After the fall of the Philippines in early 1942 by the Japanese, recapturing the island was of paramount importance to General Douglas MacArthur. Corregidor, known as “The Rock” to U.S. troops was the last piece to fall and American and Filipino troops wanted their redemption.
During the subsequent invasion to retake it, MacArthur used a two-pronged approach by the sea and thru the air. There, American paratroopers of the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team (PRCT) would drop on top of Japanese defenses on a small drop zone to help drive the Japanese off the island. The fighting would last 11 days and the Japanese garrison was virtually wiped out.
In the drive to take Manilla, the island of Corregidor had a massive amount of guns that could dominate ships entering into Manilla Harbor. The island was about 11 miles long and shaped like a tadpole. Most elevations at the tip of the tail of the island were only about 25 feet above sea level, but the heights (500 feet) on the far end of the island offered excellent observation of the bay.
The choice to make a combined airborne and naval assault on the island was a difficult one as the small size of the drop zone would offer the paratroopers virtually zero margin for error. Initially, the commander of the 503rd, Colonel George Jones wanted to land at the far end of the island by the tail where his troops had decent drop zones. But he was overruled. The paratroopers would land at “Topside” on the high ground to support the amphibious landing.
Topside was dotted with the old U.S. Coastal artillery batteries that protected Manila Bay. There were 56 gun positions that housed a mix of 12, 10, 8, 6 and 3-inch guns. Captured from the Spanish during the 1898 war, it was here that the U.S. troops exacted a terrible toll on the Japanese landing forces when they invaded in 1942.
As the paratroopers would be taking Topside, assault troops from the 34th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division would make an amphibious assault on the southern beaches outside of San Jose, the village nearby.
Topside was littered with the ruins of old buildings destroyed in the Japanese invasion. Jones decided to use two small dropzones consisting of the old parade ground and the golf course, both were only 350 yards long meaning no more than 6-8 jumpers could deploy from C-47s per pass. Each drop zone was ringed by dense vegetation, shell craters and a cliff on the west side of the DZ.
But the saving grace of the plan was that the Japanese would never expect to be hit with a vertical envelopment. However, Colonel Jones did expect between 25-50 percent casualties on the jump in.
After a massive air and naval bombardment, the paratroopers began dropping precisely at 8:33 a.m. just three minutes behind schedule as the C-47s were protected by a virtual umbrella of P-47 and P-38 fighters.
The first pass jumped from 500 feet but the winds were higher than expected and they had to adjust the planes’ altitude to just 400 feet. The parade ground was a mess of shell craters, tree stumps, broken glass, and concrete splinters that made it into a very dangerous landing zone.
The Japanese, although completely taken by surprise, immediately reacted and pitched fighting was taking place. Captain Emmitt Spicer, the doctor for the 462nd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, was moving under heavy fire to administer to the battalion’s wounded. Finally, he was cut down, when his body was recovered, it was discovered that he filled out his own his own medical tag. Below the normal name, rank, and serial number, Spicer wrote the following under “Injury”: “GSW [gunshot wound].” Under “Prognosis” he had written “Death.” He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star.
Another trooper, Private Lloyd G. McCarter, crossed thirty meters of open terrain, under heavy fire from a machine gun until he was able to silence it with grenades. He was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
The next night near Wheeler Point, the Japanese launched a banzai attack with 500 Marines against a force of just 50 paratroopers. The Americans holding this position, F Company lost 14 men dead and 15 wounded. But because the warships offshore fired illumination rounds all night, the paratroopers exacted a terrible toll on the Japanese landing force. In a single stretch of road 200 yards wide, over 250 Japanese corpses littered the ground. The men held.
Paratroopers had effected a link up with the assault troops who had come ashore and they moved on Malinta Hill, outside of San Jose. For eight days, the infantry used tanks and flamethrowers to burn the Japanese out of the bunkers and tunnels they were dug into. They killed over 300 including another banzai charge.
Then on the night of February 21st, the Japanese inside the tunnel complex blew themselves up by igniting the explosives in the tunnels. Only 50 survived and they immediately launched into a desperate but futile attack. They were all quickly killed.
That was the end of organized resistance, the troops then cleared pockets of isolated troops until Corregidor was secured.
Casualties for the 503rd PRCT were 169 dead, 531 wounded. The 34th Infantry Regiment suffered 38 killed and 153 wounded. Of the 6900 Japanese on the island, 19 were taken as prisoners and another 20 turned themselves in after the war in 1946. The rest were killed or drowned while trying to escape the island.
The airborne, amphibious assault was a very dangerous plan that no doubt today would be canceled over “the culture of risk-taking” that the Pentagon is so down on. But the paratroopers did it and took back the island. The American and Filipino soldiers had their redemption.