M Company 162 Infantry II: Parai Defile Through Death Ridge

 

By Sergeant Louis Botta, M 162, and Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

After 162 Infantry on 29 May retreated under the Japs cliffs holding Parai Defile, M Company's weapons helped L Company turn back to fight again. With L Company, "M" faced west again. Halfway through Parai Defile at the mouth of the underground stream, 3rd Battalion set up an ambush against Jap infiltration, with M's weapons as security. From the stream crossing, patrols probed westward.

 

From 30 May through early June, Botta and other "M" gunners made at least and withdrawals, while each gunner toted some 50 pounds of gear. Always Jap fire from the cliffs menaced us. At night we perimetered in a beachside coconut grove. Always, we seemed to fight Japs around us in the dark.

 

On 3 June, "M" was part of 3rd Battalion's formidable thrust with tanks to force the Defile. This thrust was timed well for 162 to press on Mokmer Strip while 186 struck from the right rear.

 

At 0730 3 June, we advanced. By 0915, our riflemen fanned out to the cliffs at the Defile entrance, had no Jap contacts yet. About 0930, air strikes supported our point squads, who had neared Parai Jetty. At 1044, field artillery and mortars - M's mortars surely - barraged the cliffs ahead. At 1055, our destroyers shelled around Parai Jetty.

 

Most of this time, reinforced 3rd Battalion kept its excellent formation for battle. In the van, "L" riflemen guarded four engineers of C 116 with mine detectors. Followed three tanks, and a bulldozer driven by that heroic Engineer, T/5 Winkler. After this group, came more 162 Platoons, four tanks, more C 116 Engineers, and "K" and "L" Companies.

 

At 1320 at the first road junction, the first Japs fired on us. L's lead Platoon got a torrent of fire from overhead cliffs. From jungle between road and cliffs, Japs burst out and cut off the "L" Platoon. While C 116 tried to repair the bridge across the underground stream, Engineer Winkler helped to drag tanks over to fire for the besieged Platoon. For two hours, tanks and L Company battled, but could not force Parai Defile.

 

At 1430, 3rd Battalion's Commanding Officer reported us halted at the first road junction, with three dead. After 1520, we located two Jap roadblocks.

 

         Japs dropped grenades down on us from the sheer cliffs. We followed orders to retreat to a position 80 yards east of the river.

 

And so gunner Botta found himself making another M Company withdrawal from Parai Defile. Plodding 75 yards behind a Sherman tank that almost crawled, Botta slogged on with a slung carbine and an ammo case in each hand.

 

Suddenly Botta saw his first live Jap of the war. The Nip crouched behind the tank, which had stopped for a second. Botta shouted, dropped ammo cases, un-slung carbine. But he was too late.

 

M's volunteer Moore dashed through Jap fire with the order, showed the machine gun crew the safest way to retreat. On 3 June, no M Company man was hit, but "L" lost two dead, three wounded. [From casualty list:  L Co. KIAs were Sgt. Russell C. Newhouse and Pfc Dionisic Temellosa.  Pvt. Howe E. Steinhilber would die of wounds next day.  Staff Sergeant Ray Kliever was seriousy wounded, and Pvt. Howard N. Schuon was lightly wounded.]

 

In the next few days, we continued pressure on Parai Defile. On 5 June, 3rd Battalion sent an officer onto a destroyer to show targets to Naval guns, while another 162 man on the beach, marked our advance with a red flag. The destroyer, a rocket LCI, flak boats of Support Battery, 2nd Engineer Special Brigade - all fired. Then "L" and "I" patrols heard Japs shouting and digging on the cliffs and in the coastal swamp. Just as "I" men saw the bridge, heavy fire repelled them. Except for outposts near the river, 3rd Battalion again withdrew into perimeter.

 

On 6 June, we reconnoitered in force. "I" covered "L" with "M" weapons probably attached. Patrols pressed through the gap unopposed, even 250 yards west of the stream and the bridge which our Naval guns had destroyed. The Japs had used many 1-man caves to fight from. At 1550, heavy fire halted us - with one dead [L Co's Pvt. Albert B. Brunetti], one wounded in the rifle companies. We outposted the stream, fell back again.

 

That night of 6 June, Japs screamed and rushed at our holes. Muscular little California Indian Joaquin crept out into the dark and killed two. Down in his hole, Botta heard 4-5 carbine shots, then low words passed down the holes to say that Pfc Bill A Joaquin was dead.

 

But 3rd Battalion 162 never finished off the Parai Defile Japs. Leaving L Company and probably most of "M," for a short time there, General Fuller detached "I" and "K" to land at Parai Jetty behind the Japs. They were to join with 186 against the Japs above Mokmer Strip. To help L Company pushing west, Fuller sent Cannon Company (actually a rifle company then) to take the Defile Japs in the rear.

 

On 7-9 June, "L," "M," and "CN" tried to break the Defile Japs. But on 8 June, the Japs cut Cannon in two and forced it back. On 9 June, three Sherman tanks fired on them from LVTs, but Japs still held the defile. Then on 9 June, “M," “L” and 3rd Battalion Headquarters Company embarked to reinforce the other Companies of 3rd Battalion at Parai Jetty. (AT 162 replaced us, and pushed against "C," but the Defile was not clear until 12 June.)

 

During the 12 days after 162's repulse from the Defile 29 May, Botta's crew never fired their heavy machine gun in action. During probes into the Defile, we set it up to secure patrols. At night, our guns sealed off 3rd Battalion’s rifle companies with final protective lines.

 

            But now after M Company left Parai Defile, we used our weapons on "Death Ridge," as M Company named it. Holding Death Ridge made the Japs still winners on Biak, for it guarded all the Biak strips from landing our planes - Mokmer, Borokoe, and Sorido Strips. A low, brushy ridge rising gradually up to 140 feet, it held a garrison of 120 men of 1st Battalion 222 Infantry, maybe two companies of 2nd Battalion 222 Infantry, combat Engineers, and some field artillery and anti-aircrafts guns and crews - 600-700 fighters. Core of this defense was shaped roughly like a horseshoe, with the curve towards Mokmer Strip - about 1,000 long by 1,000 yards wide. While Colonel Kuzume kept Death Ridge, his 600-700 man garrison controlled all Biak.

 

On 10-11 June, 162 could not reach the Jap core on Death Ridge. Along with intermittent rifle-fire from the ridge-base, some 7-10 light machine guns and heavy machine guns opened up every time we tried to cross open spaces. Several batteries of 3-4 mortars fired in spasms, then silenced under our counter-battery blasts.

 

For two days until 12 June, 3rd Battalion could not even attain the assigned line of departure alongside the advance of the unopposed 186 Infantry on the beach below us. At 0940 12 June, all M Company's .81 mortars barraged the Japs.

 

       Then with "L" on the right flank, "I" overran three lines of Jap defenses. On that 12 June, 3rd Battalion lost four dead, seven wounded. [I Co's dead were Pfcs Julius Murkli and Richard E. Muldoon with Pfcs Constantine Lapinski and Menford L. Price wounded.  L Co's dead were Sergeants Dennis D. Jones and Elmer W. Gardner, with wounded Pfcs Desiderig Rodriquez, Fredrick W. Burns, Neal H. Ingle and Pvt Raymond P. Trujillo.] "M" had no losses.

 

Starting about 13 June, our Death Ridge offensive was a slower war of attrition while field artillery, mortars, and rifle patrols pressed the Japs, In return, a Jap mountain gun shelled us. They whistled fearfully and made us flatten in our holes, but they burst in the tree-tops. Despite daily shells, "M" reported no casualty. [L Co's Pfc John L. Zeiglmeier died of wounds.] Our Piper Cub circled above to find that gun, but M Company never knew what caused it to cease fire.

 

The Japs fronting 3rd Battalion did not merely wait for field artillery and mortars to thin them down. Skilled infantry, these 36 Division "Tigers" attacked expertly to conserve as many Japs as possible. By day, small groups infiltrated through brush and shell-holes against us. By night, they screeched and made short rushes where our machine guns would be grenade kills if we fired and exposed our positions for them.

 

Botta never forgot a daylight Jap attack during his last days on Death Ridge. His heavy machine gun had the prime field-of-fire to protect a line of L Company riflemen - a shelled out lane in the brush some 40 yards wide by 200 long with a few shell-holes. Suddenly an "L" out guard leaped from the brush to warn us of a Nippo charge. Close behind Botta, a .60 mortar gunner told us to lower our heads while his three practice rounds swished overhead.

 

Botta hardly believed his eyes when he saw the attack coming that he had long awaited. An officer's blade gleamed in the sun.

 

Japs dodged in the brush on both sides of our fire-lane. Some hid in the first of a line of three shell-holes 150 yards out, then dashed 25 yards more into Shell-Hole No.2, then 25 yards into No.3 - just 100 yards away from our lines.

 

They were too close now; rifles and mortar and heavy machine gun fired together. Botta knelt on his firing-step, sighted Jap targets, and touched the little trigger. In battle-joy, he shot bursts of 3-6 rounds at dashing target after target. Expertly, he retracted the bolt now and then to eject a shell to present a stoppage from a possible defective round. He hoped that the Japs would keep on coming, in that great moment when a man's own life seems not to matter.

 

But our heavy fire broke the Jap charge long before they drove it home. We counted just three corpses; other casualties were no doubt carried off. Their dead had fine carbines, and grenades for lobbing into our holes.

 

Once at sundown, an alert "L" rifleman saw two Nips watching us preparing perimeter for the night. The "L" man shot and killed a Nip; another fled while the M-1 blasted behind. We were then sure that Jap scouts spotted us every evening.

 

On the night of 16 June - after 186 closed the Great Gap between our battalions - Japs slashed our perimeter with rifles, machine guns. We fought them with grenades; riflemen slew seven Nips. At dawn, some 10 knee-mortar shells hit our perimeter, but missed us.

 

M Company had eight heavy machine guns fighting on Death Ridge, but we have no report of what rifle companies they fired for. Once, Botta's gun gave overhead fire for "I" men attacking a ridge. Other "M" guns felled escaping Nips when 3rd Battalion Companies smashed Jap pillboxes. Unrecorded are the fights of M's seven other heavy machine guns and .81 mortars.

 

"M" lost few men on Death Ridge, since we mostly holed up in a stationary line. Only recorded casualties were on 16 June, when the Great Gap was closed. Wounded were M's Pfc Lawrence B. Underwood, 1st Lieutenant Robert A. Pound, and Tech Sergeant Hugh F. Morrison. Botta believes that Morrison was wounded while observing for the .81s.

 

On 18 June, some "M" gunners got a remembered piece of the action again; With K Company, we had to secure the left flank of 186's great maneuver of 19 June, when General Eichelberger ordered 186 to cut off the Japs escape route from West Caves.

 

With K Company at 1200, Botta's gunners hiked through "E" left of us on the ridge. By 1630, we had occupied an egg-shaped knoll, unopposed. We seized three Nip light machine guns, "woodpeckers," with neat folding handles. "K" scouts ran to warn us – nine Nips coming through rocks and brush. While "K" men fired beside us gunner Moore squeezed off a belt. We routed them, killed four, and scattered the other five. Our only wounded was K's James P. Sullivan, from a long-range mortar shell.

 

With our fight of 18 June, M's Battle of Biak was nearly done. For after 186 Infantry cut off West Caves, hard-fighting 3rd Battalion was relieved but for local patrols, while 162's other- battalions wiped out West Caves Japs. By 10 July, Botta was scaredly helping unloaded 250 and 500 lb. air-bombs from a Victory Ship at the U-shaped floating dock that he had watched Engineers build while he was still on Death Ridge. Unloading detail ended with a steak dinner, and cigars for Botta.

 

M's Battle of Biak was over but for the memories even decades later. Botta still remembers the beautiful red-beaked bird with the 5-foot wing-spread who flew over our position on Death Ridge. At first light, the great red-beaked bird with gray and white plumes woke our gunners with three screams echoing across the ridges. (He too became a casualty.) Botta remembers his snug fox-hole under the camouflaged poncho with his carefully tuned heavy machine gun. There he waited for Japs many an hour with a sweet, bitter White Owl cigar. The cigar aroma covered the odor from a Jap cave that had been burned out. It was a hard life on Death Ridge, but Botta still remembers his cigars, the clean heavy machine gun in his hole, and the great beautiful red-beaked bird.

 

After 162's repulse from Parai Defile on 29 June, M Company was more than lucky in bucking the Japs stone-wall defense of the Defile, and in guarding our lines on Death Ridge while infighting for Mokmer Strip. It is hard indeed to remember our sole death after 29 June - the death of the heroic Indian Joaquin.

 

 

 

CREDIT: Core of story are Botta's letters: 31 August, 15 September, both in 1978; and letters of 12 January, 19 March, 17 April, 2 May, and 5 May. Important was Dr. Kenneth Deacon's "116 Combat Engineers on Biak" (Jungleer, May, 1962), award stories of Moore, Joaquin, and RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines. I used also 162's "Regimental Journal, Biak Island Operation," "Report of Operation" and "Casualty List."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

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