The retaking of the island officially named Fort Mills, along with the bloody battle to liberate Manila and the earlier recapture of the Bataan Peninsula, by invading U.S. forces from the occupying Japanese, marked the redemption of the American and Filipino surrender on 6 May 1942 and the subsequent fall of the Philippines.
The surrender of Corregidor in 1942 and the ensuing grisly fate of its 11,000 American and Filipino defenders led to a particular sense of moral purpose in Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and as shown in the next campaigns for liberation of the Philippine archipelago, he showed no hesitation to commit the bulk of U.S. and Philippine forces under his command. To the American soldier, Corregidor was more than a military objective, long before the campaign to recapture it. The Rock had become an important symbol in United States history as the last Pacific outpost of any size to fall to the enemy in the early stages of the Pacific War.
The tunnel network that ran through the island's hills afforded protection to the defending garrison, but much of the defense activity had to be carried out in the open. By 4 May, many of the guns had been knocked out and the water supply was low, amid mounting casualties. Heavy shellfire preceded Japanese attempts to land the next night, and the Japanese later admitted their amazement at the savage resistance, which accounted for the sinking of two-thirds of their landing craft and losses amounting to 900 killed and 1,200 wounded, against U.S. losses of 800 dead and 1,000 wounded.
Gen. MacArthur's strategy was to make a combined amphibious and airborne assault—among the most difficult of all modern military maneuvers—to retake the island. Though this particular plan of action had been used to good effect during the Luzon landings, the airborne phase was risky. As small as it was, at just over five square miles, the tadpole-shaped island made a difficult target for a parachute drop.
Complicating the strategy, however, was that the paratroopers were required to land on a hill known as Topside, the island's foremost dominant terrain feature. MacArthur's staff balked at the proposals, but on the other hand, there was little choice. From Topside, the Japanese could dominate all possible amphibious landing sites. Their premise was that the Japanese would certainly not expect an airborne landing on such an unlikely target.
The honors for recapturing the Rock went to the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team of Lt. Col. George M. Jones and elements of Maj. Gen. Roscoe B. Woodruff's 24th Infantry Division, the same units which undertook the capture of Mindoro island.
On 23 January 1945, the aerial bombings to soften up the defenses on Corregidor commenced. Daily strikes by heavy bombers of the United States Army Air Forces continued until 16 February, with 595 tons of bombs dropped. Estimated figures since the bombing campaign started up to 24 February showed 2,028 effective sorties, with 3,163 tons of bombs dropped on Corregidor.
On 13 February the United States Navy added to the bombardment, with cruisers and destroyers shelling from close to shore and braving sporadic Japanese artillery counterfire, with minesweepers operating around the island by the next day. The softening up, or gloucesterizing of the island of Corregidor lasted for three more days.
The naval bombardment on Corregidor, however, was not without incident. Water Tender First Class Elmer Charles Bigelow averted tragedy on board the USS Fletcher during action on 14 February 1945, when a Japanese shell struck the ship and penetrated the No. 1 gun magazine, igniting several powder cases. Bigelow picked up a pair of fire extinguishers and rushed below in a resolute attempt to quell the raging flames. Refusing to waste the precious time required to don rescue-breathing apparatus, Bigelow plunged through the blinding smoke billowing out of the magazine hatch and dropped into the blazing compartment. Despite the acrid, burning powder smoke which seared his lungs, he succeeded in quickly extinguishing the fires and in cooling the cases and bulkheads, thereby preventing further damage to the ship. Bigelow succumbed to his injuries the following day. His valor and personal sacrifice awarded him the Medal of Honor.
Despite the grueling air and naval bombardment that left the defending troops dazed and scattered, they vigorously rallied, and fierce fighting erupted almost immediately. At one point that same morning, they threatened to drive a salient into the paratroopers' tenuous foothold on Topside.
Paratroopers and infantrymen waged a tenacious battle with the well dug-in and determined enemy. Private Lloyd G. McCarter, a scout attached to the 503rd, during the initial landing on 16 February, crossed 30 yards of open ground under intense fire and at pointblank range silenced a machine gun with hand grenades. On the afternoon of 18 February he killed six Japanese snipers. That evening, when a large force attempted to bypass his company, he voluntarily moved to an exposed area and opened fire. The Japanese attacked his position repeatedly throughout the night and was each time repulsed. By 02:00, all the men about him had been wounded; but shouting encouragement to his comrades and defiance at the enemy, he continued to bear the brunt of the attack, fearlessly exposing himself to locate Japanese soldiers and then pouring heavy fire on them. He repeatedly crawled back to his lines to secure more ammunition. When his submachine gun would no longer operate, he seized an automatic rifle and continued to inflict heavy casualties. This weapon, in turn, became too hot to use and, discarding it, he continued with an M-1 rifle. At dawn the Japanese attacked with renewed intensity. Exposing himself to hostile fire, he stood erect to locate the most dangerous enemy positions. He was seriously wounded; but, though he had already killed more than thirty Japanese soldiers, he refused to evacuate until he had pointed out immediate objectives for attack. Through his sustained and outstanding heroism in the face of grave and obvious danger, Pvt. McCarter was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Aside for flares fired throughout the night by warships laying offshore, the three-hour battle was decided only with rifles, automatic weapons and the indomitable courage of the fifty paratroopers ranged against the Japanese Special Landing Force, the best among the empire's fighting men. Not all men of the company were involved in the fighting because of the ensuing confusion. The savage encounter ended in failure with more than 250 Japanese corpses strewn along a 200-yard stretch of Cheney Trail. F Company suffered 14 dead and 15 wounded. This was the last attack of any significance by the Japanese on Corregidor. Official historians of the 503rd refer to Wheeler Point as Banzai Point.
At the same time the 503rd paratroopers touched down at Topside, the first wave of 3rd Battalion under Lt. Col. Edward M. Postlethwait of the 24th Infantry Division's 34th Infantry Regiment under Col. Aubrey "Red" S. Newman waded ashore and established a beachhead at San Jose Point on the eastern end of Corregidor named Black Beach. The succeeding waves took the brunt of the hastily organized Japanese defense, and several landing craft and infantrymen became victims of landmines. The battalion pushed inland against sporadic resistance, mostly from groups coming out of the subterranean passages of the inland to waylay the advancing American troops.
Two 3rd Battalion units, K and L Companies under Captains Frank Centanni and Lewis F. Stearns, respectively, managed to fight their way and secure the road and both northern and southern entrances to Malinta Hill, while Capt. Gilbert Heaberlin's A Company stationed itself near the waterline. I Company under 1Lt. Paul Cain, staged at North Dock guarded the harbor. They intended to keep the Japanese troops inside the tunnel as other units moved inland, accompanied by tanks and flamethrower units that devastated pillboxes and tunnels in the surrounding areas held by the Japanese. And for eight straight days until 23 February, these units staved off successive banzai charges, mortar attacks, and even a suicide squad with explosives strapped to their bodies, killing over 300 Japanese.
On 21 February at 21:30, Malinta Hill reacted like a volcano when several detonations in quick succession tore it asunder. The Japanese trapped inside had blown themselves up, and after the explosions and rock falls ceased, some 50 Japanese scurried from inside to attack and the Americans mowed them down. Two nights later, a similar attack happened. Finally, engineers went to work, poured large quantities of gasoline down the tunnels and set them afire, then they sealed the tunnels' entrances. After some time, silence finally reigned inside Malinta Hill.
There were no more organized Japanese attacks for the rest of the campaign. Only isolated pockets of resistance continued to fight on with a suicidal frenzy until 26 February, when Corregidor was finally declared secured.
There were a very few Japanese soldiers captured, but not without a price. An M4 Sherman tank fired a shell into a sealed tunnel suspected of harboring Japanese soldiers but which instead contained tons of stored ammunition. The subsequent tremendous explosion threw the 30-ton tank several dozen feet, killed four of its crew and forty-eight other U.S. soldiers and wounded more than a hundred.
By 1 March 1945, the devastated island bastion, with its harbor, the finest in the East, was officially opened to Allied shipping. Six days later, 7 March, Gen. MacArthur returned to the island fortress he had been forced to leave in disgrace three years before. "I see that the old flagpole still stands. Have your troops hoist the colors to its peak and let no enemy ever again haul it down", he said, at the ceremonial raising of the Stars and Stripes.
The perfectly coordinated triphibious American assault to recapture Corregidor left the 503rd PRCT with 169 killed and 531 wounded. The 34th Infantry Regiment suffered 38 killed and 153 wounded. Of the 2,065 men of both lifts by the 503rd PRCT, about 280 were killed or severely injured. Three men suffered parachute malfunctions, and two men who collided with buildings were killed. Eight men were killed either in the air or before they were able to get free of their chutes, and a further 50 were wounded in the air or upon grounding. Several men were missing in action at the drop. The total injuries (not by wounding) on the drop were 210.
For many recent years, Japanese sources have estimated that there were about 6,700 Japanese on the island when the 503rd PRCT and 34th Infantry landed, of which, only 50 survived. Another nineteen were taken prisoner, but 20 Japanese stragglers surfaced after the war on 1 January 1946.
Corregidor today is a premium tourist destination in the Philippines. Over the years, most of the decrepit artillery pieces and significant battle sites on the island have been restored as important historical landmarks.