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Lady Luck and the Lipa Airstrip Crash

On August 12, 1945, one of the most tragic events in the history of the 11th Airborne Division occurred on what some would consider "an insignificant airbase" at Lipa, Batangas on Luzon, Philippine Archipelago. Outside of native Filipinos, most people don't even know where Lipa is, but over 75 years ago (as of 2021) this event ripped at the heartstrings of an entire division of combat veterans who had already seen so much hell.

The 11th Airborne Division, known as "The Angels", had been fighting on Luzon since February and had been heavily involved in the retaking of Manila and then southern Luzon. After nearly six months of intense fighting, the Angels were anticipating final operations as the war drew closer and closer to Tokyo's doorstep. The battle-worn division set up at Lipa to integrate replacements and prepare for a jump on either China or Japan itself. Those anticipations changed after COL Paul Tibbets and his Enola Gay crew dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Then, at 1158 on August 9, bombardier CPT Kermit Beahan released the 10,800-pound payload nicknamed “Fat Man” over the Urakami Valley. Over 760 miles away in Tokyo the Imperial Supreme War Council was discussing conditional surrender terms and thirty minutes after the debate began, news arrived that a second super bomb had been dropped with another Japanese city utterly destroyed. The next day Japan’s leadership agreed to the Potsdam Ultimatum.

That same day, August 10, the Angels’ radios at Lipa received word that Japan had officially begun peace talks. T-5 L. E. Winenow, a photographer in Division HQ, characterized the Angels’ emotions when he wrote to his family, “To tell the truth, we didn’t do any of the wild celebrating like in the states. It was taken pretty calmly; perhaps because we know the Japs better than any of you folks, and we didn’t dare believe it could be true.”

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The Battle for Mt. Bijang

The Battle for Luzon's Mount Bijang (also Bijiang), located about 40 miles south-east of Manila is one of those obscure combat engagements that the world has passed over simply because World War II was full of tens of thousands of such operations on land, the seas and in the air.

As any military historian (or even casual student) can tell you, these battles were often fought by men, frequently young men, who found deep wells of courage in the heat of battle in a mixture of adrenaline, duty, will, and an unrelenting desire to do their best for their buddies.

The Battle for Mt. Bijang is the story of one understrength parachute company in their fight to take and retain what their company commander called, "an insignificant piece of real estate" against an estimated 300 Japanese defenders. I have heard from the paratroopers who were there, including that company commander, and from my own grandfather, 1LT Andrew Carrico III who was serving as Company Executive Officer at the time and was wounded so badly that some in D Company thought he was killed. The Battle for Mt. Bijang was one of those "small-unit operations" that displays the effects of superb leadership, skilled NCOs, determined frontline fighters and one unit's unwillingness to let each other down.

Battle Background

On February 3, 1945, the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment dropped on Luzon's Tagaytay Ridge just south of Manila, then pushed north up into the city. Grandpa's D Company, the same unit that fought the Battle for Mt. Bijang, was selected to spearhead the 11th Airborne Division's drive into Manila and Grandpa explained, "Here we are, a little old airborne division with its 8,000 men attacking Manila from the South and the 1st Calvary Division with its 20,000 men attacking from the North and (my) 1st Platoon, D Company out in front of everybody! Quite an Experience."

He then chuckled and said, "My squad leaders all asked, 'Why do we get all the dirty jobs?!'"

The Battle for Manila would prove to be bloody for Major-General Joseph May Swing's understrength 11th Airborne Division, including D Company which would be the first Angels to encounter the enemy at Imus, just outside Manila proper (a story for another day!). In 1949, COL Edward H. "Slugger" Lahti, CO of the 511th PIR, explained that the regiment's 2nd Battalion (which included D Company) had landed on Tagaytay Ridge on February 3, 1945 with 502 men. By February 10, one week later, the battalion was down to just 187 effective officers and enlisted men.

On February 10, the battle-worn men of D Company were given a break from the lines and twenty-three-year-old Captain Stephen Edward "Rusty" Cavanaugh selected an assembly point for D Company several hundred yards to the rear near the Parañaque Bridge where they could clean up and get a hot meal. As his troopers moved back, the fatigued captain grew frustrated with what appeared to be a delay in assembly. Nerves frayed from a week of combat (during which he slept very little), Cavanaugh chewed out his new 1SGT Paul R. Farnsworth for the men’s sluggishness.

With a pained look in his eyes, Farnsworth quietly replied, “Sir, that’s all there is.” Everyone else was gone.

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The Rat's Ass Charge

The Rat's Ass Charge is the story of one of those incredible engagements from World War II, one effected by a small, understrength and under-supported parachute companies, that equals anything that has been written about the incredible exploits of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions in Europe.

That is not said to in any way to diminish what the Screaming Eagles and the All-Americans did "over there." Rather, it is only to point out that the 11th Airborne Division is equally deserving of attention, researching, illumination and praise. This is only a small piece of their story.

The Rats Ass Charge 511th PIR D CompanyOn Thanksgiving Day, 1944, after a breakfast of cold turkey and rain-soaked potatoes and fruit salad, the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment led the 11th Airborne Division's push westward into the jungles and mountains of Leyte in the Pacific Theater. Over the next 30+ days, the young paratroopers of the 511th PIR would endure the harshest of conditions including hunger, thirst, cold, monsoon rains, Banzai assaults, tropical diseases, blood and death. Many companies went over five days (one up to ten) without resupply and rations and as D Company's 1LT Andrew Carrico later noted, resorted to eating "anything we could find: dogs, roots, potatoes. When you’re hungry you’ll eat anything. Hunger was a constant gnaw in our stomachs."

Division commander MG Joseph May Swing would later tell his father-in-law Peyton C. March that by mid-campaign, "We’ve killed over 2000 Japanese…” in what Swing called “a process of extermination...Casualties on our side are not light..."

Not light indeed; the 511th PIR was down to just 60% strength, having suffered over 400 casualties in roughly three weeks, roughly 75% of the Division’s losses, while eliminating 5,760 soldiers of Japan’s 26th and 16th Infantry Divisions. When they marched down to Ormoc Bay on Leyte's western coast on Christmas Day, Captain Stephen Edward Cavanaugh explained, "We came out on the other side of the island a pretty well decimated regiment." Cavanaugh's D Company left Leyte's Bito Beach on November 23 with 117 men; twenty-one of their comrades now lay dead in the mountains or were being carried out on poncho stretchers.

The photo to the right is of the 511th PIR's cemetery on what they called Rock Hill because "he was there," he being their regimental commander Colonel Orin D. "Hard Rock" Haugen who was right up front with them. After fighting by their side through several engagements, Colonel Haugen had gained a reputation as a serious fighter.

All of his paratroopers had, actually. Sixth Army's Lieutenant General Walter C. Krueger called Hard Rock's unit, "the God-damned fightingest outfit I have ever seen!"

But by December 21, 1944, that "fightingest outfit" was still miles away from the beaches of Ormoc Bay with a stubborn line of enemy defenses standing in their way. COL Haugen, fresh from a late meeting with MG Swing, decided an early attack would be the most effective means of eliminating Hacksaw Ridge’s last defenders, and for good reason. As D Company's 1LT Carrico explained, "The Japanese were famous for sleeping late."

Hard Rock also told his men to shave and clean up since MG Swing would soon come through with the 187th Glider Infantry Regiment, which led D Company's S/Sgt. Wilbur Wilcox, Wilbur to declare, "Scraping a month’s growth of beard off was agony!"

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Dr. Dana Nance and The Sacred Eleven Nurses of Corregidor, Santo Tomas and Los Baños

Seventy-five years ago on February 23, 1945 the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 11th Airborne Division ("The Angels") conducted their famous raid on the Los Baños internment camp on Luzon, Philippines. It is, perhaps, the regiment's most well-known operation (although their history is full of incredible campaigns). At Los Baños, the Angels were willing to risk heavy losses to rescue the 2,100+ men, women and children who had been prisoners of the Imperial Japanese forces since early 1942, so roughly three years. After the 11th Airborne landed on Luzon in late January and early February of 1945, Major General Joseph May Swing was tasked with effecting a rescue of the civilians held at the camp. The problem was that in early- and mid-February General Swing's Angels were heavily engaged in the fight for Manila and therefore he could not commit a force of sufficient size to conduct the raid for now. The internees would have to wait a few weeks more.

Despite horrendous conditions in the camp under the Imperial Japanese guards, the internees at Los Baños were in good hands, some would even say miracle-effecting hands. No, I am not referring to the camp's abundance of clergy who, after arriving in July of 1944, labored to keep up the spirits (and faith) of the internees (although some refused to help with the sick in the camp). 

Rather, I am referring to the expert care and attention given to the men, women and children by the camp's doctors and their well-known attendants, The Sacred Eleven, eleven US Navy nurses who had been stationed at Sangley Point's Canacao Naval Hospital at the Cavite Naval Yards on Manila Bay and helped the wounded during the invasion of Manila in 1941. After US military forces were surrendered to the Japanese on January 2, 1942, The Sacred Eleven became prisoners and were first interned at the Santo Tomas Internment Camp before volunteering to transfer to the Los Baños Internment Camp in May of 1943 to help with the “hospital” there (even they would agree that given the camp's conditions it was only a hospital by the loosest of definitions). 

Of note, the US Army nurses stationed at Santo Tomas refused to go to Los Baños. When Chief Nurse Laura Mae Cobb, who is the only chief nurse in navy medical history to continue her duties while in enemy captivity, asked her Navy nurses if they were willing to risk it, they all agreed. On the morning the nurses left Santo Tomas, someone managed to play “Anchors Aweigh” on the camp PA system to honor their spirit.

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