K and L Companies 163 Infantry: Machine Gunners at Kamti

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian with Staff Sergeant Vernon Magee

 This is mainly the battle story of K Company 163 Infantry in Staff Sergeant Bren's death fight against Japs at Kamti Village behind Aitape. But it begins with a brief account of other 3rd Battalion Companies in the Aitape Operation before K-163 's great fights in defending Kamti Village. At Kamti fought a "K" light machine gun section and "L" riflemen.

Arriving off Aitape about 0500 on 22 April 1944, 3rd Battalion swarmed down landing nets and into barges and circled offshore in half light. After attack bombers strafed, naval gunfire lasted 30 minutes. In full daylight, the sky was a fresh blue, washed clean by the Guinea rain before dawn. Our barges drove hard for the sand and the green jungle wall.

K's riflemen headed directly inland. As Lieutenant Arnold's M Company barge grated the sand, the landing ramp stuck. Sergeant Powell's No. 13 boots kicked it down.

            K Company advanced inland on a few Japs by fire and movement. Almost every "K" man seemed to be firing. Past native huts strafed full of holes and shell-topped palms, we killed our first Japs. M Company's Arnold saw eight to ten dead Japs, two prisoners and one with a leg wound. Prisoners were in good condition, well equipped. K's one casualty was Nye, shot in the leg from a naval plane's ricochet. "M" lost an injured man, Parenboom, his foot smashed between barge and ship as he left the landing nets.

K Company's assignment was to secure the coast straight inshore for other 163 Companies to swing west and push lengthwise down the two Tadji Strips. Some 300 yards inland, we set up at edge of a kunai opening, 750 yards long paralleling the shore and 125 yards at the widest. Our first night ashore was quiet.

Meanwhile that day, "L" advanced east alongshore to secure the rear of 163's beachhead. By 1230, we advanced 750 yards to dig in at Rilia Village, A reinforced "L” platoon passed through Lemieng Villages, some 1750 yards more, to outpost on the point of the Nigia Estuary. We killed two Japs here; several escaped into the swamps. We found an light machine gun. At 0620 on 23 April, we sighted a Jap barge ashore, east of our Rilia Perimeter. We slew five, wounded two and captured the barge.

I Company did a curving march through the jungle, west of "K's" post on the Kunai strip, and made perimeter on the east end of Tadji Strips. At some time, Sergeant Carl Anderson was shot in the face. Thus with light action, 3rd Battalion Companies secured the rear of other 163's Battalions that overran the Aitape area by 26 April. Opposition was so light that by 26 April 127 Infantry relieved us to go into garrison at Tadji Plantation.

First mention of Kapoam Hills occurs in 163's Journal on 23 April, when 163 took Tadji. Kapoam was important enough for Aussie ANGAU Captain O'Donnel, assistant, and five PIBs to go there on a two-day patrol. Meanwhile back on Nigia River, where our "L" was relieved, 127 Infantry found a trail from Chinapelli to Kapoam. On night of 24 April, tracks showed that 50 Japs had hiked east, in the direction of General Adachi's great, bypassed Wewak garrison.

            This report from 127 Infantry was probably enough to send 3rd Battalion's Major Wallis with a strong detachment on a three-day patrol into Kapoam Hills. On 25 April, Wallis led out 42 men of L's 2nd Platoon, a "K" light machine gun section of 15 and four men of 3rd Battalion Headquarters Lieutenant Candella commanded "K's" light machine guns. Wallis took also an Aussie ANGAU captain and a sergeant with three PBIs. Total number was probably 69. We carried three days' rations, arms, ammo and entrenching tools. Those shovels certainly came in handy!

Ours was a hard trail in thickest New Guinea jungle, some eight miles inland from 3rd Battalion Hq. And old Jap trail went to the Kapoam foothills, where a narrow path twisted up and down the jungle hills. The track was steep and slippery; many men fell into that mud. With important "K" light machine guns and ammo boxes to carry and the need for scouting, we took from 0912 to 1730 to arrive at bivouac in Matomute Village - eight miles in eight hours.

About 1000 o'clock during our hike, "L's" scouts slipped into a silent, empty village, probably Marnge. They shot at five well-armed Nips, killed two and wounded one, who fled with two others. Heavy rains were now soaking us.

About 1600, after we completed maybe seven miles, a PIB checked a track off our trail. Just 15 feet from our trail, he pointed to a barefoot Nip asleep behind a log, with rifle and bayonet.

Our mission initially had been to seize a prisoner for information on troop movements. The PIBs awoke him, repeatedly signed to him to get up. He tried to explode a grenade and died trying.

In Matomute Village, atop a 500-foot ridge, we had a peaceful perimeter night. It was empty of Japs, or even of natives. We hoped for a second peaceful night and the coastal trail that morning.

About 1030 on 26 April, natives started returning to Matomute. Five days earlier, they had seen 300 Japs pass through Kamti, bound for upland Bes Village, on the Wewak Trail. These Japs had few arms, but plenty of food.

And the Japs were still in those hills! About 1500, two natives ran chattering into Matomute. Japs were in Kamti Village, 500 yards air-line across the jungle defiles.

Major Wallis' patrol arrived too late at Kamti. We shot at one and missed. Still, we knew that 10-15 Nips passed through daily. We found a Jap rifle and maps.

At once, Wallis cancelled our return to the beach, even though we had only a K-ration dinner left. Leaving Lieutenant McKenzie's "L" squad at Matomute, the other "L" men and "K's" gunners slogged over the hills to Kamti.

On Guard and homesick all in the perimeter, and hoping for dawn to return us to the sunny ocean water, we did not know what we had stumbled into. For our ambush was really blocking the main Jap escape trail, from captured Hollandia to Wewak. The Japs had a field order to hold it at all costs. A copy of this order was on a Jap major killed at dusk, but nobody among us could read Japanese.

For other reasons, the Japs wanted to garrison Kamti Village. Dated 25 April, a captured report outlined a grandiose plan of attack to regain Tadji Strips. Written by the Aitape garrison unit commanding officer, this plan probably went only so far as to effect the coming attempts to storm Kamti Village. A map of the Aitape region demonstrates the strategic importance of Kamti in an Aitape campaign by the Japs. Located on the high ground above the wide Aitape coastal swamps, it was on the only mostly dry trail from Korako to the coast. Out of reach of most naval gunfire, it would be hard for 163 to assault. It could become an assembly point for Aitape refugees and for reinforcements from Wewak.

But on that battle morn of 27 April, nobody in 3rd Battalion knew that the Japs were massed to storm Kamti. At 0700, when K's Weapons Pin's Parrish saw three Nips probe towards our holes, he thought that they were stragglers. We held up machine gun fire until they closed in.

Instead, they spotted a BAR hole on our right, shot first. Heavy fire broke out on both sides, some 200 Nips came in on three flanks to destroy 39 entrenched Yanks. With his nearest machine gun on our right flank, Staff Sergeant Bren kept the trail clear, fired bursts into any suspected thicket on that flank.

But the heaviest Jap attack hit our right, where Sullivan, Fredericks and Maggiore with Sergeants Brientback and Kempas battled with "K's" other light machine gun. Staff Sergeant Frank Bren got orders to reinforce the right flank.

While Sobrero carried the gun still on tripod, Bren led the way. Second gunner Magee and ammo carriers Osborne and Poole doubled after Bren.

In the hilly country on our right flank, a clear field of fire was hard to get. Bren pushed his crew forward into the danger zone. When his eyes caught the telltale flash of Guinea sun on Nippo bayonets, he ordered his gun crew down. We flattened above ground, too late to dig in. But Bren stood up tall to spot our targets.

Bren saw Nips mass in a clump of trees 15 yards ahead. More bayonets gleamed; they grouped and broke into a charge. "Let 'em have it, Bill!" he called to Sobrero, prone behind the gun.

As Bren's carbine slew one, Sobrero's light machine gun instantly smashed dead bodies into the ground. The Jap rush died. Again Japs rushed; again Bren's carbine slew one; again Sobrero piled up their dead.

As the third charge began, Bren moaned and fell. But he still told his gunners that he was all right. While Sobrero with Magee at the belts broke up the third attack, Bren lay in agony. After rushing up with more machine gun belts, Poole tried to save Bren.

Nippo bullets clipped branches down on our heads; Japs were squeezing triggers on us from everywhere. Other Japs tried to flank our machine gun and riddle us. But "L's" protecting squad picked off every infiltrator.

A third and fourth time the Nips charged. Often we slew by firing bursts low at the sound where they jabbered, or at the thud of their footsteps. And again the sun dazzled from long bayonets, and we fired at the dazzle and killed.

Then we heard a thud where Poole worked to save Bren. When we called to Poole from our gun, there was only silence from Bren and Poole.

After we broke the Japs' last rush, our right flank was under control. Orders came to return our machine gun to its original hole. Crawling back, Magee noted that both Staff Sergeant Frank Bren and Pfc. Billy S. Poole had died of head wounds..

In leaving the right flank, Sobrero and Magee saw that the crew of Sullivan, Brientback, Kempas and Fredericks still delivered a weight of fire into the Japs' moves. Probably they were not wounded because they had time to dig holes before the charges. Meanwhile, "K" riflemen Parrish and Rogers flanked our gunners and knocked out Nippo infiltrators with M-1s and grenades. When two "L" men were hit on our left, Parrish and Rogers piled into their hole and staved off the Nippo rushes.

Thus died "K's" Bren and Poole. L Company on that 27 April listed three wounded: Louis Reisner shot in right chest, Virgil Beauchamp in left leg, Sergeant Victor Ubert in right leg. Medic Viven Blount, probably at Kamti also, had a concussion on the back of his head.

            By 1000, machine guns were down to just two boxes of ammo. We had no Tommy clips left, and there were critical shortages of grenades and BAR clips. The Japs might be quiet until nightfall. Major Wallis ordered withdrawal. Since direct Matomute trail might be ambushed, we slipped back out of the village into the jungle. We carried an "L" wounded in a poncho; the three others evidently walked. Lieutenant Candella was among last to leave Kamti.

In three hours of floundering in the sweltering hill jungle, we got lost - came out on the Matomute trail just 15 minutes from Kamti battlefield. But on returning to Kamti, we found 65 Yanks dug in there, mostly poorly armed. Here were Lieutenant McKenzie's squad from Matomute and some 50 "L" men in a ration party commanded by Lieutenant Arnold with Lieutenant Ellison. The ration party had only pistols and carbines - no grenades. But no Jap attacks came at that crucial time.

We still had half a day left to ready for those attacks. By wire laid in from Matomute, we asked for help. Supplies and men arrived. At 1500, planes dropped 25-30 cases of ammo and rations. (One case crashed through a hut roof and broke the leg of Arnold's orderly, Jenkins.) About 1930, M Company's heavy machine guns reinforced us, and more of L Company came.

While we buried our two dead, Maggiore saw a Nip corpse move; a rifle fired. Marion Jones died, perhaps from that Nip already dying. Nobody knows for certain.

Such was the first day's battle at Kamti Village, where "K's" two machine gun crews secured us. "K" had three dead; "L" had probably three wounded, and one medic. Official count of Jap dead was 42.

At 2100 that night and at 0600 next morning, Japs charged our perimeter again, but Arnold's heavy machine guns helped our security. "K's" guns then held the back trail to Matomute. But the rest of the story concerning the defense of Kamti Village has already been told in the Jungleer.

 

CREDIT: Heart of this history is a 1945 story by K 163's Staff Sergeant Vernon Magee about K's defense of Kamti Village. Also useful were 163's Aitape Journal, Casualty Lists, R.R. Smith's "Approach to the Philippines" and Lieutenant (later Captain) Jack Arnold's diary. Remainder of Kamti Village story appeared in Arnold's "Defense of Kamti Village" (Jungleer, February, 1959, Vol. X, No.1).