Each time I reminisce about the Second World War, I often wonder how the little things that I did as a Platoon Leader influenced the final effort in winning that war. As a commander of a small unit, a platoon, I thought that my action was very minor but remembering the story about the ‘one horse shoe nail’ which could have caused the loss of a battle, I began to wonder if my little effort may have indeed contributed to the success of the entire operation. Such is my feeling about the battle of Tayug when the 26th Cavalry (PS) was tasked to defend the Agno River at all cost to prevent the Japanese in outflanking the Northern Luzon Division commanded by General Wainwright on December 25, 1941. The following is a narration of my participation in that battle.
On the 25th of December 1941 my Machine Gun Platoon and the remainder of Troop “E” under the command of 1st Lt. William P. Leisenring were positioned on the eastern bank of the Agno river, my platoon along the river bank, astride the road coming from Asingan leading to the town of Tayug. My orders were to deny the enemy from crossing the river and to hold my position at all cost until relieved. With fourteen men and four light machineguns it was a very big order but as a soldier I had to execute the order with what I have. I positioned my guns about three yards from the bank allowing ten yards interval between guns. On my left were four heavy machine guns and their supporting men from the 91st Division and on my right was a rifle squad lead by Corporal Jeremias dela Cruz, I told my men to dig in while I inspected both flanks of my platoon making sure that there were no unprotected gaps with units adjacent to mine.
Just as the sun began to set, sending its red rays like the rafters of a huge lean-to emanating from the western skies, the Japanese advance snipers began firing their rifles. At first there were a few scattered shots then there were more and then a lot more that sounded afar off and because the rays of the sun were impending our sights I ordered my men to hold their fire.
There was a full moon that night. How ironic is it that on a night after the celebration of Jesus’ birth, that men are engaged in a deadly combat when they are supposed to fall on their knees and give thanks that the Son of God was born? The sky was unusually clear and the light of the moon was mellow reminding me of those nights in my younger days when my loving father and I sat on rice paddies and he relating to me local folklores such as the nymphs and fairies that peopled our valleys and woodlands; the battles between the Christians and the Moros of which the former always emerged victorious; these and other stories which were told in camp fires during the Filipino Spanish war when my father fought his own battles. I was absorbed in deep thought about my loving parents who were just four kilometers to the east but too far for me to hug them goodbye.
Suddenly a mortar round fell a few yards in front of me which luckily landed in the depth below. This awakened me from my day dreaming and as I scanned the river bed I saw many Japanese, like a multitude of giant hermit crabs, creeping towards our positions. I alerted my men and gave the orders to fire at will. The gunners saw what I had seen and they expertly trained their fire at the creeping shadows. They fanned their fire right and left cutting down the advancing Japanese like a big scythe cutting a field of ‘cogon’ grass. The gunners tilted their guns to shot down those who were attempting to scale the twenty foot bank of the river. Suddenly all hell turned loose and the firing became so intense, like the celebration of a Chinese New Year, as the Japanese desperately made their utmost effort to dislodge us from our positions but my men held their own. An ammunition bearer who was out of a fox hole cried out, “God, oh God, come and help us. Help us please for I could hardly open my eyes because of the intense firing”. After a pause he continued, “Don’t send Jesus, he was just born.” I caught myself snickering but such was the reaction of one who is desperately clinging to his life. Suddenly I noticed that some of my guns and others on my left were no longer firing. I jumped and ran to check what was happening and found that some guns had ruptured cartridge and others had just run out of ammunitions. Having the only combination tool, I ran from gun to gun extracting the ruptured cartridge and ordered an ammunition carrier to replenish those that had run out. I ventured on my left to find that the gun positions had only two men left, the rest had withdrawn to the rear. I checked with the men manning the guns and found out that they had the same problems as my men. I told the men that they are now under my command and for them to hold their positions until further orders. I made the guns operational and had ammunitions brought to them During all of this time Lt Leisenring kept shouting at me to be careful and not to take unnecessary risk but I kept on doing what was to be done, sometimes unavoidably exposing myself to enemy fire. I lost tract of the time but at about 2:00 o’clock past midnight, there was silence. After a few minutes I ordered Pfc Jesus Gonzales and Pfc. Alberto Lazo to check what was happening below. On their return they reported that there were countless dead Japanese together with dead animals which the Japanese used as shields when they attempted to break through our lines.
Lt. Leisenring sent his orders to withdraw so I ordered my guns to withdraw with my four riflemen covering the withdrawal. The Lieutenant commended us for a job well done and recommended me for an award of a Silver Star Medal.
What if the Japanese were able to break through my line, would there be a successful withdrawal of the entire USAFFE at the bridge in Layac junction? Would there be a Bataan campaign which upset the Japanese timetable in their conquest giving the United States ample time to prepare for an allout war? Would there be a Bataan Death March? Would there be a prison camp at O’Donell where my father-in-law died? I just wonder as I reminisce.
Source: (Ret) CPT Felipe Fernandez, Silver Star awardee, response to a request by M.E. Embry who applied the highlights in the essay.
Captain Felipe Fernandez (U.S. Army, ret.), was born on August 13, 1916, in the small town of San Nicolas, in the province of Pangasinan, Philippines, son of Isidoro and Maria (Alimourong) Fernandez, the fourth of six children. He died on March 9, 2013 in Seaside, California at the age of 96. He lived a long, fruitful and healthy life until diagnosed with cancer in early 2013. He passed away peacefully, at home, surrounded by loving family.