By Severino C. Samonte

Unsung battle at Novaliches bridge in 1945 liberation of Manila

February 2, 2023, 12:30 pm


Starting the first week of this month, several cities or local government units (LGUs) in Metro Manila will be celebrating the 78th anniversary of their liberation from Japanese rule in 1945.

As the former town of Novaliches was erased from the country’s map in 1903 or 120 years ago, very little is known -- and few people are aware -- of the fact that Novaliches also played a very important role in the campaign to regain the country’s freedom from the 1941-1945 Japanese occupation.

This column narrates how the Tuliahan bridge in Novaliches – one of the gateways to Manila from Bulacan towns and the rest of Central and Northern Luzon -- served as a vital link in the march of allied forces of American Gen. Douglas MacArthur from Lingayen, Pangasinan from Jan. 9 to Feb. 3, 1945 to liberate Manila and nearby areas.

According to the book "Ang Kasaysayan ng Novaliches" (History of Novaliches), written jointly by former University of the Philippines-Los Baños Prof. Rosalina M. Franco-Calairo and her son, Commissioner Emmanuel Franco Calairo of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), the liberating MacArthur forces chose to pass through Novaliches instead of the old Manila North Road in Polo, Bulacan on their way to Manila.

Coming through the old Ipo (Norzagaray)-Novaliches road, now Quirino Highway, the MacArthur men, aided by Filipino guerrillas, were engaged in a fierce and crucial battle with a big group of Japanese soldiers at the Novaliches-Tuliahan bridge on Feb. 3, 1945.

To prevent the passage of the MacArthur troops, the Japanese soldiers tried to blow the bridge, but they failed, fortunately for the prisoners of war awaiting rescue in Manila.

Following is a condensed story of the battle for the Novaliches bridge as excerpted from the 1986 book “Retaking the Philippines -- America’s Return to Corregidor, Manila and Bataan: October 1944-March 1945” by American author-historian William B. Breuer:

“At dawn on February 3, 1945, several thousand emaciated American civilians and military prisoners in Manila awoke with an intense mixture of hope and fear. There was ample evidence that General MacArthur's troops were just outside the city. Deliverance after three years behind barbed wire might be at hand. But would the Japanese command, facing defeat, massacre them?

“In the University of Santo Tomás camp this morning, prisoners were scrambling for garbage, roots, cats (they had found that cats taste like rabbit) --anything to eat that they could get their hands on. Long gone were the diamond rings and watches the inmates had bartered for condensed milk and rice. Some food had been smuggled in the previous day by solemn-faced Filipino morticians coming for bodies. About a mile to the south, a few of the fourteen hundred bony Americans held at Old Bilibid prison had a delicacy for breakfast: worms and a few frogs caught hopping from outdoor latrines.

“Long before dawn, Lieutenant Colonel Haskett Conner's column had renewed its dash for Manila. This might be "The Day"--the return of armed Americans to the sprawling capital from which General MacArthur and his bedraggled soldiers had been driven ignominiously at Christmastime in 1941. In the minds of the men in the flying column was the image of a tall, rawboned, haggard soldier. None of these bronzed fighting men had ever seen this man, but General Jonathan Wainwright would be with them in spirit--he was one of them, having once been a brigade commander in the 1st Cavalry Division.

“Nearly an hour before daylight, pilots of the 24th and 32nd Marine Air Groups lifted off from a hastily built strip on top of a paddy field near 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 William 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 columns indefinitely. But word came back from the Marine pilots: Novaliches bridge was still standing. Chase, greatly relieved, sent a signal to Lieutenant Colonel 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 clusters of Japanese on both sides of the road, up front the tanks fired their 75s into likely hiding places.

“Navy Lieutenant 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 up 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, Lieutenant 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: four hundred pounds of TNT and three thousand pounds of picric acid.

“Conner's cavalrymen scrambled back onto their vehicles and the column started across the Novaliches bridge. Major Gerhart's jeep was moving when he hurled himself into it, having just spotted a Japanese soldier running at full speed fifty yards away. As the jeep kept rolling, Gerhart put the stock of his carbine against his stomach and squeezed the trigger. The running man toppled over. Pleased with his marksmanship, the major turned to a GI and said, "Hell, I've been teaching my boys to shoot from the waist for three years. Now I had to show them that I could do it myself.”

“Conner's mechanized column pushed past burning houses and dead Japanese on the far side of Novaliches 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 for nearly forty miles.


About the Columnist

Image of Severino C. Samonte

He began his journalistic career by contributing to the Liwayway and Bulaklak magazines in the 1960’s. He was the night editor of the Philippine News Service when Martial Law was declared in September 1972. When the Philippine News Agency was organized in March 1973, he was named national news editor because of his news wire service experience.

He retired as executive news editor in 2003. He also served as executive editor of the Malacanang-based Presidential News Desk from 1993 to 1996 and from 2005 to 2008.