M Company 162 Infantry: Machine-gunners in Parai Defile

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian and Staff Sergeant Louis Botta


 About 0900 27 May 1944, M Company 162 in LCTs crashed over coral reefs through high surfs onto Biak. Some of us jumped off ramps into water over our heads. Almost drowning, First Section's Gunner No.2 let go his heavy machine gun under water and lost it. Section Leader Sergeant Williams stripped and dived 3-4 times but failed to recover it. Yet Louis Botta's machine gun squad landed safely; Louis even kept his box of 50 White Owl cigars dry. "M" pushed at once for Mokmer Strip, far down shore.

Despite heavy equipment, M Company moved fast. First Gunner Moore carried the 52-lb. tripod, and Second Gunner Waltemeyer the 44-lb. gun. Shephard, Bauser, Barry, Biancomanno, Muscatello, Reynolds, Botta, Watkins and two more men each bore two 40-lb. ammo boxes, with carbines. Along with equipment, gunners had .45s, and Sergeant W.L. Jackson his M-1 and binoculars.

Beached east of Mandom, we passed Ibdi at 1030. As left-flank guard, Botta first saw what then seemed beautiful vertical Parai Cliffs, pink and gray and green. Maybe 2,000 yards long, they fronted a pretty crescent of sand. About 180 feet high, they curved southwest around Soanggarai Bay, rising abruptly from coastal rainforest. Richer, greener forest topped them. A dark gap centered the most prominent line of sheer cliffs. Two tree-lines on their sides marked the two lines of galleries that Japs could fire from. M Company walked unaware into an open-jawed death trap.

This first day, "M" worked half-way through Parai Defile while Navy and tanks helped 162 clear away light Jap forces. Jap rifles halted us just before the plank bridge over the stream from the cliff half way down the Defile. We withdrew about a mile to perimeter near the beach.

Next morning, 28 May, M's machine-gunners fought in one of the 41st's hardest battles of the war. While some "M" men fought for "K" and "L" far past the Defile near Mokmer Village, Botta and other machine gun men slogged down the road to the stream. As the road curved to the bridge, we lost our first man - Boothby wounded by plunging fire of a sniper on high cliffs east of the gap. Some "L" men were wounded here also.

From 180 feet above, rifle fire pinned us below the Nips' great stone fortress. Even 250-lb. Major Hollister dived and rolled into cover. A few grenades cracked down also.      

Nip fire narrowly missed Botta shooting back with his carbine. On that dizzy height in their camouflage, Japs looked like small trees in motion. They were hard to hit.

From his difficult position against the cliffs, Botta's two carbine clips missed the snipers. Then two riflemen pointed up, aimed a long time, fired together. A sniper fell from the height and hurtled down the cliff with terrifying screams. We hoped that he was the Nip who shot Boothby.

Then a machine gun in a hidden pillbox fired down on our riflemen and silenced them. Sergeant Moe Jackson's impatient machine guns got orders to fire. First gunner Moore slanted his gun for the cliff-edge and traversed slowly in short bursts of six. His two belts (500 rounds) clipped the cliff and impacted the pillbox.

Yet when Moore ceased fire, the Nip machine gun fired a short burst down on us. Moore withdrew to give our .81mm mortars room to fire. Fifty shells lobbed over the high cliffs - and 50 more on the pillbox. Its machine gun fired again, a challenge to try to pass down the road.

We then cleared the area for our P-38s to batter this cliff fortress. For over an hour, they bombed and strafed. The high cliff flamed like a volcano, but the machine gun still struck from that pillbox.

Yet the high cliff and hidden pillbox quieted enough for "L" with "M" to bypass them, although we crouched and looked up over our right shoulders and prayed as we passed.

While I and K Companies pressed up the beach road past Mokmer Village, "L" with M Company crews had to protect their right flank from the Jap cliffs. We had to advance parallel to them along a cliff terrace about 500 yards wide and 1.5 miles long, with 2nd Battalion following us.

This great terrace began with a cliff 15-20 feet before us. Japs lightly held it, and no one knew what was in the rainforest on the cliff-summit above.

Botta helped clear the terrace with his heavy machine gun. While an "L" officer observed with binoculars, Botta fired slowly and carefully along the terrace for some 15 minutes. About 250 rounds chopped trees and bushes from the stone terrace.

Then an "L" scout quickly climbed up to the terrace and tied a heavy rope around a tree. Up the rope, "L" men climbed and shot down the Nip opposition with their rifles. (Botta's heavy machine gun got credit for a few Nips also.)

Then "M" weapons men scaled the rope also with their heavy killing tools and ammo boxes. Major Hollister stood at the rope-end and helped our men up with 40-50 pounds of gear. He braced us to press against the cliff and lever ourselves up.

Once on that terrace, Botta saw two dead "L" men as they had knelt to fire and win it. One man still gripped his M-1. There were 10-12 dead Nips also.

Heaving aside the dead Nips, we tried to dig in on the coral-heaped up large loose rocks for protection. While we waited for orders, we did not realize the trap we were in.

Suddenly Jap mortars cracked down, then machine guns. L Company scouts said that they saw Nippo tanks warming up their engines, we had to save ourselves.

With Lattimore beside him, Southard dodged behind a tree. Several more men dropped behind a large pack, but probably Coffman was down in the open. This tall man of 6-3 was the only one hit, however. Machine gun bullets scraped his left foot, almost shot the pack off his back. His steel entrenching shovel deflected bullets and saved his life.

Meanwhile malarious Sergeant W.L. Jackson was wounded and perhaps in shock. He ordered us to leave him because he could not move. But still leader of Botta's machine gun section, he told Botta not to forget our ammo and water, and waved good-bye. It was 34 years before Botta found that Jackson was not killed.

Our retreat off the terrace was still fairly orderly. We dropped tripod and ammo boxes, but saved the more delicate gun by slinging it down in an old ammo belt. "M" and "L" did wait their turns on the rope we had climbed. M's Hurt, for example, dived off the cliff, caught a branch, swung on it like a trapeze, then dropped to the ground beneath. In his last leap, Botta hit head on into a staggering "L" wounded man and broke his own nose. Cowering under fallen trees from a Jap light machine gun, and staunching his bleeding, broken nose, Botta saw our wounded run. Two "M" men even dove into the ocean.

About the time when the mortars impacted "M" and "L" men on the terrace, a Jap infantry attack cut us off from 2nd Battalion advancing behind us. Probably from a crevice in the cliff on our right flank, a Jap command infiltrated through the brush and charged Sergeant Frank Batcha's heavy machine gun crew, which was looking ahead for orders. Batcha was struck to die of wounds later, but the squad fought for its life with .45s and carbines. The Jap officer fell. California Indian Joaquin manhandled the heavy machine gun into position and blasted into the Japs and repelled them when only 20 yards away.

Perhaps in this same Jap attack, other M Company gunners fought hand-to-hand. Tech Sergeant Wm. A. Brown, Sergeant White, and Corporal Loyal fired small arms but had no time to reload. They clubbed their guns and went in fighting and defeated their Japs.

Before dark, we dug our circle of fox-holes in a beautiful coconut grove near the beach. Botta hoped for a quiet night, but Captain Bland warned that Jap attacks were certain.

Screaming from the night, two Japs leaped into a hole near Botta where Salamaua vets Chappy and Harder were crouched.

One Nip died from a .45; the other was wounded. He crawled towards Botta on the heavy machine gun and pleaded, "Don't shoot, Joe!" Botta kindly did not shoot; he twisted his grenade pin loose and heard the "crack" as it armed. He lobbed it gently into the Nip, who screamed once more before he died.

Then suddenly we heard maybe three Nippo planes overhead. We hoped that they would ignore us, but suddenly the air was full of screaming and whistling, louder and louder as maybe six bombs fell. Flattened in his hole, Botta felt that all the bombs' were aimed at him. Finally they exploded close to the perimeter edge. Rocks, dirt, and hot flying shrapnel rained on us while Botta pressed his face under his helmet into the ground. Sgt/ Wilford Dingman was killed. Next day, Botta inspected craters 20 feet wide and 15 feet deep.

On that disastrous 28 May, "M" lost only two dead but had 15 wounded. Frank M. Batcha and Sergeant Wilfred J. Dingman were dead. Barkway, Hobbs, Jessap, Corporal Kendsorn, Tech Sergeant Wm. Brown were marked seriously wounded. Besides Boothby, men lightly wounded were Moscatello, Les Davis, Franscisco, George Jackson, Rudd, Lattimore, Periello, Judith, Corporal Adams, Sergeants W.L. Jackson and King. (It is not absolutely certain that all of these 17 casualties were on 28 May, when records were hard for company clerks to keep. And except for Booth by, and Sergeants Dingman, Batcha, and Jackson, we cannot find out which of the men fought with "I" and "K" near Mokmer Village ahead, or were back with "L" on the terrace.)

On 29 May, our third day in Parai Defile, the Japs tried to drive 162 into the sea. After 2nd Battalion smashed an infantry attack at 0700, they made a tank-infantry attack which became the first tank battle in the southwest Pacific.

While "M" marched back through a stately coconut grove, Botta had not seen two Nip tanks coming at us 500 yards away, but suddenly he saw one of our two waiting tanks revolving its 75mm gun turret. This tank was aptly named "Murder Inc.," and it fired and halted the last Jap tank dead in its tracks to block Parai Road. Already flattened in the sand, M Company saw "Murder Inc." turn its turret and fire again. The second tank halted and burned; we saw a half-burned Jap corpse hanging half out of the top hatch door. (All told, six Jap tanks died that day.) Botta said that the light Jap tanks looked like Volkswagens as contrasted to our medium General Sherman tanks that seemed like monsters.

About 1100 in trying to drive the Japs from their cliff-tops, our Navy shattered us instead. M Company calmly watched the destroyer firing, but a "short," probably a 6-inch shell, exploded in 3rd Battalion. Our 162 Headquarters reported five killed, 31 wounded, "by 1 salvo." As Captain Bland ordered us to leave that ground, young Drigert called for help. He was hit in the ankle. Botta carried Drigert 500 yards to where Medics bandaged him and Drigert waved goodbye.

Evidently that same shell wounded Southard and T/4 Jack Meyer. From the explosion 200 feet away, a fragment seriously wounded Meyer, prone with malaria at 104 degrees. His temperature dropped to normal! As the shell landed, Southard was reaching high on a native shack to pull off a pole to cover his new fox-hole. A fragment sliced off half his wrist joint and caused amputation of his left hand. The buffalo evacuating him stuck on a reef, but another craft pushed it free to transfer him to a larger craft which took him to the hospital.

On that third day also, Botta's heavy machine gun crew again had a close call from another small Jap attack. But we beat them back with carbines. And that night an air-bomb killed Pfc. Cecil T. Lentz.

"M" had fewer losses than yesterday, on 28 May. Besides Lentz killed, and Southard, Meyer, and Drigert wounded, we had five others wounded, one injured. Marked "seriously wounded" were Parker and Weldon. Lightly wounded were Hamman, Hardesty, Quill Smith - and Stanfield injured.

By 1200 our third day in Parai Defile, Colonel Haney realized that we could not silence the Jap cliffs to enable us to capture Mokmer Strip. As Haney said, "Colonel Kuzume could pound us like fish in a tub." By 1400, 162's great retreat was on. Some men of "M" probably left by water with "L" from Parai Jetty; but M's fighters from the terrace slogged up the Defile again. That night, we holed up far east of Parai, on the coast behind Mandom.

As it also happened to 162's other companies of 3rd Battalion and 2nd Battalion, M Company's weapons crews narrowly escaped annihilation. But in June, a few days later, we would return again to fight the Japs in the tall, beautiful, deadly cliffs of Parai Defile.

 

CREDIT: Supreme narrator is Louis Botta, whom Mike Trapman of Potomac Chapter brought to me. Answering my queries, he wrote to me 15 June, 2 and 26 July (twice), 9, 30, 31 August (twice), 14 September, and 2 October - besides a sketch of the Defile. I used two other Jungleer stories - Colonel Haney's (March, 1970), and Tech Sergeant Bill Brown's of L Company. (March, 1969). Archives include 162's Narrative, Journal, Handbook, and Casualty List with Joaquin's Award Story, and Terrain Handbook No. 27. R.R. Smith's Approach to the Philippines was also useful.