(Feature) Role of Novaliches bridge in the liberation of Manila from Japanese occupation in 1945 retold

MANILA-- Did you know that the arrival of the Allied Forces of Gen. Douglas MacArthur from Lingayen, Pangasinan to liberate Manila from Japanese occupation 72 years ago was nearly delayed indefinitely because of an attempt by the Japanese Army to blow up a narrow bridge along the old Novaliches-Ipo-Norzagaray (Bulacan) Road, one of the two main gateways to Manila at that time?

And had the invading army succeeded in destroying the said Novaliches bridge, as many as 37,000 men, women and children of various nationalities who had been imprisoned at the Santo Tomas University (UST) camp for three years could have been massacred by the enemies due to the failure of their saviors to arrive at the right moment?

These and other related information were narrated in the book "Retaking the Philippines, America's Return to Corregidor, Manila and Bataan: October 1944-March 1945" written by American war historian William B. Breuer and published by St. Martin's Press in New York City in 1987.

According to Breuer's 24-chapter, 263-page book, on Jan. 30, 1945, the 1st Cavalry Division of Gen. MacArthur's troops commanded by 46-year-old Maj. Gen. Verne D. Mudge, after coming ashore at Lingayen Gulf, received "an electrifying order from the Sixth Army: Race to Manila."

Mudge immediately organized two flying columns for the 60-mile dash to the country's capital under the command of Brig. Gen. William C. Chase, head of the 1st Cavalry Brigade. An excited Chase told reporters: "We're heading hell-bent for Manila and we're not going to worry about what enemy troops we leave behind us."

Meanwhile, just outside Clark Field, 50 miles northwest of Manila, Gen. Bob Beighther of the 37th Infantry Division "was equally eager to reach the glittering prize first."

The mission to recover Manila began in a sugarcane field, where Lt. Col. Haskett Conner, leader of the 2nd Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment, was giving final orders to his officers. It was close to midnight of Jan. 31. There was excitement as Conner disclosed the mission: "Plunge into Manila and rescue some thirty-seven hundred American men, women and children who had been imprisoned at the Santo Tomas camp for more than three years."

Conner's 700-strong flying column would be led by tanks and followed by cavalrymen in trucks, weapons carriers and jeeps, along with engineering and service units. More tanks would bring up the rear.

At some points, the column attained high speed along highways; at other times, "it was slowed to a crawl when forced to use carabao paths where there were no roads" and bridges had been blown up by the Japanese.

Oftentimes, the column halted to engage in clashes with ambushing Japanese. As each pocket of resistance was wiped out, the cavalrymen would leap back to their vehicles and race forward.

It was almost midnight on Feb. 2, 1945 when the exhausted troops of Conner reached Baliwag in Bulacan and were given a chance to coil up for few hours of sleep. That night, Gen. Bill Chase set up his Command Post in a house in that town. He learned later that a month earlier, Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita had spent a night there after leaving Manila and heading northward for Baguio City.

Long before dawn of the next day, Feb. 3, Conner's column had resumed its dash for Manila in what was dubbed as "The Day" - the return of armed Americans to the Philippine capital from where Gen. MacArthur and his greatly outnumbered soldiers were driven away by the Japanese at about Christmastime in 1941.

Here's how Breuer narrated the Novaliches bridge incident on the early hours of Feb. 3, 1945 in Chapter 14 of the book sub-titled: "A Mad Dash for the Capital":

"Nearly an hour before daylight, pilots of the 24th and 32nd Marine Air Groups lifted off from a hastily build strip on top a paddy field in Mangaldan (Pangasinan), fifteen miles east of Lingayen Gulf. All during the 1st Cavalry's sixty-mile dash to Manila, the Leatherneck flyers had provided dawn-to-dusk air cover, and now they were reconnoitering the key Novaliches Bridge eight miles north of the capital.

"General Chase was worried about this bridge, which afforded a crossing over a stream that had banks too high and too steep to permit fording. If the span was blown, it could hold up Chase's column indefinitely. But word came back from the Marine pilots: 'Novaliches Bidge was still standing.' Chase, greatly relieved, sent a signal to Lt. Col. Conner: 'Grab the bridge.'

"Just as Conner's leading tanks approached the bridge, the American column was raked by fire from in front and both sides of the approach. Tank hatches snapped shut, brakes squealed, and cavalrymen leaped out and scattered for cover. Foot soldiers tangled with cluster of Japanese on both sides of the (Novaliches-Ipo) road; up front the tanks fired their 75s into likely hiding places.

"Navy Lt. James P. Sutton, a bomb-disposal officer, from Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, attached to the 1st Cavalry Division, was lying in a ditch, blasting away with a carbine. Major James C. Gerhart of Santa Fe, New Mexico, executive officer of the squadron, rushed to Sutton and shouted, 'Come with me quick, the bridge is mined and the fuse is burning.' The Navy officer jumped to his feet and ran after Gerhart.

"Reaching the head of the span, Lt. Sutton quickly sized up the situation. Indeed, the fuse was burning briskly. With Japanese machine-gun bullets zipping past him, the bomb-disposal officer raced onto the bridge and cut the flaming fuse just before it reached the explosives. The gateway to Manila had been narrowly saved. Later, Sutton would find that there had been enough explosives to have blown him halfway to Tokyo: 400 pounds of TNT and 3,000 pounds of picric acid.

"Conner's Cavalrymen scrambled back onto their vehicles and the column started across the Novaliches Bridge. The mechanized column pushed past burning houses and dead Japanese on the far side of the bridge. At 6:35 p.m., with dusk settling over the Philippines, troopers wearing the oversized shoulder patch of the 1st Cavalry Division crossed the city limits of Manila, the first armed Americans to reach the capital. But it was a precarious toe-hold, for the division was strung out to the rear nearly forty miles."

With this arrival of MacArthur's troops in the capital after a long march from Lingayen through the historic Novaliches Bridge, the month-long Battle for the Liberation of Manila had just begun, eventually ending on March 3, 1945.

Background on the Novaliches Bridge

Until the second half of the 1960s, when the former Manila North Diversion Road, now the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) was constructed, the Tulyahan Bridge, spanning what used to be a deep river with the same name, was the only direct link to Manila from Central and Northern Luzon, aside from the old Manila North Road's Marulas Bridge in the former Bulacan town of Polo, now Valenzuela City.

The old Manila North Road has been renamed MacArthur Highway since 1961 in honor of the American general made more famous by the fulfillment of his unforgettable "I Shall Return" promise to the Filipino people when he left the embattled Philippines in 1942 in accordance with a directive from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Incidentally, both the Novaliches Bridge and the Marulas Bridge span the same waterway - Tulyahan River which emanates from the La Mesa Reservoir in Novaliches and ends at the Manila Bay portion of Malabon City.

It is significant to mention here that at the time of Philippine liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, the Commonwealth Avenue from Diliman, Quezon City to Novaliches, the widest highway in the country at present, was not yet on the drawing board. (PNA)

Source: Philippines News Agency

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