Headquarters Company 116 Engineers: Priefert’s Battle of Biak

By Virginia and Burdette Priefert, with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

On Biak D-Day, 27 May 1944, when Headquarters Company 116 Engineers landed at Bosnek Beach, Engineer Priefert watched a bulldozer fronting the uplifted ramp of our LST. With his engine hot and running, the driver sat alert at his controls, ready to hit the beach. Our LST drove for the land, grated coral under the surf, and dropped its ramp.

As the ramp levelled, the bulldozer plunged forward. It plunged into deep water; the LST had not really closed into the beach because the water was shallow. We Engineers thought that cat was lost, but the salt water could not kill the motor. The dripping driver made it ashore. He turned around, dropped the blade, and pushed down sand to make a causeway for our 10-12 supply trucks to land with their heavy loads.

After the trucks, Headquarters Company 116 Engineers hiked ashore. Jammed together among trucks and marching outfits below Bosnek’s cliffs while other landing vessels poured in to unload, we were lucky that no Jap field artillery opened up. We know now that our Air Force had spent many bomb runs to make the Bosnek area safe for our landing.

First order for Headquarters Company was to secure our own unit. Every two men must dig a fox-hole together. Priefert and another engineer agreed to make an L-shaped trench for watching in all directions. Grabbing burlap bags from a truck, we filled them with sand and lined the holes to keep the loose earth from caving in. Then in confusion because other outfits worked through our area, we unloaded the trucks and sand-bagged our supply dump and a nearby field hospital.

About 1600 came the first Jap air-raid. Planes darted low from over Bosnek cliffs to escape radar detection. They struck at four LSTs side by side at one of the jetties. Because of the needed hurry to unload and a small beach area, Admiral Fechteler had let four LSTs moor too close together. But no bombs exploded. The strafing runs killed only one man, wounded two others. Priefert saw one plane land in the ocean from anti-aircraft fire from Navy or beach anti-aircraft. Another strafed the ships offshore but splashed down. Another dived too low on our ships and caught its wing-tip on a sub-chaser. It killed two sailors and wounded nine. That plane burst into flames and cart-wheeled into the ocean. The sub-chaser had to be towed off to Hollandia for repairs.

It amazed us when one Jap plane flew the entire length of the beach without harm from a ceiling of flak. We could almost see clouds of steel in the air. The pilot often zoomed so close to the ground that Priefert looked into his goggles. But the pilot maneuvered so adroitly and so fast that he escaped.

Another day when two planes came over, anti-aircraft fire knocked one upside down. The capsized pilot fell into the sea. He was unhurt; two Yanks waded out and walked him ashore. And once, when a plane seemed to swoop for Priefert himself flat in his trench, a big “silver bar” Lieutenant landed on top of him for safety. Priefert feared that the Jap plane would kill the Lieutenant first.’ (Priefert still deeply regrets that he had no time to change places with that Lieutenant to save his life.)

One of Priefert’s first Biak details was to work on an airstrip for a Piper Cub field artillery observer plane. With 25-30 more Engineers, he helped to level the strip with entrenching tools from our packs. Our bulldozers were badly needed elsewhere.

When the Strip seemed ready, they radioed in a little Piper that landed all right. When it departed, it backed close to the cliffs as possible and then took off. It cleared the ocean by just a few inches and became air-borne again.

Then Engineers Priefert and Barum worked on a No. 12 grader to hack out a larger Strip on a coral base behind the cliffs. (While a bulldozer is a vehicle mounted on a track and pushes a great blade before it, a grader is a longish vehicle mounted on wheels. After a bulldozer does the harder work, it drops its blade from the chassis to smooth off the bumps on the ground.) Coral on this strip was so sharp that it tore up tires, but plenty more were handy to replace them as quickly as they blew out.

Out of somewhere came an officer to tell us to push the loose coral into the runway center. Even if this order seemed foolish, we had to obey the officer. The first plane that tried to take off, bogged down in loose coral. Then the officer ordered a jeep to pull a board over the strip to flatten the coral.

Another plane did get off the ground, but the coral retarded it. Pilot and plane ended up on the stumps of little trees at the end of the strip. Pilot was unhurt, and plane patched up to fly again.

Finally, we did what we should have done in the first place. We pushed all coral and loose sand to the sides of the strip. Engineers dynamited off some of the hard coral high spots, and it became a fair air-strip.

Jap planes still bombed our beach. During early morning twilight, a plane paralleled the beach and dropped a probable 500-lb bomb - seemingly aimed for Headquarters 116 Engineers. It luckily landed off-target into the sea. Two hundred feet away, our hole rocked with the explosion. Sand and water flew all over us. Our teeth rattled. The crater was large enough to bury a jeep.

When B 116 Engineers’ Captain Armstrong needed another grader, Priefert and red-headed Texan Barum got the crew assignment. They found Jap skulls everywhere when they graded a waterpoint road. Because they were unburyable in the coral, we had to push them aside with the grader. When Priefert put a Jap skull on the grader front, a Major politely objected, and Priefert took it down.

After finishing the new Strip behind Bosnek Cliffs, Priefert and Barum had orders to grade newly won Mokmer Strip. (Capturing it was the main strategic move of the whole Biak Operation.) Assurances were that the Japs no longer menaced us; they were all holed up in West Caves.

While we busily graded, the ground burst with an explosion right before us. We feared that a Jap mortar shell had impacted. We huddled under our grader. Then another “shell” blasted to our right. We shrank into the earth and expected to hear fragments hit the grader above us.

We trembled a long time under the grader, but there were no more explosions. We observed that those blasts were from the ground - and not from mortars above us at all. Later, we learned that the blasts were due to fumes from gasoline that other 116 Engineers had poured into West Caves during 20-22 June. The fumes had gathered in little coral pockets under Mokmer Strip and had ignited from the fires in West Caves to make the blast. After an hour, we returned to grading the Strip.

Then, sometime around 9 July 1944, Priefert with Barum got the most memorable order that he ever had in the whole war. B 116’s Commanding Officer Armstrong told him and Barum to grade a new-made road into the scrub wilderness of upland Biak. He ordered us not to return under any circumstances until we had finished. From Armstrong, we feared court-martial if we disobeyed.

Priefert and Barum never knew where this road led, but it was surely 186 Infantry's former overland route through the coral scrubland to Mokmer Strip, which road was now disused.

We believed that this road was for infantry supplies, but we never knew that infantry ever used that road. (After 186 seized Mokmer Strip and the Sboeria Foreshore, it was quicker and safer to move supplies by water.) We heard also that field artillery used that supply road, but we saw no field artillery men.

For the first two or three days, we graded through the scrub with a small guard from an infantry squad’s outpost. Two men walked ahead of us with M-1s. At night, we holed up with maybe six or eight other men in little “pigpens” of coral that the Japs had piled up.

Nearby was a big Jap “pigpen” with a dead crew still manning a dead machine gun. The dead gunner still crouched behind the gun with his finger on the trigger. His two crewmen still slumped over the belt that they had fed into the gun. Moving closer to them, we saw that they were only skeletons.

All those two or three days, we worked eight hours in the Biak upland silence, and returned nightly to the outpost. One night while trying to keep dry from the heavy Guinea rain, we stretched a canvas sheet over our ponchos on the ground. We tied one corner to our grader, one corner to our truck, and the other two corners to trees. With a guard posted, we others enjoyed a dry, smiling sleep while rain battered the canvas.

But the rain bulged our canvas with 50 gallons of water. The ties broke and dropped 50 gallons of water on us sleepers. One man awoke and screamed, “We’re drowning! We’re drowning!” One night when tired Priefert and Barum returned to the outpost dog tired and fell asleep beside the others, Blankenship was on guard. Blankenship was a quiet, deliberate fellow of course not well known to Priefert and Barum.

Suddenly we sleepers awoke to the crackle.of M-1 shots and sat up with our M-1s leaping into our hands. After the shots, we heard an empty M-1 clip ring in the coral. In the silence after the shots, we admired the dead whom Blankenship had made with his M-1. Five Japs had sneaked up on the outpost to kill us. With eight shots from one clip, Blankenship had slain all five Nips. From then on, Blankenship had our greatest respect.

After the first 2-3 days, the infantry guard left us. We worked on the road alone - just Priefert, Barum, and the No. 12 grader. We were in a remote and lonely place where the noise of our motor and scraper could carry for some distance. We were in blind low scrub where Japs could be anywhere.

Priefert and Barum took turns driving the grader. While one man sat high up under the canvas shelter and drove, the other man stood on the housing by the motor and with his M-1 tried to see a Nippo sniper before he fired on us. We were scared stiff most of the time, at brush that seemed to move with Nips when a man stared too long into it.

As the work went on, Priefert labored in a high fever all day, from the time when he awoke in the morning. Yet he remembered Captain Armstrong’s order; he did not want a court martial. Besides, Priefert was a true Nebraskan of the finest breed, conscientious and hard-working.

Because of his illness, this fought-over scrub jungle became more horrible than ever. The jungle stink was stronger all the time. Rats ran over us and our bedding at night.

Finally, sick Priefert could endure no longer - Armstrong’s orders or no orders. Court-martial or not, he could not go on. He left the grader, struggled back towards B Company. Late at night, he arrived at a field hospital.

He saw light at a tent: a doctor writing on make-shift desk beside a lantern. The doctor helped yellowed Priefert into the tent, tapped his back, and said, “Man, you’re nearly dead. Why didn’t you come in days ago?"

The good doctor helped him into a cot. From then on, Priefert was so sick that he could not rise up to leave his cot even for necessities. He would roll from the cot onto the ground, then pull himself up to walk by using the cot to support himself.

Next day, he became sicker still. Three B Company Engineers working with an unfamiliar new detonator had a premature explosion. T/5 Alexander R. DuMarce was killed, and Clark and Carmichael blinded by the blast in their faces. An on-the-spot medical diagnosis was they could never see again. Priefert’s morale was near its nadir.

Along with jaundice came another agony that the jaundice may have caused. Perhaps because bile had accumulated in his body from the jaundice, his legs were swollen up to look like gallon pails - to over five inches in diameter. Actual cause of this leg infection was never determined, but the legs had to be slashed open and drained.

The Medics carried Priefert to the beach for an airplane evacuation. When the plane failed to come, they took him by beach-craft to the hospital ship Comfort en route to Milne Bay. His illness was finally diagnosed as jaundice, and he hoped that he would die soon.

Priefert is today uncertain how long he lay in hospital at Milne Bay - but anywhere from 30 to 60 days. When finally cured, he had lost at least 90 pounds. Returned to Biak, he was put on water-point detail and had no more of that horrible road. (Later, he learned that his No. 12 grader was ill fortune for another man. In March, 1945 at Zamboanga, B Company’s Robert Libera died from a mortar blast while he was grading a road with that No. 12). But for Priefert, that outback scrub-land road on Biak is still a nightmare where he runs a grader while deep in a fever and in fear of a Nippo shot.

CREDIT. Personal story comes from three letters (total 18 pages) of 18 and 24 July and 6 August 1981. While “Stub” Priefert told the story, Virginia wrote it up and typed it with journalistic expertise, and deserves a byline. Some background comes from RR Smith’s Return to the Philippines. The Prieferts give credit to B Company 116 Engineers’ Captain Argyle Armstrong for his poem which brought back the memories of his order to grade the great road on Biak. This poem appeared in the July, 1981 Jungleer after Hargis found it in the archives at Dwight Eisenhower Library.