Over thousands of years, the Philippines, Palawan Province, and even little Sangat Island has seen it all: ice ages, stone ages, evolutionary refinements, times of human discovery, times of human conflict, times of peace and tranquility.
Not so long ago – as far as Sangat's historical memory is concerned – an epic conflict was played out within sight of Sangat's shores. The date was September 24, 1944. The combatants: the United States and Japanese Imperial Navies.
During the summer of 1944, the Japanese had lost 15 ships in Manila Bay to heavy and sustained aerial attacks by U.S. carrier-based aircraft. In an effort to safeguard the surviving vessels, Japanese Naval commanders ordered the remaining ships to raise anchor and steam south to the Calamian Island Group in Palawan Province.
The eventual – and within a few days, permanent – destination of these ships would be the secluded and sleepy waters of Coron Bay. Once relocated in Coron Bay – a full 16-hour journey to the south – Japanese Commanders felt confident that what remained of their support and supply flotilla would be safely out of range of U.S. naval aircraft as well as assaults from land-based bombers.
The Japanese shipping movements were, however, detected by U.S. naval forces, and a plan was set into motion to execute a surprise aerial attack by U.S. carrier based aircraft to sink the remnants of the Japanese supply fleet at their new anchorages in Coron Bay.
The surprise attack was architected by Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey from the battleship USS New Jersey. Once perfected, the mission was then handed to Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher – commander of Task Force 38 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington – for tactical execution.
While confident of success, Mitscher knew the mission had some very specific logistical risks. At the time of the attack, the U.S. carrier group was a full 340 miles from Coron Bay which meant that his pilots would only have enough fuel for a brief engagement over enemy positions before being forced to return to the fleet.
On the morning of 24 September 1944 at 0550, 96 Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters and 24 Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers took off from their carriers toward their targets. 3 hours later, the strike force reached Busuanga Island and found their targets: 11 large Japanese war and supply ships at anchor.
On arrival, the squadron of Curtiss Helldivers attacked both the Akitsushima and Okikawa Maru. Even though The Akitsushima – a heavily armed seaplane tender – aggressively engaged her attackers, she was soon overcome by multiple hits, internal explosions and fire. In the first 15 minutes of the attack, the Akitsushima sank in the passage between Lajo and Manglet Island.
The Okikawa Maru – fully laden with fuel oil, was also quickly disabled and on fire. Although crippled, she remained afloat and slowly drifted to the north. On the 9th of October, during a second "mop-up" attack, The Okikawa Maru was finally sunk.
Ten dive bombers took on The Olympia Maru. After three American pilots completed runs on the ship, a fourth attack plane hit the vessel amidships which left her unable to maneuver and vulnerable to further attack. Finally, the Olympia Maru sank from the stern, reportedly taking 19 crew members with her.
Heavily protected by anti-aircraft armament, the Irako responded to her attackers with ferocity but was eventually overcome and sunk. The remaining Japanese ships anchored in Coron Bay that morning succumbed – in quick succession – to a similar fate including the Kogyo Maru which sank near Lusong Island.
The final casualty of the attack was the Kyokuzan Maru. Anchored on the opposite side of Busuanga Island, the Kyokuzan sustained severe damage by numerous dive bombings and strafing runs. Now a useless burning hulk, she was eventually scuttled by the Japanese.
The only vessel to survive the attack was an oil tanker named The Kamoi. Although badly damaged by attacking forces, the Kamoi was able to eventually escape Coron Bay. Sometime later, she was reportedly able to make port in Hong Kong.
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