The Fight for Mindoro

Expanding a little more on last week’s post…

As 1944 was wrapping up in the Pacific Theater, units continued their march northward with the invasion and seizure of the island of Mindoro and continuing attacks on Clark Field, Luzon. Mindoro was considered a strategic asset for continued attacks and the eventual push towards reclaiming Luzon from the Japanese. The Japanese knew this, and even though they were driven off Mindoro on December 15th, they weren’t going to give up easily.

Two airfields were constructed on Mindoro within 13 days of the Allied takeover in preparation for the invasion of Luzon. Admiral Masatomi Kumura did not want to see these airfields become usable by the Americans and he assembled eight ships to sail from Vietnam on December 24th to Mindoro in hopes of disrupting the building efforts. It wasn’t until the 26th that their presence was detected some hours south of San Jose and U.S. ship crews hurried to vacate the harbor before the arrival of the Japanese. Men at Mindoro’s airfield sent a message to Tacloban asking for any help they could get to defend their new airbase.

Unknowingly, the Japanese had picked the perfect moment to strike. The two airfields were almost out of resources, with only a couple dozen bombs and anemic fuel stocks. The air units present on Mindoro (the 8th and 58th Fighter Groups, and the 110th and 17th Reconnaissance Squadrons), were flying fighter aircraft, except for the 17th, which had B-25s. None of these aircraft were capable of tangling with a cruiser safely, and even if they were, none of the crews were trained for night-flying operations. And the U.S. Navy, which had previously been in charge of protecting this advance base, were a day’s voyage away.

The worst-case scenario was invasion. If the Japanese force successfully landed infantry, San Jose would certainly have been overrun. Therefore, every available plane was mobilized, despite the lack of ordnance, the mismatched combat capabilities and the darkness. (There were no landing troops aboard these ships, but the Allies didn’t know that.) Since the fields on Mindoro had to stay under blackout conditions, the aircrews were told to land at Tacloban, almost 300 miles to the east. At 2100 hours, the Japanese ships were in range, and over 100 American aircraft scrambled.

Among them were two aircraft that had responded to the distress call: B-24 snoopers of the 63rd Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group. The 63rd was a night operations group, and two of their aircrews, headed by 1/Lts. Dickinson and Samuel L. Flinner, happened to be in Tacloban when the distress call was received. They had been ordered to make multiple passes from 6000 feet and drop one bomb at a time in order to make it sound like multiple B-24s were overhead.

Instead, Flinner dove down to 1000 feet while strafing the light cruiser Oyodo to drop his bomb more accurately. It looked like his bomb knocked out a couple of the heavy guns aboard, and Flinner went to pull away for another run. Except he couldn’t. PUG’s rudder cables were completely severed by antiaircraft shells and Flinner’s tail gunner was wounded. The B-24 began to descend, nearly hitting the water before Flinner regained control of the plane. He salvoed his remaining bombs and turned for Tacloban. Dickinson, meanwhile, made his runs and damaged the destroyer Kiyoshimo with two direct hits.

Once the crew was away from the fighting, they set about administering first aid to the tail gunner and the engineer, T/Sgt. Bill Schlereth, tackled the rudder cables. He found the two ends of the severed cables in the large mass of wires overhead, then enlisted Sgt. Don Tuley to help him isolate them. Schlereth spent the remainder of the flight clamping and reweaving spare wire to the rudder cables to the point that Flinner was finally able to control the rudders for landing. They waited out an additional five hours by circling Tacloban in order to burn off fuel and make a daylight landing for safety’s sake.

In the end, PUG landed safely with more than 200 new holes than she took off with. The groups at Mindoro had suffered severely: three B-25s, 10 P-47s, six P-40s, and seven P-38s had been lost during the battle. The Japanese withdrew from the area around midnight after doing little damage to the airstrip and harbor with one less ship, the Kiyoshimo, which had been severely damaged by Dickinson’s crew.

 

If you want to read about the battle from the ground perspective, check out Rocky Boyer’s War.