FORT HOOD, Texas --- The Troopers who fill the ranks of the 1st Cavalry Division today add to the footprints on a path through history left by those who came before. Each print revealing a legacy lived, each new print leaving behind a unique story of its own.
America's First Team has a rich history of bravery, triumph, victory and heartache, all of which reside in the stories and personal accounts of those who lived it. Those who Lived the Legend.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Manila. As time marches on, the stories and personal accounts of such a war-ridden time will fade with those who lived them. There are only a few men remaining who are able to tell the world what they experienced.
Pfc. Robert R. Harrison, or Bob Harrison, voluntarily joined the Army out of Hamilton, Iowa, in June of 1943. He completed basic training at Camp Roberts, California, where he was assigned to a wire and communications unit with a field artillery training regiment. Ultimately earning a position as a wire communications specialist assigned to Recon Platoon, 2nd Squadron, 8th Regiment, also a part of the 2nd serial of the 'Flying Column' sent into Manila.
"Upon finishing basic training, a few of us qualified for Artillery Officers Candidate School," Harrison recalled. "While awaiting those orders, Gen. MacArthur advanced the timeline for the invasion of the Japanese-held islands in the South Pacific. Whatever OCS ambitions once were, that order immediately superseded our Fort Sill assignment, we were now part of the 1st Cavalry Division headed into combat."
During this time, the 1st Cavalry Division had occupied a small group of islands located off the coast on New Guinea called the Admiralty Islands. Harrison met the division there.
"Upon arrival at New Guinea I was assigned to a wire communications unit and joined with the 8th Regiment who was already in action in the Admiralties," said Harrison. "Shortly thereafter I became part of a strike force whose mission was to go behind Japanese lines in an attempt to locate and destroy what remained of the Japanese headquarters on the island."
The responsibilities of his squad included the development of telephone communications from the regimental headquarters to the forward assault units. They occasionally accompanied the reconnaissance platoon on special surveillance and attack missions, he said.
On October 26, 1944 the 8th Regiment was ordered to cross over to Samar Island.
The next day they invaded the island of Samar. After about a month of relentless fighting, they made their way to the northernmost city of that region.
"We then moved north and rejoined the division on the main island of Luzon," he said. "The decision was made to divide the 1st Cavalry Division into three heavily armed, mobile columns and strike through the Japanese forces who were in place in northern Luzon."
One of the 'Firsts' for the First Team was its entry into Manila, in order to liberate internee camps in Santo Tomas where the Japanese held a large number of civilian prisoners.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur was alerted by Filipino guerillas in January 1945 that the lives of the internees at Santo Tomas in Manila were in immediate danger.
On January 30, 1945, MacArthur ordered the 1st Cavalry Division into Manila.
The division commander at the time rapidly organized what was called a 'Flying Column' of 800 Troopers, divided into 3 staggered serials. He ordered them into Manila, telling them not to hold any territory along the way, launching them into heavy combat, attacking and breaking through enemy lines using the element of speed. They covered over 100 miles in 3 days. Each serial providing cover fire and reconnaissance for the others.
"The 100 mile advance into Manila was accomplished in 66 hours," Harrison said. "Our casualty rate in this mission was high. As we approached the outskirts of Manila, military policemen were dropped off at key intersections to direct the armored columns. Many were picked off by the Japanese."
The 'Flying Column' moved at such a speed toward Manila that after breaking through the Japanese resistance, the tanks sometimes reached 50 MPH on the national highway. The 'Column' moved at all times, not even stopping to fight an entrenched enemy position which they went around and kept going.
Their rate of advance toward Manila took the Japanese Commander at Santo Tomas by surprise on February 3, 1945. He managed to grab a handful of prisoners as hostages and proposed a negotiation with the 1st Cavalry Division commander. He demanded that he be allowed to leave the compound with his guard unit, fully armed, or he would kill all of the hostages, said Harrison.
When tanks from the 'Flying Column' broke down the gates of the internment camp on the night of February 3rd, and the warnings were confirmed: the Japanese had placed drums of gasoline around the camp with detonators in place, ready to burn all of the internees to death.
According to Harrison, the 1st Cavalry Troopers of the 'Flying Column' didn't just make a difference that night - they made all of the difference to the thousands of men, women and children imprisoned at Santo Tomas.
"Needless to say, the internees were overcome with relief with their rescue," said Harrison. "They had been terribly mistreated during their internment. Many were in poor health and all were severely undernourished."
After the liberation of Santo Tomas, the battle of Manila began in earnest. By the evening of the 5th, the Japanese had made an inferno of the city, setting many of the buildings on fire, making it difficult for American machine gunners and snipers to see where they were shooting. It was chaos. More than 100,000 civilian lives were lost, most of whom were deliberately murdered by Japanese forces.
"Our unit became separated in the chaos, as did many others," he said. "We didn't get back to Headquarters Troop until mid-afternoon of the next day."
Soon after, Harrison's squad was attached to a reconnaissance platoon whose mission was to go ahead of the fighting and determine the strength of the Japanese forces. They initially began the mission with two tanks, but they were quickly destroyed at the first cross roads. They soon discovered they were out-manned and out-gunned, he said.
"The closer we got to our destination, the more intense the fighting became," Harrison recalled. "On February 9th, our regiment was assigned the mission of crossing the river and proceeding to the Philippine Racing Club where a sizeable number of Japanese were dug-in. We approached the river on a very narrow road"
It was assumed that a pontoon bridge would be constructed and used to cross the river allowing the Troops to be quickly on their way.
But once again they were caught in a trap. The Japanese waited until the area was clogged with men and vehicles and struck them with mortar fire. The first volley took out half of their command center, said Harrison.
They were advised to take cover wherever they could and were told to be prepared to move across as soon as the pontoon bridge was completed. The Japanese were concentrating machine gun fire where the bridge was to be built, but the engineers had some cover and finally completed the bridge, Harrison said.
They crossed the river and confronted the Japanese at the Race Track. After several weeks of relentless fighting the area was finally secured.
By March 3, 1945, the battle of Manila slowly came to an end, the horrors of war though, far from over.
The unit went on to participate in the assault on Shimbu Line, was ambushed near Antipolo, and performed occupation duty in Yokohama, Japan where they landed on the day the peace treaty was signed.
For his bravery and heroism, Pfc. Harrison was awarded the Bronze star, the Combat Infantry Badge and was recommended for a battlefield commission. He left the service soon after his return to the States in late 1945.
The agonies of battle reside within the memories of those who were there, those who lived it. The men and women who left their footprints along the path of history. It is the duty of our generation to make sure their stories and accounts are never lost to time, for they sacrificed themselves for us.
"I have few regrets with my service," Harrison reminisced. "I believe that when I left Japan I had earned the respect of my immediate associates as well as the upper-echelon brass. I don't think it's possible to fully recover from the effects of so much death and destruction and the dehumanizing impact of prolonged warfare. I don't want this to be self-serving. I'm not making myself into a hero. I'm just one of a group of people."