Counterguerrilla Operations: The Philippine Experience

From “Counterguerrilla Operations:The Philippine Experience,” by Col N. D. Valeriano, Armed Forces of the Philippines (Ret) and LtCol C. T. R. Bohannon US Army (Ret), Marine Corps Gazette, Vol. 47, pp. 41-43

CONCLUSION–In this final installment, the authors recount the government’s swift, though costly, reaction to a mountain ambush.

THE first effective large operation against the Huk developed in reaction to an ambush. The rich central plain of Luzon, nick-named Huklandia in recognition of its long domination by the Hukbalahap, is bordered on the east by a range of extremely rugged mountains. They extend for 20-50 miles to the east coast of the islands. On 28 April 1949, Dona Aurora Quezon, widow of President Quezon, was motoring with a large party on the northernmost road traversing the mountains from west to east. About midway through the mountains the ambushers struck, killing Dona Aurora, her daughter and son-in-law, and several others of the party.

For the first time, widespread popular wrath flared against the Huk. The armed forces were told in no uncertain terms that they must eliminate the ambushers. The officer placed in charge was virtually told not to come back unless he accomplished his mission. Fortunately, he was given a free hand and overriding authority throughout the whole area of operations.

To this operation were assigned nearly 4,000 men, organized as two provisional battalions of Constabulary and one Army battalion. The ambushers were reported to have withdrawn northward into the mountains, an area never before penetrated by troops. There was, of course, no assurance that the Huk would continue to move north; in fact, there was every likelihood that they would try to evade the troops and get back down to the lowlands where food and shelter were available from their civilian sympathizers.

Accordingly, the command was divided into three task forces, with sectors roughly corresponding to the areas delineated by the principal east-west highway across the mountains and the principal north-south
highway which skirts the west side of the mountains from Manila almost all the way to the northern end of the island. One task force was assigned the inhabited, cultivated area west of the north-south highway. This force was to block the escape of the Huk, prevent supplies getting to them in the mountains, and prevent possible diversionary attacks by other Huk elements secking to relieve the pressure on the ambushers. The mission was assigned to the 2d Battalion, 1st Infantry, Philippine Army, with an attached reconnaissance car company and a field artillery battery.

The mountainous area south of the principal eastwest highway was assigned to a hastily organized provisional Philippine Constabulary battalion with a composite reconnaissance car company. There remained the northeastern sector, into which the ambushers had withdrawn, a solid mass of mountains shown on most maps as a white blank (unexplored) space. The pursuit mission in this difficult area was given to the 1st Provisional Battalion, Philippine Constabulary. To it was attached many of the nearly 2,000 civilian guard auxiliaries from the province of Nueva Ecija who had also been mobilized for the vengeance operation. Since the emphasis was on covering this portion of the Sierra Madres with experienced, hard-fighting foot troops, they were given a commander known for determined, aggressive leadership, Maj Mariano Escalona.

Initial emphasis was on patrolling, especially in the western and southeastern sectors. Intelligence activities were also pushed in an unprecedented manner. Great emphasis was placed on personal inspection of the task forces at all hours of the day and night. These inspections determined whether patrols had performed their assigned tasks, had actually reached designated objectives, and whether all possible personnel were assigned to patrolling as continuously as humanly possible. Each group was required to keep a detailed account, showing how many patrols were out, how many men on each, and how long the patrol took. There were, in effect, daily time-sheets for every officer and enlisted man.

For some weeks, the task groups concentrated on patrol activities and on gathering intelligence about Huk activities in the area. It was learned that some little distance north of the ambush site was a base supported by a regular supply route from the lowlands. It was further determined that many members of the ambush party had been fed by three Chinese storekeepers in a town on the mountain fringe the day before the ambush. These Chinese confirmed the presence of a major Huk base in the mountains and identified a key Huk liaison officer in the lowlands.

Attack On Isolated Towns
The liaison officer, one Pedro Mananta, when picked up, was persuaded to disclose the location, three weeks after the ambush which he led, of Huk Commander Viernes, as well as the position of the mountain base, Mt. Guiniat. He also revealed that the commander of Reco 1 (the major Huk command which included this area), Commander Dimasalang, was with Viernes at the mountain base. Perhaps most important of his disclosures was that Huk units in the neighboring lowlands had been ordered to launch attacks against isolated towns. This was to relieve the pressure the task forces were placing on the Huk who had taken part in the ambush, or who were supporting the ambushers.

Despite the lack of terrain information, the approximate position of Mt. Guiniat was determined and an
operation against it initiated. The plan was for five company-size columns to try to converge on the mountain from different directions, launching an attack when all were in position, if possible. By extraordinary good fortune, all five companies reached substantially the proper positions. The attack was launched at dawn of 1 June. The Huk knew the troops were in the area, but one of the disadvantages, to guerrillas, of bases in such rugged and uninhabited terrain was clearly manifested. The Huk were simply unable to keep track of all the columns or even to identify their objectives until too late.

The attack was surprisingly successful, although most of those in the objective area succeeded in escaping. Eleven Huk were killed, five captured, at a cost of only two casualties. It was found that the objective of this operation was only an outpost; the main base lay two miles away.

An attack on that base, covered by mortar fire, was launched on 2 June. The Huk resisted initially, to
allow time for their leaders and the bulk of their party to escape. The vegetation was extremely dense, the terrain all stood on end; these conditions and their effect on radio communications made control difficult. The attack was carried on into the night by small parties, squads and half-squads, each moving through the dark, seeking to push forward on a compass bearing which might bring it to the objective. As a result of the determination with which this attack was carried on, early in the morning the task group entered a settlement of 23 shacks all hidden under tall trees. This settlement actually was the buildings and campus of a Huk “university.”

The area was immediately saturated with patrols. Within a week some 37 Huk dead were tallied and a
number taken prisoner. From the prisoners it was learned that Commander Viernes, with an estimated
250 guerrillas and perhaps 200 unarmed followers, was located in another site about 14 kilometers further to the northeast.

Another infiltration attack by small patrols, each proceeding on an azimuth, was launched. A mortar barrage was laid down to cover these patrols when they came in sight of their objective. Other units followed up, seeking to throw a cordon around the site. This rather unorthodox operation netted 21 dead Huk and the capture of 17 wounded as well as three women and a child. Counterguerrilla casualties were one man killed by falling off a cliff and four wounded, of whom two died while being evacuated.

40 Miles in 40 Days
Commanders Viernes and Dismasalang were not among those killed or captured. Interrogation of prisoners revealed that there was supposed to be another base some 40-odd miles further to the north, still in the mountains, in the vicinity of a remote valley known as Kangkong. It was determined that the pursuit should continue, even though this appeared a tremendous task, one which might well take a day for each of the estimated 40 miles to be covered.

Another provisional force, composed entirely of armored cars and vehicles, was formed to patrol continuously the north-south highway and to probe as far as possible into the rudimentary trails running east into the mountains. The 2d and 3d Task Groups, reinforced by the bulk of the civilian guards, were deployed in the lowlands flanking the mountains to keep up maximum pressure on the Huk there, and on Huk suppliers and sympathizers. This pressure was largely exerted through intensive patrolling. The operational pattern became one of patrolling by half-squads of soldiers. Such patrols in areas where Huk might be encountered were followed by a platoon of auxiliaries close enough to reinforce them in case of a serious fight breaking out.

While preparations were underway for resuming the hunt, several incidents occurred indicating that the denial operations were indeed effective. Survivors from the mountain bases who reached the lowlands often found their contacts already arrested or neutralized by government forces. They also found that anyone who might possibly have participated in the ambush of a generally beloved old lady was strictly unwelcome to civilians in general. Suspected members of the ambush party had two alternatives–surrender, or be killed.

The surrendered Huk furnished information, sometimes no more than two days old, on happenings among the armed elements of Reco 1 still in the mountains. The guerrillas, they said, had broken up into small units which, in accordance with their standing orders, were working north toward Kangkong valley.

A small but experienced undercover intelligence team, equipped with radio, was sent to Kangkong. The
team members claimed to be lumber cruisers or mining prospectors. By the middle of June, the team began to report that residents of small settlements around the area of Kangkong were becoming nervous as a result of the appearance of many strangers coming from the south who posed as hunters or wood-gatherers. A store in the principal settlement of Kangkong was identified as the liaison and rendezvous point of these strangers and was placed under surveillance.

Pursuit Through the Mountains
Supplies and porters for the pursuit through the mountains were finally assembled. On 28 June, four columns, each of company size, struck north on parallel routes through the mountains. ‘There were no
trails. Few guides were available, and those guides who could be found were tribal inhabitants of the area who seldom knew what lav more than one or two mountain ridges beyond their homes. The pattern of advance along the axis assigned each company was unorthodox. Every morning each company sent out from four to 10 small patrols, each instructed to head generally north. That patrol which found what seemed to be the best route for the advance of the company sent back guides to bring up the rest of the columns. This made for slow going, but had the advantage at least of so blanketing the area as to discourage any guerrilla exfiltration to the south. Not a day passed without one or two encounters with Huk, themselves probably lost, and each day took one or two more Huk out of the fight.

Winning the Battles and Losing the War
It took more than two months to move some 40 miles, airline distance, through the mountains. Finally, the base near Kangkong was located and successfully attacked on I1 September. Commander Viernes,
Commander Dismasalang, and 25 of their men were killed, seven were captured, and one surrendered. This marked the end of the pursuit, the end of the ambush squadron, and the end of the headquarters command of Huk Regional Command 1. Not one was again found in action. The list of those killed, captured, and surrendered showed clearly that virtually every man who had been in the ambush party was accounted for.

In the Philippines large operations were most successful when they consisted essentially of a large number or coordinated small operations. When they were not they seldom killed many Huk. They did cause the abandonment of bases, of rations, sometimes of ammunition, and sometimes resulted in the capture of significant documents. They effectively put the Huk in the area of operations on the run, for a time, usually short, and did have some effect in reducing his will to fight. Sometimes, as in the operation against Mrs. Quezon’s ambushers, they did result in substantial casualties among the Huk. The cost of that operation, however–in terms of effort, materiel, and troop time–makes it seem scarcely worthwhile in terms of damage inflicted on the enemy. US P MC

Napoleon Valeriano
Author: Napoleon Valeriano
Colonel, Philippine and U.S. Armies.

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