Sixty-eight years ago, Filipino soldiers in Northern Luzon—composed mostly of Igorots from Benguet and the Mountain Province—won the final battle against the last remaining Japanese forces led by Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, known as the “Tiger of Malaya.”
Some of the Filipinos who belonged to the 66th Infantry of the United States Army Forces in the Philippines-Northern Luzon (USAFIP-NL) are still alive to recount the historic battle.
Around 300 USAFIP-NL veterans, all of them around 90 years old, joined the commemoration of the 68th Liberation Day of the province on August 15.
During the program at the Ben Palispis Hall of the Provincial Capitol, veteran Raymundo Gadgad, District Officer of the Veterans Federation of the Philippines-Benguet Chapter, recalled the heroism of his fellow soldiers during the bloody battles in the early 1940s.
The Japanese troops first occupied the town of Buguias, Benguet, in 1942. They then fanned out to the neighboring towns to fortify their position.
The guerillas, armed with crude and outdated weapons, suffered heavy losses. Civilians were also tortured to death. But a submarine that surfaced off Lingayen Gulf on November 21, 1944 brought renewed hope to the Filipinos. The submarine delivered new arms to the Filipino fighters.
On January 4, 1945, soldiers from the 66th Infantry marched towards the Japanese defense line that blocked the Naguilian and Kennon Roads, the Mountain Trail (now Halsema Highway), and the gold and copper-rich Lepanto area.
After simultaneous assaults the Igorot soldiers liberated Sablan town on April 10, Tuba on April 26, Baguio City on April 27, and La Trinidad on May 3.
In fierce fighting the soldiers repulsed 2,000 Japanese troops from the dreaded Tora Division. The 66th Infantry advanced to the villages of Comillas and Lepanto in Mankayan, then to Abatan and Loo Valley in Buguias town.
The battle lasted for almost a month. On some days, the soldiers had no food. On July 20, despite hunger and fatigue, the Igorot soldiers dealt a telling blow on the Japanese forces in Northern Luzon and the Southwest Pacific.
On August 15, 1945, while Filipino soldiers and the Japanese army were in the midst of battle in Loo Valley, Emperor Hirohito went on radio and ordered his forces to lay down their arms and surrender. USAFIP-NL commanding officer Col. Russell W. Volckmann issued a ceasefire order.
Yamashita and some of his men reportedly retreated to the jungles.
At the Liberation Day anniversary celebration, Benguet Gov. Nestor Fongwan revealed his plans to put up more markers in the province to commemorate the soldiers’ triumph over the Japanese.
“The veterans are already in their twilight years. This [anniversary celebration]is our opportunity—a very rare opportunity—to extend our thanks to the veterans who are still alive as of this time, and likewise, to the wives of those who perished during the war. Let’s give them the honor and recognition,” Fongwan said.
Maj. Gen. Raul Caballes, Technical Consultant on Veterans Affairs and Officer-In-Charge of the Veterans Affairs Management Division of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO), thanked the governor for supporting the veterans.
“He promised to continuously support the activities of the veterans in Benguet,” Coballes said. “Our mission here in Benguet is quite successful. PVAO always provides support whenever requested. In this case, the provincial government of Benguet was able to support everything,” he added.