One of the Greatest Victories in Philippine History: Bessang Pass
Phillip Kimpo Jr. | Jun 20, 2014
(Narrative adapted from Chapter V of the book “The Freedom Fighters of Northern Luzon” by Cesar P. Pobre & Phillip Kimpo Jr.)
The situation was this: it was February 1945. The Japanese Imperial forces remained occupiers of the Philippines. But the Filipino freedom fighters of the Ilocos, the Cordilleras, and the Cagayan Valley, organized into the division-size “United States Armed Forces in the Philippines, Northern Luzon” (USAFIP,NL), was in the midst of liberating most of Northern Luzon.
Despite the organization’s name, the USAFIP,NL was almost purely composed of Filipinos. And contrary to what history books often tell us—that the Americans liberated the country—these Filipinos were freeing their country by themselves, town by town.
But to completely vanquish the Japanese, the Filipinos needed to capture Bessang Pass, which cut through the towering mountain ranges of the Central Cordilleras. It was strongly protected by the overall Japanese military commander, General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Why? Because it was the backdoor of his defense perimeter. Its capture would mean sealing his eventual defeat and capitulation.
Little did they know it, but the Filipino warriors were on the verge of redeeming the tragedies of Bataan and the Death March. They were on the verge of fighting one of the most difficult battles of the entire Second World War. They were on the verge of recording one of the greatest military victories in the nation’s history.
Hell Up High in the Mountains
All the battles fought by the Filipino guerrillas were most critical, most hazardous, and most decisive—but these would pale to what was in store for them.
They pressed on to find, fix, fight, and finish the soldier-subjects of Emperor Hirohito. They marched in less than full-battle gear to Bessang Pass in the town of Cervantes, Ilocos Sur. As they trekked across the rough land, the partisans probably had the nearby historical pass in their minds—Tirad Pass, where the “Boy” General Gregorio del Pilar and his men with valor and fortitude made their last stand against the Americans in December 1899.
Almost half a century later, the Northern Luzon warriors were determined to rewrite history, and this time in the reverse. They vowed to win Bessang Pass, wresting it from the hold of the invader.
But victory for the Ilocano and the Igorot warriors was not going to be tendered on a silver platter by the gods of war. It had to be paid dearly with blood, sweat, and tears. The looming battle was to be fought in the most difficult places and severe circumstances of war.
The terrain, for one, was not so hospitable by any standard that writers had choice words for it.
Then-Lt. Ambrosio Peña, a survivor of Bessang whose job was to keep blasting the enemy with mortar shells, elegantly describes Highway No 4. Otherwise known as the Libtong-Cervantes Road, which snakes through Bessang Pass, it had served as the axis of all the battles to capture it during those days of liberation.
"This highway which is mostly a one-lane affair up to Cervantes, unpaved and bumpy, probes deep into the heart of the Cordilleras, rambling across a region of tumbling hills and jagged mountains and ranges. It begins to worm its way up from Butac (elevation 700 feet). Then reaching Bessang (5,250), it meanders in a series of hairpin turns on the rocky sides of cliffs plunging hundreds of feet below where thick forests of pines and jungle growth silently thrive."
Bessang Pass, and its more historically famous kin, Tirad, are two of only a few passes which cut that part of the Ilocos mountains known sometimes as the Malaya Ranges. The “After Battle Report” paints a niggardly landscape:
"[A] cluster of high peaks, so peculiarly irregular and serrated like an ugly row of incisors jabbing the sky . . . . deep gorges and sharp-crested ridges which are formidable barriers to any movement to the Cordillera Central and the Cagayan Valley. Steep slopes, impassable dense vegetation, numerous mountain streams, swift with many rapids, destructive flash floods from May to October—all make this region seem impenetrable. (Emphasis supplied.)"
The highway itself was made of gravel that turned to slush and mud in the rainy season. The quagmire ran up to the knees, bogging down vehicles and impeding the flow of supplies for the guerrillas. Aside from rain, logs and rocks fell down the slopes of the surrounding heights, namely, Namogucan (6,831), Namandaraan (6,500), Nalidaoan (5,700), Libo-Libo (5,500), and Buccual (5,450). The landslides often blocked, and in some cases, even obliterated portions of the road.
If the highway was quite an obstacle by itself, why then did not the men carve their own path instead? The answer comes from the guerrillas’ own narrative: “There are no hog trails to the crest because the deeply incised canyons do not even allow a toe-hold for the audacious hog. Most native trails are strung up following the knife-edge of the ridges. There are no trails that branch off from the main road . . . The men had to make them.”
Even during the summer months when the battle transpired, the high altitude only permitted one kind of weather: wet, cold, misty, foggy, and rainy. It definitely did not make for an ideal hell, but it sure did give hell to the Filipino warrior.
In the midst of fighting that lasted for months, the warrior must have observed the sun peeking through the crags usually at around 8:00 o’clock in the morning. He would hear the whizzing of American planes just above the treetops and the explosions in the enemy positions, but the airplanes would have had only around four hours to strike before the weather worsened later in the day. By then the warrior would have been stirred by the incessant rain and the expectation of a sneak Japanese attack, just like the one done in the dead of the past night, a night that had chilled his bones and fresh wounds, a night that had not allowed his war-weary body to rest. At 11:00 AM, after barely three hours of sunlight to warm him and his holed-up comrades, the fog would set in and shroud the sun, causing almost zero visibility. The warrior would be having a hard time making out the form of his comrade standing a mere five yards away. An hour after noon, a drizzle would fall on the pass, intensifying to hard rain shortly before dark. For us reading these lines, the day would end, but for the warrior, there was no end and no beginning, just a long, long battle seemingly without conclusion.
Heavy fog limited the fighting to light action. Oftentimes, it provided a screen from which the combatants launched surprise attacks and clashed well into the dark day.
Nature also seems to have made life even more difficult in those inhospitable, heavily wooded ravines and slopes by allowing parasitical creatures to pester both friend and foe. Leeches sucked precious blood from the foot-sore warriors as they forded the numerous streams and fought in the woods of Bessang. Body lice, known as tuma, infested the dirty clothes of the soldiers. “Big bottle-green flies” feasted on the rotting dead. The tiny anopheles mosquito felled scores of men with malaria. Diarrhea, dysentery and other diseases ravaged the stamina of the troops.
Above all, the Filipino faced a formidable enemy, the steely Japanese. The son of the Land of the Rising Sun was determined to defend the strategic high places overlooking the highway. With him were at least 4,500 battle-scarred comrades in the Bessang area—a very critical area for it served as Yamashita’s backdoor.
At the start of the battle there was one and only one guerrilla regiment, the 121st Infantry, to challenge this large hostile force—sometimes by only one of its battalions, at worst by only one of its companies.
It was the second week of February, in the year 1945, when the Filipinos stormed and began the battle for the clouds.
The Turbulent Tugs of War
The first objective in clearing the road to Cervantes was the capture of Japanese-held Suyo. The 3rd Battalion of the 121st Infantry laid siege to the garrison at Bitalag, the barrio before the town, which fell after four days.
The battalion next attacked Suyo itself, which succumbed after three days of fighting. The men then cleared Mt Tapao, Kimposa, and Butac of the enemy. The prized pass of Bessang loomed as the next target.
But it was not to be attacked, at least not yet. Fate and the exigencies of war intervened. The 3rd Battalion was suddenly ordered to pull out and reinforce the 121st Infantry’s 1st Battalion which was in the midst of the brutal struggle over San Fernando in La Union. The 6th US Army urgently needed the facilities of the port, and the Filipinos were needed to do the dirty and risky operation to eliminate its Japanese defenders.
Even as the rest of the 3rd Battalion streamed out of the Bessang area, a relatively small unit, Company “L,” led by Lt. Emilio N. Narcise, moved on to hit the pass. This unit was the one that seized Bitalag and, despite the departure of its unit mates from the battle area, it remained confident of going it alone. Narcise and his men were unafraid of the ominous darkness of the peaks towering above them, the shadowy movements hinting enemy presence, and the haunting whistles of harsh winds rushing through the rocks and crevices.
But then, Narcise was alerted by radio to keep off Bessang Pass as an air strike would shortly be taking place. He thus led his company directly to the town of Cervantes, bypassing the pass.
On February 10, on their way to the town, two platoons of Narcise’s “L” Company engaged the Japanese for 38 hours near Bessang. The guerrillas captured an enemy outpost and finished off 50 Japanese while losing only one. Ten days later, the company attacked and captured the Japanese garrison at Cervantes. They razed the church where the enemy was quartered, burning around 60 Japanese to a crisp. Afterwards, the Filipinos spent four more days to complete sweeping the town of the antagonists. They accounted for 166 Japanese KIA’s while losing only two men—certainly an incredible feat, if you will.
Leaving one platoon to guard the town, the valiant Company “L” raced to Bessang. The men struck Lower Magun and Mt Mauting, northeast and north of the pass, respectively, capturing them on March 7. The guerrillas neared an early victory.
It was not to be. While the bulk of the company was fighting quite far away from the town proper, the Japanese fell upon Cervantes, overran it, and then rushed to reinforce their forces guarding Bessang Pass. The Filipinos at Lower Magun and Mt Mauting were unable to ward off the enemy banzai charge and abandoned their positions.
But unfazed, Narcise’s men collected their wits, steeled their nerves and counterattacked Cervantes. On March 13, Company “L” recaptured the town after five hours of fighting. A week later, a company each from the 11th Infantry and the 66th Infantry arrived to reinforce Narcise’s Company “L”—“L” for “last company standing.” The three units merged to form a Provisional Battalion.
As the guerrillas consolidated their forces in Cervantes, the enemy took positions at the outskirts of the town. Then he employed mountain artillery and mortar to bombard the Filipinos. Before Narcise and his comrades knew it, the Japanese were throwing into the fight the full strength of the 73rd Infantry Regiment of the Tora (Tiger) Division commanded by Lt. Gen. Yoshiharu Ozaki.
Soon, the partisans were driven out of Cervantes once again. The struggle for the town and Bessang Pass, too, had become a tug-of-war.
As the situation developed, the guerrilla units rushed to attack, one after the other, the well-entrenched foe. This strategy or tactics of dealing with the hostiles was unfortunate. It had the effect of throwing piecemeal the freedom fighters into the waiting jaws of the enemy. Although the rank-and-file members were being “killed like flies,” still they were ordered up to the heights by their leaders. By being literally kicked to the top where the enemy waited, the men could only be saved by luck or a miracle from the bullets raining down from the peaks. Even Varro, considered the least able of all Roman generals, probably would not have ordered only about three hundred riflemen to storm, at any one time, a castle at the hilltop defended by thousands of enemy soldiers armed to the teeth.
Without doubt, Narcise and his boys needed help, quick.
Harder and Harder the Conflict
After the bulk of the 121st Infantry finished off the Japanese at San Fernando, La Union, on March 24, the exhausted troops were ordered bivouacked at San Juan in the same province for much-needed rest and reorganization. Three days later the men—rested and primed up to reinforce their comrades in Bessang—moved by shuttles on a motorized convoy to Butac, west of and a striking distance to the pass. The 1st Battalion moved first, followed by the 2nd and the 3rd Battalions.
Three battalions, one objective: recapture Cervantes and win the Bessang campaign.
On March 29, the convoy made contact with the enemy on the high grounds guarding the pass. The Filipino advance was checked by the Japanese on Yubo Ridge, but the friendly troops were able to overcome them on March 31.
On April 2, a patrol of the 1st Battalion infiltrated hostile positions east of Bessang and effected junction with the Provisional Battalion. The bulk of the 121st Infantry had linked up once again with the intrepid Company L.
In the next two days, the 121st Infantry continued its slow advance along Highway No. 4, sweeping aside slight enemy resistance offered from hostile pillboxes and tunnels. But east of Cervantes, the Japanese mountain guns went full blast against Filipino positions. That, notwithstanding, near Langiatan Hill, Company L chalked up another accomplishment by silencing the enemy who was well entrenched in his many tunnels. For its part, the 2nd Battalion cleared Baragbag Point of the adversary.
April 5 was a day that proved to be difficult for the guerrillas.
As the sun peeked through the peaks in its scheduled three hours of fiery display, the Japanese surprised the men of the 2nd Battalion with a grand appearance of their own. Sunrise brought with it a massive artillery bombardment. Exploding shells with their brimstone spreading its obnoxious smell rained down from Mt. Buccual and pummeled the Filipinos. Relentless, the enemy followed up with a strong attack from the Upper Cadsu and the Tagpo ridges.
The guerrillas were pinned down. Nonetheless, they were determined to hold on to their positions, only to be forced back after bitter hand-to-hand fighting. And worse, their rear was threatened by the do-or-die Japanese.
The entire 2nd Battalion was trapped. The men looked for a way out. Fortunately for them, unlike the Roman general Varro’s decimated legions in the Teutoberg Forest, the guerrillas found an exit—the Butac River. The men worked their way through the ravines and precipices to get down to the river, leaving behind two pieces of artillery, the only ones they had got.
To save the situation, the 3rd Battalion was thrown into the fray the next day, armed with mortar and mountain guns. The guerrillas succeeded in driving away the Japanese in Yubo Ridge.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Filipinos made gains. The 1st Battalion seized Mt. Nalidaoan and the Japanese water supply at Diwac. The Provisional Battalion took Mt. Langiatan, and close air support softened up enemy strong points.
Yet, more Japanese soldiers and artillery kept pouring into Bessang from Mankayan and Bontoc, reinforcing their co-defenders by the day. It was clear how so strategically important the area was to the enemy that he had to defend it with all the forces at his command. One could imagine the Filipino warrior, officer or grunt, feeling frustrated as he realized that what had been a hard-fought tug-of-war was now turning into a deadlock.
The war of attrition continued to take its toll on both sides.
On April 11, the Japanese shelled Butac where the 121st stashed most of its supplies and ammunition. Countless ammunition, guns, clothing, and rations went up in smoke. Unmindful of their losses, the freedom fighters attacked the enemy two days later at Lamagan, where he had been subsisting mainly on camote. This he was able to dig within the pocket of land where he could prowl over. The result: 79 of his comrades lay cold and dead. The remaining Japanese in Lamagan were wiped out on April 21.
Continuing the seemingly seesaw fighting, the Filipino soldiers retook Lower Cadsu and the nearby hills on April 29. More skirmishes developed in scattered areas. When the Japanese bombarded the Filipino positions with their artillery, the latter retaliated with its own heavy guns.
Your turn, my turn became what appeared to be the order of the day. In some instances, guerrilla fire set ablaze nipa houses in Cervantes, believed to be supply dumps. Buccual Ridge became a favorite target; many starving Japanese were there, wandering about and digging up camote with “tenacious and persistent effort” along the ridge’s slopes.
No end was in sight for the gruesome battle. In the words of Peña: “As in all battles, there were days and nights of lull . . . At most times, however, there was no letup in the fighting, and on such times Bessang was an inferno.”
Peña continues, “The enemy was probably fed up, too, with the cold, damp place.” He could not repel the guerrillas. Thus the Japanese general Ozaki sent in one more battalion of his 76th Infantry Regiment. The additional troops were to recapture Butac and cut off the Filipino forces near Bessang. They hoped to tilt the scale towards the Emperor’s favor.
And they nearly did. The freshly thrown-in Japanese troops “crept in the darkness” and hit the partisans at Butac with devastating effects, infiltrating gun positions and even the kitchens of the Filipino engineers. Guerrilla gun crews had to switch to their rifles and fire them at point blank range. It was a most critical moment in the battle.
Alerted to the danger, the 121st Military Police (MP) battalion and two companies of the 14th Infantry rushed to the enemy’s rear at Butac after having failed to intercept him. Also, the 2nd Battalion of the 121st Infantry rushed to the town of Cervantes.
The Japanese thus became sandwiched between the Filipino reinforcements and the Butac forces. If they had smelled victory hours earlier, they now smelled mortal danger. They clawed and roared back like cornered tigers, desperate to squeeze themselves out or at least fight to the death.
Back to the frontline, on May 17, the 1st Battalion of the 121st Infantry was kept busy repulsing vicious waves and waves of determined enemy soldiers. Not even the men’s fighting prowess was enough to overcome the sheer numbers of the Japanese, who forced them out of Nalidaoan and into a running battle up and down the hills. Filipinos got killed here and there, and the battalion in an effort to avoid mounting casualties fell back to Lamagan Ridge.
The several weeks of futile fighting since April had turned the battleground into a marsh of mud, blood, and rotting flesh. It was a stalemate that threatened to endure for a long, long time or until all life had gone. Something drastic had to be done by either side—and pronto.
Fortunately, the intrepid Northern Luzon guerrillas, whose staying power did not wane a bit, beat the Japanese to the draw with a masterstroke.
The Defining Moment
As the month of May ended, a staff officer of the US Army I Corps arrived at the freedom fighters’ headquarters. The American brought with him a deadline set by the Corps commander: Bessang had to be captured on June 15. That meant the Filipinos would have only two weeks and one day, not more, to meet the timeline.
To finally break the impasse, the guerrillas threw into battle the numbers and the fighting reliability of its 15th Infantry and 66th Infantry Regiments. The 15th had just emerged from a well-deserved rest after its stirring triumph at Tangadan, while the 66th had just been released from control of the American I Corps. Adding more punch was a battalion from the 11th Infantry, the 122nd American Field Artillery Battalion and close air support.
So then began two seemingly long weeks of what was to develop as the fiercest fighting ever witnessed in Northern Luzon. The three regiments and their supporting units, moving in concert, inched their way up Bessang Pass and adjoining peaks, abreast on an 8,000-yard front, sustaining quite a number of casualties from deadly Japanese gunfire.
When the enemy had moved to within 200 yards from the road through Butac—through which all guerrilla supplies passed—and threatened to sever the Filipino line of communication, the 15th Infantry attacked him immediately to neutralize his threat. That timely and effective action of the partisans not only saved the day but also gave them the momentum to win the struggle for Bessang Pass.
The 15th Infantry, together with the 66th, next assaulted and seized one after another the hills and the ridges on the south side of Highway No 4. With all this accomplished, that portion of the highway—the very lifeline of the guerrillas—would never again be in danger, and the freedom fighters, though bloodied, were now headed for more glorious victories.
The Japanese numbers diminished as quickly as the days of bloodshed went by. In the ensuing struggle for control of an important hill, a hundred enemy troops were killed. But, as the foe felt the intensifying pressure, so did his devotion to defend become all the more steeled. In Upper Cadsu and Nalidaoan, he held out even at the brink of sure death.
As if the two Filipino regiments were not enough, the American 122nd Field Artillery Battalion—a battle-seasoned outfit—moved into position around Butac to lend support. The guns wreaked havoc on the enemy. Every shell fired made more imminent the doom befalling the Japanese defenders of Bessang.
Yet, the American gun crews could not help admiring the Filipino fighters; they complimented them with the kindest of words. Said the American artillery men:
"Never have we supported infantry more eager to close with the enemy in hand-to-hand combat…We have never dared fire any closer overhead fire than was fired in front of the [guerrillas] . . . Nor has any other infantry followed our fire more closely, with more dash."
In the days leading to June 10, the Filipino warriors hit and hacked their way ever closer to the prized peaks. They closed in on the adversary, already weakened and demoralized by hunger, incessant combat and shellings. Strategic places fell to their hands: Lamagan, Yubo, Lower Cadsu, and more. So too did the highly critical Hill No 3 fall, but only after the guerrillas had suffered heavy casualties.
The freedom fighters of Northern Luzon, without their knowing, were now within 50 yards of Bessang Pass.
Peña describes the June 10 battlefield as a “sizzling inferno”:
"Almost everywhere and at all times the men were on the go—docking here, creeping there—between rock boulders and defiles, behind tree trunks and into shell craters."
There was no battle cry to arouse them to deeds of valor; there was no need for that. Everybody knew his part.
On the same day, the 1st Battalion of the 121st Infantry—the same battalion that had had a good drubbing at Lamagan a few weeks earlier—grabbed its chance for vengeance. Its men pounced on the Japanese at Buccual Ridge after an intense artillery and mortar barrage.
After 24 hours of the bitterest fighting in Bessang, 172 enemy warriors lay dead, their corpses strewn about in the foxholes and tunnels like grisly decorations. The Filipinos had to bury the bodies before they could occupy the former Japanese positions.
The next day, the 121st Infantry assaulted the last remaining unfriendly stronghold at Buccual immediately north of Bessang Pass. It was able to gain a mere 75 yards, for the enemy who massed his forces there did not wish to budge. He was as obstinate as he was desperate. And so the battle could only turn into a scene of fighters hurling grenades at each other before they were locked in hand-to-hand, mortal combat.
On June 13, two days before the deadline, the Filipinos quickly took advantage of the fast-deteriorating resistance of the enemy. They exploited this to rout him at Hill 99-W and to capture many of his various arms and supplies. Other important hills and supplies were taken after an all-night assault.
When the partisans spotted formations of Japanese troops streaming out of Bessang, the big American guns immediately leveled their aim and fired at them. Before long, the shells were blowing up the enemy to kingdom come. A witness exclaimed that he had never before seen how so many lives could be so easily snuffed out in so short a time.
But the harbinger of death that was the three more suicidal counterattacks and three more death-spewing tunnels had yet to be overcome. This they did, unmindful of whether they, too, would be called just then by the Grim Reaper. As Peña describes the ultimate risk the men took:
"One had to expose himself to [the] line of fire, race madly for cover and scale high embankments to get a peek at the enemy on his gunsight or pitch in a grenade. And that was what the boys did, and in the process gave up their lives."
From the night of June 13 to the eerie, wee hours of the morning of June 14, guerrilla artillery pounded, pounded and pounded the peak of Buccual, which was “the backbone of the Bessang defenses.”
When that backbone cracked and as the light of day appeared and the smoke of battle cleared, it was time for history to take over.
Up to the Peaks and to the Pass
At 7:00 AM of June 14, Companies K and L of the 121st Infantry launched “one of the most dramatic assaults” in the Battle of Bessang Pass.
The Filipino warriors charged headlong into enemy positions, with guns blazing and grenades blasting. They cut down the last Japanese standing on the last enemy bastion.
Then some men of Company L, the same battle-scarred company of Lt Narcise that had started the campaign almost single-handedly, rushed up to the peak overlooking Bessang Pass. There they waved an olive drab GI towel, the signal flag of conquest and victory.
The order to cease fire was given even as the men perched high on the peaks, triumphantly waving shirts, towels, and makeshift flags.
The Filipinos had won the Battle of Bessang, the costly battle for the clouds.
Peña sums it up best:
"In the end nothing was there but the dead, foe and friend alike which littered the uneven denuded ground . . . All these for only a Pass, a mere strip of the road. But it was all the way and the difference — in the end a brilliant chapter in the history of the Filipino."
With the seizure of Bessang Pass, the Filipinos flung open the backdoor to Yamashita’s defenses. They were now inching closer to the verge of victory in the larger battle for Northern Luzon.
The Japanese survivors of Bessang withdrew southeast to occupy battle positions in the more forbidding mountains to reinforce Yamashita’s shrinking defense perimeter. The guerrillas trailed them close to their heels—and more battles had to be fought, more lives had to be sacrificed.
(For this article’s references and the rest of the chapters of “The Freedom Fighters of Northern Luzon” by Cesar P. Pobre & Phillip Kimpo Jr., contact the Veterans Memorial and Historical Division (02-9114296) of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office, Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.)