(Concluded from yesterday)
The risky mission to lead the assault on Bessang Pass fell on the unit of Capt. Narcise, commander of the 100-man ragtag guerrilla fighters of “L” Company. He was chosen for the job having undergone combat training as an ROTC cadet officer at the University of the Philippines-Los Banos in Laguna some 50 kilometers south of Manila.
Capt. Narcise wasted no time to prepare for the most important combat mission as a guerrilla fighter. Planning was thorough. Narcise got up-to-date information about Bessang Pass and its surrounding environment from the local people who were sympathetic to the guerrillas. He made sure that all his 100 men under him were mentally and physically fit for the assault and long fighting that would follow. Narcise and his men were ready to move in at any moment’s notice. “We were raring to go!” he recalled with his face filled with emotion.
“By this time, we were camped in Bitalag, Ilocos Sur and all roads were leading to Bessang Pass which was some 45 kilometers east of where they were bivouacked,” Capt. Narcise said. It was in Bitalag that his unit clashed with Japanese soldiers. The fighting tested the combat readiness and capability of Company L
“It was early dawn sometime the month of May 1945 when fighting broke out in Bitalag,” he reminisced. “We surprised the Japanese. In fact, there were 10 to 15 Japanese troops who were killed during the firefight. There was no casualty on our side.”
After the fighting, Capt. Narcise’s unit proceeded eastward to Butac and Suyu where they encountered Japanese troops shortly after the Filipino guerrillas crossed a river. The fighting claimed 12 more Japanese lives.
The series of victories in “small” skirmishes along the way gave the Filipino guerrilla fighters more confidence and tenacity in fighting the well-equipped Japanese Imperial Army whose once deadly war machine was fast losing its venom. They sustained heavy combat losses and the logistics was waning. Another drawback was that the beleaguered Japanese troops could not expect any reinforcement as Allied Forces led by the Americans shackled the might of the Japanese Navy during the Leyte Gulf battle. Frustration and despair reigned in the hearts and minds of every Japanese soldier holdout in northern Luzon. The situation at Bessang Pass was reminiscent of the fall of Bataan more than three years before, but on the reverse with Japan at the receiving end. Japanese forces had felt the brunt of the bombardment by US field artillery and aerial attacks. The sustained bombardment was to soften Japanese resistance as a prelude to the ground assault by the guerrillas.
Then on June 13, 1945, the green light was given. Gen. Volckmann, overall American commander of the US-Filipino guerrilla forces for Northern Luzon, gave the order to guerilla forces to commence the attack. Capt. Narcise immediately briefed his men about their hazardous mission to assault Bessang Pass the following day. For Capt. Narcise the die was cast.
“The most awaited moment is here,” he told his men during the briefing. “I could see from their faces they were eager to go, despite the dangerous mission ahead. For me, I was ready to die for my country.” He gave words of encouragement to his men, who were apparently restless that day.
“Silence pervaded the room where I held our final briefing for the Bessang Pass attack. It was understandable as my men psyched themselves for the big battle. The probability of being killed was high. I asked them to pray and trust God. We bowed our heads in silent prayer. Tension pervaded inside the briefing room. There was no doubt each one of us thought of the fighting the following day and its outcome,” Capt. Narcise said.
After the briefing, Capt. Narcise lost no time to inspect his automatic rifle to ensure it was in good condition. His men also individually checked their weapons and other provisions for the next day’s combat mission which they considered the most dangerous and most daring. Capt. Narcise got clips of ammunition from the logistics section of his unit. Everything was in order. He then placed his weapon in a corner near his bed. That night they could hardly sleep as their minds wandered of the fighting that would take place only a few hours away.
Before daybreak, Capt. Narcise and his men were up. They again prayed for God’s protection. They took a light breakfast before leaving their camp and walked toward their destination—Bessang Pass several few kilometers away.
“Before we knew it, we encountered along the way Japanese soldiers at Nangyatan Hill, a Japanese ammunition depot very early in the morning of June 14, 1945. There was heavy exchange of gunfire. I fired my automatic rifle towards the direction of the enemy. Grenade explosions were everywhere. There was one unexploded grenade that landed near me. I immediately grabbed it and threw back to the enemy where it burst, killing several Japanese. Another Jap tried to throw one more grenade at us but my BAR man, who was carrying his Browning Automatic Rifle, was quick in his reflexes, opened fire before the Jap unleashed the grenade. It exploded in the hand of the Japanese,” Capt. Narcise noted in his diary. The intense fighting lasted for about an hour with the Japanese guarding ammo dump wiped out.
“We sustained no casualty as we cautiously climbed towards Bucwal Hill near Bessang Pass. As we moved we observed that there were several Japanese sentries guarding the periphery of Bessang Pass. Luckily, they did not see us. I motioned my hand to my men to move a little bit nearer. When I calculated that we were within firing range, I issued the order to open fire at about 15 to 20 Japanese troops. Heavy fighting again erupted. It was more intense than the first one. We held our ground and continued firing. There was exchange of grenade throwing. We maneuvered to avoid being hit. The enemy also continued firing at us. The fighting reached its crescendo with both sides firing at will. The echoes of gunfire reverberated all over Bessang Pass. Again, we triumphed,” Capt. Narcise said.
Seemingly recharged following their victories after victories, Capt. Narcise ordered his men “to continue the fight without let-up. But this time it was a close quarter battle. We did not budge an inch. It was now or never,” he said. “At the height of the fighting, our hopes were buoyed further when US warplanes pounded the Japanese position with burst after burst of machine gun fire. As the planes flew away, the guerrillas took charge, firing their guns, crushing the Japanese’s last line of defense. Capt. Narcise and his men rushed into the once impregnable fortress.
“To signify our victory, I took a towel as a provisional flag, tie it to a broken branch of a pine tree before I pierced it to the ground as we shouted, clapped our hands jump with joy, The scene was full of ecstasy,” Capt. Narcise narrated with a smile on his face. It was a momentous event I will never forget to the last breath of my life,” he added.
Capt. Narcise related the battle in Bessang Pass during an interview at his modest home in Tagudin, Ilocos Sur on June 13, 2009 on the eve of the 64th anniversary of the victory at Bessang Pass. The old warrior sat on his chair in his modest home in Tagudin, Ilocos Sur, and explained that since they did not carry the Philippine flag at that moment when he and his troops reached the apex of the mountain fortress, he remembered he had a towel with made and decided to make it as a provisional flag. He then tied it to a broken branch of a pine tree and without hesitation he waved it before he planted the flag on the hallowed ground of Bessang Pass to signify victory of the resistance movement over the once mighty Japanese Imperial Army.
Many of the guerrillas could not hold back their tears as they embraced each other, not only as a gesture of their personal triumph, but a victory for Filipinos and Americans, especially those who fought and shed their blood in mortal combat for democracy to prevail. God was on their side.
“As the victory celebration continued at Bessang Pass, Gen. Eulogio Balao, a top ranking Filipino Philippine Army officer, arrived and congratulated all of us for a job done.”
Euphoria filled the air when suddenly, a staccato of gunfire rang out from nowhere sending the guerrillas, including Gen. Balao down on all fours on the muddy ground for cover. They looked around where the shots came from. There was a deafening silence as everyone tried to feel if there were Japanese snipers out there. After a minute or two, everybody was up on their feet.
When the people in the Ilocos region and adjoining provinces heard about the great news, many cried, but they were tears of joy.
Mr. Cal is the author of the book “Battle of Bessang Pass.”