Forces. The valley near the west coast now became the area of operations for the 77-ID. It had the usual small streams, rice fields, and numerous finger ridges extending generally east to west. The terrain was rather open with patches of woods through the area. Further inland from the valley the terrain became very rough and difficult to traverse. Operations would have to be conducted along the coast line if the attacker was to have any advantage. The weather was fair and mild during this operation. On D-Day, Dec 7, sufficient supplies were carried with troops for three days of operations. Division supply Agencies carried an additional amount. It was expected that the D+2 convoy would resupply the Division; thereafter the 6-A would supply the Division. No difficulties were encountered in resupply the Division.
The 2/306-IR was attached to the 307-IR. HQs 306 was not due to the beach-head until D+2. Gen Bruce decided to attack. The 307-IR in the assault echelon was to attack the next day to the north. The plan of maneuver required the 305-IR to protect the Divisions beach-head. Each night the beach-head was to move to the area captured by the assault Regiment. Late in the afternoon of Dec 7, Col Stephen S. Hamilton, CO of the 307-IR, issued his attack order for 0800 on Dec 8. The Division objective was Ormoc, the Regimental objective was Camp Downs. The line of Departure was the beach-head line. The 3/307 and the 2/306 were to assault with the 2/306 on the exposed right flank. Each Battalion to attack in a zone about 50 yards wide.
On Dec 7, the Battalion had landed twenty minutes after the first wave hit the shore. It had immediately organized and was disposed on a front of approximately 1700 yards in the center of the beach-head perimeter. Patrols were sent out to the front. No action of major importance had taken place between the Battalion and Japanese Forces, but the Battalion was prepared to meet a counter-attack the next day. It had just completed a very successful operation on Guam. Although the fighting had been severe at times, the casualties had been very light. Everyone was anxious to go after the Japs again and finish the war. The Battalion had collected and placed its supplies in the Battalion supply point. Due to the shortage of landing craft, only one-third of its vehicles were placed under Battalion control. The terrain was so difficult, that all heavy weapons had to be hand-carried as well as ammunition. Many Philippinos volunteered their services to the Battalion Supply Officer thus relieving a lot of additional vehicles. The terrain in the immediate zone of operation was fairly open, except where patches of woods covered the ridgelines and stream beds. Two prominent hills dominated the approaches to Camp Downs and were considered the critical terrain features in the Battalion zone. There was one dangerous avenue of approach into the Battalion zone of action. This approach was covered with trees and entered the Battalion zone of action from the East and along the right of the first hill. Upon receipt of the attack order, the Battalion Command Group made its recon. No Japs were encountered. Unless the Japs moved up at night it appeared that the Battalion would be able to jump off into its attack without difficulties. The Battalion Commander then issued his attack order about two and a half hours prior to darkness.
The Battalion plan was to move out of the beach-head in a column of companies, just before arriving at the first hill it was to deploy with two companies abreast, Easy on the left, Fox on the right and George in reserve. An artillery preparation had been requested by the Battalion. The 307-IR had not sent an Artillery Liaison Officer nor any forward observers. They were expecting the following morning. The Battalion machine gun platoons were to be in direct support, one with each assault company. The 81-MM mortars were in general support. The Battalion AT Platoon, due to the effectiveness of its 37-MM gun, was armed with Browning Automatic Rifles and used for special patrols and security groups. During the attack a detachment protected the Command group of the OP and the balance was used for security in the Battalion rear area. The time of the attack was 0800 Dec 8. The boundary with the 3/307 was the highway leading to Ormoc. The Reserve Company was given the mission of right flank security. It was to move by bounds on the order of the Battalion CO. Flank patrols from the reserve were not to exceed one squad. The Battalion aid Station was located initially in a draw just south of the first objective. The Battalion Supply point was located near the road leading to Ormoc, approximately 1200 yards south of the line of Departure.
Final Preparations – Movement to the Line of Departure
Upon receipt of the Battalion attack order of the Company and Platoon Commanders made their recon and the troops prepared for the attack. Battalion patrols continued to in a radius of 1000 yards to the front. The individual equipment of the soldier in this operation included his herringbone twill uniform, combat boots, web belt, steel helmet, trench knife, individual weapon, two bandoleers of ammunition, poncho which he carried in his belt, three hand grenades, a spoon, and one third-ration. Very few men carried in their pockets their pack. Extra and drawers were carried in their pockets. The men stripped down to essentials. All gas-masks were carried by the Battalions S-4 and were available for issue on short notice. The Battalions Communications SOP was checked. Radios were to be used with companies. The Battalion Command Group included a communication team which provided a wireline from the Battalion OP to CP.
Attacks of the Initial Objective
At 1800, Dec 8, the 2/306-IR jumped off in the attack from the beach-head line. No Artillery observer or Liaison Officer had reported, so the Battalion crossed the line of departure without artillery preparation. Assault Easy and Fox moved slowly but steadily. Just as the assault was started on the initial objectives the Japs opened up. Japs employed machine guns, mortars, and Infantry Riflemen. This position was evidently the Japs combat Outpost Line.
They soon withdrew to the north. Casualties for both sides were very few. The Battalion command group, consisting of the Battalion CO, S-3, S-2, Communication Teams, and Security group, maintained a CP that moved along with the rear elements of the two assault Companies. The CO, Lt Col William D. Cavness, was very aggressive in his actions. He always appeared at the point that did the Battalion the most good and was readily available to make decisions on the spot. The communications during this period had been exceptionally good. The wire from CP to Battalion CP was functioning well and all radio nets were working in good order. All during the attack, the Battalion Commander had a wire with the CP and Regimental CP. George Co, in reserve, was moved into an assembly area that covered the main avenue of approach. They were in a good position to meet enemy counter-attacks into the Battalion’s exposed right flank.
At about 0930, just as the assault echelon was about to gain the first objective, an artillery forward observer reported to the Battalion Commander. He was immediately dispatched to Fox Co on the right. Fox Co was on the exposed flank and its portion of the objective was placed on higher ground. Thirty minutes after this forward observer reported to Fox Co, he and his radio operator were killed by enemy fire. This was ironic because the first thing the forward observer did when he opened his radio was to report to Regiment that the enemy opposition was very weak. The Battalion supporting weapons continued to take over as much of the role of artillery as was possible. Another artillery observer was requested. The Jap forces opposing the Battalion were identified as elements of the 12th and 13th Regiments. One unit was identified as the last Machine Gun Company. They appeared to be well trained and well-disciplined troops. It was very difficult to spot their individual positions until after they had opened fire and inflicted several casualties. Their camouflage was superior. Some small-caliber Jap artillery wad received in the Battalion area, apparently 77-MM and 40-MM anti-aircraft guns. Most of the Jap artillery shelling was directed at the Division or the beach-head supply installation during this initial phase.
The Battalion aid station had moved up to within supporting distance of the advancing troops. Litter bearers boldly roaming the area for the wounded. The Battalion ammunition point had not moved from its original location. The Battalion captured its first objective at 1030. The momentum of its attack carried the leading elements beyond the objective to a small fordable stream.
Easy and Fox Cos began to re-organize and prepare for the continuation of the attack. The Battalion supply Officer, Lt Robert J. De Grand, had anticipated the need for ammunition, and carrying parties of the Battalion pioneer and ammunition platoon had delivered the resupply of ammunition to Easy and Fox. Machine gun and BAR ammunition were the chief requirements at this time.
During this reorganization, the Battalion Commander and staff made an estimate of the situation. It was determined that the Japanese outpost had been driven in; the main battle was the next objective. The Battalion objective was the last high ground in the approaches to Ormoc. It was also surmised that the likely a venue or counter-attack for the Japs would be the draw that led up to the objectives and ran deep into the Division head-beach area. The Battalion Commander decided to make a coordinated attack against the Battalion’s next objective with two companies in assault echelon and to give the reserve company the same flank security mission. It was also felt that a counter-attack would not be made by the Japs until after our troops had jump off this ridge into the attack against the next objective. The captured objective dominated the Battalion’s right flank. Troops holding that ground easily stop a counter-attack directed into the right flank.
Orders and Continuation of the Attack
Based on this estimated the Battalion CO ordered Easy Co to continue the attack at 1130. Fox Co, the right flank assault company, was to revert to Battalion Reserve and hold this first objective. It was to be prepared to meet a counter-attack coming down the draw towards the Battalion’s first flank. In addition to flank security, they were to move by bounds and be prepared for employment in the Battalion zone of attack. George Co was ordered to move to the right of Fox Co and attack the next objective in conjunction with Fox Co. George Co was to envelop the Japs left flank and capture the right half of the Battalion objective. The bulk of the Battalion machine guns were to fire from the ridge overlooking the Japs position, and when their fires were marked, were to go into direct support of the front line companies. Everything possible was done to secure artillery support but to no avail. The terrain to the front now appeared to favor the defender considerably. The area leading to the next objective was an open rice field. There was no cover or concealment. However, it was felt that the Battalion supporting weapons, especially the two machine-gun platoons, could effectively neutralize the Jap position. Thus the order to continue the attack was issued.
Just as the assault companies launched their attack the platoon leader of a chemical mortar platoon (4.2) reported to the Battalion CO and indicated that he was in direct support of the 2/306. It was too late for this mortar platoon to support the assault echelon. It was therefore given the mission to support Fox Co on the right flank. The mortar platoon immediately planned fire to cover the counter-attack approaches into the area. The progress of the assault companies over the open rice field was much better than expected. There were some casualties but no more than normal for a coordinated attack. At 1226, Easy and George Cos were about to launch their assault. Fox Co at this time reported the Jap troops, approximately one company, concentrating at the head of the draw where the counter-attack was expected. Fox Co and the Chemical Mortar Platoon were ready. As the leading elements of the Jap counter-attack approached the Fox Co position all planned mortar machine-gun fires were directed on them. The well-planned fires broke up the counter-attack and the Jap forces were fleeing to the north. The effective fire of 4.2 mortars was the deciding factor.
It soon became apparent why the Japs had held their fire and permitted the Battalion to cross the rice field. The Battalion objective was a bill about 600 by 400 yards and covered with woods. The Japs had the entire area organized with many automatic weapons and cleverly concealed individual riflemen. The area was organized into a number of mutually supporting emplacements and sniper positions. The Japs planned to allow the Battalion to enter the woods and then destroy it. The Battalion did suffer considerable casualties, but small units and individuals stuck to the job of hunting down and killing Japs as they were flushed out of their positions. There were several well-concealed Jap machine guns in the area. Only one or two would fire at any one time. It was very difficult for the men of the Battalion to locate these weapons. Many Jap emplacements were camouflaged so well, that it was often too late when they were discovered.
The Battalion received the casualties much greater in number than those inflicted on the Japs. It was now 1645. Normally the Battalion would cease all action at 1600 and prepare perimeter defense for the night. It usually took about two hours to complete a well-organized perimeter defense, and tie it in with the adjacent units. During this critical period, the Battalion Commander was moving back and forth between the two front line companies. His presence during this critical phase paid dividends. He was able to see the situation confronting the Battalion and to make proper coordination with units on the flank.
Just prior to dark, the Battalion CO received word that the 305-IR had been ordered to move up to the Battalion’s right flank and then extend back around the new beach-head. Lt Col Cavness coordinated this flank and gave the Battalion CO of the 305-IR the situation in that area. Easy Co, commanded by Capt Bringham, fought hard and aggressively throughout the entire day. They overran the objective and were within 300 yards of Camp Downs, at nightfall. Easy Co had come beyond the line held by 3/307 on the left. The Battalion had just tied in its flanks. The Battalion situation was presented to the Regimental CO. A request was made to delay the continuation of the attack on the next day to allow re-organization and resupply. The Regimental CO accordingly decided to attack with a fresh Battalion due to the heavy casualties.
During the late afternoon and all throughout the night Capt Summer Davis, the Battalion Surgeon evacuated about 165 of the wounded. There were about 30 dead. Most of these casualties fell during the bitter fighting for the Battalion objective which was named bloody hill by the men. During the heavy fighting late in the afternoon, Capt Davis moved his aid station close to the assault Companies. This location was in the range of small arms fire, but due to the nature of the fighting, it was felt that the aid station could receive the casualties and evacuate quicker. Additional aid was requested from higher headquarters which promptly furnished a Mobile Surgical Hospital. This Hospital consisted of three surgeons and the necessary facilities to battlefield surgery.
Preparations for the Night
The Division SOP did not permit activity at night. Perimeter type defense was to be organized and anyone moving in the front line would be shot. The night watch was organized by making two and three men groups. Members of the groups would each observe for Japs infiltrating tactics. The Japs were well trained in this role. As night fell the Battalion CO knew the flank situation, but very little about the actual situation and combat efficiency of the two front-line companies. There was no radio communication with them. Either their radio operations had become casualties or they had closed their ton fearing ambush by the Japs. It was quite important that the front line companies render a report, but none arrived. The Battalion could not continue the attack without a reorganization the next morning. A staff officer was dispatched to each of the front line companies. They could not return that night. The next morning they reported that, although the objective was completely taken, the platoons were not under the control of the Company Commanders.
The next morning the Battalion was assembled and it reverted to Division Reserve. Chaplain Mallory, Battalion Chaplain, as was his custom supervised the collection of the Battalion’s dead and escorted them to the Division cemetery. Here he conducted their burial ceremony. The manner in which Chaplain Mallory handled the dead contributed greatly to the moral of the troops. To summarize the 2/306-IR, being attacked to 307-IR and without artillery support reduced two well-organized objectives utilizing its own support weapons to the maximum extent. Although it was a well-coordinated and aggressively conduct attack the final stand by well-camouflaged Japs made the ground attack the ground gained very costly. The swift action of the Battalion, in penetrating the Japs mainline did contribute greatly to the final capture of the Division objective.