AT Company 162 Infantry: Mine Platoon on Biak
By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian & AT Company's Sergeant Counts & Lieutenant Schatzman

             On Biak D-Day, 27 June 1944, AT 162's Mine Platoon marched with 162's 3rd Platoon into Parai Defile to try to cap­ture Mokmer Strip. We carried old World War I mine-detectors, heavy backpacks and sweep discs with 12-inch diameters and 5-foot handles and ear-phones. But 3rd Battalion never called us up to use them.

            Our lead companies easily forced the lightly held Defile. By dawn 28 May, Mine Platoon thought that Biak was another easy Hollandia victory. Then, in the flat brushland west of Parai, the real Battle of Biak started. With perfect observation from the ridge, the Japs plunged heavy machine gun and mortar fire on 3rd Battalion. Staff Sergeant Counts recalls our despair under two hours' heavy Jap blasting. We couldn't even group for reliable orders from the Commanding Officers. Rumor was that a Battalion officer said, "Every man for himself."

            When 162's Colonel Haney ordered retreat, 603 Tank Company's Shermans tried to silence Jap fire from the cliffs. They broke through with guns blazing, but Jap machine guns continued firing. AT's Mine Platoon desperately ran through Jap fire-lanes — a few men at a time.

            Waiting his turn, Counts was in a sniper's sights. The first bullet zipped by; he dived behind a log. More bullets struck smoke and steam from the log near his face. They seemed like dum-dums. They cracked so hard that he could hear the muzzle-blast and detect that Japs' posi­tions. He crawled over a coral ledge and ran through machine gun fire-lanes. AT's Foley was down with a bullet through his thigh. Counts helped two Yanks to move him to safer ground for Medics' care.

            On 29 May after a quiet night, Jap tanks and infantry attacked 2nd Battalion entrenched above and to the right of where AT's Mine Platoon had dug in on the beach. From our positions, Counts saw an occasional Jap advance on the sky-line, while we tensely looked back for a Jap charge. After the four tanks died above us, he heard Jap officers' orders, and a fire-fight. Two Jap Infantry attacks failed; three more Jap tanks were killed.

            On that 29 May, Mine Platoon lost Sergeant Lynn Miller and Claude Johnson, both marked "lightly wounded." A destroyer's 6-inch shell went wrong and put a fragment in Johnson's left shoulder. A Jap machine gun hit Fuller also. In Parai Defile, Mine Platoon abandoned our mine-detectors. We fought as infantry thereafter.

            We rejoined AT Company to fight Ibdi Pocket ridges — the Japs' eastern bastion for Parai Defile. When on 2-4 June, 2nd Battalion 162 Infantry fought north on Young Man's Trail through the Pocket to join 186 marching westward, "AT" had a new mission. "AT" was to help Cannon Company keep open 2nd Battalion's supply line from the coast.

            On 2 June, Mine Platoon got orders to make perimeter on Ridge 4 in a tangle of rain-forest on knife-edged coral ridges. Ridge 4 was so far inland from AT Headquarters that we laid wire to keep in touch. Climbing to the Ridge 4 crest, we passed a new Jap corpse, surely left after 2nd Battalion's push.

            Ridge 4 was all solid coral — a poor perimeter position. We huddled in natural depressions and heaped coral chunks around us. With our light machine gun, we had M-1s and 2-3 grenades a piece. Counts' squad held the trail back to AT Company. Kielsgard's squad lay in the depression below Ridge 4 to act as a listening post.

            Counts feared that Jap killers would trail us on that wire down to AT Hq. It went dead about dusk. Night fell. Heavy fire broke out on AT's other ridges, to continue all night. Mine Platoon spent a quiet time, however. The Nips evidently had failed to locate our positions. Then just at first light, 2nd Lieutenant Schatzman heard Jap trucks being started, and Jap voices.

            Just at daylight also, down the steep slope on Mine Platoon's rear, Counts' men heard Japs chattering, yawning, and laughing — like men just awakening from sleep at a country club. We were more scared now; they felt safe and did not need to be quiet. Had they already planned to attack us?

            Now two Nips came down the trail behind us where our wire was laid. One "AT" man first waved and called to them, but he stopped when he realized that they were Japs. In a position or two past Counts, a rifleman fired twice too quickly at them and missed. They dropped into a draw, then disappeared, certainly to alert the Jap outfit below us.

About an hour later, a Jap sniper fired — maybe from a tree with a full view of our whole perimeter. His first shot wrecked our light machine gun. Then the Japs moved on us — a whole Company, as Schatzman estimated.

            On the perimeter side behind Counts, at least 100 Japs climbed up the steep slopes and attacked. Schatzman let them get close before we opened fire. He hoped to pile them on the trail, but they crouched in the brush or climbed trees and fired down on us.

            Their push failed. Fighting kitchen man Shields was one reason for their failure. He seemed careless of his life — fired standing up exposed, like sighting on targets in a shooting gallery. Shields claimed a kill of 28. Perhaps his marksmanship saved Mine Platoon from any casualties.

            No charges hit Counts' side of the perimeter, but he had unbelted all his M-1 clips and lined them on the rock before him, with his three grenades. Expecting the Japs to break our perimeter, he prepared to stuff clips into his M-1 as a butcher stuffs a meat-grinder. Expecting death from a sustained attack, he hoped, like every man, to slay many Japs before he died.

            After the attack, heavy shells burst haphazardly between us and AT Company below. Later we learned that Cannon Company thought that we were overrun and fired their mortars to help us escape.

            Probably deciding that Jap mortars or own field artillery might soon knock us off Ridge 4, Lieutenant Schatzman ordered re­treat. Leaving our shattered machine gun, Mine Platoon started back down-trail to safety. Counts happily saw Kielsgard and his squad below them, who fell in as rear guard.

            After AT's fights of 2-3 June, General Fuller closed 2nd Battalion 162's supply trail across Ibdi Pocket and attached that 2nd Battalion to 186 Infantry on the plateau. Fuller also decided that he could not force Parai Defile until Ibdi Pocket was cleared. He ordered 1st Battalion 162 to attack east from Young Man's Trail, and "AT" to push west with attached A Company 186 Infantry on our right. Our western attack hit a stone wall in the heavily fortified depths of Ibdi Pocket.

            On 7 June when "AT" patrolled west from Young Man's Trail Shields and Schatzman scouted ahead of Counts' point squad. Lieutenant Schatzman had chosen Shields as first scout because he appreciated this fighter's alert­ness and aggression.

            All went quietly until they hit a bald spot 25-35 yards long on the ridge. After a brief wait. Shields crossed, with Schatzman 15 yards behind him. Shields fired suddenly; Schatzman saw that he had hit a Nip. Then Schatzman thought that Shields moved up to prepare to throw a grenade. Heavy Jap fire broke out; Shields was down. Schatzman fired at the Jap sound of fire but himself drew machine gun fire. He called to Shields but had no answer.

            Crawling back to Mine Platoon, Schatzman contacted Lieutenant Harbaugh. We brought up a machine gun to fire on the Japs and also tried to use a bazooka to try to fell some of the big trees. The bazooka did not smash the trees — merely drew more machine gun fire. We could not bring out Shields' body.

            (A week or so later, G Company 163 men attacked past Shields' post of honor, on a water-rutted ridge. Some­body had covered him with an Aussie blue blanket. Nearby, a little dead Nip in swollen puttees hung head down in vines over the cliff. Beyond them, the narrow ridged lifted over a heap of brush and rocks into a grassy glade. A cross-cliff about 15 feet high walled the glade, with two pillboxes on top. Below that cliff on the other side, were three Jap emplacements to fire over that cross-cliff. We might knock out the two pillboxes. But after silencing the pillboxes, we would have to crawl over the cliff in a slot between two big trees — a man at a time. A touch of a Jap machine gun trigger would topple his corpse back over the cliff. Such was Pfc James F. Shields' bed of honor.)

            On that 6 June, Jap fire forced us to retreat to a safer night position. We perimetered on a narrow ridge with a bald knob in the direction where Shields had died. We had to hold that knob to keep Japs from seizing it and raking AT Company from our narrow ridge behind it.

            Now 2nd Platoon with their light machine gun and Counts' Mine Platoon squad got orders to hold Bald Knob. McCormick and Gardner placed their light machine gun at the end to fire west. Counts' men held the north side; 2nd Platoon men guarded the south side.

            Bald Knob's white coral gleamed under the nearly full moon. We dared not sky-line ourselves; we were already taking some rifle-fire. We heaped coral chucks around us and hugged the ground. McCormick took a leg wound, Kielsgard replaced him on the light machine gun. The ridge than quietened for awhile.

            As night deepened. Counts heard, far down the ridge, iron tires on a rock — a Jap mountain gun repositioning. Yet he slept — after midnight and but little sleep since D-Day while Kees and Kessler guarded him in their turn.

            Counts did not sleep long. Jap howls and our machine gun's crackling awoke him. Main Jap thrust seemed against Kielsgard's machine gun, but our grenades burst all around Bald Knob — against Japs in the brush below.

            All night Bald Knob rocked with explosions — our own grenades, and some knee-mortar blasts. Kielsgard kept his machine gun bursts short, but fired too frequently. We had just three grenades apiece. Worried Counts sent a man crawling back to Headquarters for more.

            Just below us, Japs were again dragging that heavy metal object over coral. Counts feared that they were trying to place a mountain gun fire into the depression between Bald Knob and the rest of "AT." Counts threw a grenade. The scraping halted, then started again. The grenade has arced too far below. He sparked another grenade in his hand, held it briefly before throwing it. It also exploded too far downhill. Now he laid an M-1 clip on the rock to help point his M-1 in the sound's direction. He stabbed the next sound with a full 8-round clip, reloaded, and waited. He never heard the supposed wheels on the rock again.

            Bald Knob vibrated all night with knee-mortar and gre­nade blasts. Kielsgard's light machine gun was running out of ammo. Too few grenades came up from AT Company behind us on the ridge.

Daylight was coming. On this bare hump, we would be clear targets for Jap snipers. Since the Japs had failed, Counts ordered withdrawal. Later, he found 2-3 helmets of grenades that "AT" had collected for us, but some­how, they had never come up to help us.

            On that 7 June, AT Company pushed on the Japs' positions — this time from the west. Hidden pillboxes of blazing machine guns stopped us. Grenades bounded down on us. When 1st Lieutenant Harbaugh called for reinforcements, a Platoon of A Company 186 Infantry arrived under Sergeant Platko, with satchel charges.

            "AT" and A 186 crawled up to a waist-high coral cliff, with Japs on the other side on higher ground. Flat­tened at the cliff-foot, we seemed safe from riflemen. The Japs threw a few ineffective grenades down on us.

            An A 186 man — probably Pfc Leon Roy — rose up and looked for a place to throw his satchel charge. A Jap blasted him at close range. Clutching his chest, Roy lay back sighing and died.

            Probably at that time, two more A 186 men were wounded — Stukel, and Banks. "AT" lost Mine Platoon's Entzminger, S/Sergeant Palmer, and 1st Lieutenant Harbaugh marked lightly wounded. Mine Platoon's Gunia escaped from a bullet all the way through his helmet. (At Zamboanga, Gunia would escape miraculously also. At Zambo, he disarmed a Bouncing Betty, it blew up and wounded only the tip of a little finger.)

            After our failure, AT 162 and A 186 could not gain more ground along the ridges west of Young Man's trail. On 10 June, General Fuller relieved both Companies to bypass Parai Defile and help the fight for Horseshoe Ridge above Mokmer Strip. Some days later, AT 162 was occupying a ridge half a mile east of West Caves, after dragging some Jap corpses down into a draw. When Counts took a detail to evacuate some wounded from near West Caves, Pfc William J. Strawser was seriously wounded. The last time Mine Platoon saw Strawser, he was laughing and joking and smoking a cigarette. But he died of that wound — a small, evil blue hole in the abdomen. This is the last time that Counts remembers that Mine Platoon was under fire on Biak.

            Such was the war of AT 162's Mine Platoon on Biak. After having to lose our mine-detectors at Parai Defile, we ably defended Ridge 4 and Bald Knob against fierce Nippo attacks. We had seven wounded. We were lucky to have just two dead, but men never forgotten, Shields and Strawser.

 

CREDIT: AT Company's Fred Kielsgard contacted Stephen Counts to help me. (Counts later became Tech Sergeant of Mine Platoon at Zamboan­ga.) Core of this second story of AT 162 on Biak are Counts' letters of 21 Mar and 26 Dec 1979, and 27 Jan 1980. Important on AT's ridge fight of 3 June and the later death of Jimmie Shields is Platoon leader Lieutenant Ed Schatzman's undated letter written about Sept. 1980. Other sources are AT 162's Morning Report (June, 1944), 162 Infantry's Biak Casualty List, and RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines.