162 Infantry and Recon Platoon on Biak: Last Days of 1st Lieutenant Myron Folson

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian with John Justin Smith, Arnold Nierman, and Al Grauerholz

When 162 Infantry landed on Biak 27 May 1944 and started to penetrate Parai Defile, 1st Lieutenant Folsoms I&R vets led the recon and fighting. While some of us scouted the high flanking cliffs, 162's "point of the point" was Folsom's, Nierman, and John Justin Smith scanning beach and brush and Mokmer Road for the first Japs fighters.

Folsom said, "We must keep the Regiment advancing." This was the way the athletic and saintly Folsom talked to his devoted men. "Must" was the strongest word that he ever used.

And keep the regiment advancing we did. About 1115, we sighted perhaps a squad of Japs in the Defile just east of a steep limestone cliff. When our Navy blasted, these Japs retreated westward. We had begun that obscure first day's battle for Parai Defile. It was a battle that even frontline men have a hard time remembering - because of the disastrous next two days.

In that first day's fight down Parai Defile, I&R contacted Japs 13 times, but we do not remember in what order the contacts came.

Slipping along the coast road to a rise in the ground, Scout Smith confronted a Japs scout with rifle at port. Luckily, the Japs's rifle was on safety; Smith killed him before the safety came off. (Later, Smith learned that the Japs never had a chance. Japs orders were to carry the rifle loaded but locked at all times. The safety rod of his .25 rifle was knurled and behind the bolt. To unlock that rifle, a man's sweaty, nervous hand had to push in knurled rod, turn it, then let it spring out. God pity a Jap with this safety!)

Another time, a rifleman in a tree shot at Smith. Firing downward requires special technique of leading a target. The Japs missed; Smith killed him in the tree.

Once an I&R man glimpsed two Japs in the brush at a road-bend in the Defile. Not knowing how many more Japs were with them, we called up riflemen from our following Company - probably "L." With their help, we fusilladed and slew two men hiding by their machine gun.

Our most spectacular shoot-out occurred where the coast-road disappeared and we had to walk the sand because the ridges came down to the water's edge. The slopes had eroded into little caves - great places for unwary men to get killed.

Our lead scout looked into a cave and saw a Japs foot with a boot on it. One volunteer I&R man lobbed in a grenade. Then we ran back to where the other two men waited in the sand, with their fingers on triggers.

An officer charged out and swung up his saber with the bright light flashing on his blade. We shot him down. Next charged an enlisted man in meticulous uniform. We shot him down. Another charged behind him and was shot down, and another and another. All charged in single file-men larger than usual - perhaps Japs Marines. We slew all 15 who came out.

Still unsure of how many other Japs lurked in those caves, we called for help from the sea. Nearby floated an LCI with racks of rockets. Using an improvised kind of elementary arm-semaphore, Smith signaled to the LCI to open fire. Dozens of rockets blasted the cave. The hillside collapsed and buried the dead Japs and possibly some live ones - even the officer's saber that Smith had coveted.

These five were the most remembered of I&R's 13 contacts when 162 Infantry penetrated Parai Defile that first day on Biak. All 13 times, I&R succeeded in encountering these Japs without losing a single wounded man. We lost no men partly because of our experiences under Folsom with New Guinea scouts like Tapioli at Salamaua. There were other reasons for our safety: the alert quickness of our scouting, and the ferocity of our support from Navy, Air Force, field artillery, and tanks. In all 162 Infantry that day, we had only one killed and six wounded - against a total of 16 known dead Japs. These men were from 3rd Battalion 222 Infantry and 14 Division Shipping Unit - these last perhaps the "Marines" slain the cave. In those encounters, Smith had fired an entire bandolier of .30 shells - in a front-line "Hogan's Alley." Regimental records say that 162 Infantry with heavy fire support battled the Japs just four times - at 1115, 1235, 1400, and 1450. But our 13 encounters tell more accurately the deadly tale of 162's first day in Parai Defile.

That night, I&R still had a holiday attitude on Biak. A disliked officer wanted to hole up with I&R for greater protection, but we kept him out of our diggings. He did hole up nearby, and we spent the night alarming him against creeping Japs who never attacked.

But with daybreak 29 May, our mission began to look grim. Worried because most of 162's front was constricted back in the Defile, Colonel Haney ordered us to move faster. To save time, he withdrew I&R's right flank scout because he had to slow us down when he checked out the rough land edging Parai cliffs. Short, slender, dynamic Haney rebuked Smith for protesting. Haney had lain sleepless last night.

On this 28 May, Smith evidently scouted with 2nd Battalion's G Company which moved westward along a terrace behind L and M Companies. We were to the right rear above 3rd Battalion's main attempt to capture Mokmer Strip from the Beach Road. Above us were jungle-covered cliffs which had never been secured.

Within 30 minutes after Haney rebuked him, Smith was down on his face with the forward elements of probably G Company, under a heavy barrage of machine guns and mortars. Fire came from where that right flank guard should have been.

At first we were safe below the machine guns' trajectory. Beside probably Staff Sergeant Cassidy of G Company, Smith tried to crawl up with other's to kill the machine guns. Mortars impacted nearby. A fragment struck a "G" man in his cartridge belt and exploded the shells in it, clip by clip. This man and others died.

Shortly, someone came up behind Smith and crashed his leg with a sledge-hammer - so Smith thought when the mortar-fragment whammed him. Frightened Smith slit open his pants-leg; blood squirted out six inches at a squirt from his thigh. In seconds seeming minutes, he got the bandage from his first-aid packet and pressed it hard into his leg. It took three minutes to stop the intense bleeding. By now, Smith was alone in the quiet with the dead under Parai Cliffs. Others had pushed ahead, or retreated. He crawled more than a mile to 2nd Battalion Headquarters Medic Sparrage who tied up his thigh and said, "I told you you were going to get in trouble with that I&R Platoon." Jeeped back to a Portable Hospital on the beach, Smith had a visit from Folsom that evening. "What some guys will do to get out of combat!" he joked and shook hands and wished well to Smith. Smith long remembered that simple goodbye, for two days later, Folsom lay dead under Japs machine guns above Mandom.

To Commanding Officer 1st Lieutenant Grauerholz of Service Company, Folsom seemed to foreshadow his coming death. He said, "All I know to do is just go out and look and see everything I can and come back and tell Regiment what I saw. And I'll keep going until they get me." Next day, Grauerholz saw an I&R Sergeant bring the bad news to 162's Executive, Lieutenant Colonel Bailey.

Folsom's death-patrol occurred because two previous patrols could not locate Japs' positions in the dark ridges above Mandom Water-Hole. Jap rifle-fire or small raiding parties from the ridges constantly harassed our men at 162's water-point there. When our patrols moved into the ridges 700 yards north of Mandom, mortar and automatic fire had halted them.

On 31 May, Folsom sought those positions with a nine-man patrol carrying carbines and tommies. A captured Japanese (or possibly Korean) guided us. Nierman and the Javanese went first; Peel and Folsom followed. Other patrol members included Gene Sullivan, Svagdis, Thodoropoulos, Ray Russell, Sczpanski, John D. Williams. Nierman, the Javanese, Peel, and Folsom moved far ahead of the others.

Past Cannon 162's outguards at Mandom Water-Hole, we climbed the first of six ridges between us and the Japs heights.

We filed over four low, sharp ridges through dense rain-forest. Only a little thin soil covered the coral bedrock in places, but trees grew close and slender and tall-8 to 20 inches thick and 100-150 feet high.

On these first ridges, we found no Japs - only Biak jungle silence and heat as we slipped ahead silently - carbines and tommies ported, finger near trigger. We sweated in the shady brush cutting off the light breezes. Outcrops and rolls of slippery loose rocks underfoot tried to trip us. Loose stones might roll under us. We scouted up dangerous crests, wound down into 50 feet deep. Laboriously we climbed four crests, still thinking ourselves unobserved.

About Ridge 4, we began hearing Japs talk around us, but saw nobody. Our Javanese guide now led, with Folsom, then Nierman and Peel close behind. Five men patrolled after us, for visual contact with Folsom's group and for flank security. Back on Ridge 4, two men stopped to guard our rear and give cover if Japs attacked.

Topping Ridge 5, the Javanese said that he saw two Japs sitting at a tree-base. Still hearing Japs voices nearby, Folsom, Nierman, Peel, and the Javanese stood a little off the trail to map what we had observed.

Nierman thought that we were far enough into deadly Japs country. He said that we ought to turn back, but Folsom ordered us to move farther up the trail.

Now Folsom was first in line, the Javanese in a jungle suit second, and Nierman third. Folsom followed the guide. Both bent low in the foliage to tread the trail which was the only concealed route of approach.

From two emplacements a short distance left of the trail, Japs machine guns lashed out. A burst in the chest killed Folsom instantly. We returned some fire, and threw a few grenades to blast the brush nearby. But heroic Folsom of Salamaua lay dead.

Black-eyed Folsom the handsome all-American boy - a Roman Catholic whose friends described him as "saintly." We could not bring out his body then, but we could map the terrain for revenge.

Cover and concealment were meager on these heights. Japs movements in the brush revealed the two positions where Folsom was shot from. One machine gun was emplaced on a knob left of the trail. Another gun flanked it on the left, a bit lower down slope.

But these positions were only part of a large Japs semi-perimeter. Left of these guns, Gun No. 3 guarded a ridge gap. Left again, Gun No.4 was on the shoulder of the gap. Gun No.5 was on the left flank of these four guns, north across the second ridge from them. On the right of the trail, Nos. 6, 7, and 8 guarded it and secured the right flank of the semi-perimeter - three guns on three different ridges. No guns protected the rear of this semi-circle of positions, but they were unnecessary in this phase of the Battle of Biak.

While we sadly reported the death of great Folsom to 162 Headquarters, the Javanese guide reappeared. He was smiling all over his face. We thought that the Japs gunners had spared him because he was in collusion with them. We still believe that he decoyed Folsom forward to his death under Japs fire. We threatened to kill him. Nierman took the man by the throat and roughly led him to the prisoners' stockade. We heard that the Javanese died trying to escape.

But we could not bring out Folsom for days. Heavy and accurate fire must be laid on the positions which we occupied later without casualties. Major Caulfield led the party who recovered Folsom. In Folsom's fatigue jacket, we found the silver bars of a captain, which Caulfield had presented him because Folsom would soon have been promoted to that rank.

Many of 162's officers and men attended Folsom's funeral. Borne on a hospital stretcher, and wrapped in a wrinkled poncho, the body seemed unbelievably small to Service Company’s Commanding Officer, 1st Lieutenant Grauerholz, his close friend. We stood in a hollow square while the bugle played "Taps." We buried him at the base of the coral reef near Mandom. Such were the final ceremonies for Great Scout Myron Folsom, hero of the Salamaua Operation, who died at the head of his patrol on Biak, 31 May 1944.

 

CREDIT: Personal stories are from Smith's letter of 5 January and 21 November 1977, and 9 January 1978; Alvin Grauerholz' letters of 24 April 1963, and 10 and 18 January 1978 - with Ray Russell's letter of 10 January 1961. In a voice thick and pained with throat cancer, Nierman phoned 1 May 1978. Nierman died shortly after this phone call. For background, I used 162 Infantry’s Biak casualty List and Narrative and Journal with 41st Division Training Note 9 of 14 October 1944. Where Nierman contradicted this Training Note, I took Nierman's word as authoritative. History of Folsom's I & R in the Salamaua Operation appeared in JungIeer for March 1963.