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The Aparri Landings: Gypsy Task Force 76 Years Later

For years now I have been reading and listening to articles and podcasts mistakenly claiming that Operation Varsity (part of Operation Plunder) was the last airborne operation of World War II. While Varsity was indeed an enormous campaign that involved over 16,000 paratroopers and thousands of aircraft, it was not THE last airborne operation of the war, though in can correctly be called the last one held on such a massive scale (Varsity was the largest single-day/single-location airborne deployment in history).

So, if that is the case, what WAS the last airborne operation of World War II? Answer: The 11th Airborne Division's Gypsy Task Force.

Operation Varsity kicked off March 24, 1945 in Wesel, Germany whereas the Angels' landings at Aparri, Luzon, P.I. occurred on June 23, 1945, almost three months to the day after Varsity. For decades, members of the 11th Airborne Division have heard erroneous reports stating that their brothers in the 17th Airborne Division were honored with "making the final jump of the war", but that credit actually belongs to the Angels. In addition, the 11th Airborne was scheduled to drop on Japan during the anticipated Operation Olympic in late 1945, a campaign that was thankfully aborted due to Japan's surrender. This cancelled drop would have put the Angels' last airborne deployment even later than Varsity, likely around November of 1945. But let's dig in to the actual LAST airborne deployment of the war, the Gypsy Task Force.

Origins of The Gypsy Task Force

While Nazi Germany officially surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945, the 11th Airborne Division was still busy fighting an indignant Imperial Japan in the Philippines. Yes, there were some in Japan's governing bodies who were leaning towards surrender as victory was becomming an increasingly hopeless prospect, Imperial forces were still fighting bloody battles across the Pacific. It is so easy to forget that while countries around the world were celebrating VE Day on May 8, 1945, Allied forces fighting in the Pacific Theater were still fighting or getting ready to launch the bloody campaigns to retake Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Luzon and Mindano. While shouts of "Peace! Peace! Its over!" rang throughout the streets of Europe, the Pacific war went on and continued to cost the Allies over one-hundred-thousand casualties.

In May of 1945, AFTER VE Day, the veteran 11th Airborne Division was still heavily involved in the battle to liberate the island of Luzon in the Philippine Archipelago. Under the command of Major General Joseph May Swing, the Angels had fought their way from Nasugbu on the island's west coast, up towards Tagaytay Ridge where the division's 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment made a parachute drop on February 3, then the division pushed north to participate in the brutal Battle for Manila. For a complete description of this campaign, please consider purchasing a copy of our book on the 11th Airborne, WHEN ANGELS FALL: FROM TOCCOA TO TOKYO, THE 511TH PARACHUTE INFANTRY REGIMENT IN WORLD WAR II. The Angels suffered heavy casualties in the fight to retake the city and then in their ensuing operations to retake the mountains and cities of Luzon's southern and southeastern sectors.

Things slowed down a little for a few weeks in early June when the Angels were given some time to rest and recuperate, plus integrate badly needed replacements. The division as a whole suffered 18% casualties, higher than most infantry divisions in the PTO; some of General Swing's companies had endured 70% casualties. Their short rest, however, would not last. The Japanese were still waiting in defensive pockets spread throughout Luzon. One of those pockets was centralized in northern Luzon and there was some concern was that the remnants of Japan's 150,000-man "Shobu Group", what was left of General Tomoyuki Yamashita's 14th Army, would make its way north towards the coast where perhaps the Imperial Navy could effect some sort of Dunkirk-like rescue.

As it stood in early June of 1945, Yamashita (seen in the photo to the right) had already begun enacting the abandonment of the Cagayan Valley itself with a withdrawal into the Cordillera Central. The general planned to spread his forces throughout three defensive perimeters around Luzon's fertile Cagayan Valley which, like an inverted triangle, was encircled on the north by the Babuyan Channel, on the west by the impressive Cordillera Central hills and to the east by the Sierra Madre mountain range. Nicknamed the "Tiger of Malaya" and "The Beast of Bataan", Yamashita had deployed the Shobu Group well around the large valley's perimeter that was a natural stronghold full of gorges and razor-backed ridges and mountain tops. To give his men time to gather and stockpile resources from the valley itself, Yamashita was coordinating a slow "war of attrition" rather than decisive actions with forces that consisted of the 19th Division, the bulk of the 23rd Division, and elements of three others: the 103rd and 10th Divisions and the 2nd Tank Division. Both sides knew that the longer the Japanese had to prepare their defenses, the more casualties it would take to reclaim the Cagayan Valley and the surrounding mountains. It would also allow the enemy to stockpile provisions taken from the productive area since the US Navy had cut off all amphibious enemy resupply (although, again, a Dunkirk-like rescue was a concern, though highly unlikely).

And while the Ohio National Guard’s 37th Infantry, the “Ohio/Buckeye Division”, was tasked with attacking up the valley along Route 5, and to the west Brigadier General Charles E. Hurdis' 6th Division blocked any Japanese trying to escape on Highway 4, US Sixth Army's General Walter Krueger wanted to seal the enemy’s potential escape by sea and box them in for elimination or their surrender. To do so, he elected to send in the 11th Airborne Division for an aerial deployment that would close the Cagayan Valley's northern end. General Krueger hoped this Aparri operation would eliminate one of Japan’s last standing armies in the Philippines and move the Allies one step closer to Tokyo.

As such, on June 21, 1945, General Walter Krueger ordered General Swing to prepare to drop a battalion combat team near Aparri on June 23. Codenamed: The Gypsy Task Force.

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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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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 were 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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