The Blasting Of Fort Drum
By Sgt Thomas J. Hooper
Yank Field Correspondent
The island of El Fraile in Manila
Bay had been fortified to be impregnable by the Yanks, and the
Japs, when they moved in, made it even stronger. It still wasn’t
strong enough to resist the new assault technique of the 38th
With the 38th Infantry Division,
Luzon The Philippines – The taking of Jap-held Fort Drum, a
“concrete battleship in Manila Bay, was like a mid-ocean pirate
raid on an unwieldy merchant vessel. It had elements, too of a
medieval battle, with knights in armor thundering across the
drawbridge into an enemy castle. It was a little bit of
everything, even of the Podunk fire department getting a burning
boathouse under control. It took place early in April and now
its detailed story may be told.
Fort Drum, which shows up on the
maps as El Fraile Island, was built by the U.S. long before the
Japs moved in, about three miles south of Corregidor in Manila
Bay. The island was originally just another sharp-toothed coral
reef jutting out of the bay waters. Then our Navy decided it
would be a handy addition to the chain of bay
fortresses—Corregidor, Caballo and Carabao Islands and proceeded
to turn it into a blunt-nosed square-sterned, battleship-shaped
structure, 345 feet long, 135 feet wide, rising from the waters
as a 40-foot concrete Cliffside. These concrete walls were 36
feet in width and the top deck 18 feet thick,— strong enough to
withstand any land, naval or air bombardment. Two revolving
turrets, each mounting two 14-inch naval rifles were mounted on
the flat top. At the north and south (port and starboard) sides
two 6-inch guns were set in “blister" turrets. Inside there were
four levels. At the east (stern) end there were two sally ports
opening both north and south. Boats carrying men, mail and
provisions to the fort tied up here. The ports opened on the
inside to an axial tunnel running through the island and
connecting all four levels.
It was a miniature Gibraltar, a
salt-water pillbox and when the Japs overran the Philippines
they were happy to have won it as part of there military loot.
The 38th Infantry Division drew
the job of mopping up Fort Drum. The division had already
cleared the way by finishing off Corregidor and invading and
securing Caballo Island. But Drum was a harder, trickier job
than anything that had gone before. To some of the GIs in the
38th, it was going to be just another souvenir hunt with
expensive kimonos, samurai swords, pistols, cameras and maybe a
bottle or two of sake at the end. To the men who had to do the
planning it was a ticklish problem that would take careful
planning and ingenuity in preparation and split-second precision
in execution. To the interested observer it was a technical
study in how to crack a tough nut, a fortified concrete nut in
the middle of Manila Bay.
The earlier taking of Caballo was
the inspiration for the plan by which the 38th cracked Fort
Drum. Caballo was a horse-shaped rock and most of its garrison
had been knocked off within a few days. A band of 60 survivors,
however, had been able to take cover in two huge mortar pits
which resisted all efforts of infantry, engineers and artillery.
They were of reinforced concrete and at least 20 feet thick,
another case of an installation originally built by Americans
and improved by the Japs.
Various plans for cleaning out
the mortar pits were proposed and rejected. One public-relations
officer, with a weather eye cocked at a front-page story in the
Stateside press, suggested that a fire siren be lowered into the
pits and allowed to scream for a few days. The idea, borrowed
from some of our better horror magazines, was to drive the Japs
crazy. The PRO'S inspiration was turned down on the very logical
ground that no fire sirens were handy.
The finally accepted plan was
formulated by Lt. Col. Fred C. Dyer of Indianapolis, Ind., G-4
of the 38th. An LCM was fitted with a centrifugal pump and two
tanks capable of holding more than 5,000 gallons of liquid. A
special mixture of two parts Diesel oil and one part gasoline
was mixed and then pumped into the tanks.
The landing craft plowed its
clumsy way out to Caballo and drew up alongside the hill where
the pits were located. Engineers, working under sniper fire,
constructed a pipeline up the steep slope of the hill into the
emplacements. The mixture of oil and gas — 2,400 gallons of it —
was then pumped into the pits. As soon as the last drops had
been pumped in, riflemen posted a few hundred yards away cut
loose with tracer bullets. There was a loud sucking sound and
dense black clouds of burning oil billowed to the sky. The
mortar pits surrendered only charred Japs when the flames died
This was the plan selected by
Brig. Gen. Robert H. Soule, assistant division commander, as the
best for reducing Drum.
Training and preparation for the
landing were begun a week before Drum D-day. On Corregidor -a
reinforced platoon of riflemen from Company F, 151st Infantry,
and a platoon of demolition men from Company B, 113th Engineers,
made repeated dry runs to school each man for his individual job
when he stepped aboard Drum.
On the Corregidor parade ground
the surface of Drum's deck was simulated. Dummy guns and air
vents were built and each rifleman was assigned to cover a
specific opening in the surface of the fort. Every gun turret,
every air vent, every crack in the surface was to be under the
sights of anM1 or a BAR so that no enemy would be able to come
topside. The men went through the dry run until they could do it
in their sleep.
Some engineers practiced planting
explosives at strategic intervals on the rock. Others went
through the motions of dragging a fire hose from the LCM to the
deck of the battleship-fort. The LCM was scheduled to pull up
alongside Drum in the same manner used in the Caballo operation.
The sally ports were ruled out as possible points of entrance
when a naval reconnaissance force, attempting a landing from a
PT boat, ran into machine-gun fire from the tunnel. This made it
necessary to work from a ship larger than an LCM, so the 113th
Engineers went to work on an especially designed wooden ramp,
running like a drawbridge from the tower of an LSM. The ramp was
necessary since the40-foot walls of the island would prevent
troops from landing in the usual manner.
Three sailors had been killed in
the attempted PT landing and this got the Navy's dander up. To
pave the way for the taking of the fort, dive bombers were
called in to knock out the large guns on its top deck. On
Wednesday, April 11, a cruiser steamed up and bombarded the
6-inch gun emplacements with AP shells. The cruiser broadsides
weren't enough to breach the fort, but they did shut up the
April 13—a Friday—was the day
selected and H-hour was set for 1000. At 0830 the troops loaded
from Corregidor's south dock, walking a narrow plank from the
pier to an LSM. The engineers carried 600 pounds of explosives
and the infantrymen were loaded down with rifles and bandoliers
of ammunition. In the crow's nest, towering above the landing
ramp, a BAR man kept lookout and below him, a light machinegun
was set up on an improvised platform. The BAR and the machine
gun could give covering fire to the men who were to land.
At 1000 hours on the nose, the
LSM pulled alongside Fort Drum. It was a ticklish job to
maneuver the squat, bulky ship snug and tight against the island
and to hold it steady there.
As the LSM inched up on the port
side of Drum, three LCVPs manned by naval personnel came up
alongside her, bows first, and with motors racing pushed against
her side and shoved her as flat as possible against the
As soon as the LSM was close
alongside the fort, sailors standing in the well deck let down a
ramp by means of a block and fall. Other sailors rushed ashore
across the ramp, carrying lines which they fastened to the
Jap-held gun turrets or to any other available projections. The
LSM was made secure.
These sailors were the first
Yanks aboard Drum. Just after them came the infantry riflemen in
single file up the circular ladder to the tower and from there,
helped by sailors, onto the ramp and across it to the flat top
of the fort.
Despite the strong lines from
ship to fort and the pushing of the LCVP’s, the LSM pitched and
rolled and the ramp scraped precariously back and forth over the
concrete. The operation was at its touch-and-go stage.
The LCM which had been used in
the Caballo invasion was brought in behind the larger LSM. A
line attached to a fire hose was thrown up to the engineers on
the LSM and relayed by them to the deck of Drum where other
waiting engineers grabbed it and pulled up the hose.
The infantrymen had deployed
according to their previous briefing on Corregidor, each man
covering his objective. Every vent had its rifleman. No Jap
could raise his head above the surface of the deck without
running the risk of having it blown off, and the engineers went
They planted their explosives to
do the most good in the least time. Particular attention was
given to the powder magazine which lay below the surface on the
first level, protected by 6-inch armor plate under a layer of
All this while the same Diesel
oil mixture that had been used on Caballo was being pumped from
the LCM into the fort. It was like a high colonic enema given at
sea to some ugly, gray Jap monster of the deep. As minute piled
on minute, more and more oil — 3,000 gallons in all — was
squirted into the bowels of Drum.
In 10 minutes, the job of the
engineers was finished. Thirty-minute fuses were lighted and the
engineers and riflemen began to file back onto the LSM. Suddenly
an unidentined engineer shouted, "The oil line’s busted!" By
this time all the men were back on the LSM.
Lt. Col. William E. Lobit, CO of
the 151st, called for volunteers. "Six men, up here. Let’s go."
More than six men fell in behind him and took off up the ladder
and across the ramp to the island. The oil, still pumping from
the LCM which had pulled about 100 yards away, shut off the
instant the hose connection broke apart. The LCM pulled in again
and engineers hung over the side and repaired the break. By good
luck, the hose was still above water, held up by a floating oil
drum to which the next to last section had been lashed.
Col. Lobit and his men snuffed
the fuses and stood by to relight them as soon as the break
could be repaired. It was while they were waiting that the first
and only opposition to the combined oil enema and demolition job
developed. An evidently nearsighted Jap sniper, hidden in one of
the6-inch gun turrets on the port side opened up.
His aim was bad on the first two
shots and gave away his position without doing any damage to the
Yanks. Sailors, manning the LSM's 20-mms were ready and anxious
to spray the turret, but a red-headed ensign yelled from the
bridge for them to hold fire. Oil was leaking from an aperture
in the turret and if a shell ignited it, our own landing party,
the LSM, the LCM and the LCVPs would probably all be blown to
hell along with the Japs. The sailors held their fire.
The sniper opened up again and a
bullet cut through the fatigue jacket of Sgt. Mack Themson of
Springfield, Mo., the colonel's driver and radio operator.
Thomson had been standing amidships unaware that he was a
target. The bullet made seven holes, passing through the outside
of the jacket, the baggy pocket and a sleeve. Thomson wasn't
Another sniper bullet grazed the
back of Cpl.Vincent Glennon's right hand. Glennon, an aid man
from Gary, Ind., had dropped behind a ventilator for protection
at the first sniper shot. The bullet went through the light,
thin metal of the ventilator and creased his hand, drawing no
more blood than a pin scratch.
A sailor had worse luck. A Jap
shot split the fittings that connected the three air hoses to
the gyroscopic sight of his 20-mm. gun and several pieces of the
scattered wreckage were embedded in his throat. Army and Navy
medics teamed up to give him an immediate transfusion and to
dress his wounds. He, Glennon, and Thomson were the only
casualties. A bargain-basement price to pay for Fort Drum.
By now the leak had been
repaired. Col. Lobit and his men relit the fuses on the island
and-got back safely to the ship. The lines from the LSM to Drum
were cut and all the ships pulled away. Drum had received its
quota of oil and the late invaders stood off in the bay to watch
the show. In 30 minutes there was a slight explosion, not much
more than a 4th of July token. Nothing else happened.
Disappointment was written on the faces of the GIs and the
sailors. The job would have to be done over.
But before they could even phrase
a gripe, the second explosion came. In the time of an eye wink
it seemed as if the whole island of El Fraile were blown out of
the sea. First there was a cloud of smoke rising and seconds
later the main explosion came. Blast after blast ripped the
concrete battleship. Debris was showered into the water throwing
up hundreds of small geysers. A large flat object, later
identified as the 6 inch concrete slab protecting the powder
magazine, was blown several hundred feet into the air to fall
back on top of the fort, miraculously still unbroken.
Now the GIs and sailors could
cheer. And did. As the LSM moved toward Corregidor there were
continued explosions. More smoke and debris. Two days later, on
Sunday, a party went back to try to get into the fort through
the lower levels. Wisps of smoke were still curling through the
ventilators and it was obvious that oil was still burning
inside. The visit was called off for that day.
On Monday the troops returned
again. This time they were able to make their way down as far as
the second level, but again smoke forced them to withdraw. Eight
Japs — dead of suffocation — were found on the first two levels.
Two days later another landing
party returned and explored the whole island. The bodies of 60
Japs — burned to death—were found in the boiler room on the
The inside of the fort was a
shambles. The walls were blackened with smoke and what
installations there were had been blown to pieces or burned.
In actual time of pumping oil and
setting fuses, it had taken just over 15 minutes to settle the
fate of the "impregnable" concrete fortress. It had been a
successful operation in every way but one; The souvenir hunting
wasn't very good.