Horseshoe Hill and A Company Ridge (Biak)

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian
with Staff Sergeants Monford Krueger and Thomas Grigar and 2nd Lieutenant Richard Leuhardt

These are the stories of three memorable fights of 1st Battalion 162 Infantry's A and C Companies against Colonel Kuzume's last great offensive from West Caves on Biak. After our other two battalions of 162 Infantry still had hard fighting on Mokmer Ridge south of West Caves, 1st Battalion 162 flanked Mokmer Ridge on the east side and then drove towards West Caves. With 1st Battalion 186 Infantry on our right, 1st Battalion 162 advanced westward against heavy infantry and tank opposition on 14 June 1944. And on 15 June, Kuzume's infantry and tanks began their all-out attack against us.

I. A Company 162 Infantry fights a tank.

On Biak on that 15 June 1944, Staff Sergeant Monford M Krueger's light machine gun squad of A Company 162 valiantly helped to repulse a Jap tank hammering in 37 mm shells at close range.

When the tank attacked about 0930, Krueger's light machine gun squad awaited orders in our shallow holes built up with coral chunks around the sides. We were then attached to Lieutenant Des Champs' Platoon on A Company's right flank. West from dug-in A Company was the strategic south-to-north supply road for West Caves.

At 0930, we heard the ominous throb of the Nip tank's motor from behind a small hill some 300-400 yards to our left in Jap territory. Confidently waiting Staff Sergeant Krueger expected D Company's nearby .50 heavy machine guns to open up and halt the advancing tank. But as the tank's throbs came nearer, D Company's 50s opened up only for seconds. Then in fear, we heard no more heavy machine gun fire. The tank was clanking down the road directly towards A Company and our light machine gun squad. The saplings went down as the tank left the road some 50 yards away and turned towards us.

Staff Sergeant Krueger's first impulse was to withdraw from the death in the tank's 37 mm cannon. But he quickly thought what retreat would mean: panicking with maddened Jap infantry shooting him and his men in their backs while we ran. Krueger ordered his light machine guns to fire. Bullets rattled off the tank. Our light machine guns sprayed the ground on both sides of and behind the tank to drive off the Jap infantry whom we expected to follow through its attack with grenades and bayonets. The black little careening monster seemed to grow larger and larger as it closed in.

Its 37 mm cannon hit the position next to Krueger only two yards away, but caused no casualties in that little pigpen of coral. Then, suddenly, it ceased fire and turned and chugged off, and Krueger felt alive again.

Later, we learned why D 162's heavy machine guns stopped firing on the tank after a few rounds. Krueger reasoned why the tank probably called off the attack. D Company had ceased fire because their heavy machine guns could be sighted on the tank only the short time when it came over the hill. Then the hill curve had masked the fire. The tank had withdrawn because A Company men from their holes had opened up with a BAR and thrown grenades. Our resistance had demoralized and repelled the tank crew and their supportive infantry. The tank's 37 mm gun was ineffective even against moderately good emplacements at short range.

On that 15 June, A Company had six wounded, although we do not know whether they were hit in the tank attack or some other time. Pfc Richard Fenstormacher and Pvt Samuel Koskoff were seriously wounded. Reported lightly wounded were Pvt William C Price, Pfcs Dewey A Thomas and William T Heller, Sergeant Joseph Wiecrek. It was a slight price to pay for our victory - when B 162 that same day had 15 casualties, eight of them serous wounds.

 

II. C Company storms Horseshoe Hill.

On 17 June 1944, C Company 162 Infantry stormed Horseshoe Hill in one of C's bloodiest fights on Biak since Parai Defile. Actually a long, curved ridge, Horseshoe Hill blocked the advance of 1st Battalion 162 Infantry 1st Battalion 186 to the rim of West Caves. This hill extended from north to southwest in a curve directed towards our march like the front of a horseshoe, and thus got its name.

On that morning of 17 June, C Company was in reserve when 162's A and B Companies began 1st Battalion's drive west. But by 1005, despite help from our field artillery and 603 Tank Company's 1st Platoon, heavy automatic fire from Horseshoe Ridge halted A and B Companies.

That fire came from ground that was originally 1st Battalion 186' s objective. But 186 had been forced to delay their march because they had to take a roundabout route to avoid overlapping our 162's 1st Battalion. The 186 men had to turn east from bivouac, then swing north to approach Horseshoe Hill from the northeast, and so could not come up in time to halt Jap fire on A and B 162.

So "C" had to attack Horseshoe Hill. Confidently we waited while field artillery and mortars pounded it for 90 minutes. This barrage was well placed, but not fully effective. We did not know that the Japs were waiting for us under cover of caves or crevices in the cliffs. Yet the attack still looked easy. While our three Sherman tanks advanced and delivered direct fire from their 75s, C's 1st Platoon and 2nd Platoon lined up about 150 yards from the hill, with 3rd Platoon in reserve. As our platoons advanced, D Company's two .30 heavy machine guns delivered overhead fire on that ridge.

But to Staff Sergeant Thomas Grigar in that advance, all timing of the attack seemed to be lost. He thought that when the field artillery salvos ended, C Company should have been at the ridge-foot, not 150 yards away. Grigar also believed that we needed not two but four heavy .30s - or even heavy .50s to fire overhead for us.

At the immediate crest of the hill, "C" met the Japs. Our barrage had badly shaken them. We saw several wounded or dying who lay behind the crest. We saw where they had huddled from our shells in caves and crevices from a foot to 6-8 feet in depth. We had knocked out several pillboxes.

But two Jap machine guns still fired on us from protected positions back in caves. We could not silence them. About 1140, we had to fall back down Horseshoe Hill while our tanks fired uselessly on the two machine guns.

Before our C Company's second attack, the three tanks shot for 45 minutes at the crest, with their .30 heavy machine guns and .75 cannon. They destroyed a Jap .75 and the two machine guns that had repelled us.

About 1230, we again assaulted the hill with two platoons forward, and the other in reserve, as before. This time, our tense men climbed the hill under perfect silence from the crest before us. No Japs fired. Their automatic weapons crews huddled in their holes and died from our rifle and BAR fire or grenades. A few unorganized Nippo riflemen still wandered in the brushland behind the crest and waited for death. Our security patrols or outguards picked them off.

Just as our C 162 ended resistance on our section of Horseshoe Hill, 1st Battalion 186 men began approaching the high ground from the east. With far less resistance, A 186 contacted "C" about 1330.

Now A and B 162 resumed their drive westward, but scattered machine gun and rifle fire harassed them from positions southwest of our C Company, from Mokmer Ridge. On the day before, 16 June, G Company 186 Infantry had cleared this area when 186's 2nd Battalion had closed the Great Gap between 162's 2nd Battalion and 3rd Battalion. Japs had reoccupied this part of Mokmer Ridge. C 162 had to clear this brush from scattered machine gun crews and riflemen before dark.

Although nobody was killed on that 17 June in C Company, we had our top number of casualties on Biak. (Back on 8 June at Parai Defile, we lost one killed, four seriously wounded, four lightly wounded, and one lightly injured - a total of 10 casualties.) But in this fight for Horseshoe Hill, or elsewhere that day, we had 12 casualties - with three seriously wounded, seven lightly wounded, and two men lightly injured. Seriously wounded were Pfc Abraham R Orosco, Pvt Michael T Mascarella, and 2nd Lieutenant Lester A Landrum. Marked lightly wounded were Pvt James C Munroe, Pfc Ernest G Hedell, Pvt John C Lumpkin, Pvt Milton Svaboda, Pfc Anthony Stefursky, Sergeant Ralph E Groff, Staff Sergeant Manuel G Gardea, Pfcs Alphonse C Stelmach and Charles J Liebson.

 

III. A Company 162 Infantry defends a ridge.

After A 162 had captured a small ridge 150 yards north of West Caves on 17 June, we prepared for battle that night. (This was the same day that C Company won Horseshoe Hill.) Our Commanding Officer, 1st Lieutenant Joseph D Mitchell, knew that A Company was too short of men to hold that ridge unaided, for the whole West Caves garrison might come boiling out that night to slay us. Even with the fire of our attached section of D 162's 1st Platoon's heavy machine guns, we could not be safe.

Mitchell called forward A Company's own 60mm mortarmen who had supported his day's fight from near 1st Battalion Headquarters. Battalion Headquarters also granted him 12 A & P men, and a section of .50 heavy machine guns especially for possibly necessary AT defense. These reinforcements brought the total garrison of Mitchell's ridge up to 100. (Already a small outfit after 20 days' action on Biak, "A" had suffered 22 casualties on this 17 June - four dead, and 16 wounded into hospital.)

Carefully rechecking the entire area, Mitchell felt most secure in our rear, for reliable C 162 would help protect us. He reorganized A Company and detachments into two rifle platoons and a Weapons Platoon. He emplaced 1st Platoon on the west side of the ridge with the 12 A & P men and D's heavy machine guns. He put 2nd Platoon with A's own 60s to guard the east side. Most of our firepower he concentrated to the south towards West Caves. He told us to dig three-man holes.

Although undergoing constant harassment from snipers and knee-mortars while organizing our perimeter, the Platoon leaders personally inspected every position to see whether our men had carried out instructions. ,

Our Platoon leaders – Tech Sergeant Berry and 2nd Lieutenants Descamps and Leukhardt - checked all holes to see that we had linking and overlapping fields of fire - which were to be cleared as much as possible. We must have a complete barrier of booby traps. Perhaps most important was the order to limit our fire with small arms and machine guns. We must always use grenades - unless Japs closed on us within five yards. These reminders were necessary; we were jaded and tired after 1st Battalion's fourth day drive to the West Caves rim.

The expected Jap attacks began about 2100 in the dark. In the first phase, they tried the south nose of our ridge - which was the closest to West Caves. Jap scouts hoped to draw fire by peculiar noises. A Jap with a small pick continually struck it on the rocky ground before him. Despite noises, the Japs failed to draw fire to located our positions. Grenades rained down to keep them at a distance. (We found the pick beside a dead Jap the next day.)

One Jap officer with an NCO did infiltrate to within four feet of a machine gun position. Totally unseen until four feet away, they rose to lunge bayonets into our gunners. They toppled dead from machine gun bursts. On the west flank of our ridge also, two Japs rushed on a machine gun, and died from close-range fire.

In the second phase of A's night fight, Japs began to probe for a weak spot in our perimeter. They hit our mortar-men on the east side and failed. Then they circled our perimeter and tried other places, but still could not find a breach to penetrate with a knot of bayonet men.

In the third phase, towards morning, the Japs waited until they had coaxed a provoked Yank to throw a grenade. They would try to trace back the chain of sparks to the thrower. This tactic boomeranged on them. Their return fire revealed their positions above ground and identified targets for our more accurate grenade bursts.

By daylight, the Jap detachment - an estimated 60 - had left our front but for some of their dead whom they could not bring out. We estimate that they lost 12 killed, and an unknown number of wounded whom they had evacuated.

As for little A Company with 12 A & P men and D Company heavy machine gun crews, we had nil losses. Decimated A Company was happy indeed to have no more losses. On the day before, 17 June, we had 21 casualties, almost half of our 1st Battalion's total of 46. We had four dead: Pvt Hoyt J. Roberson,  Pfcs James L Thacker, Milo E Reinholt, and Andy M Yoka. Pvts John R Magg Pasquale Terracciano, David A Williams and Nadacio Martinez were seriously wounded. Marked lightly wounded were 15: Pvts William A Schroeder, James H Lough, Pfcs John D Shelton, Richard V Skatzes, Forrest C Fischer, Howard R Carey, Leo P Karns, Carlos Ward, Norman W Williams, and Jose Bragg, Jr. Also marked lightly wounded were Tech Sergeants Ambroz C Burkhartsmeyer, and Doyle H  Yancey, and Sergeants Frank J McHugh and Rant N Neely. On 17 June, A Company had our top score of casualties in the entire Biak campaign, but that night, the last men of A Company had survived with no more casualties.

 

Such were three memorable fights of A and C Companies in 1st Battalion 162's flank thrust on Colonel Kuzume's West Caves strong- hold. Refusing to panic, A Company repulsed a tank threat. C Company painfully stormed Horseshoe Hill, and A Company held the ridge which they had captured against a night attack.

 

CREDIT: Reports of these three fights for the east rim of West Caves on Biak are from "Lessons Learned/41st Infantry Division/162 Infantry Regiment" dated June - August 1944. Krueger reported on the tank fight, and Grigar on Horseshoe Hill. Leukhardt reported on defending "A" Ridge. Important help came from R. R. Smith's Approach to the Philippines, and 162 Infantry's "Report of Casualties." In December 1981, I tentatively located Horseshoe Hill from maps in "I Corps History of Biak Operation 15-27 June 1944." Other sources include "Historical Record" of 603 Tank Company (28 June 1944), and 162 Infantry's "Narrative" and Journal."