It is close to a tradition that this country enters its foreign wars unprepared. World War II, though long on the horizon, was no exception. The epitome of that lamentable situation was the condition of American defense forces in the Philippine Islands on Dec. 8, 1941. US strategists were convinced that war with Japan was inevitable and would begin with an attack on the Philippines. Some small and belated effort had been made to reinforce the 19,000 Army, Navy, and USAAF forces in the Islands. However, the entire fighter defense of the Philippines rested on the 24th Pursuit Group, commanded by Maj. Orrin L. Grover. On the eve of Dec. 8 (Dec. 7 at Pearl Harbor), the 24th had only 72 P-40s, some of them early B models, and 18 obsolete P-35s in commission to meet an invasion force that included an estimated 450 Japanese aircraft, many flown by veterans of 10 years fighting in China.
The full extent of our unpreparedness, including nearly every item needed for air warfare, is laid out in detail in Walter Edmunds’s classic book They Fought With What They Had, recently reprinted by Zenger Publishers. That account was commissioned by Gen. H. H. “Hap” Arnold at the end of the war.
The 24th PGs 21st Pursuit Squadron was commanded by 1st Lt. William Edwin Dyess, a 25-year-old Texan who had completed flying training in October 1937. His squadron landed in the Philippines 18 days before the attack. Dyess concentrated on the combat training of his newly commissioned second lieutenant pilots. He soon was recognized as the 24th PGs outstanding squadron commander. (Other squadron leaders were Lts. Boyd “Buzz” Wagner, first USAAF ace of the war, and Sam Marrett; and Benny Putnam, Henry Thorne, and Joseph A. Moore, all three of whom eventually retired as general officers.) According to the 24th’s incomplete records, Dyess shot down five enemy planes, none of which has been officially credited to him.
That is only the beginning of the record of Dyess as combat pilot, infantry commander, prisoner of war, and guerrilla fighter in the Philippines, for whom the Air Force Base at Abilene, Texas, is named today.
Combat losses and enemy strafing and bombing rapidly reduced the strength of the 24th Pursuit Group and the 19th Bombardment Group, many of whose B-17s were caught on the ground during the initial bombing of Clark Field. By Dec. 10, the pursuit force had been cut down to 22 P-40s and eight P-35s. After that, the pursuits were used mainly for reconnaissance. Two weeks later, only 12 P-40s and six P-35s were operational. The 24th was ordered to move its remaining resources to the rugged Bataan Peninsula, which forms the western rim of Manila Bay. There Dyess trained and led his squadron as a provisional regiment of the 71st Infantry Division. When the Japanese landed at Agloloma Bay, his men helped hold off the invaders for nearly two weeks, subsisting largely on food from the jungle. Medical supplies were scarce or nonexistent. Dysentery, malaria, and other tropical diseases were rampant. In a mopping-up action, Dyess landed 20 volunteers behind enemy lines and annihilated the remnants of the invading force.
A senior officer reported that some of the 24th Pursuit Group squadrons on Bataan were disorganized and demoralized. The exception was the 21st Squadron under Dyess’s strong leadership. He continued to fly combat missions whenever one of the 24th’s pooled P-40s was available. On March 3, Dyess hung a 500-pound bomb with a jerry-rigged bomb release on a P-40 and, with three other pilots, bombed and strafed Japanese shipping in Subic Bay. Three times that day he braved the heavy flak, destroying or damaging several small vessels, warehouses, and supply dumps. One P-40 was shot down, the others so badly damaged they had to crash-land at their jungle strips.
As the end of resistance drew near, pilots, who were badly needed to reconstruct a force in Australia, were evacuated in anything that would fly. Dyess was ordered to go on the last plane out. He refused to leave the 200 survivors of his squadron, giving his place to Philippine Col. Carlos Romulo, who years later served as President of the United Nations General Assembly.
On April 3, Dyess, who had been promoted to major, was taken prisoner. Six days later the sick, starving, and hopelessly outnumbered defenders of Bataan surrendered, and there began one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of modern warfare–the Bataan Death March. Dyess, one of the survivors of that nightmare, later wrote an official report of the Bataan fighting, the Death March, and his escape from his captors nearly a year later. “Had the Americans and Filipinos known the fate that was in store for them,” he wrote, “though beaten, hungry, and tired from months of hardships in the last hectic days of combat, never would they have surrendered.”
Dyess took little personal credit for his part in the events recounted here. Most of that comes from a fragmentary history of the 24th Pursuit Group, written after the fall of Bataan, and from other sources.
As an omen of what was to come after the surrender, the American and Philippine prisoners were searched and all personal possessions taken from them. An AAF captain in Dyess’s group was found to have some Japanese money. He was immediately beheaded by a Japanese officer. The men were informed that they were enemies of Japan, not subject to international agreements on the treatment of POWs.
The Death March followed a zigzag course across the island of Luzon, under the blazing tropical sun and along roads choked with dust from Japanese convoys. Dyess tried to keep his men together, since any too weak to walk were shot or beaten to death by their guards. The men were given no food for three days, and then only a mess kit of rice–all they were to have for six tortured days. At the end of the first day, the prisoners were allowed to drink from a filthy carabao (water buffalo) wallow. Any thirst-crazed man who made a break for one of the artesian wells along the road was shot. Several times, Japanese truck and tank drivers ran over stragglers.
On one day, Dyess’s group marched continuously for 21 hours. When they were allowed to rest, some 2,000 men were jammed into pens designed for a tenth that number, where many died or went out of their minds from exhaustion and thirst. Those who survived finally arrived at Camp O’Donnell, where Dyess was held for two months in indescribable filth and crowding with no medical attention and little food. He estimated that 2,200 Americans and 27,000 Filipinos died at O’Donnell from malnutrition, disease, and calculated brutality.
In June, the American POWs were moved to Cabanatuan Concentration Camp. There Dyess witnessed one of the worst atrocities of his months as a POW. Two lieutenant colonels and a Navy lieutenant were caught attempting to escape. The men were stripped naked, tied to posts at the camp gate, and left in the blazing sun for three days without food or water. Passing Filipinos were forced to beat the men with boards until the three were barely recognizable as human beings. On the third day, the officers were cut down and dragged into the camp, where one lieutenant colonel was beheaded and the other two men were shot.
On Oct. 26, Dyess and more than 900 other Americans, all in poor physical condition but judged by the Japanese to be fit for heavy labor, were crowded in the hold of a small, dirty ship for an 11-day voyage to Davao Penal Colony on Mindanao, the southernmost of the large islands. Living conditions were somewhat better there, but most of the Americans contracted scurvy, though an abundance of citrus fruit was allowed to rot on the ground. Medical supplies sent by the American Red Cross were confiscated by the Japanese, as had been the case in the earlier camps. Even very sick men were forced to do heavy labor in the rice paddies and on construction. Many did not survive.
Dyess’s job at Davao was to drive a bullcart that hauled building supplies to jungle construction projects. He joined a group of nine other Americans and two Filipinos in a daring plan of escape. For several months they gathered scraps of food and other objects that would help them survive in the jungle. The supplies and equipment were hidden under the load on Dyess’s cart and passed to Marine Capt. Austin Shafer and USAAF Lt. Sam Grashio, who would steal away from their work details and hide the loot in the jungle.
The escape was made from work details on April 3, 1943. The 12 men rendezvoused at a predetermined point, evaded Japanese troops who were in hot pursuit, and four days later joined a guerrilla unit. After a month of travel through largely unexplored territory, members of the group contacted Lt. Col. Wendell Fertig, who commanded all guerrilla units on the island. Major Dyess was made G-3 of the 110th Guerrilla Division, operating in northern and central Mindanao. Having gained detailed knowledge of guerrilla activities and particularly of the landing strips being built in anticipation of an American return to the Philippines, Colonel Fertig arranged for the US Navy in Australia to rescue Dyess and some other Americans. They were picked up on July 23, 1943, ending Dyess’s year as a POW and four months as a guerrilla fighter.
After debriefing, Dyess was sent home, promoted to lieutenant colonel, and hospitalized while regaining his health. He was anxious to get back to the action. That was not to be. On Dec. 22, 1943, he was killed at Burbank, Calif., while attempting to land a disabled P-38 Lightning in a vacant lot, rather than leaving it to crash in an urban area.
In recognition of his combat achievements in the Philippines, his leadership while a POW, and his guerrilla service, Dyess was twice awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the first of only 14 airmen to earn that distinction in World War II. Though his distinguished career ended tragically, his final sacrificial act symbolized the character of that selfless and heroic man.
Published May 1990. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.