Forgotten Drop Zone: The 11th Airborne Division in Luzon, Philippines (1945)

Most Americans and nearly all historians are familiar with the famous U.S. Army airborne drops in Sicily, Salerno, and, most especially, Normandy during the Second World War. Far fewer have any knowledge of the 11th Airborne Division’s parachute and glider operations on Luzon in the Philippines within the Pacific Theater of Operations. Shortly after operations on the nearby island of Leyte, the 11th was placed on alert for operations on the main Philippine island of Luzon. The Americans planned a multi-pronged offensive to capture Manila from both north and south, with the 11th Airborne assigned primary responsibility for the southern pincer.

In a demonstration of tactical flexibility and airborne agility, the 11th planned to utilize two of its glider regiments (the 187th and 188th) in an amphibious assault at Nasugbu (southwest of Luzon) followed by a parachute drop of the 511th regiment a few days later to secure the vital Tagaytay ridge. Subsequently, the division would then reorganize and attack Manila’s southern defenses as part of a northward advance on the capital.

The 188th Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) led the amphibious assault at dawn on 31 January with combined arms support from Army Air Corps fighters and light bombers and with joint support from naval gunfire. The 188th secured a beachhead against light resistance, then established positions to the east and south to allow the 187th GIR to come ashore. The 187th conducted a hasty relief in place on the right flank which allowed the 188th to attack north and eastward, maintaining tempo and securing a key bridge before the Japanese could destroy it.

After three days of hard fighting, the 187th and 188th broke through three successive Japanese defensive lines, each replete with trenches, bunkers and fortified caves. By 2 February, the division recon platoon reached the outskirts of the vital Tagaytay Ridge – the planned site for the 511th’s airborne drop. Though originally scheduled for 2 February, the division commander – MG Swing – insisted on a one day delay to ensure the 187th and 188th were in close enough proximity to support the 511th’s parachute forces.

At 0300 on 3 February, the 511th – protected by P-61 night fighter aircraft – assaulted in three lifts. Despite issues with pilot error and jump discipline, which caused some elements to drop off target and become scattered, the 511th quickly reorganized on the ground. The success of the operation was due not only to detailed inter-regimental coordination and MG Swing’s prudent caution, but through multinational operations with local Filipino guerillas – who had largely cleared Japanese soldiers from the ridge before the jump. By 1500 on 3 February, all three regiments of the 11th Airborne had cleared the ridge of defenders, reoriented north, and were in position for the final assault against Manila. In just four days, the Japanese faced a major threat to their southern flank on Luzon.

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