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A Brief History of the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery

 


Bataan Memorial Columns History Text

 


Wainwright Captivates Deming

Brigadier General Charles G. Sage (left) and Colonel Harry M. Peck, Commanding Officer of the 515th CA (AA), photographed just before turning their backs on the Mukden Prison Camp to begin the long journey home.

San Felipe de Neri Church
Albuquerque, New Mexico

 

HISTORICAL BRIEF

 

In the Spring of 1940, the 111th Cavalry of the New Mexico National Guard was converted into the 200th CA (AA) Regiment.

As such, the Regiment entered federal service on 6 January 1941 and trained at Fort Bliss, Texas until August of that year.

It arrived at Fort Stotsenburg, P. I. on 26 September 1941 and saw its first action on 8 December 1941 when it engaged Japanese bombers and fighters which attacked Clark Field.

On the night of 8-9 December, a cadre of 500 officers and men from the 200th moved to Manila. This detachment was designated the 515th CA (AA) on 19 December.

On 7 April 1942 the two regiments were combined into a brigade, designated as the Philippine Provisional Coast Artillery Brigade (AA).

The remnants of the Brigade surrendered to the Japanese with the Luzon Force on 9 April 1942.

 

 

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE 200TH COAST ARTILLERY (AA)

BY COLONEL STEPHEN M. MELLNIK, GSC

 

Stephen M. Mellnik
 

This is the story of an antiaircraft regiment which made few statistical records but which fought, bled and died doing everything from shooting down Japanese planes to stopping Japanese Infantry assaults. This is the story of the 200th Coast Artillery, designated (AA), but actually Inf., FA, and finally POW.

For this regiment there was none of the fanfare and enthusiasm which accompanied units in victorious drives. There was only sweat, hunger and illness. The regiment developed no new techniques for the use of the M9 Director or the guns which fired themselves. At the time the regiment went through its siege the historian will recall that the M4 Director was the latest in antiaircraft fire control materiel.

In its spare time, the regiment learned to forge for food, as its ration was limited to one-half pound of rice per man per day. For "recreation," the regiment went on scouting expeditions, hunting down Japanese snipers who proved an excellent source of tailor-made cigarettes.

It all started when the 200th CA (AA), New Mexico National Guard, under command of Colonel Charles G. Sage, was called into Federal Service on 6 January 1941. The regiment trained at Fort Bliss until 31 August 1941, when the press of events in the Far East and the lack of antiaircraft units in the area resulted of secret orders for the 200th to proceed west.

In the rush to get in shape for action, little time was available for training, and the regiment sailed for the Philippines without having had target practice with any of its weapons. Arriving in the Philippines, it had the doubtful honor of being the only antiaircraft unit of any type in the Philippines (with the exception of the Corregidor garrison). Still in the antiaircraft tradition of undertaking overwhelming tasks, the Regiment assumed the defense of Clark Field, the only heavy bomber base on Luzon.

(illegible...) such an installation required at least (illegible...) times as much antiaircraft for its proper protection, fazed very few people, least of all the 200th. Placed under operational control of the Far East Air Force at Clark Field, the 200th was virtually on its own from that time on.

During the ten weeks of bedding down at Clark Field before the bombs began to drop, the 200th was able to unpack its equipment, get set in position, and had even planned for some target practice. Headquarters USAFFE, established in July 1941, was frantically trying the mobilize, equip and train an Army with which to stop the inevitable invasion. Of necessity, it could furnish the 200th with little direction and even less guidance. From the USAFFE point of view, any organization which had its quota of officers, men and equipment, was so far ahead of the Army being organized, that it could well shift for itself until more important problems were solved.

At about 0500 hours on 8 December, Manila time (about 1000 on 7 December, Hawaii time), the Regiment was alerted. Previously prepared gun positions were manned, and a period of waiting ensued. After several hours of waiting, with reports that enemy planes were over the Island of Luzon, the all clear was given about 1130 hours. About 1230 hours, Japanese bombers and strafing planes made their appearance, and the war for the 200th was on.

The 200th was no match for the 300 Japanese planes which flew in from Formosa. The high altitude bombing attack was well synchronized with the low flying strafers. The men dished out whatever they could but they took a lot more. When the smoke blew away from the muzzles, five confirmed planes had been shot down but quite a bit of the antiaircraft equipment had been punctured by bullet holes.

That was just the beginning. That night, it was realized that the City of Manila had no antiaircraft protection (an antiaircraft machine-gun platoon had been sent from Corregidor to Manila to protect the dock area). The regiment sent 500 officers and men to Manila to uncrate some antiaircraft equipment which had just arrived, and to establish an antiaircraft defense of the Manila area. Colonel Harry M. Peck, Executive Officer of the 200th, was in command of this group.

Getting into Manila at 2100 on 8 December, the detachment began to uncrate and assemble the antiaircraft equipment found in the dock area. The strange blacked out city, with nervous sentries shooting at every vehicle that moved at night, added to the difficulties. Filipinos were hastily recruited, guns were dug in and in twenty-four hours were ready to shoot. On the morning of 10 December when 54 two-motored Japanese bombers flew over Manila, they were met with a pattern of antiaircraft puffs that was more spectacular than effective, as it was not immediately apparent that the planes were flying ABOVE the ceiling of the powder train fuses.

The trials and tribulations involved in trying to train Filipinos as searchlight crew members will be appreciated by anyone who has ever had a similar task. The Filipino's sublime disregard for a machine's limited servicing needs caused many a gray hair. However, to the Manila group of the 200th, this was merely preliminary training for the real test to come.

For the Clark Field element, there was another personnel cut in the offing. About 50 self-propelled three-inch guns had been unloaded in Manila about one week before the war started. (The personnel to man the guns eventually arrived in Australia.) On 9 December, the 200th was ordered to send 100 trucks and 200 men to man the self-propelled guns. The original 200th was now down to 1100 men, with its mission to protect Clark Field still unchanged.

For the next two weeks, the 200th and the Manila “Provisional Regiment of the 200th” were very much harassed. The organic regimental transportation had been reduced by 100 trucks, and the balance had to serve two regiments instead of one. The personnel for one antiaircraft regiment had been reduced by 200, and now had to man the equipment of two regiments.

At Clark Field, the Japs were making doubly sure that the Far East Air Force remain ineffective. Daily bombing and strafing met with only antiaircraft resistance. While there was satisfaction in shooting down Japanese planes, it was disheartening to watch the planes concentrating on gun positions and to know that no friendly planes were available to challenge the Japs. In addition, it seemed pointless to continue the defense of a field which had no operating installation. However, there was always the chance that plane reinforcements would arrive, and Clark Field was an excellent air base.

The confusion in the Manila area was further confounded by a desire on the part of every Filipino to become a member of the antiaircraft unit. At the approach of enemy planes, every resident of Manila who had a weapon promptly began to shoot. That the planes were flying at altitudes in excess of 20,000 feet did not, apparently, discourage the volunteer enthusiasts. This type of firing forced antiaircraft gun crews into foxholes more often than did Jap bombs.

Two weeks after the war began, the Japs started to make landings on Luzon, and their air effort over Clark Field and the Manila area was intensified. Soon the main Jap landing was made at Lingayen Gulf, and the decision was made to withdraw our forces into Bataan.

The parent 200th assumed the mission of covering the retreat of the Northern Luzon Force into Bataan, while the Provisional Manila Group, newly christened on 19 December 1941 as the 515th Coast Artillery (AA), assumed a similar mission for the South Luzon Force.

The successive withdrawals and deployments, to keep pace with the retreating forces, was a nightmare. The skeletonized 200th, covering the retreat of three Infantry Divisions, stretched Napoleon's maxim on "Economy of Force" to its elastic limit. No greater Economy of Force could have been made. By judicious use of the 24 hours in each day, and by dispensing with eating and sleeping, the 200th safely convoyed its three divisions into Bataan. “The impossible was accomplished yesterday!”

The 515th had a similar problem, though a bit more critical. The key to the successful withdrawal of the South Luzon Force lay in the cluster of bridges at Calumpit. If those bridges remained intact, the Force would get through safely, as the Japs in the south and cast were still some distance away. Without the bridges however, a long detour of about 100 miles was in prospect; the alternate choice being to cross a 20-mile swamp.

The 515th arrived at the Calumpit bridge area to find that the Japs too, realized the importance of the bridges in the strategy of the withdrawal. For about five days there was a bitter contest between Jap planes and the 515th. Due to its accurate shooting and the confused situation facing Jap pilots in the large cluster of bridge targets available for bombing, two key bridges were left unharmed, and our troops came through.

With the Infantry Divisions bedded down in Bataan, the 200th and 515th turned to the defense of the Cabcaben and Bataan airfields. While our available air force of six P-40's was inconsequential by present standards, it was most versatile. It performed bombing, photo, transport and pursuit missions, depending on the task to be done. As such, it needed and got all the protection it deserved. To the everlasting credit of the alert air force personnel (with help from the 200th and 515th), not one of the six P-40's was even damaged by the numerous Jap raids on the two fields!

As the war progressed on the Bataan front, a “friendly” reconnaissance plane named “Photo Joe” began paying visits over the front lines. Photo Joe rarely dropped visiting cards but always after his visit, Jap artillery shells would blanket the areas which he had visited. To discourage Photo Joe's visits, two batteries from each of the regiments were ordered to the forward areas to greet the plane on its flights.

It would be gratifying, but not accurate, to say the upon the arrival of these batteries, Photo Joe's visits became less frequent. Napoleon's maxim of Economy of Force to the contrary notwithstanding. 37,000 yards of front was too much for four antiaircraft artillery batteries to cover with 100% effectiveness. However, the fire did force Photo Joe to be more cautious in his approach, and kept him at much high altitudes than he cared to be. As for the Infantry units, the morale effect of an antiaircraft battery taking positive action to discourage enemy planes from coming to close was tremendous. In the war on Bataan, virtually all planes were enemy, and an antiaircraft unit was worth its weight in gold.

The next three months saw the situation deteriorate from bad to worse. While the Japanese air actions were sporadic in nature, the menace of malaria and dysentery was always present. The limited amount of quinine was soon consumed, and the malaria rate continued to climb. Case in some units averaged 70% and there was no hope of replacements. Finally, malarial patients stopped going to the hospital as they preferred to stay with their units since the hospital had no medicine with which to work. The occasional shipment of quinine which came in via a private civilian plane which could fly to Cebu, was never enough for distribution to a regiment.

Food likewise became a serious problem. By February, the ration was limited to one-half a pound of rice per man per day, with a can of sardines split two ways for desert. Soon, even the sardines ran out. Hunting for monkeys, iguanas and carabao became a necessity rather than a sport. In a short time, these edible animals became scarce, and snake hunting next became popular. Rice fields, abandoned by the natives at the outbreak of war, were taken over by the units and harvested. The areas were combed for edible fruits and vegetables.

The combination of hunger and malaria reduced the units to a state of apathy. There was little enthusiasm for the expeditions into the jungle which marked the unit's arrival into Bataan. The complete lack of mail from home was a strong factor in lowering morale. There were no movies, magazines or post exchanges; boredom, illness and hunger made this period a trying one. The front-line units were in even worse shape. They had no time for hunting, foraging or harvesting rice fields. In addition they had the ever present hazard of an aggressive enemy constantly probing our lines. The sole source of commercial cigarettes was the infrequent Jap casualty caught behind our lines.

About 3 April 1942, the Jap had apparently received sufficient reinforcements with which to begin his drive down the peninsula. An intense concentration of Jap air and artillery fire was placed on our front line and the rear areas were under constant strafing and bombing attacks. To complicate the problem, we were at the end of the dry season and Jap incendiary bombs literally burned out whole units. After two day of preparatory fire, the Japs commenced their infantry and tank attacks. On 7 April the combined infantry and tank effort broke through our lines. Human beings could just stand so much and no more.

On the same day, the administrative machinery of USFIP finally formalized a situation which had existed for months — it organized the 200th and 515th into an antiaircraft brigade. Colonel Sage was given the command of the Brigade, while Colonel Memory H. Cain, the Executive Officer of the 200th, assumed command of the 200th. The life of the Brigade as an antiaircraft unit was short-lived. Within 24 hours, it was forced to destroy its antiaircraft equipment and to organize as an infantry unit with the mission of defending the line south of Cabcaben airfield!

The 24-hour life span of the converted Brigade saw chaos. Japanese infantry units, paced by their tanks, were pushing through the break in the line like water through a hole in a dam. Disorganized Filipino units were clogging the single road leading to Marivales, while Japanese planes added to the confusion by spraying the road with machine-gun fire. Human being, weakened by hunger and disease, had but one thought — to get away from the slaughter.

The Brigade stayed anchored to its infantry position south of Cabcaben airfield while the Jap tanks ploughed through the line, interested only in exploiting the break through. As the Japanese Infantry arrived, the Brigade firmed up forcing the Jap attackers to deploy. Over the noise of the planes and artillery came the sound of our ammunition dumps being blown up. It was the end! Within a few hours, orders were received from the Force Commander to surrender to the nearest Japanese unit.

After the surrender, the infamous “Death March” was followed by three and one half years of incarceration in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps.

It is difficult to asses the contribution of such a unit as the original 200th without becoming sentimental. In terms of 86 Jap planes shot down, or so many Japs killed, there is a small degree of cold statistical comfort.

I met many men of the unit, during the war and in Japanese prison camps. Few men on Bataan will ever forget the unfailing good humor of the boys from New Mexico, their willingness to help out, and their cheerful acceptance of impossible situations.

 

Members of the 200th released from Japanese prison camp enjoy a luncheon during a stopover on Oahu en route to the United States in September 1945. [LtCOL Father Albert Braun of Mescalero, New Mexico, 45th Inf 91st CA, is the 2nd man from the right, at the table at the right, facing away from the camera and smiling.]

 

Colonel, now Brigadier General Sage, who took 1800 New Mexico men to the Philippines, and brought back but 1000, can look back with pride on the performance of the 200th at Clark Field and Bataan. His was the original responsibility for the formation and training of the units; to him should go the credit for its performance.

Colonel Peck can also look back with pride, and perhaps now with some amusement, at the difficult days in Manila when he had two weeks in which to organize an antiaircraft regiment with untrained Filipinos. Yet the efforts of his unit prevented the Japs from making a shambles of Manila in those early days of the war.

To Colonel Cain, whom I knew best, I take off my hat in tribute. With him will go the prayers of the men of the 200th who were with him at Camp O'Donnell, Cabanatuan and Davao. Colonel Cain, giving his can of sardines (the first can he had in months) to a dying member of the 200th, is something none of us will ever forget. The prayer meetings he held at a time when all hope seemed lost is another memory which will stay with all those who know him.

Let us not ever forget the 800 men of the 200th who lie buried on Luzon, Bataan and the various Japanese Prisoner of War camps. To those who came through alive; those who had the good fortune to know the 200th, will always remember their patience under adverse conditions, their uncomplaining care of each other, and the inevitable guilt which played a requiem to those who died.

General Wainwright, in paying his tribute to the 200th. said in December 1945:

“On December 7,1941, when the Japanese unexpectedly attacked the Philippine Islands the first point bombed was Fort Stotsenberg. The 200th Coast Artillery (AA) assigned to defend this Fort, was the first unit in the Philippines under General of the Army Douglas MacArthur to go into action and fire at the enemy, also the first one to go into action defending our flag in the Pacific.”

The quotation is a masterpiece of understatement.

The old 200th died at Bataan but its memory and deeds live on, and from these recollections, a new 200th will undoubtedly be born. It is hoped that those men now in hospitals and others since released will recover sufficiently to form a nucleus for this new unit to keep alive and foster the traditions they established.

It is expected that it will be designated the 200th AAA Group and it is hoped that the members will wear with pride and distinction the Distinguished Unit Citation with two clusters which were so gallantly earned by the old 200th.

 

COAST ARTILLERY JOURNAL

MARCH-APRIL 1947