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The retaking of Corregidor Island

  • Published
  • By Brian Smith
  • 317th Airlift Wing
Last week marked the 74th anniversary of the daring World War II airborne assault to retake Corregidor Island, the Philippines, from Imperial Japanese forces. A 6,000-man enemy force occupied Corregidor Island which guarded the entrance to Manila Bay blocking allied efforts to reopen this strategic port. Retaking Corregidor also had strong symbolic value as this was the location that American and Filipino forces, under Gen Douglas MacArthur, valiantly fought for nearly five months before surrendering the largest military force in American history.

The battle hardened duo of the 317th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) and the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) were matched once again to take on this risky operation. The 317th was the lead troop carrier group for all five mass airborne assault operations of the Pacific War and the 503rd was the paratrooper regiment for three of these operations. The 317th was not the first troop carrier group in theater when it arrived in Australia in January 1943 but it was the first C-47 unit to arrive in-theater fully trained in the new discipline of airborne assault operations.

The first mass airdrop of the Pacific War was the airborne assault to take an airfield at Nadzab, Papua New Guinea (PNG), in September 1943 that helped to stem the Japanese advance towards Australia. The 79-ship airdrop formation was led by 24 C-47s from the 317 TCG. The objective of the 503 PIR was the seizure of the abandoned airfield with plans to quickly expand it from one to four airfields to be used as the air hub for the retaking of the nearby port of Lae and follow-on operations.

Much attention was focused on the Nadzab operation following the recent near disastrous allied airborne assaults in North Africa and Sicily.
Therefore, much was at stake when Maj William Williams, the operations officer for the 317th TCG, was chosen as the lead planner for the Nadzab operation. The 27-year old had a reputation for “superb airmanship and tactical skill” having joined the Air Corps before the war with years of transport experience and as an instructor pilot at Randolph Field.

Minutes before the drops on Sept. 5, 1943, B-25s bombed and strafed the target areas followed by A-20s laying down a smoke screen. After a two-hour flight, the entire formation completed the drop on target with all 1,600 jumpers successfully away in less than five minutes.

After the drop, the majority of the formation rejoined and headed back to Port Moresby. The TCG led formation, however, continued 10 miles east of Nadzab to drop decoys and dummy parachutes as a diversion tactic returning single-ship back to Port Moresby.

Within a week after the airborne assault, C-47 crews flying continuously with little sleep, delivered 420 loads to the newly constructed airfields at Nadzab including a large portion of the Australian 7th Infantry Division. The Japanese advance towards Australia was turned back because of efforts made to retake Nadzab.
The successful airborne assault on Nadzab was mentioned in a memo from the Secretary of War, Harold Stimson, strongly recommending field commanders to use the Nadzab model for “effective application” of airborne forces in future operations.

For the next year and half after the Nadzab operation, the 317th TCG and 503rd PIR advanced north through Papua New Guinea and the Philippines with each successive allied victory. In February 1945, as US Army divisions encountered stiff Japanese resistance moving to recapture the capital of Manila, the battle-tested men of the TCG and PIR were tasked with their final joint airborne assault of the war; the retaking of Corregidor Island.

Corregidor Island covers an area of only two square miles with a rocky surface laced with deep ravines. This unwelcoming topography combined with a constant wind blowing off the South China Sea convinced the Japanese defenders that the island was safe from an airborne invasion. The veteran “Jungle Skippers” of the 317th TCG were up for this challenging task and quickly went to work planning the airdrop with the paratroopers of the PIR.

After careful study, two small drop zones were selected on Corregidor’s “Topside” near the western tip of the island. Drop Zone A was centered on the former parade grounds with the remains of the nearby golf course chosen for Drop Zone B. The combination of small drop zone size, strong winds, 500-foot cliffs just prior to the leading edge of both drop zones and Japanese infantry in caves and tunnels throughout the drop environment made for a challenging task for both Jungle Skippers and their load of paratroopers.
In the days before the operation, as the C-47 crews and paratroopers refined their assault tactics, the nation’s focus was on the Battle for Manila and the liberation of Corregidor Island with the hope of finally avenging Gen MacArthur’s ignominious 1942 retreat and completing his “I Shall Return” pledge to free the Philippines from Japanese rule.

In the early morning of 16 February 1945, the 39th Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS) led the 41 TCS to Drop Zone A with the 40 TCS leading the 46 TCS to Drop Zone B. Due to the small target area and high winds, only 6-8 paratroopers went out each C-47’s single paratroop door per pass. Taking small arms and anti-aircraft artillery fire on every pass, each C-47, on average, made three passes across their respective drop zone before all of their 20-22 paratroopers were able to make their jump.

From the experience gained from previous missions in Papa New Guinea, North Africa and Sicily where the aircrew flew their assignments in similar scenarios, it helped them successfully complete the air drop mission for Corregidor Island.
Fifty-one C-47s from the 317th TCG made 600 drop zone passes over Corregidor Island in four waves on 16 and 17 February dropping 2,000 paratroopers and 1,300 supply bundles. Twenty-six aircraft received battle damage with several crewmembers and paratroopers wounded by shrapnel before they jumped. Despite the heavy enemy anti-aircraft fire, the disciplined Airmen of the TCG recorded a 95 percent effectiveness rate getting paratroopers and their bundles onto their assigned drop zone. Unfortunately, twelve paratroopers were killed by enemy fire during their short decent to the ground.

Over the next 10-days of heavy, often hand-to-hand fighting, 200 US soldiers were killed and another 684 wounded before the island was secured. The successful retaking of Corregidor Island was due in large part to the professionalism, bravery and skill of the Airmen and soldiers of the 317th TCG and 503rd PIR. The “I Gain By Hazard” unit was awarded its third and final Presidential Unit Citation for its actions in the second Battle of Corregidor. Many acts of heroism were recognized over the 10-days of fighting including the awarding of one Medal of Honor to a 503rd PIR paratrooper. Over the 74 years since this battle, both units have continued to distinguish themselves in other conflicts across the globe, including most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 317th resupplied the 503rd during heavy fighting in Ramadi, Iraq and later battling the Taliban in Afghanistan.