E Company 163 Infantry on Biak: East Caves and Ibdi Pocket

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian


On 12 June 1944, hardened E Company 163 Infantry landed from action at Toem (Wakde Operation) to fight on Biak. At once, anti-aircraft gunners shot down three Japanese planes trying to kill us. By 1205, "E" was trucking down the coast to our positions below the Japanese menace in the sinister dull green ridges above us. This pocket of Jap was guarding the formidable East Caves strongpoint which 162 Infantry had bypassed to battle for Mokmer Strip.

On 13 June began E's combat patrols to seize high ground above the little stream that ran out of the cliffs into Geelvink Bay from Parai Defile. On that 13 June, 2nd Lieutenant Ritzenhein's Platoon patrolled into high ground above the stream. Easily occupying a good ridge position, we probed on into Jap trouble.

Staff Sergeant Art Morris' squad advanced 100 yards until Jap fire briefly halted us. Overcoming heavy fire, we thrust into Jap positions. Pfc Selmer I Olson was probably killed here by a shot in the head. Terrific Jap volleys grounded Staff Sergeant Arthur R Morris' squad. A Jap flank movement threatened to cut off his squad from Ritzenhein's 2nd Platoon.

By quick, precise commands, Morris aimed his squad's fire and silenced the Nips. Morris killed three Nips; we slew the other three. We held ground against a counter-attack, then acted as Platoon rear guard to withdraw to the ridge-top already secured. Morris had a bullet wound on the left side of his chest, yet continued to guard our withdrawal.

On 14 June, Cpl Ernest O Johanson took a flesh wound in his right leg - had to be helped down to a truck. After surgery probably on Owi Island he went into hospital at Hollandia. About six weeks later, still limping, he was back with E Company for the Korim Bay landing.

So despite Jap opposition, "E" held a high ridge above the Parai stream, about 500 yards east of Parai Jetty. Position was 20 feet wide and 250 yards long. On this solid coral, each reinforced rifle Platoon spent two days in turn, then rotated down to bathe and rest by the stream. On 15 June about dark, a Jap 75 mm mountain gun boomed from the ridges northeast of E Company. "Whistling Charlie" seemed to aim at every man in E Company below the ridges. We flattened in terror. Fragments in head and leg killed Sergeant Frank H Quam. Pfc Harold Metzger was wounded in left arm, Ed Morris in his left hand. Pvt Harold E Appleton was also wounded in his left hand - and ankle. Pfc Theodore E Railsback was hit in left lower side. All men were reported seriously wounded. Since almost all wounds were on the left parts of their bodies, all men seem to have lain on their right sides.

When the first shell landed, Sgt Donald Torgerson and four others were playing poker in a tent, During next few seconds, Torgerson with three others dived for a shell hole in solid coral just outside the tent. But the hole was big enough for one man only.

Not being that one man, Torgerson looked up from lying flat on bare rock to see Pvt Benjamin C Marshall still out in the open. Marshall was counting the money left behind, heap by heap. He wanted every man to recover exactly his own money.

(We are sure today that the Nips had at least three guns back in those ridges. One they could pull back around the right angle of an L-shaped cave where our field artillery could not hit it. Firing from near 2nd Battalion 163 Infantry's Headquarters Rebone and Lund knocked out one gun with a little 37 mm cannon.)

On 17 June, Sergeant Robert C Persfull was seriously wounded - fragments in his back. On 19 June, Pfc Nero Steptoe took a lighter wound from a fragment in the head. We know no more about these two casualties.

Back on 18 June near Parai Jetty, a Jap flank attack hit a patrol of ours. The second-in-command, Sergeant Max Larsen, intentionally moved out into the open to draw fire and fight back. When the Japs fired, he slew four of them with his rifle. Then his patrol leader used automatic weapons to smash the Jap attack. (This patrol was not fully reported, however.)

On 20 June, E Company tried to penetrate deeper into the Parai Defile ridges to hold a trail which we believed to be close by. On this mission, we sent out two successive patrols. Staff Sergeant Carl D Walker led the advance patrol; 1st Lieutenant Langston led the second patrol to finish this action.

Staff Sergeant Walker took his 13 men to seize a new perimeter area to hold the new trail. They soon met heavy resistance and slew several Japs. The other Japs held fire and drew back.

Through light sniper fire and then intensive fire, Walker's patrol continued forward. They still dug a new perimeter. Then his radio operator told Walker that they were cut off and facing a fight to the death.

In the following patrol, 1st Lieutenant Wilbur J. Langston began with a recon patrol of four men including Sergeant Charles Patch. A strong Nippo force cut them off gave Langston his death-wound. Jap fire grounded Patch and his two men. The fourth got away through a Jap position to get help.

Patch meanwhile tried to drag dying Langston into a coral hole, but every time he tried, heavy fire concentrated on Patch. He still guarded Langston until he died. When Langston's men came up, Patch darted across open ground to help them disperse the Japs.

Seven days later, 27 June, Staff Sergeant Thomas R Finnicum took 12 men to recover Langston's corpse. The Jap had left Langston out in the open while they watched from caves and prepared positions. Twice that morning, they repelled Finnicum's men.

Finnicum tried again that afternoon. After quick recon, he placed his men under cover to pin down the Japs with rifle fire. He dragged Langston into shelter, called litter men to drag the dead officer back to decent burial.

After 27 June, E Company had no more casualties reported while we held our ridge position above Parai Road. After receiving no more fire on 1-2 July, we believed that the Japs had left the area. On 3 July at 1030, our 10-man patrol checked out the cliffs westward to East Caves - saw just one Jap who escaped. Meanwhile an "E" Platoon penetrated the caves and found ammo and rusty guns unfired for a long time.

In East Caves, we found five 20mm guns, five 90 mm mortars with 500 shells, and two heavy machine guns. This formidable position had helped cut off 162's 3rd Battalion in the early Biak days. It kept our trucks from the coastal road on 7-13 June. East Caves was a 240-foot coral cliff honeycombed with tunnels and heavy weapons positions with a garrison of 1,000 Japs. They had plenty of food. Nobody knows why "E" found it undefended.

On 9 July, E Company left the Parai ridges with East Caves forever. With F and G Companies, we moved to patrol the jungle north of Ibdi Pocket where 3rd Battalion 163 now fought the Japs.

On 12 July behind Ibdi Pocket, we lost two men wounded from F Company's 2nd Platoon's patrol. A K-9 hunting dog and handler led the "F" patrol. Coming up a bull-dozed road in our rear, the dog smelled E Company men instead of Japs. It lacked training to discriminate between Yank and Jap body odors. Probably when the trainer drew back the dog, the "F' scouts forwarded and fired. Before the fire was halted, two "E" men had gunshot wounds. Pfc George W Moyer was slashed in the cheek, Pfc August Merkel in the left side of the neck.

One night in this jungle north of Ibdi Pocket, "E" set up positions in bamboo thickets. For night security, Captain Zimmerman ordered Sergeant Torgerson to place his two light machine guns to cross- fire over the trail. As they were sighting the guns, Torgerson saw a Jap coming down the trail. He saw Torgerson and ran off unharmed. Captain Zimmerman was unhappy that the Jap now knew that we were posted on the trail.

Torgerson then placed his two light machine guns for crossfire 100 feet down the trail. He cannily laid fragments of bamboo trunks and branches on our side of the planned crossfire for the Jap to tread on and alarm us.

About 2000 in black dark, our gunners heard feet crackle on the bamboo in the trail. Their belts flamed the dark. With daylight, we found 15 dead Japs and discarded packs where the surviving Japs had dropped them and fled.

On 13 July came another brave patrol of E 163. In a mission to lead an E Company advance north of besieged Ibdi Pocket, Staff Sergeant Alfred Porter's squad received fire from Jap rifles and automatic weapons. The fire came from a grass hut and a coral fort. After a brief skirmish where two Yanks were knocked out of action, Porter pulled back his patrol to avoid more casualties. Then Porter alone shot tommie gun slugs into the hut and arced two grenades into the coral fort. He slew four Jap and cleared the way to a successful patrol. Probably here Pfc William A Nordstrom died from a shot in the back, but we have no idea at all of the other man’s entire name.

After bombing planes wiped out the remaining Ibdi Pocket Japs on 22 July, E Company with our 2nd Battalion had a final Biak mission. This was to mop up Japs around Korim Bay on the north side of the island.

Cpl Ernest O Johanson never forgets his fright on one of those patrols. (At this time he ranked as Corporal while also leading a squad.) While checking out a shore village, he padded past an open vent hole high as his head, then up a stairs made of a notched coconut log to look into the hut. Three Nips were huddled on the floor. One had his rifle poked out the vent hole which Johanson had just passed. Johanson shot the three men so fast that he himself fled half scared to death. Twelve Nips were killed on that Korim Bay patrol.

E Company's New Guinea Campaign was ended. After casualties from our own field artillery wrongly ranged on Insoemanai Island in the Wakde-Toem Operation, we had fought well there on Tementoe Creek. Then on Biak in our war for East Caves - hard little jungle patrols, we had our final training to become a great jungle company. Yet we lost just four wounded to hospital, and four killed – Olson, Quam, Nordstrom, and 1st Lieutenant Langston.

 

NOTE A. More About Fighting for East Caves

Along with West Caves and Ibdi Pocket, East Caves that E 163 battled, was one of the three formidable strongholds on Biak. At the end of Parai Ridge, it was really a little "mountain" 240 feet high which must be climbed hand over hand.

Centuries of New Guinea rain had eroded this mountain into a tangle of caverns made for stubborn resistance. Tactically the most important part of East Caves was a wide coral ledge about 180 feet up this 240- foot cliff on the seaward side. On this ledge were two wide sumps at least 50 feet wide. One was 75 x 200 feet. Both were honeycombed with tunnels.

In these sumps were 90 mm mortars, 20 mm "machine cannon," heavy machine guns, and many light mortars. From 50 feet deep in the sumps, heavy weapons could safely fire over the protecting shoulders on U.S. troops. Jap observation parties could range in on Parai Defile and terrain all the way into Mokmer Strip. One heavy machine gun pillbox defended the steep seaward side. On the land side, Sigel heavy machine gun pillboxes guarded the sheer slope.

East Caves' heavy plunging fire was the main cause for 162 Infantry's defeat in Parai Defile on our first days on Biak. On 7 June, East Caves' weapons blasted 186 Infantry 2nd Battalion 162 Infantry when they seized Mokmer Strip. On 9-11 June, they caused many more casualties when 162 Infantry bypassed Parai Defile.

The Japanese garrison was 800 strong - 300 Marines of anti-aircraft and service units mostly, 500 Engineers, a mortar unit of 2nd Battalion 222 Infantry, and some riflemen. (There were also 200 civilian laborers.) Commanding Officer was a Lieutenant Colonel Minami - also Commanding Officer of 17 Airdrome Construction Unit.

Yet after 11 June, the Japs failed to use their heavy fire-power and 800 men efficiently. They could have drawn back badly needed US companies from infighting for West Caves. But E 163 and 3rd Battalion 163 outfits battled any sallies of the garrison.

Backing our infantry were fires from 641 TD Battalion's 4.2 mortars, 205 and 947 Field Artillery Battalions, tanks, off-shore destroyers and Air Force bombers that pounded East Caves through 23 or 24 June.

On 28 June, the East Caves Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Miname killed himself, and his garrison in small groups began escaping north towards Korim Bay. Not until 20 July, however, were the last 40 Japs killed off in East Caves.

But 11 days earlier, E Company 163 Infantry had left East Caves ridges to patrol near Ibdi Pocket. To this day, historians do not know why the Japs failed to make full use of their third great stronghold on Biak Island.

 

CREDIT: Basic for this fine history are award stories of six E Company NCOs: Max Larsen, Arthur Morris, Charles Patch, Carl Walker, Thomas Finnicum, and Alfred Porter. Don Torgerson and Ernie Johanson sent letters, both in February 1983. Scholarly background came from a 3.5 page typescript by 2nd Battalion 163's Major Robert Irving and R.R. Smith's Approach to the Philippines. Other sources include 163's Biak Casualty List, Journal and Narrative plus Ralph Marlowe's history of F Company 163 Infantry.